Oscars instead of angels: In the Sunday time slot after 60 Minutes, CBS has substituted Academy Award winners Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl) and Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), who play college professors, for Roma Downey and Della Reese, who played miracle Twinkies. I always approve of dramatic series like The Education of Max Bickford, which actually mentions James Baldwin and social justice in its very first hour; presumes our mature interest in education and history; is about people who still remember, if not Adlai Stevenson, at least Gerald Ford; and promises to explore ideas as well as erogenous zones. And I am no sooner done approving of them than they disappear into “hiatus” before Thanksgiving. Nevertheless . . .
Dreyfuss is Max, an angry middle-aged widower, a recovering alcoholic, and a professor of American history at all-girls Chadwick College, whose daughter (Katee Sackhoff) only wants to write rock music, whose son, Lester (Eric Ian Goldberg), only wants to play basketball, and whose best friend used to be a guy named Steve before a sex-change operation turned him into Erica (Helen Shaver). Worst of all, a promotion he sought has gone instead to a former student, Andrea Haskell (Harden). Not only did Max once have an affair with Andrea but what he values most seems not to have rubbed off on her. She has grown up to become one of those cultural-studies pop tarts whose notion of scholarship is a monograph on “Class and Gender in the Music of Bruce Springsteen.”
“Ageism!” cries Max. Or, maybe: “Reverse sexism!” How could the university president (Regina Taylor, from I’ll Fly Away) do this to him, after 23 years? Hadn’t they been on the barricades together in the civil-rights era? And just when he needs a buddy to bond with, Steve is suddenly Erica. So Max quits. And then unquits. He will, instead, assume the thankless chairmanship of the Chadwick history department – and teach a course on Vietnam, starting with a Tim O’Brien novel. With the help of executive producers Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin (Judging Amy), Max will rewrite his own history. And already, after a single hour, he is more interesting than the stud-muffin historian in Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Fury, managed to become after 259 overwrought pages.
While we’re talking about the CBS demographic, skewing so haplessly toward adulthood, I should also mention Citizen Baines, a sort of King Lear in Seattle, starring James Cromwell as a three-term U.S. senator who surprises himself and everyone else by losing his bid for re-election and so must serve instead in his own house, where his three daughters – lawyer Embeth Davidtz, photographer Jacinda Barrett, and homemaking mother-of-two Jane Adams – need a father more than a politician. We can also eventually expect, from executive producers Lydia Woodward (China Beach) and John Wells (ER, The West Wing), some macropolitical digressions into homelessness, Native Americans, and a polluted harbor. Who knows? Maybe even Microsoft will take its lumps.
More formulaic, and more problematic, are the other new dramatic shows on CBS. The Agency (Thursdays, 10 to 11 p.m.) is the least interesting and most gung-ho of the three CIA series, with Gil Bellows, Will Patton, Paige Turco, Ronny Cox, Gloria Reuben, and a dozen others either counterfeiting or counterterrorizing, but without the slightest trace of the sense of humor that executive producer Shaun Cassidy brought to Cover Me on USA. The Guardian (Tuesdays, 9 to 10 p.m.) sentences drug-busted yupscale lawyer Simon Baker to community service, where he is so zealous about child welfare you’d think there was money in it. And Wolf Lake (Wednesdays, 10 to 11 p.m.) asks us to buy Lou Diamond Phillips as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer in an X-Files suburb of Seattle where half the town grows fur and fangs when the psycho-kinky moon is full. Any show with Graham Greene can’t be awful, can it?
Finally, on ABC, there is Kim Delaney, who has crossed the line from busting perps on NYPD Blue to springing them in Philly. Crossing the line with her is Steven Bochco, which is why Philly looks and sounds exactly like NYPD Blue, from jump-cut opening credits to fast-forward urban action to nitty-gritty chitchat (“Bitch!” “Asshole!”). Delaney plays single mother Kathleen Maguire, obliged to defend whatever repeat-offending dreg washes up on her court calendar because she didn’t stick her abusive ex-husband, D.A. Kyle Secor, for enough alimony to keep her in perks. Her partner, Joanna Cassidy, has a breast-baring nervous breakdown in the pilot episode, leading to a relationship with Tom Everett Scott, a hunk so sleazy he doesn’t care when the ambulance he chases turns out to be full of kiddie porn. Philly is all frazzle, Bochco redux; Delaney a kind of anti-Ally McBeal.
Art:21 (September 21 and 28; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) looks at Place, Spirituality, Identity, and Consumption in the twenty-first century through the eyes of Richard Serra (steel plates), Sally Mann (scarred southern landscapes), Ann Hamilton (awestruck studies), and others. Introduced by the likes of Steve Martin, John McEnroe, and S. Epatha Merkerson.
Mindstorm (September 22; 9 to 11 p.m.; Sci-Fi) is all about child psychics, Cold War experiments, Soviet hit squads, New Age cults, body-snatching, shape-shifting, and assassination – with Eric Roberts, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Clarence Williams III, and Michael Moriarty in a flabbergasting impersonation of J. Edgar Hoover.
The Killing Yard (September 23; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime) looks back at the 1971 Attica riot from the point of view of an inmate (Morris Chestnut) on trial for murders we know now were committed by the cops themselves, defended by a lefty lawyer (Alan Alda) with evidence dug up by a volunteer law student (Rose McGowan). After the acquittal, the State of New York dropped all charges against other inmates. True story, heartfelt performances, but somehow hokey after the Court TV documentary using actual footage to drive home the same points.
Evolution (September 24 to 27; 8 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) gives more time than it should to a biologist who is both a Roman Catholic and a Darwinian, but this series is otherwise all about natural selection, a process as intricate and amazing and beautiful as it is random yet rational. The first two hours mix docudrama (see Charles Darwin return from the Galápagos, triumph over the nineteenth-century ridicule) with real science (in the rain forests of Ecuador, in AIDS clinics), while an avuncular Stephen Jay Gould leads us by the intellectual hand to the high ground and the long view and primatologist Jane Goodall chats up chimps.
The Education of Max Bickford
Sundays; 8 to 9 p.m.; CBS.
Saturdays; 9 to 10 p.m.; CBS.
Tuesdays; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC.