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TV Reviews: Midseason shows arrive early

Monday, December 01, 2003

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You know it's been a lackluster fall TV season when the midseason series begin rolling out less than three months into it. Usually these benchwarmers don't get thrown into the game until January or March, but both ABC and NBC will roll out their first replacements tonight.

David Paymer and Kristen Shaw appear in "Line of Fire," which will replace "NYPD Blue" until it returns later in the season. (Mitchell Haaseth, ABC via Associated Press)

ABC's "Line of Fire" takes the spot of "NYPD Blue," which rests until later in the season so it can air without reruns. "The Tracy Morgan Show" leads off the NBC lineup tonight, essentially replacing the canceled "Coupling" on Thursday night ("Good Morning, Miami" moves off Tuesday to take the "Coupling" spot).

"Fire" is the kind of series that will appeal to a small, loyal audience. With its washed-out colors and somber atmosphere, "Fire" doesn't seem like it will have mass appeal.

Set in the Richmond, Va., field office of the FBI, "Fire" tracks the work and personal lives of FBI agents and members of the Malloy Crime Syndicate, headed by ruthless Jonah Malloy (David Paymer).

The pilot effectively sets up an intriguing premise of following the cat-and-mouse games of these rival players, but subsequent episodes reveal that the series won't always pit one against the other.

 
 

"The Tracy Morgan Show"

When: 8 tonight on NBC.
Starring: Tracy Morgan.

"Line of Fire"

When: 10 tonight on ABC.
Starring: Leslie Hope

Tickets:$19.25-$65.25. 412-392-4900.

   
 
 

Tonight's premiere offers some plot twist surprises, but too often in upcoming episodes, resolutions are telegraphed well in advance.

Leslie Hope, who played Jack Bauer's doomed wife in the first season of "24," stars in "Fire" as the ice-cold leader of the Richmond office. As Lisa Cohen, she's one tough cookie who's earned the loyalty and respect of her staff.

Two FBI trainees -- who seem like consummate made-for-TV characters -- enter this world, which jolts its credibility and makes it seem, well, more pedestrian.

Paige Van Doren (Leslie Bibb) is the wider-eyed trainee. Her husband was killed in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and she swore she'd do right by his memory by joining the feds. She's impetuous and beautiful and doesn't respond well to authority, particularly if it attempts to get in the way of her goals. She's supposed to be the audience's eyes into this FBI world, but she can be pretty annoying.

The other characters are more unique, if not as well-developed. The premiere introduces Jennifer Sampson (Julie Ann Emery), who takes charge after her husband gets into a fender bender, pulling a badge on the guy who harasses her hubby. "Girls rule!" her daughter exclaims.

Evil Jonah is an interesting presence, too. In addition to running a brothel -- his wife is best friends with the madam -- he's always hassling guys who owe him money. In an upcoming episode, when a late payer suggests that Jonah get involved with a drug deal, Jonah expresses his distaste for the drug trade but then adds, "What I like even less are drugs going through my city without me getting my cut!"

When he orders that a father be killed, an associate asks, "What about the kid?"

"He's got a mother," Jonah replies without hesitation or feeling.

He's a sociopath and probably one with a background that explains his actions, but the three episodes ABC sent out for review don't fill in any details.

There are definitely some interesting elements at play in "Line of Fire," but the series remains a work in progress that needs more time on its feet to find itself. Chances are it won't get the time it needs.

"The Tracy Morgan Show" marks NBC's latest attempt to get back into the sitcom game. Oh, sure, they renewed "Whoopi" and "Happy Family" for full seasons, but only because the bar has fallen so low.

"Tracy Morgan," starring the former "Saturday Night Live" player, is a slight improvement on those two. Morgan plays a loving dad from the projects who now runs an auto repair shop. But the focus is on his home life with wife Alicia (Tamala Jones) and sons Derrick (Marc John Jeffries) and Jimmy (Bobb'e J. Thompson).

Jimmy, 7, is clearly designed to be the breakout character, but it's such a calculated move, the character comes off as slightly scary. At times, Jimmy seems like he's played by a midget instead of a child.

Where 13-year-old Derrick is shy, Jimmy is a playa with a mouth on him. When Tracy suggests that a musical instrument will make his son cultured, Jimmy replies, "You want people to see I'm cultured? Then why don't you strap me to a grand piano and wheel me down the street?"

Yeah, it's one of those shows where the kids don't just say the darndest things, they say the darn-dest things written by sitcom writers.

Setting a sitcom in a lower-middle-class African-American household is different for network series, which typically don't venture into such areas. Morgan's politically incorrect humor, which would sound racist coming from a white character, is presented as pointed commentary here.

When the air hose at Tracy's garage is stolen, his mechanic (John Witherspoon) suspects that a black person stole the hose and Tracy agrees, saying a white crime would be child abduction.

"Black people do not take children," he declares. "Hell, we cannot afford the ones we've got."

"The Tracy Morgan Show" has moments of bright humor, particularly scenes with the family and children. Some of the dialogue is a little crude; some is so wrought with slang that it's difficult to understand. But the show is not a complete embarrassment.

Sadly, these days, that's high praise when it comes to network comedies.


TV editor 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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