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TV Review: TNT's 'Big Time' is a familiar-looking period drama

Friday, October 18, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Maybe Rupert Holmes should sue.

Just as Holmes' late, lamented AMC series "Remember WENN" chronicled the early days of a struggling radio station, TNT's movie "The Big Time" chronicles the early days of TV in the studios of Manhattan's Empire Television.

 
 
TV Review

'THE BIG TIME'

WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday on TNT.

   
 

And like the way "WENN" told the story through the eyes of new-to-town Midwesterner Betty Roberts, "Big Time" tells its similar story through the eyes of new-to-town Midwesterner Audrey Drummond (Christina Hendricks).

That's where the comparisons end. "WENN" was nostalgic for a simpler, more wholesome era that probably never existed. In "The Big Time," Audrey is new-to-town, but she's pretty darn worldly, seen having sex in public places in her flashbacks.

TNT announced "The Big Time" as the pilot for a series in early 2001 and it's clear the network spent a good chunk of change on the two hours that will air Sunday. From location shooting in Manhattan to an act break that would allow the pilot to be cut into two episodes for syndication to a story that's a complete setup for a series, "The Big Time" was intended to go further. But it won't.

TNT, the know-nothing network when it comes to drama series (count the cancellations: "Crusade," "Bull," "Breaking News," even "Witchblade"), has written off another project, no doubt because of fears no one born after 1950 would watch a period drama.

"The Big Time," at least, sees the light of day because its executive producers are John Wells ("ER") and Carol Flint ("ER," "The Court"), and TNT executives probably don't want to tick them off too badly.

It's a shame "The Big Time" didn't make it. It would have spared the world yet another medical drama (Wells and Flint currently produce CBS's "Presidio Med"). Whatever flaws in "The Big Time," at least it attempts something different.

Written by Flint and directed by Paris Barclay ("City of Angels," "The West Wing"), "The Big Time" features the same frenetic energy as "West Wing," as characters rush up and down staircases from the studio floor to the control room above.

The Colonel (Dylan Baker) runs the network, but it's funded by the eccentric Doc (Christopher Lloyd), who returns to town with a new bride, Marion (Molly Ringwald), and a new invention that could transform the industry.

Audrey wanders into the melee and finds herself working for the Colonel, missing the fiance she left back home and becoming the object of desire for married floor manager Walt Kaplan (Michael B. Silver) and conniving junior ad agent Tim Wilkison (Shane Mikael Johnson).

"The Big Time" also injects issues of the day that remain evergreen 54 years later: TV sponsorship and racial strife.

Pittsburgh native Sharif Atkins, currently seen as Dr. Gallant on "ER," plays Joe Royal, leader of a group of black musicians, The Royal Flush. Kaplan wants to put them on the air, and concerns about race (this is 1948) come to the fore.

"The Big Time" also tries to draw parallels between then and now in a it's-not-so-different way as Doc bemoans the state of the industry.

"When I was a kid, I built my first crystal radio. I'd pick up signals from the ships at sea. I felt connected to the world," he says. "Now the airwaves are jam-packed. There's nothing I want to hear. Just a hungry machine that must be fed."

Sounds sort of like "500 channels with nothing on," doesn't it?

"We can't afford stars, so let's be the network that takes risks, that makes stars," Kaplan says, quoting, almost verbatim, an adage espoused by executives at The WB network.

As a stand-alone movie "The Big Time" is all buildup with little payoff. Even for nostalgia gourmands there's little nourishment to be had. As the first episode of a series, with time to better develop characters, "The Big Time" shows more potential.

The cast is particularly strong, especially the ever-talented Baker and Ringwald, who really grabs the role and begins to bring it definition in the last 10 minutes. The trio of newcomers -- Hendricks (a sex-bomb intern on "Beggars and Choosers"), Silver and Johnson -- show fresh-faced promise and Atkins has a meatier role than the writers of "ER" are ever likely to give him. But it's not to be.

The final scene of "The Big Time" features a toast to the future, which is ironic since this project won't have one beyond Sunday night.


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

TV REVIEW

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