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TV Preview: 'Kingpin' creator says it's a struggle for a man's soul

Friday, January 31, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Tv Editor

HOLLYWOOD - NBC's "Kingpin" (10 p.m. Sunday) has drawn comparisons to "The Sopranos" due to its violent content as it focuses on the family behind a criminal drug cartel.


WHEN: 10 p.m. Sunday on NBC.

STARRING: Yancey Arias, Sheryl Lee.


Creator David Mills said he's more influenced by "The Godfather" for the show's familial saga and by "Miami Vice" for the look and sound of "Kingpin." The lead character, Miguel Cadena, also differentiates the series. Miguel is no Tony Soprano or even a Vic Mackey ("The Shield").

"Tony Soprano understands he's a criminal, and I don't think he minds being a criminal," Mills said, following a press conference about the series last month. "Miguel Cadena is going through life thinking he's the CEO of a tobacco company. He is not self-aware; he is not acknowledging in his own mind that he is doing evil."

If Miguel is the show's anti-hero, who are the villains?

"Worse drug peddlers," Mills said. "Unconflicted drug peddlers. One of the tricks of us pulling for him is we've seen the humanity in him. Put him up against some villains who are more brutal, and that's how you can root for him out of the two."

Mills said he created "Kingpin" because he wanted to write a tragedy.

"I wanted to tell the story of a man and the condition of his soul, a guy who has two sides of himself," he said. "No one is strictly evil. If Miguel was just evil, he would not be interesting. What I think will draw us back to him is that we see these humane impulses in him. We are gonna root for those humane impulses to survive. We're not going to root for him to become a more successful drug dealer, because the things he has to do to become a more successful drug dealer ... are the things that will destroy his soul and will eventually destroy his family."

Actor Yancey Arias, who attended Carnegie Mellon University in the early '90s before his family ran out of funds, plays Miguel Cadena, who often finds himself being pushed into more vicious directions by his ruthless, ambitious wife, Marlene (Sheryl Lee).

"Marlene is the driving force for Miguel Cadena to make some decision that he may not immediately want to make," Arias said. "She realizes firsthand that, 'If he doesn't take control of the situation, that's the end of our family. We're all dead.' She's constantly putting a fire under my [rear end], and I eventually take over."

After his stint at CMU, Arias landed the role of Thuy in "Miss Saigon" on Broadway and stayed with it for six years. He intended to return to CMU, but the "Miss Saigon" interruption kept him away.

"I was in the musical theater program [at CMU], and I played baseball while I was there, too, but I was soon asked by the drama department to get off the team because it conflicted with our schedule," Arias said.

Now he's starring in a high-profile series that also has the potential to be controversial. As the only prime-time drama on a broadcast network with a predominantly Hispanic cast, "Kingpin" is sure to draw fire from some quarters over the potential stereotyping of Latinos as drug dealers. It's an argument for which creator Mills has no patience.

"I am fed up with the notion that when it's a white character and white actors, it's a universal story, but when it's a Mexican character and a Latino actor, it's a story about Mexicans," Mills said. "We're telling a story about a human being. ... How limiting would it be to these actors as artists for you to sit down and view them as emblems of their race and not as human beings? You want to destroy that way of thinking because it limits us as artists. ... Latino actors should not be limited to playing the noble inner-city math teacher or the salsa band leader."

With six episodes total, "Kingpin" will air two episodes a week, 10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, for the next three weeks.

"[The scheduling] is a little risky and a little unconventional," said NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker. "Obviously, we'll find out if we made a mistake in a couple of weeks, but we're confident in the program and that people will want to see it and make the commitment."

Sunday's premiere runs longer than most one-hour dramas, so expect fewer or briefer commercial interruptions.

Each episode will be simulcast in Spanish using the Second Audio Program on more modern TV sets. In March, "Kingpin" will air on NBC-owned cable networks Telemundo and Bravo, which will air a more explicit "director's cut."

For Mills, a journalist turned writer on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" and HBO's "The Corner," the difference between making a drama for a broadcast network with a standards and practices department and an anything-goes pay cable channel is only a matter of degree.

"It's the same difference as writing for The Washington Post and writing for Rolling Stone," he said. "There are words that belong in Rolling Stone that don't belong in The Washington Post. There are words that belong on HBO that don't belong on NBC. It's all about a good story. I don't think I could have told this story any better on HBO."

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.

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