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September 12, 1993|JOE RHODES | Joe Rhodes is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

The walls of the Bakersfield police headquarters--well, actually it's a set in a Culver City warehouse--are the color of nicotine stain, a half-dead shade of yellowish brown that you rarely see outside highway rest stops or exceptionally tawdry motels.

There are men wearing terra-cotta jumpsuits with "City Jail" written across their backs, applying new coats of the stuff to a back wall while, in the foreground, two police officers--well, actually they're actors playing police officers--are laid out on stretchers, red liquid flowing from tubes in their arms. They are supposed to be partners, men who spend hours together in a squad car every day, donating blood while they talk about their relationship.

"What color are my eyes?" one of them wants to know, looking away from his partner so he'll have to guess. "We've been together five years. What color are my eyes?"

"Brown," his partner finally says. "Because you're Mexican."

There is a sigh of disappointment. "They're hazel. My eyes are hazel."

It's a weird little moment, strange but meted, not unlike those nicotine walls. And it is exactly what Larry Levin had in mind when he concocted this new Fox series called "Bakersfield, P.D.," a show whose comic tone, too fragile for the weight of a laugh track, lies somewhere between "Northern Exposure" and "Barney Miller." (Last season, Levin tried another buddy cop comedy, "Arresting Behavior," which got a short run on ABC.)

"I've always wanted to explore male relationships," says Levin, the show's creator, executive producer and chief writer, "and I wanted to do it in a way that was different than the wacky neighbor or the best friend."

So, Levin chose cops. Partners. Men whose professional relationships, years in the making and forged under stress, often mirror the emotional complexities of romantic relationships. In fact, the series was originally called "Buddy Blues."

"This may make some men uncomfortable," Levin says. "But that's OK, because men are uncomfortable with emotions and feelings. Ask any woman."

The series--with no women in featured roles--revolves around three pairs of police officers. Giancarlo Esposito (best known for his work in Spike Lee's feature films) plays a detective who's relocated to Bakersfield from Washington, D.C., and has to reconcile his big-city ways with unfamiliar small-town surroundings and an eager, somewhat naive new partner (Ron Eldard) who is so obsessed with old TV cop shows that he plays the "Hawaii Five-O" drum solo on his dashboard before taking off after a suspect.

"If the other guys are like married couples," says Eldard (who describes the show as "Mayberry on acid"), "then Giancarlo and I are still on our first date.

Besides Chris Mulkey and Tony Plana (the one with the hazel eyes), "Bakersfield, P.D." also stars Jack Hallett as a captain who can never make up his mind and Brian Doyle-Murray as the sergeant who constantly bails him out. "They're the couple," Levin says, "who've been together 15 years and can finish each other's sentences."

All of this represents, particularly for a comedy, an odd and risky premise, made even riskier by the fact that Levin insisted the show be shot on film, often with a verite hand-held style, and broadcast without canned laughs. There is no studio audience, no comforting three-camera sitcom look. Even before the show hits the air, Levin wonders out loud how long it will take before someone in a suit comes knocking on his door with a corporate memo and a concerned look on his face.

"They're already nervous," Levin says of executives at both Fox and Disney (which produces the show). Those nerves, he says, are partly the result of production costs--at least 30% more than a standard-issue sitcom--and partly because Levin has fought to keep the show from being too jokey, choosing to emphasize characters over punchlines.

And it probably hasn't helped that the citizens of the real Bakersfield are already complaining about being portrayed (in the pilot anyway) as vaguely racist and slightly slow-witted. (Bakersfield Mayor Bob Price has already been quoted in the local paper saying, "I thought it was a stupid show.")

"If the numbers are bad those first couple of weeks," Levin says, "I'm sure the pressure will be to make it funnier. And I'm sure I'll hear the words laugh track. "

If that were to happen, no one would be more disappointed that Esposito, who agreed to do "Bakersfield, P.D." specifically because it wasn't a traditional sitcom. There are moments in the show which aren't meant to be funny at all. In the pilot, for instance, Esposito's character is assumed by other police officers to be a criminal simply because he is black. The scene isn't played for laughs.

"I don't think that every moment in life is funny," Esposito says, "I think it's a great gift to make people laugh, but I think it's equally great to make them really stop for a moment and look and listen and understand. So we'll have serious moments, where people may go, 'That's really hard to deal with.' They can either stay with that moment or they can release it and laugh at the next joke. That's part of what attracted me to this, and I'm just hoping we don't have to back away from it."

"Bakersfield, P.D." premiers Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.

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