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'LAX' has enough appeal to stay aloft

The rivalry between Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood drives NBC's new multithread action-drama.

September 13, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff writer

Airports were sexy places once, back when there were still enough trains and buses running to make air travel seem a luxury rather than the only practical way to get anywhere.

Now that the airlines, the terrorists and various cadres of security agents have taken whatever fun there was in air travel clean out -- notwithstanding the odd Wolfgang Puck eatery or Ethernet hub -- it is hard to understand the reasoning behind "LAX," a new multithread action-drama premiering tonight on NBC.

For most of us, LAX, or Los Angeles International Airport, is a place to stay out of -- that's why God made Burbank -- or get through as quickly as possible. Waiting in line, recycled air, civil servants who could not care less about your particular needs -- they might as well have made "DMV."

And yet "LAX," created by Nick Thiel -- who wrote for "The Fall Guy" and "Magnum, P.I.," and who is old enough to have seen "Airport" in general theatrical release -- is surprisingly OK. It makes the not unreasonable assumption that the presence of Heather Locklear is reason enough to suspend your disbelief, to accept for an hour each week that an airport is an exciting place, at least for some of the people who work in one. And, photographed like a supermodel, LAX itself manages to look quite glamorous.

Glossy technique aside, the series' fundamental cheesiness indemnifies it against its failure to be anything better. Having nothing much on its mind makes ample room for the hackneyed and preposterous: We may begin with Locklear as the airport's co-director on that last account. (That her character is called Harley Random -- Random, Harley Random -- tells you on what level of reality the show operates.)

There is a kind of genius in these lowered horizons, even if it is an accidental genius and, in some ways, an evil genius.

Locklear and Blair Underwood play semi-affectionate rivals -- she's in charge of the tarmac, he runs the terminals -- forever butting heads and trying to steal each other's glory. Tonight's opener finds them competing for the job of their late boss (the lovely Michael Murphy), whose spectacular suicide-by-747 causes barely a ripple in the workings of the airport or the thoughts of the people who work there.

They are one side of a coin, Locklear and Underwood: workaholic big egos in sexy packages. He's perhaps a little sneakier than she is, and a little less sincere, just enough to make her shine a bit by comparison. He gambles, and cheats on his wife (once with Locklear, we learn; her excuse is that she was drunk). She walks like a rock star, in tight pants, and drives fast. They are the people many people would like to be, and they are all over the screen for you to admire.

Locklear, if no Meryl Streep, is a genuine pop icon to people of nearly a certain age and she has the trick of seeming unexpectedly fresh every time she reincarnates upon the screen. It takes an effort of will to remember her arriving in that clamshell called "T.J. Hooker" more than two decades back. By whatever combination of genetics, voodoo and Hollywood magic, she remains viable hot stuff, and Underwood, a couple of years her junior, looks even better.

If their banter doesn't quite crackle as it's intended to, it is nevertheless superior to the lazy cavalcade of cliche that regularly passes for dialogue on screens large and small. Characters speak in ways that reflect who they are, and if they are mostly versions of characters you have seen before, they are not exact copies. And the excellent supporting cast members -- including Wendy Hoopes, David Paetkau and Frank John Hughes, as officers of customs, immigration and the LAPD, respectively -- make flavorful meals from their scraps of screen time.

The pilot episode presents what seems a particularly bad day at work (though I suppose most days on this series will be bad), cramming in incidents as if there weren't going to be a second episode. A mysterious suitcase left in the VIP lounge by a mysterious man in an "Army green jacket" brings out the bomb squad; a flight team of drunken Serbs (allowable bad guys, what with Milosevic and all) must be prevented from taking off; the governor is about to land; a rookie immigration officer falls for an unclaimed arrival from the Philippines; and a pair of comical luggage handlers chase an escaped dog.

In spite of all this and the speed at which it unrolls -- the camera does slow down to consider Locklear's trim behind -- it is not particularly exciting. But somehow it doesn't particularly matter. It's enough somehow to let it wash over you, and wash back. It feels like a waste of time, but not a vile waste of time. It is not mean, which is a kind of accomplishment nowadays, and if that is the best you can say of it, it's also the worst.

In conclusion, I would just like to say it's time to bring back the trains. "Union Station," anyone?



Where: NBC

When: Premieres at 10 tonight

Rating: The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Heather Locklear...Harley Random

Blair Underwood...Roger De Souza

Paul Leyden... Tony

Wendy Hoopes... Custom Agent Betty

David Paetkau...Immigration Officer


Frank John Hughes...LAPD Officer Henry Engles

Executive producers, Mark Gordon and Nick Thiel. Creator, Thiel. Writer, Thiel. Co-executive producers and directors, Joe and Anthony Russo.

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