Friends, Again

Even after previewing the first six hours of a projected twenty, I’m not sure if Leap Years will ever amount to more than a gimmick, but the gimmick is almost interesting enough to make up for the fact that the characters aren’t. Each hour features three different takes on five friends who spend fifteen years jumping in and out of one another’s heads and beds.

We first meet Athena Barnes (Michelle Hurd), Beth Greenway (Nina Garbiras), Gregory Paget (Garret Dillahunt), Josh Adler (David Julian Hirsh), and Joe Rivera (Bruno Campos) at a party in the East Village in 1993, where they are robbed by gunmen and required to strip to the embarrassing altogether. Athena, brown-skinned and from Brooklyn, aspires to a career on Broadway. Beth, white-bread from Greenwich, teaches eighth-graders in the Bronx and met Athena at a yoga class. Gregory, who talks a lot about film school; Josh, who hates his real-estate-developer father; and Joe, the token Hispanic at a fancy law firm, room together in a loft.

These 26-year-olds have no sooner begun sorting out their sibling rivalries, personal ambitions, glandular urgencies, and class resentments than, after all of eighteen minutes, it’s 2001. Instead of sleeping with Josh, Beth has married Joe. Instead of sleeping with Beth, Josh hires hookers. Instead of sleeping with Gregory, diva Athena picks up fans. Instead of sleeping with Athena, Gregory is gay, and instead of making movies, he reviews them for the Village Voice. So involved is Joe with a mob-connected murder case that he doesn’t seem to sleep at all, neglecting his wife, his son, his brother, and even his father, a janitor.

But 2001 has used up its eighteen minutes, and we move on to 2008. Now Josh
is married to Beth, and owns a restaurant. Beth no longer teaches; she is writing best-sellers and going blind. Athena can’t hold a job because she’s addicted to slag, sort of like ecstasy, only you smoke it in a crack pipe. Gregory has stopped reviewing movies to become a therapist. And Joe is running for election to the City Council. All this in the first hour – after which we cycle back to 1993, when none of them knows anything yet about their futures in food, drugs, therapy, politics, and best-sellerdom. Each episode advances the plotlines of three different periods, without ever quite connecting the ellipses. The serial suspense is a little like trying to figure out what happened to campaign-finance reform. Or Chandra Levy.

We have reason to be both encouraged and skeptical. Executive producers Charles Rosin and Tony Jonas are veterans of series television
at its best and worst. Rosin worked on
St. Elsewhere and Northern Exposure, but also on Beverly Hills, 90210 and Wind on Water. The Jonas résumé includes I’ll Fly Away, Homefront, and Lois & Clark, but also Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, Veronica’s Closet, and Whose Line Is It Anyway? The cast has a similarly erratic range of credentials.

So far, in spite of the incidental chitchat about Jean-Paul Sartre, Eugene O’Neill, Woody Allen, Meg Ryan, Twin Peaks, and JFK’s rocking chair, nobody except Joe seems to be more than a list of ingredients on a package of ready-mix. And thus far – perhaps fortunately for narrative momentum – the future looks like something we ought to be more worried about than the past or present. In 2008 not only are there virtual-reality samurai games with headsets and bodygloves, but also police surveillance cameras on every corner of the gridlocked city, with zoom lenses to zero in on license plates and ulterior motives.

If you really feel a need to travel in time, settle instead for reruns of China Beach on the History Channel, weekdays at 1 p.m. and again at 7. Over its three seasons, this remarkable series covered most of the Vietnam War, including not only Tet but also the Republican convention in Miami that nominated Richard Nixon. You can watch Dana Delany, Marg Helgenberger, and Michael Boatman grow up in difficult times before your very eyes, and then tune in this fall to Pasadena, C.S.I., and Spin City.TV Notes

Trapped (july 24; 9 to 11 p.m.; USA) turns the tired premise of a burning skyscraper – in this case a hotel and casino in Las Vegas – into a surprisingly nerve-racking whodunit (the arsonist may be among those trapped on the thirtieth floor) and who’s-bacon-won’t-be-fried (the usual triage), most of it seen through a handheld camera, a technique made more plausible than usual because a TV journalist just happens to be among the
besieged. With Parker Stevenson, William McNamara, and (a favorite of mine for unseemly reasons I won’t go into) Meat Loaf.

Legacy (July 25; 7 to 8:30 p.m.; Cinemax), Tod Lending’s Oscar-nominated documentary, covers five years in the life of the Collins family in Chicago as it upwardly mobilizes itself from the murder of the best and brightest child, through job training, rehab programs, scholarships, low-interest loans, part-time teaching, and just plain grit, out of welfare and the Henry Horner Homes project and into a semblance of the decent life, mostly as seen through the eyes of Nickcole Collins, the first member of the family to attend college, who herself goes on to teach preschool.

To Heal a Heart (July 26; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), with Walter Cronkite sounding the grave alarm, looks at the high cost and invasive procedures associated with bypass surgery for coronary heart disease and suggests alternatives – radical low-fat and low-cholesterol diets, exercise, yoga, and other “lifestyle” changes – that actually seem to work better but require a whole new way of doctoring. Among other surprising contentions: Long-term studies of bypass patients suggest their survival rates are not much better than those who decline surgery.

Hopalong Cassidy: Public Hero No. 1 (July 29; 8 to 9 p.m.; Starz!) follows the life of William Boyd, the actor who recovered from alcoholism to star in 66 black-and-white Westerns and make daytime television possible from 1948 though the early fifties. Narrated by Dennis Weaver, the documentary concludes a 48-hour marathon of Hopalongs and includes interviews with Boyd’s widow, Grace, and film historian Leonard Maltin. The love story alone is worth your time.

Leap Years
Sunday, July 29; 10 p.m. to midnight; Sundays thereafter, 10:45 to 11:45 p.m.; Showtime.

Friends, Again