NBC going from 'must-see' to 'maybe'

Sadly, NBC's "must-see TV" may be well on its way to "maybe-if-I'm-doing-nothing-else" programming.

On Thursday, which it used to own, NBC rolls out two big hopes for the new season: "Joey," the much-anticipated "Friends" spinoff, and "Medical Investigation," an undisguised effort to steal a lightning bolt or two from CBS' "CSI" ratings thunderstorm.

But "Joey" (7 p.m., WMAQ-Ch. 5), built around Matt LeBlanc's character on "Friends," plays precisely as one-sixth of a sitcom, a grim reminder of all those stillborn "Seinfeld" spinoffs.

While better, and possibly boasting more audience appeal, "Medical Investigation" (a 9 p.m. Friday series airing in a special 9 p.m. Thursday preview this week) could well test viewer tolerance for procedural programs, not to mention sudsy personal melodrama. At least, the series' focus on disease, not criminals, gives it some hope.

But hopeless may well prove the only word for "Joey." Judging from Thursday's pilot, its creators don't have a clue how to build on "Friends'. " goodwill. After a series turning on a large comic ensemble, "Joey" is startlingly undercooked.

LeBlanc and his amiable, dimwitted character begin with a disadvantage: Can Joey's lovably low IQ carry an entire show? You'd think the creative team would surround him with a new menagerie and make an attempt, at least, to set up comic potential beyond his "dumb guy" routine. On "Friends," there were five other, equally funny portraits in play.

But the pilot provides only four new characters, three of them lame. There's a curious, empty feel, both physically on the set and in terms of comic content. You find yourself asking, Where'd everybody (not to mention all the fun) go?

Joey is now in L.A. to pursue his acting career. He lands a cable TV cop show and explains, "It's on cable, a combination of nudity and swearing I find intriguing."

LeBlanc does his best in delivering that witless line, but there's just no laugh.

Joey is a victim of bullying by his sister, Gina (Drea de Matteo), who, in one of the more amusing bits, likes to grab his manly ear and torture him until he admits, "I'm gay for David Cassidy."

De Matteo, as it happens, is the one bright spot here, demonstrating that her uncommonly rich portrait as Adriana on "The Sopranos" was no fluke. Though still doing her New Yawk, lowbrow shtick, she's an actress with a shrewd sense of character, timing and authority. Even her so-so lines come to life, and if anyone can save "Joey," she will.

But Paulo Costanzo's role as her son is one of those blank, cipherlke sitcom parts, an unabashed straight man in a program too short of punchlines. Even Jennifer Coolidge, the alluring comic actress so good as a Mrs. Robinson-like doyenne in "American Pie," is wasted as Joey's sharklike agent, and Andrea Anders, as the (perhaps requisite) sexy neighbor, is altogether negligible.

"Medical Investigation" does offer this one twist on the rush of procedural dramas: Its villains will be microbes, not people. Coming in an age when AIDS, ebola and SARS have shaken our faith in medical omnipotence, the series focuses on a SWAT team of National Institutes of Health physicians who swoop down each week to tackle some sudden, possibly dangerous plague.

Thursday's preview is about a handful of New Yorkers who mysteriously turn blue and then die 12 hours later. The team is led by Stephen O'Connor (Neal McDonough of "Boomtown") and Natalie Durant (Kelli Williams of "The Practice). He's trying to balance his inflexible, Type-A tyranny with the need to be a sensitive father during a divorce; she's just trying to survive both medical crises and his monomania.

The series seesaws back and forth between personal drama and a manic rush to solve the medical mystery. (This week's answer, though a tad farfetched, is said to be based on actual events.)

The human travails are more cliche than the epidemiological ones. A subplot involves an Earnest Young Physician (Christopher Gorham as Miles McCabe) trying to prove his mettle as an uncertain, untested newcomer. But, you guessed it, he proves the triumphant novice.

The pilot casts ordinary physicians as troublesome, trying to stand in the way of these experts, which is something of an insult to hardworking doctors everywhere. While the disease detection is fast-paced and compelling, the human drama is not helped by the script.

"Don't tell me I'm running out of time," O'Connor barks, even when he clearly is. And, to persuade a hospital honcho to step aside and let the experts take over, he proves he could use a Valium himself by asking pretentiously, "Do you want to make the decision that could affect the lives of 8 million New Yorkers?"

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