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Pax TV prescribes 'Doc' for family friendly viewing

Sunday, February 17, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

While cultural critics and, yes, even TV critics (myself included) laud cutting edge programs on HBO or sharp dramas like NBC's "The West Wing," there's a significant audience that could care less about these series.

 
 
TV PREVIEW

"Doc"

When: 8 tonight on Pax.

Starring: Billy Ray Cyrus.

   
 

The arrival of family-friendly Pax TV on Pittsburgh cable systems late last year provided programming for this segment of the audience that's under-served by mainstream media.

These viewers want TV shows that are comforting and uplifting, that make them laugh and cry and achieve these reactions without gratuitous profanity or sex talk.

"Doc," the highest-rated show on Pax, does just that. Intellectual snobs will look down on tonight's episode (at 8) as mawkish fluff, but it's actually pretty touching.

Country singer Billy Ray Cyrus stars in "Doc" as Dr. Clint Cassidy, a doctor from Montana who followed the woman of his dreams to Manhattan. The love didn't last, but this fish out of water stayed in New York to work at an HMO.

Since this is a sweeps month, Pax's effort at stunt casting brings Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman to "Doc" as a widower father who teaches a band class in an elementary school. He begins to have difficulty walking and ultimately winds up in the care of Doc, who has to break the bad news that the man has ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.

This episode was written by Ernie Wallengren, who had a special appreciation for the material. While working on the first season of "Doc" last year, Wallengren was diagnosed with ALS.

"It was one of the most difficult writing experiences I've ever had," Wallengren said of penning tonight's show. "There were times I just didn't want to face sitting down and dealing with it all, but it ended up being quite cathartic. ... It meant more to me than any other TV episode I've ever written, so that didn't make it easier, but it did make it more satisfying."

Before "Doc," Wallengren, 49, worked on "The Waltons," "Falcon Crest," "Our House," "Baywatch," "Life Goes On" and "Promised Land." He has five children and has coached his sons' basketball teams, which led him to draw on those experiences by making the Chapman character in "Doc" a teacher. Wallengren is now confined to a wheelchair, but he continues to coach.

"As long as my voice holds out and I can yell at teen-age boys, I'm fine," Wallengren said. "It really hasn't impaired my life as much as I thought it would. One of the strange blessings of ALS is that it attacks real slowly, so one day is not that much different from the previous."

The episode's title, "Fearless," comes from Chapman, who advises his students to play their instruments without fear and has to lead by example after his diagnosis.

"The whole fearless thing was the one thing Ernie knew he wanted this guy to be and have this attitude," said Gary R. Johnson, who created "Doc" with his brother Dave Alan Johnson. "Those of us who know Ernie see that in him every day."

For the Johnson brothers, who shepherded the underrated, short-lived 1993-1994 NBC family drama "Against the Grain," the arrival of Pax in Pittsburgh is especially welcome. Their sister, Jean Doss, is a US Airways flight attendant who lives in Coraopolis. Her husband, former military man and US Airways pilot Steve Doss, even inspired a recurring character on "Doc," a straight-arrow U.S. Army captain named, not coincidentally, Steve Doss (Kevin Jubinville), who dates the receptionist at the HMO.

What stands out in tonight's "Doc" is the show's willingness to invoke the name of God. When Doc counsels his patient, he doesn't shy from acknowledging a higher power.

"I don't understand any of this any better than you do," Doc says. "But I do know that there's gonna come a time for all of us to leave this Earth. Thanks to God's grace, that's not something I fear, but I suppose when it's looking you in the face, it's also something you can't totally be ready for."

Wallengren and Johnson said this episode includes more references to God than most, but it's not an anomaly.

"We don't shy away from it. We also don't like to hit people over the head with a hammer," Wallengren said. "Speaking as an ALS patient, religion becomes a very important part of your life and quickly. In television in general, that has been an area that's sorely neglected, except on 'Touched By an Angel' where you're clobbered by a heavy-handed spirituality. This is a kinder, gentler, more realistic way of dealing with the spiritual side."

Despite the success of "Touched By an Angel," religion still makes most network executives uncomfortable.

"It's just a fear of controversy," Wallengren said. "They're so worried about offending one segment of the audience, they ignore another."

"Yet they have no qualms about offending that portion of the audience," Johnson said. "It's a weird deal."

Johnson paraphrased a Jeff Foxworthy quote that sums up his attitude: "There are 200 million people between New York and Los Angeles who ain't hip and don't want to be.

"That's my audience," Johnson said. "We're never going to be considered hip or cutting edge. We're not cutting-edge guys and don't particularly like shows that are. It's not who we are and what we want to do. Pax is getting a huge audience from people out there who feel the same way."


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

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