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TV Preview: 'The Agency' remaps its mission for season

Saturday, September 28, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- As CBS's underrated "The Agency" ended its first season, CIA operative Matt Callan (Gil Bellows) was in jeopardy while on a mission abroad.

"The Agency"

WHEN: 10 tonight on CBS.

STARRING: Beau Bridges, Daniel Benzali.


Callan wasn't the only one in jeopardy. "The Agency" was "on the bubble," TV-speak for an uncertain future. Though it had more viewers than Fox's "24" or ABC's "Alias," it still lost too much of the audience from its "CSI" lead-in when it aired at 10 Thursdays.

After a crossover with "The District," "The Agency" returns paired with that popular Saturday night drama.

"We felt ['The Agency'] was a little bit stillborn," said CBS president Leslie Moonves after a July press conference. "It really got hurt by Sept. 11. We had to yank the first episode, we had to yank an episode about anthrax. They really were a little bit ahead of their time unfortunately."

Moonves said it wasn't a tough call to keep the series and to move it from Thursday to Saturday night.

"We liked the show, we thought the show kept getting better, and we made changes in the cast with Beau Bridges and Daniel Benzali. We thought it would be better on Saturday night with 'The District.' ... It wasn't performing great on Thursday night, and we think we can do better there."

It will have to do better without Matt Callan. Gil Bellows has left the series along with Gloria Reuben, whose absence isn't even mentioned in tonight's season premiere that picks up six months after the season finale.

Tonight the show will introduce two new characters, series regular Jason O'Mara ("Band of Brothers") as A.B. Stiles, a former paramilitary officer and operations expert. Lolita Davidovich guest stars as Avery Pohl, an FBI special agent who has a past with CIA director Tom Gage (Bridges).

Callan, at least, hasn't been forgotten. In tonight's second-season premiere, his CIA compatriots race to catch his killer. "The Agency" returns lighter in tone and with more moments that feel TV-artificial, particularly when a high-ranking CIA official goes into the field on a mission and when a romantic relationship bubbles up rather quickly.

As last season began, the show tried to avoid getting too far ahead of current events, but by midseason producers chose to embrace the show's timeliness.

"I don't think anybody had a road map for what to do," said executive producer Shaun Cassidy. "We very quickly realized that avoiding world events was not what people wanted and was not where our responsibility lies."

In upcoming episodes, Gage will have to decide whether a hijacked airliner, with two of his agents on board, is a terrorist threat to the nation's capital and whether to shoot it down. Another episode shows the characters in Afghanistan and another is about a suicide bombing by an American citizen on American soil.

"We have to be careful that we don't try to anticipate what the CIA is going to do or chase what the CIA is doing, but we're living in the same world the real CIA is living in," Cassidy said. "Our president in our show is not George Bush and it's not Marty Sheen either. We're just dealing with events as specifically and as broadly as we can in terms of drama."

With the departure of Bellows, Cassidy and network executives wanted a character who would be more action-oriented and less cerebral. Enter O'Mara as Stiles.

"He's a soldier. He has a real clarity of purpose, which actually scares Will Patton [who plays Jackson Haisley], who is weighing everything," Cassidy said.

Graphic artists Terri Lowell (Paige Turco) and Lex (Richard Speight Jr.) will continue to move out of the agency's headquarters and go on more missions. That might seem unrealistic, but Cassidy said it's true-to-life.

"They are trained to do that. Working in OTS, Officer Technical Services, is where they began, but they are specifically trained to go out in the field and support guys like [Stiles] who are case officers. You need to bug a room, you can't have him doing that. You have people in OTS doing that."

Cassidy said "The Agency" has several CIA advisers, one who had a job similar to the Stiles character, a husband-and-wife team who had jobs similar to Lowell's and a former intelligence officer similar to Haisley.

"They all give us conflicting notes on every script," Cassidy said, shaking his head and smiling. "They usually disagree. They all claim to be no longer working for the CIA, but we doubt that highly."

Midway through the first season, the show added a viper to the relatively stable, happy CIA nest in the form of interim director Robert Quinn (Benzali), who ultimately became liaison to Homeland Security.

"I think half the country wants that guy running the CIA," Cassidy said. "He's all about getting the job done -- ends justify the means."

Tonight, Quinn assembles a crisis response team that includes members of the CIA, FBI and other security agencies. Stiles will be its leader, but Cassidy said crisis management creates additional moral dilemmas for the characters.

"What are the moral and ethical ramifications of what we are doing? Should we be doing this? I have a feeling most people at the CIA went through very similar experiences [after 9/11]. Did we miss something? What is our moral responsibility now? What is our responsibility in terms of the world?"

In addition to addressing the issues of the day, Cassidy hopes to dig deeper into the personalities of the characters.

"One of the downsides of having to reflect or deal with world events was that we didn't have much time to understand the human beings. We're going to have much more of that and more humor, hopefully some fun, along the way."

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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