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Television / NEW SEASON : Reviews

'Fugitive' Runs Over Familiar Territory

Three CBS series, including 'C.S.I.' and 'The District,' don't add much to the golden age of TV drama.

October 06, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Picture this:

On the ground is a woman injured in a fall, and urgently rushing to her side is a man who swiftly takes charge with assurance and precision. "I need a knife," he barks. "Somebody give me a knife."

Is her savior a physician? No, but he did spend the night at a Holiday Inn Express.

Just joshing.

Actually, the guy acting like a doctor tonight . . . secretly is a doctor. He's Richard Kimble. Yes that Richard Kimble, the minimalist hero-on-the-lam David Janssen made famous in "The Fugitive," an ABC series from the 1960s that was successfully transferred to the big screen with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in 1993.

Now comes "The Fugitive" on CBS, a new series giving Tim Daly his shot as virtuous escapee Kimble, wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife, and Mykelti Williamson as Lt. Gerard, the driven cop who hunts him coast to coast. In this version, it's not a train wreck but a van crash that liberates Kimble en route to death row.

HBO's "The Sopranos" and NBC's "The West Wing" have extended a tradition that saw the last decade generating a golden age of television drama. NBC's "Law & Order" and ABC's "NYPD Blue" have been part of that, as was NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," with a spate of other series having performed generally at a high level.

Yet now that "The Fugitive" and two other CBS action dramas are new kids on the block, there goes the neighborhood.

Moderate achievement describes "The Fugitive" and also "C.S.I.," a crime drama about high-tech forensics that follows Kimble on CBS. Though not especially noteworthy, each is definitely watchable. But some stinker is Saturday's premiere of "The District," with Craig T. Nelson as a new Washington, D.C., police chief who roars into town like a howitzer and is so fearless that he might as well wear a cape and drive a Batmobile.

As for "The Fugitive," him again?

Afraid so. No wonder "The Fugitive" seems tired, for it and its numerous progeny have been synonymous with prime time for nearly four decades. There are four, perhaps five basic formats that keep recurring in TV drama, one of which stems from "The Fugitive," prototype for scores of "chase" series about innocent characters either on the run or doing the pursuing themselves. These variations on a theme range from present newcomer "Dark Angel" on Fox to "The Immortal," a campy old ABC series about a man stalked by a ruthless billionaire seeking to steal the eternal antibodies in his blood.

Hardly fresh himself, moreover, this latest Gerard is just one more obsessed cop on a mission in a long line dating back to Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables."

As a movie, "The Fugitive" drew energy not only from Ford and especially Jones, but also from a story that was self-contained and didn't have to be parceled out foreknown, week after week.

Although the new CBS series has good action, repetition and predictability will be its signature. Seeking justice and even redemption, Kimble each week will continue to barely elude the relentless Gerard while remaining one step behind the One-Armed Man who murdered his wife. Traveling to a different locale and changing his identity weekly, he'll leave behind a trail of good deeds, touching lives while facing one moral crossroads after another.

Does he look out for No. 1 and flee when Gerard's in the neighborhood or expose himself to possible capture by remaining to help a person in need? You have to ask?

Tonight Kimble gets a job as a hard hat on a Miami construction site, where he comes into conflict with a dangerously corrupt foreman and befriends that injured female building inspector. You just have to believe she'll become his ally when it's time to face the omnipresent Gerard, who really needs to get a life.

None of this is bad, just rather humdrum and familiar. Just as Daly appears unable to break free from Janssen's underplayed Kimble, so is "The Fugitive" very much a series of another time.

Memories of Jack Klugman on NBC's old "Quincy, M.E." and British TV's better and more recent "Silent Witness" spring up during "C.S.I.," a sort of forensics "ER" set in Las Vegas, where this crack team of Crime Scene Investigators works an assembly line of cases aided by world-class technology.

William Petersen plays Gil Grissom, the senior forensics officer here, and the capable cast also includes Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan, George Eads, Jorja Fox and Paul Guilfoyle, the latter as a tyrannical police captain worthy of immediate snuffing.

The premiere has a nice look, and its "Rashomon"-style flashbacks are very well shot. It also features a socko ending and one ingenious bit of plotting involving thieving hookers.

Yet the storytelling is often muddy, and sorting out characters and determining who does what is more of a challenge than the episode is worth.

"The District," meanwhile, is just about worthless, and as a bonus, also highly irritating.

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