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Providence' has qualities many critics don't acknowlege

Thursday, April 08, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When "Providence" premiered on NBC in January, I was one of the few TV critics to give it a positive review. Most critics were either lukewarm or downright hostile, which came as a surprise. To me "Providence" was an entertaining, if slight, comedy-drama geared primarily to female viewers.

Not that I try to conform to any sort of Television Critics Association party line, but at the January press tour, surrounded by other TV critics who hated the show, I felt like a misfit.

It got worse when NBC started quoting from my review in televised promotions.

Still, I stand by that original review. I may have gotten overly caught up in comparisons to the canceled NBC Friday night drama "Trinity," a show I truly despised, but I still think "Providence" (8 p.m. Friday on WPXI) is a decent series.

It's not edgy, it doesn't push boundaries, but not all TV shows have to do that, nor should they try. If every program on TV was like "The Sopranos," we'd quickly grow bored - or all join the Mafia. Similarly, we wouldn't want an over-abundance of squishy shows like "Providence" either.

TV is at its best when it's a mix of programming, and "Providence" represents a type of drama underrepresented in prime time. It's sweet and shamelessly sentimental. That's fine. There's an audience for this kind of programming that doesn't want to watch my favorite show ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") or other critic's darlings such as "NYPD Blue" or "Law & Order."

Can "Providence" be a predictable, clichéd comedy-drama that wallows in sap? Sometimes, but it's still better-written than "Sisters," the last quasi-hit in the touchy-feely genre.

NBC capitalized on the critics' wrath in promos, touting "Providence" as a show enjoyed by "real people," not critics. That's a snooty and self-defeating campaign, since the network will just as soon turn around and hail some new show by quoting enthusiastic reviews.

But NBC is right that viewers enjoy this drama about a plastic surgeon, Dr. Sydney Hanson (Melina Kanakaredes), who returns home to live with her widower father (Mike Farrell), single mom sister (Paula Cale) and the chain-smoking ghost of her mother (Concetta Tomei).

Series star Kanakaredes, a 1989 Point Park College theater graduate, will be in Pittsburgh Saturday as the special guest at her alma mater's black-tie fund-raiser. "Starmakers Gala '99" ($150 each for tickets, call 412-392-3999 for details) will benefit the college's Conservatory of the Performing Arts and the Pittsburgh Playhouse of Point Park College.

In a phone interview Tuesday while driving to a location shoot in Los Angeles for the final episode of the season, Kanakaredes said she appreciates constructive criticism that can be used to make "Providence" better.

"TV is the one medium in which you can get constructive criticism and make it apply to the bettering of the show," Kanakaredes said. "You can't re-edit a film or re-stage a play once it's opened."

Kanakaredes said she thinks "Providence" has been successful with viewers because it "touches a chord in people; it's very accessible." She said viewers appreciate stories about relationships within families and can relate to sibling friendships and sometimes rivalries.

Now that the show's a hit - ranked No. 17 for the season - Kanakaredes thinks producers will have a better pick of writers clamoring to work on the show next season.

"I can't imagine doing anything but growing and getting better," she said.

Before next season, there's this year's cliff-hanger episode, in which Syd's love interest Kyle (Tom Verica) will likely return. But it won't all be happiness.

"Something fatal happens," she said. "That's about all I can tell you. It's something that once again will be sure to pull people's emotion in various, twisted ways."

CALLING ALL FANS: Think you know a lot about TV? Then show up at Century III Mall Aug. 7 to compete in TV Land's "Ultimate TV Fan" contest. Pittsburgh is one of 16 cities where competitions will be held. A local winner will be flown to Los Angeles to compete in the national finals. The grand prize is a one-hour programming block the winner gets to schedule every week for a year.

AWARDS: The Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters Awards for Excellence were announced this week with four Pittsburgh TV stations taking home first-place prizes.

WQED's "Agewise" (6:30 p.m. Saturday), hosted by Eleanor Schano and produced by Alicia Maloney, was named best public affairs program.

WPGH won an award for best public service announcement for a series of Black History Month vignettes produced by Toni Brown, the station's night assignment editor.

KDKA won an award for best spot news for the staff's coverage of the tornado last summer.

WCWB's "Scouting Hour" (7:30 a.m. Saturday) was named best children's local TV program. Made up of a half-hour program devoted to Boy Scouts and a half-hour devoted to Girl Scout activities, the program is executive produced by Eddie Edwards Sr. and produced by Laura Varner Norman.

The awards will be presented May 4 at the Adams Mark Hotel in Philadelphia.

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com

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