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TV Review: Drama needs infusion of character development

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

A TV show starring Andre Braugher is worth seeing just for Andre Braugher. But would you watch it every week for that reason alone?

Braugher came from out of nowhere to win over a legion of fans as Detective Frank Pembleton on "Homicide: Life on the Street." Many of those viewers will no doubt tune in for tonight's interruption-free premiere of "Gideon's Crossing" just to see the show's star. And as long as he's on the screen, they won't be disappointed.

But when Braugher's Dr. Ben Gideon disappears, "Gideon's Crossing" becomes a long, languidly-paced trip through a Boston teaching hospital.

The secondary characters pale in the shadow of Gideon, a much more optimistic, personable fellow than Pembleton. It's not the supporting actors' fault. They're a diverse lot made up mostly of newcomers. Perhaps in time they'll grow and develop, but the script for tonight's premiere just doesn't give them much to do and even less motivation for what we do see of them.

When Dr. Bruce Cherry (Hamish Linklater) complains, "We have to stop thinking this is a hospital, it's a prison," and then goes on to bad mouth Gideon, it makes little sense. Gideon may be the top doc, but viewers never see him treat the residents and interns poorly.

There's more time spent developing the character of a guest star tonight than any of the regular supporting cast. Chances are you'll recognize character actor Bruce McGill from something (guest star credits run the gamut from "MacGyver" to "Dave's World"). He appears as Kirk Bales, an arrogant, miserable, vaguely racist venture capitalist who insists Gideon treat him for kidney cancer, even though his particular form of cancer is supposed to be untreatable.

Gideon and Bales continually challenge one another, with Bales forcing Gideon to discuss the death of his wife a year earlier from ovarian cancer. Gideon tells Bales his chances of recovery aren't high, adding, "Knowing it and accepting it are two different things."

Gideon discusses the Bales case with Dr. Max Cabranes (Ruben Blades), who is the head of the hospital according to press notes, although the show fails to make his exact position clear.

Aside from scenes with Cabranes, there's little interaction between Gideon and the hospital's other employees. Mostly we see him in a lecture hall trying to inspire them to be better doctors.

"Serious illness is what gives life meaning," Gideon tells the students. "This is the crossing at which we intersect with people."

"Gideon's Crossing" meets viewers who have high expectations for anything starring Braugher. The show fails to deliver more than the fine performances of Braugher and McGill in this first hour. But there's untapped potential here that must be exploited in upcoming episodes if "Gideon's Crossing" hopes to keep viewers from crossing over to perennial drama hit "Law & Order."

"Gideon's Crossing" will premiere in its regular time slot (10 p.m. Wednesday) on Oct. 18.

'The Geena Davis Show'

An unoriginal situation + a dearth of comedy = the sitcom known as ABC's "The Geena Davis Show."

Davis plays Teddie Cochran, a Manhattan public relations executive who falls in love with widower Max Ryan (Peter Horton) and moves in with him and his children within the first five minutes of tonight's premiere. It was six weeks in the "real world," but I still found myself agreeing with Max's housekeeper (Esther Scott), who seems dubious about the set up.

Teddie isn't just inexperienced when it comes to behaving around children; she's a blooming idiot. She comes to breakfast her first morning in the house wearing only a not-long-enough T-shirt and underwear. Max's teen-age son (John Francis Daley, slumming after "Freaks and Geeks") gets all hot and bothered. Max's daughter (Makenzie Vega) winds up screaming and running out of the room -- in both of the first two episodes.

Davis tries her darndest to be winning, but she just comes off as desperate for acceptance, both to her new TV family and viewers. It's not like she's come to TV at the height of her career, and the writers do Davis no favors by giving her lines in the second episode that make fun of Tony Danza and "Night Court" -- people in glass houses and all that (plus, "Night Court" was funny early in its run).

Harland Williams plays Teddie's assistant. He sounds like he's doing a bad Ted Koppel imitation. Among the supporting players, only Kim Coles makes a decent impression as another of Teddie's co-workers.

Mimi Rogers plays Hillary, a cross between Kim Cattrall's "Sex and the City" character and Karen (Megan Mullally) on "Will & Grace" -- but much, much less funny. She's a social climber whose smutty dialogue is as base as it is predictable.

"Are you ready for lunch, girls?" she crows. "I could go for a little Cuban -- and while we're at it, let's grab lunch. Listen to me, I'm terrible."

Though there are a few laughs to be had, for the most part "The Geena Davis Show" is pretty terrible, too.

'Judging Amy'

It's a shame within weeks the two best adult family dramas on television will be airing opposite one another -- again. But before "Once and Again" comes back to ABC, CBS's "Judging Amy" reconvenes tonight for its second season with family dysfunction at center stage.

It's been four months since the bombing attack on the courthouse, but the aftermath lingers. Maxine (Tyne Daly) fears getting close to anyone, even her new grandson, because she doesn't want to be faced with any further losses.

On top of this, it's the birthday of Maxine's late husband. And Amy's forgotten her father's birthday.

"Now you're gonna guilt me," Amy says.

"Guilt is not a verb," Maxine shoots back.

"It is the way you do it," Amy replies.

Maxine and Amy visit the grave site in a scene typical of the funny, sad, emotion-filled "Judging Amy."

"What makes you think he can hear you?" Amy asks as Maxine talks to the headstone.

"What makes you think he can't?" Maxine shoots back.

In the spirit of if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-em, Amy addresses her father's grave: "Mom's still smoking."

The interplay between Maxine and anyone, but especially Amy, makes "Judging Amy" a realistic family drama that's joyful to behold. Last season I commented on how much I appreciated the interplay among the show's grown siblings. That's another "Judging Amy" hallmark that continues to make the series stand apart.

Tonight Amy (Amy Brenneman) has her own issues with what happened to her brother Vincent (Dan Futterman) in the bombing. Plus, she has workplace issues to deal with. Charges have been brought of improper conduct between Amy and her court services officer, Bruce Van Exel (Richard T. Jones). Amy misses Bruce's friendship, and she's not wild about her new assistant. Bruce finds himself transferred and forced to work for an uncaring judge.

It's no wonder "Judging Amy" was the highest-rated new drama last season. It may not have the edginess and modern cultural currency of the divorced-couples-in-love show "Once and Again," but "Judging Amy" continues to portray traditional family relationships with honesty and good humor.

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