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With the official start of the 2005-06 season less than two months away, the drumbeats have begun by the networks to tout their new comedies and dramas. What should you keep your eye out for? What should you avoid at all costs? While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we thought we'd spend the next month previewing what's in store for the upcoming season. Each day we'll look at two of the 47 new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot.
There's no particular order here, just whatever's next on the stack of tapes. So without further ado, here's today's entries:
(Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00c this fall)
The network's description: "Executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("CSI" franchise), Oscar-nominated director/producer Taylor Hackford ("Ray") and stars Benjamin Bratt ("Traffic," "Law & Order") and Dennis Hopper ("Easy Rider," "Speed") join forces in this pulsating drama set inside the nation's ultimate fortress: the Pentagon. It's a hub of highly explosive conflicts between American military heroes and the civilians to whom they report -- a world where crises can escalate into life-and-death climaxes, for individuals or entire nations. Viewers witness critical decisions by intelligence officers in the war room and the execution of these decisions by covert special ops on the battlefield. The number-one mission is survival of the state - an often-delicate balance between protecting the homeland and protecting either all of mankind or the life of a lone soldier."
What did they leave out: Quite a bit is expected to change from the pilot I saw, including rewriting J.T. (Benjamin Bratt) as being single instead of married to (and having a newborn with) the now defunct character of Sharon (Sarah Clarke). Also, Leonor Varela's character, Catherine "Cat" Rodriquez (who only appears briefly), apparently is being recast or rewritten as well.
The plot in a nutshell: We track Major Jim "J.T." Tisnewski's (Benjamin Bratt) as he goes through his first day at the Pentagon, which involves everything from car trouble; to settling into his new home with his wife Sharon (Sarah Clarke) and their new child; to trying to impress his crotchety new boss Colonel McNulty (Dennis Hopper) and his tough liaison (Aunjanue Ellis). The main crux of the plot however deals with the military's decision whether or not to try and extract a Chinese operative (with potentially valuable intel) from foreign soil. From here we're given a bird's eye view on how the Pentagon works, which is actually far more beaucratic than you'd expect. It's up to the trailblazing J.T. then to try and make the case to extract her, which involves lots of running down hallways of the Pentagon (actually LAX, acting as a stand-in) and brokering deals with lots of agencies.
What works: Much like "The West Wing," the show gets a lot of mileage out of doubling as a civics lesson, except instead of the White House we learn how the Pentagon works. It's actually pretty cool stuff as rarely do we see the inner-workings of the Pentagon dramatized on TV and in the movies. Bratt and Hopper (not to mention Ellis, who holds her own as well) both are great to see on TV and give their somewhat cardboard characters - the archetypical brash young Turk and the tired-out rebel - a boost with their presence.
What doesn't: When a show like "The West Wing" has a dozen main characters (and even more recurring ones) one can't help but find "E-Ring" ridiculously under populated by comparison (it's literally just Bratt, Hopper and Ellis with everyone else playing very minor roles). The show often feels like the subset of a bigger and much more interesting series so here's hoping they add a few more bodies into the mix soon. And while I hate to play Monday Morning Quarterback, I can't fault the decision to cut Sarah Clarke's character. The scenes at home are painfully pedestrian and the angle used to potentially make them interesting (Sharon's history at the CIA, that is before she quit to be a stay-at-home mom, is used to help J.T. springboard ideas to help his case) feels out of place, especially when compared to the scenes actually set at the Pentagon. The big problem however (actually more like double-edged sword) is that for a military show there's very a little action and the action that is there (oooh, watch the general sign the order) is played up in its full Bruckheimer glory (picture that scene set to Hans Zimmer's score from "The Rock" which was used as the temp track). Nevertheless, there's certainly plenty of seeds to make an interesting show here and I look forward to seeing if one can be found.
The challenges ahead: Does "E-Ring" have the strength to take on "Lost" on Wednesday nights and with a new unproven lead-in ("The Apprentice: Martha Stewart") at that? Has Jerry Bruckheimer reached critical mass in terms of the procedural dramas? We'll find out this fall on NBC.