TV's New `Lou Grant'-like Drama Is a Mixed Bag

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CAPITAL NEWS Monday, ABC, 9-11 p.m. Series premi`ere starring Lloyd Bridges. SOME of the details in this two-hour premi`ere make you hope against hope that this could become the compelling ensemble drama series it's trying to be: a souped-up version of the best dramatic series of the '70s, ``Lou Grant,'' which folded after five seasons amid controversy about its star. Lou, we hardly knew ye.

Yet there are also enough stretched, silly, and incompetently-drawn bits to make you drop your face into your palms.

It's natural that expectations should run high anyway. If MTM Enterprises Inc. can't make a dramatic and believable series based on the inner and outer workings of a powerful Washington, D.C., newspaper, with lessons from Lou and company already under their belt, they had better pack their pencils and their PCs.

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Which brings us to the behind-the-scenes talent involved. Co-executive producer Christian Williams spent 15 years at the Washington Post as editor of the Style Section and was nominated for the Pulitzer in feature writing. Executive producer David Milch is a Humanitas Award-winning writer from ``Hill Street Blues.'' And producer/director Mark Tinker is a veteran of ``The Waltons'' and ``St. Elsewhere.''

My impressions of the pros and cons:

Good: When ``eager newcomer'' Anne McKenna (played by Helen Slater) rushes off in an appropriately dusty and beat-up Volkswagen on her first day's metro-desk assignment with veteran reporter Redmond Dunne (William Russ), she upstages both the FBI and her mentor by a simple phone call into the bank where hostages are being held.

Bad: Later the same day, the hot-headed and too-cool Dunne mouths off to the target of his newspaper investigation, calling him ``Fatso.'' Now there's a highly original, cleverly turned insult. The name-calling comes is an unconvincing contrivance to establish its user as mercurial (a clone of ``Lou Grant's'' Rossie?).

Good: When editor-in-chief ``Jo-Jo'' Turner (Lloyd Bridges) tells his most senior reporter he hasn't been writing up to snuff for two years, there is a genuine sense of poignancy over whether the oldster can still strut his stuff and furnish the newspaper's greener recruits with the model of investigative prowess they sorely need.

Bad: When the same obviously bright and still with-it senior reporter steals into the men's room for a t^ete-`a-t^ete with the mirror, then whisks out a flask and heads to the johnny stall to avoid being caught. Although we are being shown his fearful alter-ego, this characterization so far betrays the previous one as to shatter credibility.

Good: When Miles Plato (Kurt Fuller), the newspaper's flamboyant writer of pernicious gossip columns, is seen stroking his many well-placed informants - secretaries of Pentagon generals, racket-club functionaries - there is the prospect that the viewer will understand how so much personal minutiae ends up in columns.

Bad: But by being overly arch and exceedingly one-dimensional, Plato ends up on the wrong side of caricature. Our first payoff is a scoop about a general's nose job. You might still be laughing after the split-second it takes to switch to HBO.

And do these journalists really love their work so much that after enduring 15-hour days of moment-to-moment crises - over deadlines, personnel, story placement - they relax by playing cards at the editor-in-chief's house? Or did the producers just need a compelling reaction shot when ``Jo-Jo'' gets the news that one of his reporters got shot while researching an inner-city drug series.

These flaws grate all the more because of the strong points of ``Capital News.'' Lloyd Bridges is actually quite noble, savvy, and understanding as the seasoned and charismatic editor-in-chief. Mark Blum as Edison King, the ambitious national editor, is appropriately manipulative and ambitious. Michael Woods as Clay Gibson, the level-headed metro editor, is handsome, smooth, and no fool.

Helen Slater and Daniel Roebuck (as Haskell Epstein) round out a cast that is generally likable and promising. For the most part, producers have captured much of the frenzied immediacy of big-city journalism, despite such unlikely scenarios as a computer spewing smoke instead of just blinking off. And who can dismiss the drama of the nation's capital, as seen through the always-controversial lens of the fourth estate?

In the premi`ere, there's enough to tantalize in bite-sized chunks. Watch - and hope against hope for a fuller meal.

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