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TV Note: 2/26/02

Tuesday, February 26, 2002

'JAG' reaches 150 mark

"JAG," network television's only military-themed show, has enlisted new viewers and critical attention this year.

"Since 9-11, I have done more interviews than I did in the prior six seasons of the show," says Donald Bellisario, creator and executive producer of the show, which is airing its 150th episode tonight.

The show's higher profile has been matched by its ratings. For the season to date, the CBS drama about intrepid military lawyers working for the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps is 12th in households among all prime-time programs compared to 28th last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Network TV's last military drama, "China Beach," which ended in 1991, had the anti-war sensibility of the Vietnam War era in which it was set. "JAG" strikes a less dissonant tone, one that's proved right for its time.

Bellisario made his name in TV with the Tom Selleck detective series "Magnum, P.I." (1980-88) and the 1989-93 sci-fi drama "Quantum Leap" with Scott Bakula.

"JAG" shows the same Bellisario touch: Solid, well-crafted and well-cast drama that is reliably entertaining.

"JAG" (8 tonight) stars David James Elliott as dashing Navy Cmdr. Harmon Rabb, a pilot turned lawyer. Catherine Bell plays Marine Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie, fellow JAG attorney and his on-again, off-again love interest.

After a rocky start -- NBC canceled the show after a season -- audiences discovered the program when it moved to CBS.

Bellisario, who said he's always felt like the odd man out in what he calls "very, very left" Hollywood, had no reservations about doing a pro-military series. The first TV show he worked on was the 1976-78 World War II drama "Baa Baa Black Sheep."

But "JAG" seems to have its roots more in good storytelling than in politics.

Incorporating current events, "JAG" will end the season with a multi-episode story in which its characters are called on to thwart an al-Qaida terrorist plot.

Bellisario believes the ratings jump has more to do with the competition than with the nation's patriotic high. Last season, "JAG" faced ABC's then-powerful "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"; this year it's finding easier going against sitcoms such as "Dharma & Greg."

Certainly, he says, the show's basic mission hasn't changed since the shattering events of last fall.

"We didn't discover our patriotism on 9-11," he said. "We've always been a show that's pro-military but not jingoistic."

(Lynn Elber, Associated Press)

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