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On the tube: 'Mister Sterling' new player in the politics game

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

If "The West Wing" is an idealized political fantasy, NBC's new Friday night drama "Mister Sterling" depicts a grittier, dirtier, less nuanced world that's both less believable and more realistic at the same time.

More realistic because it confirms what the politically disillusioned have long believed: There is no "good" party, no "bad" party, just rival parties. It's less believable because an outsider gets tapped to fill the term of a scandal-plagued deceased Democrat.

Will Sterling Jr. (Josh Brolin) hates politics and has daddy issues. His father (James Whitmore) was a big-time Democratic governor of California.

"I loved every minute of college because it's the first place I've ever been where nobody knew who my father was," he says.

Teaching in prison after a stint as a prosecutor, Sterling is tapped by the current governor of California for his name value, but -- Oops! -- he fails to ask if he's a Democrat. Turns out he isn't, which causes a firestorm on Capitol Hill when it's discovered after he's sworn in.

"The more that I've been watching this game that they play here, I don't see a big difference between the teams," Sterling tells the Senate's Democratic majority leader. "When I watch Louisiana Democrats being more conservative than New Jersey Republicans, why am I supposed to think the party labels mean anything?"

Sterling ultimately pledges his support to the Democrats, but surprisingly for a Hollywood production, Democratic Senate leaders are set up as the show's villains. Graham Greene plays a benevolent, but not altogether trustworthy Republican in next week's episode.

Created and written by Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., a former writer on "The West Wing," his new series will likely be dubbed "Mister Sterling Goes to Washington" for its appealingly high-minded lead character, played with appropriate scruffiness by Brolin.

Broadway actress Audra McDonald plays Sterling's chief of staff, adding much-needed political savvy to the office of her politically clueless new boss.

"Mister Sterling" lacks the sophistication of "The West Wing" (a blessing for viewers who think the "Wing" characters talk too fast and come off as smug), but it's a more appealing political drama than last year's Supreme Court shows, "First Monday" and "The Court."

(10 tonight, CBS)

CBS calls this new show a "seriocomic" drama about the lives of the judges in a New York courthouse. In its early moments, "Queens Supreme" shows potential as an absurdist comedy-drama, but then it becomes simply absurd as a disgruntled juror pulls a gun in a courtroom and takes hostages.

Oliver Platt stars as Judge Jack Moran, whose angry, funny, estranged wife (guest star Kristen Johnston, "3rd Rock from the Sun") is a more interesting character than any of the series regulars.

Annabella Sciorra and Robert Loggia also play jurists, but neither makes much of an impact in tonight's premiere.

Sciorra's Judge Kim Vicidomini hears a racial profiling case with a whiny Asian prosecutor who cops an attitude and taunts the judge's decisions by speaking in an Asian accent with hands clasped and bowing stereotypically. It's wholly and completely unbelievable.

Not that courthouse flights of fancy are all bad. "Ally McBeal" made them work for several good seasons, but "Ally" never pretended to be realistic. "Queens Supreme" wants to have it both ways and doesn't succeed being comedic or serious.

The dramatic scenes are particularly painful. The whole hostage plot is tedious and the show as a whole is supremely uninteresting.

(8 tonight, Sci Fi Channel)

This fall when Sci Fi Channel reneged on its commitment to produce a fifth season of "Farscape," I was disappointed, but not particularly heartbroken because the start of the fourth season was so convoluted and disappointing.

But watching tonight's excellent hour, the first of 11 new episodes, reminded me of how great this series could be at its best.

Human astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder) and his alien compatriots end up on Earth in 1986, attempting to restore the time line that's been disrupted by Crichton's trip through a wormhole.

Seeing Aeryn (the excellent Claudia Black) learn English by watching "Sesame Street," observing D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) take tentative steps toward speaking English (he innocently tells a cop, "Bite me") made me sad because I know the "Farscape" journeys will end March 21 (and on a cliffhanger no less).

When AMC unceremoniously canceled "Remember WENN" on a cliffhanger, I vowed to pretty much ignore the channel, a viewer's best means of retribution. I'm now having similar thoughts about Sci Fi Channel.

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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