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Loosen the reins on Goldblum

March 13, 2007|PAUL BROWNFIELD

NBC'S new detective series "Raines" is like "House" or "Shark" -- one name, hard vowel, must be good at puzzles. "Raines," like those, is about the burden of brilliance on social skills, but whereas "House" rants and "Shark" babbles, "Raines" does a lot of inscrutable staring, and mumbling to himself in cars, having imaginary conversations with murder victims.

He's a cop but also some kind of damaged schizo-savant, staring into the troubling present like a guy who can't find his car after a week at Burning Man. Have I mentioned that "Raines" stars smooth operator Jeff Goldblum? It's still supposed to be an occasion when an actor like this comes down from the big box of movies to the littler box of a TV series, and "Raines," as a star vehicle (we've got smooth operator Jeff Goldblum!), shares much in common with TNT's "The Closer" (we've got kooky Kyra Sedgwick!) or CBS' "Shark" (we've got sleazy Jimmy Woods!).

And yet, although Jeff Goldblum is in practically every scene of "Raines," the Jeff Goldblum aura feels like background. "Raines," on the one hand, is a fine TV series, smart and decent; even the conceit of Raines talking to dead people comes off without airs. The show, with arguable logic, tries to marry a neo-noir texture with Goldblum's ego-bound, always-in-his-head personality -- it's a of what's working for the networks (the aforementioned puzzle shows) and that discursive brand of sarcasm -- and lecherousness -- that Goldblum made most lovable in "The Big Chill."

But in so doing, the show also doesn't seem to be aiming for anything higher than a comfortable middle ground, bypassing a chance to watch Goldblum send up our preconceived idea of Goldblum. He's older now, of course, his hair close-cropped and parted on the side, though somehow still rakish, smooth.

"Raines," though, translates this into a muted flight of fancy; the series has an intentionally dated feel, like executive producer Graham Yost decided to resurrect the old "NBC Sunday Mystery Movie," where "Columbo," "McCloud" and "McMillan & Wife" rotated.

"You talk to yourself, detective?" asks the therapist he's ordered to see.

"Yes, uhm, I can't think of anybody more interesting to talk to," he tells her. "Ooh, my gosh, I'm a narcissist."

We're picking up on his sarcasm, and he's picking apart clues. To refresh myself on the Goldblum oeuvre, I watched David Cronenberg's 1986 updating of "The Fly," a part for which Goldblum is legend, playing a mad scientist guy who accidentally gets cross-bred with a housefly; the more horrifically grotesque he becomes the sharper the Goldblum humor gets, until he's asking his girlfriend Geena Davis: "Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don't have politics. They're very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first insect politician."

Goldblum in "The Fly" is like Goldblum in "The Big Chill" -- tall, dark and obtuse, his vulnerability catnip to the ladies. ("You're very cute, you know that?" Davis tells him in "The Fly," and he's only marginally less cute to her later, when he's lost his physique and he projectile vomits and his ear falls off).

There's no end to what Goldblum could be on TV -- a yogi with a gaggle of acolytes, say, or a narcoleptic dermatologist who unwinds playing jazz piano, a talent (the piano playing) Goldblum has advertised.

The point is if you've got Goldblum, and he's willing, have fun with him. Raines the character is a master of the sarcastic aside, and the show gives him tons of emotional baggage -- every episode, presumably, will feature Raines at the beach, chatting with the ex-partner who was shot before his eyes.

It's quirky stuff but awfully quiet. Celebrity has become a public conversation, and not surprisingly there's a kind of canon now of TV series in which once-indelible film stars play around with what viewers know and once came to expect -- a school of self-mockery whose star students are the bloated William Shatner on "Boston Legal" and the also bloated Alec Baldwin on "30 Rock."

No other actor on television is as thrilling this season as Baldwin on that NBC comedy, where he plays Jack Donaghy, a GE suit meddling in the business of producing a network sketch comedy series run by Liz Lemon (Tina Fey).

"Lemon, come here, you've gotta see this," Jack said to her last week, leaning over her laptop computer. "It's a video of a baby panda sneezing."

He then tells her she has to fire 10% of her staff. To hear Baldwin say: "We have to synergize backward overflow" is the sign of a show bearing serious gifts.

Maybe it's unfair to compare a sitcom to a show like "Raines," but there's a kinship between the knowing joy that "30 Rock" and Baldwin take with Baldwin's persona and the commensurate lack thereof with Goldblum's on "Raines."

The show does come on like it might be fun to watch, opening as a self-conscious TV noir, muted trumpet in the background, cops milling about a body by a pool, the downtown skyline in the distance.

"Maybe I read too many detective books when I was a kid," says the voice-over. "Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald -- all the great California guys of the '40s and '50s."

It's Goldblum, all right, though the tableau is imagined; the murder victim "Raines" puzzles over in the pilot is that of a woman lying in a parking lot by the 101. Bummer -- I'd have preferred to watch Goldblum in an over-the-top noir projection than a projection of what networks know might actually last.




Where: NBC

When: 10 to 11 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

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