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New shows appeal to different viewers

Sunday, February 02, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The world is divided into two types of TV viewers: Fans of continuing stories in serialized dramas ("24," "The West Wing") and those who prefer stand-alone, plot driven series ("Law & Order," "CSI").

TV Reviews

When: 10 tonight on ABC.
Starring: Ed O'Neill, Ethan Embry.

When: 10 tonight on NBC.
Starring: Yancey Arias, Sheryl Lee.

That's a generalization to be sure, and it's not to say fans of one style will never watch a series from the other camp, but many people tend to be drawn to one or the other. Personally, I prefer the character-driven dramas, the ones that demand attention each week, lest I miss any character development.

But in the current television climate, series with stand-alone stories are more popular. Ratings for "The West Wing" are down, but "CSI" is TV's top series and every iteration of "Law & Order" has been successful.

Tonight at 10, two high-profile new series enter the fray: NBC's serialized drug dealer drama "Kingpin" and ABC's remake of "Dragnet," which features stand-alone stories in a familiar, audience-friendly format.

It's understandable that NBC would want to schedule "Kingpin" on Sunday night. After all, a memo from NBC chieftain Robert Wright questioning how NBC could compete against the likes of HBO's "The Sopranos" surely influenced the creation of this sophisticated, violent drama. Sunday has become HBO's night, and with "The Sopranos" in reruns until September, NBC wants a piece of the action.

What makes no sense is NBC's decision to schedule it on Sunday in the same time slot that ABC premieres "Dragnet," a series that's easier to watch and likely to draw a much bigger crowd. "Kingpin" is a smart adult drama - a challenging, violent series. "Dragnet" is comfortable entertainment from Dick Wolf, the brand name producer of "Law & Order." As Wolf said last month, would viewers rather watch an iconic hero, Joe Friday, or drug dealers?

There's little that's cushy about "Kingpin," which can be summed up in shorthand as "Traffic: The Series." It's the story of a Mexican drug-dealing family and an American Drug Enforcement Agency officer, Delia (Angela Alvarado).

But it's the drug family that's the focal point of tonight's premiere, including drug-lord-with-a-conscience Miguel Cadena (Yancey Arias) and his cold American defense attorney wife, Marlene (Sheryl Lee).

American-educated Miguel isn't Tony Soprano, not by a long shot. He's more polished and not prone to committing violence himself, leaving that to his hired hands. He's too impeccably dressed to get bloody. Drug dealing and orders of murders aside, Miguel comes across as a decent, respectable guy who wants to protect his son from the ugliness of his job.

Marlene, on the other hand, is a ruthless mess. An amateur photographer with a penchant for cocaine, diplomacy is not her strong suit. The son of Miguel's boss is a hotheaded moron who suggests killing a Mexican district attorney and judge in a court case that's not going the family's way.

"You are a little much for me today," Marlene tells him. He threatens to whip her.

Miguel's brother (Bobby Cannavale) also plays a part in the family business along with an American plastic surgeon (Brian Benben).

Four people die in tonight's bloody premiere, written by series creator David Mills ("The Corner," "Homicide: Life on the Street"). It's not as violent as "The Shield," but it is surprising. The deaths come out of nowhere, but mostly they don't come off as gratuitous (that's saved for episode two).

NBC will air two episodes of "Kingpin" a week (10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday) throughout February, an odd strategy in a sweeps month. The peacock network desperately wants "Kingpin" to be a water-cooler show, a critically acclaimed series that gets people talking. Two episodes a week might do the trick. Then again, if future episodes are as calculated to shock as tonight's premiere, that might be one too many a week for viewers to stomach.


ABC's "Dragnet" remake reintroduces the "just the facts, ma'am" vibe along with a new generation of enforcers who catch the lawbreakers of Los Angeles. Ed O'Neill, best known as Al Bundy on "Married ... With Children," overcomes his Bundyness and easily moves into the role of Sgt. Joe Friday. Ethan Embry plays his young partner, Frank Smith.

The new "Dragnet" retains the theme song of the original, the finale mug shot of the perpetrator and Friday's deadpan delivery. But it does have hints of humor here and there, plus an updated vocabulary.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Friday says to Smith when they find a serial killer's latest victim, a Hollywood prostitute.

"Premature ejaculation," Smith replies. "We've got a squirter."

Can't imagine that line making it to the air in the '50s or '60s.

The show depends on Friday and Smith and O'Neill and Embry are up to the task. O'Neill has proven his dramatic chops in the past (particularly in CBS's short-lived "Big Apple"), while Embry is more known for his roles in comedic movies and sitcom flops. He offers the few glimpses of humor in "Dragnet" but at the same time tames his puppy dog earnestness.

O'Neill is allowed to be the leader, narrating the series as Jack Webb did in the original.

"Serial killers are like viruses," Friday says in the premiere. "Different strains destroy different cells, but they all ultimately run the same course. Unless they're stopped, the host dies. In this case, the host is the city and the toxin is fear."

"Dragnet" is one more show to add to the same list that includes "Law & Order" and "CSI." They're all technically well-made, well-acted, smartly-plotted series, but for those who prefer character drama to self-contained, plot-driven series, it won't be tough to choose between "Dragnet" and "Kingpin."

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

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