Friday, January 14, 2000

Cast is risk, strength of 'Angels'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PASADENA, Calif. — Steven Bochco has created some of the greatest shows in the history of television. City of Angels, which premieres 8 p.m. Sunday (Channels 12, 7), is not one of them.

        Unlike Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue or L.A. Law, viewers won't sense they're watching anything special with City of Angels, set in an under-funded Los Angeles County hospital. Think of it as St. Elsewhere without the humor.

        The most extraordinary aspect of the drama is not in the rather ordinary script, but in the people who say the words. Most of the cast are African-Americans.

        Blair Underwood (High Incident, L.A. Law) stars as Ben Turner, acting chief of surgery. Michael Warren (Hill Street Blues) plays hospital CEO Ron Harris. And Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day, Soul Food) is hired in the pilot as medical director, replacing a doctor (Garrett Morris) discharged for photographing himself with a dead soul singer in the morgue.

        Despite the slow start, City of Angels is worth watching given the talent in front of and behind the cameras, particularly Emmy-winning executive producers Paris Barclay, who is African-American, and Mr. Bochco.

        At the Television Critics Association winter press tour here, Mr. Barclay admitted it has taken several episodes for the show to find its emotional center in Dr. Turner (Mr. Underwood).

        He says he hopes viewers will be colorblind judging the quality of storytelling on his show, “a hospital drama in which the cast happens to be black,” says Mr. Barclay, who has produced and directed NYPD Blue.

        “You really want to tell your most interesting stories that reveal the most about your principle characters, and then you're dealing with characters who are black secondary,” he says. He wants the show “judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our characters.”

        CBS Television President Leslie Moonves says he'll be patient with the drama, which was developed last spring before the NAACP's complaints about the lack of minorities in new fall shows.

        “Never in the history of television has there been a black one-hour drama that has worked,” he says.

        Mr. Moonves says other networks could be reluctant to develop African-American dramas if this show fails in the ratings. Mr. Barclay hopes he's wrong.

        “If City of Angels lives or dies, I hope the networks will make more pilots because somebody will get it right, and somebody will eventually do what Cosby did in comedy,” Mr. Barclay says.

        “Millions of dollars are wasted every year on shows, last year with white teen-agers running around ... in high school and none of those are still on the air,” Mr. Barclay says. “If they had done five pilots with African-American casts, you'd already have a hit black drama right now.”

        HELPING HILLARY: First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's hilarious visit to David Letterman's Late Show was orchestrated, in part, by the comic genius behind Everybody Loves Raymond.

        Phil Rosenthal, Raymond creator and executive producer, advised Mrs. Clinton's staff on the Late Show appearance, including shooting down an idea that the first lady surprise Mr. Letterman by walking onto his show. They sought his advice for two reasons — Mr. Rosenthal writes jokes for President Clinton to use at Washington media roasts, and his sitcom is produced by Mr. Letterman's Worldwide Pants Inc.

        Mr. Rosenthal gave a rave review to the first lady's Wednesday appearance.

        “She did great. She was very witty and comfortable,” he says. “When David said that about people driving by her (new) house and honking their horns, she said, "Was that you?' That was right off the top of her head!”

        Late Show writers, however, wrote Mrs. Clinton's “Top 10 List of Reasons Hillary Clinton Decided To Appear on the Late Show: Among them: “I lost a bet with Tipper” and “If Dan Quayle did it, how hard could it be?”

        COOL, MAN: So how does Frankie Muniz, 14, feel about hit ratings for the debut of his Fox Malcolm in the Middle sitcom, and glowing reviews for his My Dog Skip feature film?

        “It's really cool, because everything is really cool,” says Frankie, whose show drew the biggest audience (22.4 million viewers) for any Fox premiere since The Simpsons on this date in 1990. The second episode airs 8:30 p.m. Sunday (Channels 19, 45).

        “Since I was little, it's been my dream to be on a TV show and in a movie, and it's really cool that it's coming out at the same time. It's just awesome.”


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