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Richard Dreyfuss turns up as stodgy academic in promising 'Max Bickford'

Friday, September 21, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Poor Max Bickford!

He's a crusty women's college professor who feels irrelevant in CBS's engaging "The Education of Max Bickford" (8 p.m. Sunday). Max, played by Richard Dreyfuss, teaches traditional American studies, but his students and fellow teachers are more interested in pop culture than social justice.

His best friend Steve just had a sex change operation and returns to campus as Erica (Helen Shaver). He loses out on a prestigious chair in the department to a former student (Marcia Gay Harden) he once had an affair with. She returns to campus bringing her crazy ideas about pop culture along ("It's not history, it's current events!" Max snaps).

On the home front, widowed Max has a sweet 11-year-old son (Eric Ian Goldberg) trying out for the basketball team. His college-age rock-singing daughter (Katee Sackhoff) may be pregnant.

It's enough to drive Max to drink, but since he's also a recovering alcoholic, that's a bad idea.

Written by series creators Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin ("Judging Amy," "Chicago Hope"), Sunday's premiere sets up many different avenues for this series to go down in future episodes (maybe too many). The big question is whether viewers will want to go along for the ride.

CBS viewers accustomed to seeing "Touched By an Angel" (and "Murder, She Wrote" before it) in this time slot might not cotton to the sex change story in particular.

Then again, Max isn't real comfortable with it. He scampers away every time Erica draws near.

As played by Dreyfuss, Bickford is an easy-to-like curmudgeon. As a professor, Max may no longer be hip, but he once was. He talks about fighting for civil rights alongside Chadwick College's president (Regina Taylor, "I'll Fly Away"), but his passion for teaching seems to be drying up. Who can blame him?

A student who receives a B-plus on a term paper gets into a snit. She demands Max give her an A, otherwise she might not get into the law school that's educated her entire family.

"That moist sucking sound you hear is the milk of human kindness draining right out of me," Max tells the uppity student.

Perhaps enough viewers will identify with Max's predicaments that the number of problems thrown at him in the premiere won't seem like such a stacked deck. And maybe his stirring classroom lectures will strike a chord, especially among fans of Dreyfuss' "Mr. Holland's Opus."

"The Education of Max Bickford" offers an intriguing setting populated by characters with the potential to provide plenty of future stories. We'll have to see how those turn out before we know whether "Max Bickford" makes the grade critically and in the ratings.

"The Practice" (9 p.m. Sunday, ABC)

Legal fatigue has set in.

Though I can't always predict the outcome of the cases, the fact that I know there will be a twist, can see it coming, has taken much of the enjoyment out of watching this once-proud program.

In Sunday's two-hour premiere, "one of Ellenor's closest friends" is charged with murdering a man in his home. This has to be at least the third "close friend" of one of the members of Donnell, Young, Dole and Frutt to be charged with a crime. These lawyers need to do a better job picking whom they spend their down time with.

And how unlikely is it that roommates Ellenor (Camryn Manheim) and assistant district attorney Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle) keep facing off in court? How could they possible still live together after trashing each other in front of a judge?

As for the twist, it doesn't come until near the end of the second hour, and it doesn't even make a lot of sense (Hello, witnesses?).

There are some nice performances here, particularly from guest stars Dylan Baker as the accused murderer, a state senator in love with his own voice, and Lane Smith as a take-charge judge.

The episode also introduces a new series regular, Ron Livingston ("Band of Brothers," "Office Space") as assistant district attorney Alan Lowe, who's obviously being set up as a love interest for Gamble even though she's dismissive of his assistance in the early going.

Eh. Despite some enjoyable courtroom theatrics surrounding the revelation of "the twist," the luster has left "The Practice."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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