Let's get the obvious out of the way:
"Falcone" is no "Sopranos."
It's not even "Sopranos Lite."
The new CBS crime drama shares more in common with shows of the more distant past, particularly "Wiseguy" or "Crime Story." And this new Mob drama is a better undercover series than USA's "Cover Me."
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When: Tonight at 9 and 10 on CBS, continues through 10 every night except Sunday through April 12.
Starring:Jason Gedrick, Titus Welliver
"Falcone" (two episodes beginning at 9 tonight) does not change the face of television, but fans of crime stories will enjoy this B-grade tale of an undercover FBI agent. Just be prepared to watch the entire first season in the next week (plus one day).
Nine hours of "Falcone" will air, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"-style, through April 12. It's a mid-season replacement that's been scheduled as a maxi-mini-series (still one hour less than NBC's "The 10th Kingdom").
Based on the real-life story of Joe Pistone, whose book was the basis for the film "Donnie Brasco" and now this series, "Falcone" stars Jason Gedrick ("Murder One," "EZ Streets") as Pistone, known to his Mafia buddies as Joe Falcone.
In tonight's first hour, Falcone gets caught in a battle between rivals in the Volonte crime family. His FBI boss, Jules Weller (Robert John Burke), worries that if Falcone chooses wrongly, he could end up dead.
Falcone sides with Santino "Sonny Boy" Napoli (Titus Welliver). If you watch "Falcone," pay attention to the characters' names; initially it's the only way to tell these look-alike mobsters apart. Therein lies "Falcone's" biggest problem -- a lack of distinctiveness. The characters are all types we've seen before:
*Sonny is a cold, calculating killer except when it comes to his sister and her autistic son. He'll do anything for them.
*Falcone feels guilty because he sacrifices a normal life with this wife (Amy Carlson) and daughters for his career. "What you do in this family causes ripples," his wife lectures Falcone in one episode.
*Even as he tries to bring down the Mafia, Falcone still looks out for the idiot boy wannabe mobster who raises pigeons on a rooftop.
*Episodes frequently raise the specter of Falcone being found out by his Mafia brethren.
*The mobsters talk like TV mobsters: "Bora don't vouch for you, the only way you leave here is rolled up in a rug."
So, the dialogue is cliche, the characters are cliche, the situations are cliche. What is there to recommend about this show? In the end, it's the twists that had me popping episodes into the VCR until I'd watched the first six. There's just enough of a thread -- whether it's clues that endanger Falcone's undercover operation or threats to his family -- to keep you wondering what will happen next.
"Jules, I'm giving you a heads-up: There's a war coming," Falcone says at the end of an episode in a tape recorded report to his FBI boss. That's the kind of dramatic hint that may make viewers want to return to "Falcone." It probably helps that the episodes air over consecutive nights; after a week of waiting for a new episode, there might not be as much interest in the outcome.
"Falcone" was kept off the fall schedule in the wake of the Columbine shootings due to its violent content. The series isn't overly graphic in its depiction, but moments of violence do break out and blood is spattered.
The 10 p.m. time slot is a responsible programming decision.
Gedrick was a smart choice for this role, especially after proving himself in CBS's superior noirish drama, "EZ Streets." He's both empathetic enough to be a good guy and plays the role enigmatically enough to pass as a mobster. His low-key approach makes him a trusted accomplice. Gedrick has aged a lot since his role as pretty-boy murder defendant Neal Avedon on the first season of "Murder One," but those wrinkles help make him more "street," which this role requires.
A dumb casting choice was replacing Karen Sillas (CBS's "Under Suspicion"). She appears briefly in the pilot as an assistant district attorney out to take down the Volonte family, but she gets replaced in subsequent episodes by the abrasive Patti LuPone.
Several episodes into "Falcone" the secondary characters show growth, but they're never as fully fleshed out or as complex as "The Sopranos" characters. If you're a fan of that HBO series, just be sure you fuhgetaboutit before tuning in to "Falcone."
Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or email@example.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.