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THE FALL TV SEASON

'The Handler' has good time rounding up the bad guys

Emmy winner Joe Pantoliano ('The Sopranos') stars in a refreshing drama about an FBI supervisor who trains new agents.

September 26, 2003|James Endrst | Special to the Times

What better way to promote your new series than winning an Emmy just days before its debut?

Joe Pantoliano, the star of CBS's new crime drama, "The Handler," should be feeling a little more confident about his chances going into tonight's opener, which premieres at 10. Maybe getting rubbed out on HBO's "The Sopranos" was a good thing, although "The Handler" isn't anywhere near the caliber of "The Sopranos."

Still, there's nothing like timing. And walking away with the Emmy Sunday night for supporting actor in a drama has got to bring some viewers to "The Handler" who might have otherwise passed.

Here, Pantoliano is back on the right side of the law as Joe Renato, an FBI agent who trains, supervises and otherwise plays kindly godfather to undercover agents. He bears no resemblance to the singularly sleazy, now dead and gone Ralph Cifaretto of "The Sopranos."

The city where Pantoliano's Renato works is Los Angeles. The cases he's asked to solve come from all sorts of government agencies on all sorts of levels. And the crimes and the criminals run the gamut from the grungiest drug lords and prostitutes all the way to boardroom bullies and microchip maniacs.

With a long list of movie, television and stage credits that include the feature films "Bad Boys," "U.S. Marshals" and "The Fugitive," as well as TV's "EZ Streets" and "NYPD Blue," Pantoliano certainly knows the drill. His comfort level is extremely evident in the pilot episode. To a fault, really.

Some of that has to do with the character. Renato is so consistently kind, so effortlessly considerate, so appropriately caring and concerned, he puts the viewer's mind at ease so much it tends to suck some of the drama out of the piece.

Renato isn't the kind of guy who's constantly cracking wise. Nor is he a police force burnout, one who's enraged and ready to blow any second. He's not corrupt, contemptuous, sodden or sadistic. He's kind of too good to be true.

Which is refreshing, really, even if it makes him a little dull. That's OK, because Renato gets time off every show when the cameras check in on the agents working undercover. Sometimes it's a doe-eyed rookie named Lily (Anna Belknap), sometimes it's the hard-charging Darnell (Hill Harper) or Heather (Lola Glaudini), the new kid on the block, or maybe Marcy (Tanya Wright), Joe's gal Friday and confidante.

People do get hurt and die on "The Handler," but it doesn't seem as upsetting as it does on other shows. These are relatively clean kills -- not the pristine world of "Murder, She Wrote" but not as street level real as "NYPD Blue" either.

Even taking the seriousness of the crimes into account, there are moments where Renato and his agents come off like a neighborhood watch group.

If you're looking for excitement on a Friday night, you won't find it here. But if you want to feel like you live in a world where it's 10 p.m. and most people do know where their children are, you'll probably choose to handle "The Handler."

*

'The Handler'

Where: CBS

When: 10-11 p.m. Fridays; premieres tonight

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-PGLV (may not be suitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and violence).

Joe Pantoliano...Joe Renato

Hill Harper...Darnell

Anna Belknap...Lily

Tanya Wright...Marcy

Lola Glaudini...Heather

Creator, writer, executive producer, Chris Haddock. Director, Mick Jackson.

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