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TV REVIEW : A Very Different Ed O’Neill in ‘Jenny’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The Whereabouts of Jenny” (tonight at 9 on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) skewers the federal witness protection program in a father-daughter drama that marks a sharp departure for Ed O’Neill.

O’Neill completely sheds his image as the slob Al Bundy on “Married . . . With Children” for a different kind of working stiff: a loving, open-hearted San Francisco tavern keeper divorced from his wife and fighting for custody of their daughter.

It’s a difficult role for an actor because the character is a decent, ordinary bloke with no distinguishing features, hang-ups or vices. O’Neill, though, is credible and affecting in a story that otherwise lacks momentum and is seriously marred by an unsatisfactory resolution.

The script (by John Miglis) deals with the federal abuse of authority and an imposing subject: the right of the citizen versus the right of society. But the big themes and heart-wringing parent-child emotions here never fly off the screen. There’s no arc to Gene Reynolds’ direction, and the storytelling is flat and horizontal.

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The plot: O’Neill’s little girl has been sequestered in the federal witness protection program with her bedraggled mother (Eve Gordon), whose lover and new husband is granted immunity for fingering drug dealers. The child and her real father are kept apart. With help from a svelte attorney (the gleaming Debrah Farentino), he goes to court and battles a callous, self-serving U.S. attorney willing to crush people on the altar of his immunity program (Mike Farrell, who makes an unctuous villain).

The final seconds are an emotional roller coaster, and most viewers will probably not see the important end crawl that implies that the story is a true-life story and reports that “cases like this resulted in federal legislation that safeguards parent-child relationships under the federal witness protection program.”

Suddenly the witness protection program has its act together and the story we’ve seen is no longer relevant but a page of history? What happened to the dad and his daughter, anyway? We’re never told. If ever a postscript belonged at the front of a show, this is it.


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