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TV Preview: 'Max Bickford' lightens up in hope of better grade from viewers

Saturday, February 23, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

This fall when CBS replaced Sunday night mainstay "Touched by an Angel" with "The Education of Max Bickford," many a TV watchers' eyebrow reflexively darted upward.

"The Education Of
Max Bickford"

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow on CBS.

Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Marcia Gay Harden.


Why replace a warm, cuddly family show with the story of a grumpy college professor in the midst of a midlife crisis? CBS executives seemed certain that casting Richard Dreyfuss in the lead role and drawing on the warm fuzzies he generated in "Mr. Holland's Opus" would make "Max Bickford" a ratings hit.

It wasn't. Oh, the ratings started out OK, but then viewers started to tune out, deciding they had better things to do than spend time with a snappish whiner.

CBS got nervous. Tinkering began. The show's executive producers/creators were sent packing, and eventually a new "Max Bickford" began to emerge.

It's not so much a kinder, gentler "Max Bickford," Dreyfuss said in a conference call to stump for the show this week. But it is a different show than it started out. Dreyfuss and producers decided the darker road was not always the road best traveled.

"We're giving Max more of a conscious sense of humor and irony," Dreyfuss said. "If a person is going through doubts about himself, he can still have a sense of humor. I think that was important to strengthen the show."

Dreyfuss said the show isn't looking to go soft.

"There's always going to be a tendency in television to say, 'Let's warm things up and make nice and fuzzy.' We spend a lot of time resisting that," Dreyfuss said.

New executive producer Joe Cacaci said another change is fewer stories per episode. Instead of juggling six stories, "Max Bickford" has settled into the more traditional drama pattern of two stories per episode.

"With fewer stories, they each become more complex," Cacaci said. "You can only serve so many stories in 44 minutes. This lets us go further in storytelling, and the audience can actually follow it, which is always a good thing."

Stories on the show come from Max's home life with his kids and from the college setting, mixing the politics of academia with Max's teaching.

"I don't think of Max as a liberal educator. I think of Max as a person who is hopefully capable of skewering both sides of an issue," Dreyfuss said. "If we do this right, we're going to make liberals angry and conservatives angry. If we do it wrong, no one will get angry. But I don't want the show to get trapped behind any particular partisan point of view."

"Max Bickford" has explored the issue of Max's Jewish heritage, something that appealed to Dreyfuss, who is Jewish.

"One of the phenomena of being Jewish in America is there are traditional Jews, religious Jews, cultural Jews and secular Jews, and that's never been delineated [on television]," he said. "Max is a fiercely secular Jew who comes from a more religious family. ... This character, in a sense, is based upon something my father once said to me. We were secular, and I said to my dad, 'Why don't we practice Judaism?' And he said, 'I don't have to practice. I'm very good at it.' "

Dreyfuss said one of the show's primary philosophies is "he who loses his sense of humor last wins."

"You reach a certain point early in your life when you know everything," he said. "Only years after that you grow into the wisdom of not knowing anything."

Dreyfuss said the "Max Bickford" characters are at that point, with fears and concerns that lead to "human comedy. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me think. It's about people being weird."

And being weird while dating. Max had a flirtation with a diner waitress, which has yet to be resolved, and in tomorrow's episode, he romances a wealthy college donor, played by Joanna Kerns.

Asked if he'd like to see the perpetually hangdog Bickford get into a stable relationship, Dreyfuss quipped, "I'm hoping to have a lot of shallow sex and then settle down with a character. But I wouldn't want to skip the shallow sex part."

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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