The new broadcast networks' season starts a little later than usual this year (October), but some of the best TV is on cable anyway.
TNT's pilot for its first series, the Wall Street drama Bull (Tuesday, Aug. 15, 10-11 p.m.), beats out most of its network competition - including Fox's "The Street," which is just "Beverly Hills 90210" in crisp suits.
Longtime "Law & Order" veteran Michael Chernuchin heads the writing team. The dialogue snaps along at incredible speeds, peppered liberally with stock-market speak, revolving around complex moral issues that keep us fully involved.
In the pilot episode, young Robert "Ditto" Roberts III (George Newbern) discovers that his grandfather's company is growing increasingly corrupt. At the same time the company's glass ceiling keeps minorities and women from advancement. So Ditto persuades his friends to break away and form their own business. The terrific young cast makes their jobs seem like the most exciting life imaginable.
"The stock market is not such a mystery anymore," says Mr. Chernuchin in a telephone interview. "More than half of all Americans own stock - what with retirement programs and 401(k)s.
"The Internet has made it more accessible, too. I walk through offices and see secretaries day-trading. Cab drivers in New York read Barron's to follow their stocks. It's not a greed thing now, it's the great American pastime."
Chernuchin says the esoteric language of the marketplace doesn't really matter - the drama is in the characters. "[Bull] is about America," he says. "If you look at the scenario of the pilot, it's about young people who are rebels, who break away from the 'king' to start their own company, to make something new that wasn't there before...."
American values are also found in the snappy dialogue of Running Mates, also on TNT (Aug 13, 8-10 p.m.). The film stars Tom Selleck (Gov. James Pryce) and a bevy of beautiful women (the "mates" of the title) including Faye Dunaway, Laura Linney, Nancy Travis, and Teri Hatcher.
These ladies are ex-girlfriends of Governor Pryce (except Ms. Travis who plays his wife, Jenny), and each contributes in some way to Pryce's campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential candidacy.
Selleck's character is basically a man of honor. Faced with a couple of social issues, the candidate comes down on the humane side. The women behind the man are all smart, savvy, and assertive. But they are, after all, "just" women. Most of the other politicos in the film use women freely, discard them casually, and the women put up with it - to end used up, cynical, and drunk. It's a bleak view of the political landscape.
And yet, despite a retro view of a "woman's place," there are good things about the film. Among them are fine comic moments, well-timed satire worked into the drama, and a blitz of political details.
Then, too, Selleck is terrific in the role. He's satisfyingly centered as a character and works well with each of the film's talented actresses. He says he was drawn to the script because of them. "I'm as good as the people around me, and this is a good group of actors," Selleck said in a recent telephone interview.
Delving into politics can be a tricky exercise for a TV film. "You don't want to make a movie for Democrats or Republicans. You want to make a movie for people," Selleck says.
"So if you do a movie about politics," he adds, "it had better be pretty clever about defining the middle and finding consensus. You may be able to shed some light while you're entertaining...."
A wonderful miniseries on BBC America stands in powerful contrast to the tell-all, in-your-face contemporary reality of "Running Mates." Wives and Daughters (Aug. 12, 8-10 p.m. and 10-12 midnight, continuing Aug. 19 and Aug. 26) is sharp enough to portray intelligence in women and sensitivity in men. The film achieves this through disarming restraint and admirable subtlety.
Based on Elizabeth Gaskell's novel of the 1860s, the story centers on young Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) who endears herself to an English country squire, his wife, and two sons almost as a member of the family. Molly's own father, a country doctor, adores her, but remarries a woman who is not so much wicked as annoyingly superficial.
But the stepmother has a daughter from a previous marriage, and, contrary to expected formulas, young Cynthia - vain, beautiful, fluffy-headed - dotes on Molly. It's this odd relationship between the teenage girls that's most appealing about the story as they grow up together. What the story lacks in Jane Austen's moral depth, it makes up for in sheer joy of life and gracious insight.
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