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City setting, strong script score points for 'Guardian'

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Whether or not viewers warm up to the chilly new CBS drama "The Guardian" (9 tonight, KDKA), it's certainly something different when a sense of sameness pervades television.

As part of a drug sentence, Pittsburgh corporate lawyer Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) gets sentenced to work 1,500 hours of community service at Children's Legal Services, a nonprofit child advocacy agency.

 
 
"The Guardian"

WHEN: 9 tonight on CBS.

STARRING: Simon Baker, Dabney Coleman.

   
 

"Our cases aren't about money, Mr. Fallin," says his new boss, Alvin Masterson (Alan Rosenberg). "They're about making a difference in a child's life."

But Nick is about money, and even as he serves his time working for CLS, he still has responsibilities to his corporate firm, run by his father, Burton Fallin (Dabney Coleman).

In tonight's premiere, Nick faces his first CLS case, representing Hunter Reed (Erik Knudsen), a boy whose father killed his mother "in their Shadyside home." Nick has no idea how to proceed and gets into a fight with a social worker in the Allegheny County Courthouse.

"Nice suit," she says, responding in kind to his arrogance.

"This is not my world and I am not about to apologize for wearing my uniform," Nick says. "You play your role. You're a social worker who chose to make no money. Instead you cry poor to the world, you wear cheap clothes so people know where you're coming from. My world is expensive. I'm not saying it's better, it just has different rules. ... I didn't say, 'You look like crap,' so I would appreciate it if you would refrain from beating me up for looking different."

That's some juicy dialogue in a scene that crackles with drama, but it also reveals Nick to be an antihero at best (and big-time jerk at least).

Written and executive produced by Mt. Lebanon native David Hollander, tonight's premiere has some excellent dramatic moments, but there are also a few head-scratching plot holes:

Burton seems confused about his son's tardiness, as if he doesn't know about the drug sentence, when he clearly does.

How could Nick not know about the Shadyside murder? Doesn't he read the newspaper?

And when Nick steals prescription drugs from a crime scene, viewers could easily wonder if that has something to do with Nick's drug habit.

Hollander has made it clear Nick won't become an "aw, shucks," good deed-doing nice guy in short order, but Baker has a nice touch in scenes with the grieving boy. Nick may have a gruff, anything-for-a-buck facade, but he's not a monster, and some small moments redeem him.

An advance peek at the third episode of the series reveals it to be just as grim, with Nick continuing to interact with Hunter as he tries to file suit on the boy's behalf against a deep-pockets pharmaceutical company whose drug may have made his father psychotic.

For Pittsburghers, local references will be a big draw. Expect to hiss when a businessman disrespects the 'Burgh:

"I don't know how things work in Pittsburgh, but where we come from, money matters," he huffs. "My company brings in $500 million annually. Any city would bend over to have us, let alone some midsize town whose major industry up and died some 20 years ago."

Ouch.

Aside from the sights of Downtown office buildings and local references, "The Guardian" scripts ooze with Pittsburgh authenticity and ethnicity. When Nick negotiates with young dot-comers, the incentive that gets the young NetHead on board is "an apartment in Budapest for my mother's family."

"The Guardian" is a show with promise, and it may well develop into a high-quality program in the coming weeks. But it's not a warm, fuzzy, easy-to-love show like, say, "Judging Amy." It's rough and tumble, a challenge to watch.

'Emeril'

It's hard to imagine, but the "new" first episode of "Emeril" airing tonight is actually worse than the pilot unveiled to critics and advertisers in May. Unfocused, unfunny and often just plain dumb, "Emeril" offers all the entertainment of watching bread rise.

 
 
"Emeril"

WHEN: 8 tonight on NBC.

STARRING: Emeril Lagasse.

   
 

In tonight's premiere, the Food Network star almost becomes a supporting player in his own show, fading into the background when the designing women that surround him come to the fore.

That's no surprise. "Emeril," about the work life of a celebrity TV chef, was written by Linda Bloodworth and directed by her husband, Harry Thomason, who created "Designing Women." And they can't get past it.

In "Emeril," there's the Sweet One (Carrie Preston), the Loud One (Lisa Ann Walter) and the Funny One (Sherri Shepherd). They're not exact duplicates of the Sugarbaker crew, but they're close. Robert Urich hangs around for no good reason, playing Emeril's agent/manager/hanger-on.

The plot? A Food Channel executive puts the staffs of all the networks' shows on diets, which leads Emeril and friends to become irritable. The Funny One takes umbrage at the suggestion that it's possible to eat healthfully and be happy.

"That is a lie that must be stopped," she says. "As long as there's just one person that's willing to stand up and say this civilization cannot survive without smothered pork chops, homemade biscuits, rum raisin ice cream and chocolate pie, then that lie shall not live, and I'm gonna be that person!"

Perhaps some viewers, particularly women, will stand and applaud when they hear the harangue. But anyone who realizes he's being pandered to will simply change the channel.

'Undeclared'

It's been said that if NBC's canceled "Freaks and Geeks" had aired on a network with a lower threshold for ratings success, the show might still be in production. That theory will be tested with the premiere of "Undeclared" (8:30 tonight on Fox), which is from one of the "Freaks and Geeks" executive producers.

 
 
"Undeclared"

WHEN: 8:30 tonight on Fox.

STARRING: Jay Baruchel, Charlie Hunnam.

   
 

Feel free to call "Undeclared" by the deserving nickname "Freaks and Geeks Go To College." It even includes one of the "F&G" cast members, Seth Rogen.

Similar in tone, "Undeclared" is a worthy successor to the "F&G" mantle, but it's not altogether the same. "F&G" was set in high school in the early '80s and was imbued with a sweet innocence. Getting a kiss was the geek guy's goal, not having sex. That's the difference two decades and a collegiate setting will make.

Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel), who thinks a growth spurt and new haircut will redeem him from geekdom, arrives at the University of North Eastern California full of hope for a new way of life. What he doesn't count on is getting a suave British roommate, Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), or frequent visits from his divorcing dad, Hal (Loudon Wainright).

"Hey, nice fancy haircut!" Hal tells his son. "You should join those Backstreet Boys."

Tonight's premiere was written by executive producer Judd Apatow. His humor is subtle and engages on an intellectual level more than it creates belly laughs.

When Steven tries to invite a woman to a dorm party, she tells him she's a senior. He doesn't get it.

"No, sweetie, that means I'm not coming to your party," she further explains.

How sadly true and truly funny.

A future episode, featuring Adam Sandler as himself, falters because it takes the focus off the show's main characters. But another, about a dorm resident's boyfriend (played by "F&G" alum Jason Segel) and his efforts to beat up Steven, lives up to the promise of the series pilot.

The biggest criticism of "Undeclared" has nothing to do with the show and everything to do with Fox's scheduling. Like its lead-in, "That '70s Show," its content is too racy for the 8 p.m. hour. Both shows should air after 9 p.m., which would better protect children from scenes of sex ("Undeclared") and drugs ("That '70s Show") that are used solely for comedic purposes with few consequences shown.

'Philly'

Kim Delaney jumps state lines and switches uniforms from a cop on "NYPD Blue" to a defense attorney on "Philly," but the tone remains the same. It's vintage Bochco, as in Steven Bochco, the maestro of "Blue" and co-creator of "Philly" (with Alison Cross).

 
 
"Philly"

WHEN: 10 tonight on ABC.

STARRING: Kim Delaney, Kyle Secor.

   
 

How can you tell a Bochco show? When a lawyer goes bonkers in court and rips off her blouse and bra, it's probably a Bochco show. When judges come in varying shades of weird (bringing a dog to the bench, talking on a cell phone in court), it's probably a Bochco show. When characters insult one another with profanity, it's probably a Bochco show.

"Philly" has all of these and more. Frankly, this same old bag of tricks is tired.

Delaney stars as tough Kathleen Maguire, whose partner lands in a mental hospital, leaving Kathleen to manage her case load. On top of that, she has to juggle custody of her son (Scotty Leavenworth) with her ex-husband (Kyle Secor), the assistant district attorney.

She gets help from an opportunistic lawyer (Tom Everett Scott, "That Thing You Do!"), who weasels his way into becoming her new partner.

Even though it offers nothing viewers haven't seen before, they may cotton to "Philly" more than to tonight's other new drama, "The Guardian." "Philly" feels comfortable, we're accustomed to its outrageous rhythms. "The Guardian" is different. It's downbeat without much comic relief, and that probably makes "The Guardian" the underdog.


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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