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TV Preview: 'Guardian' garners success

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Critics mostly ignored it, but viewers are hooked.

CBS's Pittsburgh-set drama series "The Guardian" is a hit.

Last week the show drew its best ratings to date in both key demos and household ratings, drawing 16 million viewers.

All this for a show with little buzz before the season began. But the story of Pittsburgh corporate attorney Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) -- who is forced to work for a nonprofit legal aid organization as part of a sentence for drug possession -- has resonated with viewers.

"The Guardian"

When: 9 tonight on CBS.

Starring: Simon Baker, Dabney Coleman.

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Ambiguity key to loner lawyer's character


Through Oct. 21, "The Guardian" is the top-rated new drama of the season, ranking No. 19 out of 135 series and out-performing established hits "King of Queens," "60 Minutes II," "Ed" and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Earlier this month, CBS picked up nine additional episodes of "The Guardian," giving the series a full first-season order.

For Mt. Lebanon native David Hollander, creator/executive producer/writer of "The Guardian," these are heady times.

"We have a really excited group of people on our lot, on our stages and in our offices," Hollander said in a phone interview. "Everyone here is really amped up and giving their best, and that's going to come through in the work."

The competition is about to get more fierce. Already "The Guardian" battles NBC's "Frasier" and "Scrubs" and The WB's soaring "Smallville." Next week, ABC's "NYPD Blue" and Fox's well-reviewed "24" enter the fray.

"Even if we take a massive hit from these shows, we're still a hit show, relatively speaking," Hollander said. "I think the audience base will grow for that time slot. It's a crazy time slot to exist in, somebody is going to have to go. ... The worst-case scenario is we'll move nights, but I happen to really like our time slot. I hope we continue to win; it's going to be tough."

Tough, but not impossible.

"I love 'NYPD Blue,' but I don't watch it anymore," Hollander said. "If I'm a typical 'NYPD Blue' fan, I feel OK about them coming on. I kind of tuned out. I'm hoping the freshness of our show and the energy I and the staff have making every show as good as we can will keep appealing to our audience."

Die-hard fans of "The Guardian" already have developed. Web sites devoted to the series have been created (including http://nickfallin.com/), and a Yahoo! club devoted to "The Guardian" (http://clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/theguardian) includes dissection of recurring themes that some viewers perceive in the series.

"If symbolism is coming out of it, that's phenomenal," Hollander said. "It means they're responding to the distance between the characters and all the things I was hoping they would get."

Rabid fans on the Web also had questions about continuity and the fact episodes aired out of order -- 1, 3, 5, 2, 4, according to Hollander.

"We shuffled them like crazy," he said. "That's why it feels a little jumpy. It won't ever happen again. There were a lot of post-production problems, things needed to be tweaked."

For many Pittsburgh viewers, references to Western Pennsylvania are one of the show's draws. Sewickley Heights, McKeesport, Liberty Avenue, Seven Springs, Donora, Shadyside and Bethel Park have all been mentioned.

Last week's episode fudged a little, identifying the City-County Building as its neighbor across Forbes Avenue, the Allegheny County Courthouse.

"At this point we have so little footage, we're just calling it what we call it," Hollander said. "Our accuracy for the city of Pittsburgh will not be as great as it should be."

Once the show became a hit, Hollander hoped to not only send a second unit crew to Pittsburgh to film exterior establishing shots, but also to bring the cast back to film scenes.

Just as "The Guardian" became a hit, its production company, Columbia-TriStar Television, decided to essentially get out of the TV production game. Established shows will continue; however, no new series will be developed for the broadcast networks.

"It certainly impacts the fact our budget ain't gonna be changed anytime soon," Hollander said. "Despite our success, it's a tough time all over. The economics of success aren't the same as they were even six months ago. It's bad luck. The minute we became a hit was the minute they decided to close shop. We're waiting to see how they reorganize their television wing. We're sitting in a holding pattern."

He still believes a second unit crew will get to Pittsburgh to film exterior shots this season, but that's it.

"I don't believe our cast will get there because of the situation at our studio," Hollander said. "Until there's an [economic] upswing, it's going to be hard to move. I would assume that will happen by next season, when we'll have a sense of what our finances are and who's financing us."

With "The Guardian" filming in Los Angeles and relying on establishing shots from a one-day shoot here in April plus stock footage, some buildings in L.A. are subbing for buildings here, including the exteriors of Fallin & Associates and Children's Legal Services.

Tonight's episode reinvents the franchise as Children's Legal Services faces a funding crunch. In order to survive, CLS chief Alvin Masterson (Alan Rosenberg) solicits a new grant that forces the agency to serve adult clients, too.

"We're changing the show, opening it up to adults, which has borne a lot of fruit for us," Hollander said.

An early December episode will deal indirectly with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. A small restaurant owned by an Arab-American man is vandalized by a teen-age boy. "Initially it looks like a hate crime, but it goes to a very different place."

The case of young Hunter Reed, Nick's case in the show's first two episodes, will reach a conclusion in another episode that's expected to air near the end of the year.

"I just finished writing that one," Hollander said. "It resolves everything: the criminal case, the civil action and the custody."

Last week's episode gave the show's supporting characters the most to do yet, but Hollander acknowledged the nature of the show sometimes limits air time for the supporting cast.

"It's still a single-lead show," he said. "Depending on the story, some weeks it leads us to open it up a little bit more than others. It's not always my goal to utilize all our players. Some weeks the cast can all come around; other weeks it doesn't work. It's all about telling the best story I can tell."

One relationship Hollander says will continue to develop in coming episodes is the father-son bonding (or lack thereof) between Nick and his dad, Burton (Dabney Coleman).

"It's a very potent relationship," he said. "Dabney and Simon have done so beautifully together. The series is really starting to give them a heavy load. Their relationship is becoming quite central. It's certainly not soft. If anything, it's getting far more enflamed and goes in many directions."

Hollander is particularly excited about coming episodes that will air during November sweeps. He calls next week's installment "our first action-based, heavy-plot kind of caper episode." The Nov. 13 episode tells "a very emotional father-son split story."

"It really opens Simon's character up enormously emotionally," Hollander said. "For fans of the show, it will be an incredibly satisfying experience."

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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