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COVER STORY

Viewers Love What Critics Didn't

April 11, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Melina Kanakaredes knows exactly what her parents are doing every Friday evening. Her mother and father are sitting in front of the TV at their home in Akron, Ohio, watching her as Dr. Sydney Hansen on NBC's sleeper hit, "Providence."

Of course, says Kanakaredes, sometimes she forgets about the time difference and calls home during the show. "They say, 'Only you would call during the show,' " says the actress, laughing. "'Everybody knows not to call from 8 to 9 p.m.' "

Kanakaredes' parents aren't the only ones glued to their TV sets on Friday nights. Since premiering in January, "Providence" has become NBC's highest-rated new dramatic program. It currently ranks 17th among the series on the air, just behind CBS' long-running "Walker, Texas Ranger," and averages more than 14 million viewers a week.

Creator and executive producer John Masius ("St. Elsewhere") was well-aware of the bleak history of the show's assigned Friday time slot, where numerous series had come and gone quickly.

Then, too, reviews for the series were less than kind, so much so that the commercials for "Providence" stress the praises of viewers, not the critics.

So Masius was "completely blown away" by the ratings. "The thing that pleased me the most was the overall vibe I got around town that there was an audience for shows [like 'Providence']," says Masius, "that people want to watch."

The family drama, set in the Rhode Island town that gives the series its title, revolves around Sydney, a successful Los Angeles plastic surgeon who abandons her career and tony lifestyle to return to her home in Providence after her mother (Concetta Tomei) dies of a heart attack at her sister's (Paula Cale) wedding.

Finding work at a local clinic, Sydney is also looking for Mr. Right. And then there is her active dream life, which is always being interrupted by her dead mother, who offers her words of wisdom and advice.

In his first TV series since the classic "MASH," Mike Farrell plays Sydney's father Jim, a veterinarian who has better luck relating to animals than people. Though Farrell wasn't surprised the reviews weren't friendly, he was surprised at the harshness of the criticism.

"There is a cynical tone out there today," Farrell says. "So when something is unabashedly and unapologetically as sweet and as positive as our show is, I think, 'Oh man. This is just a target for anyone.' "

Masius acknowledges a lot of the series' success is owed to the charming Kanakaredes, who appeared as Jimmy Smits' love interest a few seasons back on "NYPD Blue" and starred in two short-lived series, "New York News" and "Leaving Los Angeles."

"You believe her as a doctor," says Masius. "She's smart enough and, obviously, she's beautiful. It was very important for me to cast someone that you would believe was very good at what they did professionally."

Kanakaredes, in fact, was the only actress Masius saw for the part of Sydney. "She had an overall deal with the NBC network," says Masius. "It was true kismet. The hardest piece of the puzzle was the first piece in. It was meant to be."

Though the actress didn't know of Masius' track record, she loved his pilot script. "I thought it was charming and fun and had so much going on and so much potential. I couldn't wait to meet him. I think we had a 15 or 20 minute meeting and all of a sudden, we knew we wanted to work together. It was great."

The actress particularly loves the series' clever fantasy sequences. In one recent episode, she and her boyfriend found themselves in the 1932 movie "A Farewell to Arms."

"Today [we are shooting] a really cool thing," she relates. "My dream in this episode is set in the '30s, and I am dating this guy who is the son of a Mafioso. My mother is the judge and my father and my brother and my sister are all on the witness stand against me, and I'm going to prison. I am a gun moll and my boyfriend is cooing up to my mother."

Kanakaredes says everyone on the series has their own ideas as to why "Providence" has struck such a chord with viewers.

"I think it's accessibility," Kanakaredes offers. "They can attach themselves to somebody and something about the show and can relate to it."

Masius has received mail from all age groups. "You get stuff from animal lovers and you get stuff with people who have lost a parent and are dealing with that. It has kind of touched a nerve about families and losing parents and going home."

The "Providence" set, says Farrell, is the happiest place he's ever worked. "Melina is one in a million," he says. "My now lengthy experience in the business has taught me that the tone on the set is set by the people at the top. Obviously, the producer has a lot to do with that, but the star of the show always has a major effect on the level of comfort and respect that is given the crew. Melina is positive and cheerful and grateful for what's happened. She is just remarkable."

"Providence" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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