What's that old saw about bad things in show business happening in threes?
Affirmation comes with tonight's arrival of a trio of fall drama series. CBS reruns the two-hour pilot for "Due South," its grittily surreal series about a red-coated Canadian Mountie battling criminals in Chicago. ABC exhales a breath of stale air titled "McKenna," an outdoorsy adventure set in Oregon. And lastly, NBC introduces "Sweet Justice," starring Melissa Gilbert as an urban attorney turned Little Lawyer on the Prairie (figuratively speaking).
Each of these newcomers is watchable, but not for very long.
In case you missed the two-hour "Due South" first time around, it goes like this. When a veteran Mountie is gunned down in Canada's snowy wilderness, his Mountie son, Constable Benton Fraser (Paul Gross), trails the hitmen to Chicago with his wolf, where he is assigned to the Canadian consulate and is befriended by Windy City cop Ray Vecchio (David Marciano).
While Vecchio is street-smart and coarse, the upstanding Fraser follows a rigid code of honor. What, these guys work together? Why, that would be impossible! Except on TV, where these clashing partners somehow collaborate on the case, much to the dismay of Vecchio's boss.
"Due South" is rooted in "McCloud," Dennis Weaver's old NBC series about a deputy marshal from New Mexico on extended assignment in New York.
Fraser himself, though, is a cross between Sgt. Preston and Forrest Gump--so much of a do-gooder wooden automaton that you keep searching his body for a control panel as he mutely stands sentry outside the consulate, allowing himself not even a facial tic. Stone-faced, square-shooting and single-minded, this guy is the kind of moose who'd walk through a brick wall to get his man.
Only once is this trait successfully played for laughs, when Vecchio's mother wonders why Fraser is "so nice" when he comes to the house for dinner. "He's Canadian, Ma," Vecchio says. "I thought he was sick or something," she replies.
Mostly, "Due South" appears uncertain whether to go light or serious, ending in a sort of limbo by awkwardly juxtaposing contradictory tones. Late in the movie, Fraser is confronted by a moral crossroads, but even this appealing plot line is undermined by an ending--featuring a battle with snow troops--that is so predictable that you know beforehand exactly who will get the drop on whom, only to get shot by you know who.
Next week's episode is, if anything, worse, with Fraser now living blithely in a Chicago slum, still mismatched with Vecchio and still dumb as a lox. Yet he's smarter than the Chicago cops, who somehow need him to get to the bottom of an armed robbery case that implicates a young boy Fraser believes is innocent.
The word for "Due South" is the same one dogsledders use up north: Mush!
The best thing about "McKenna" is the gorgeous topography in New Zealand, where it was filmed. The setting is supposed to be Bend, Ore., where a wilderness-expedition business owned by middle-aged Jack McKenna (Chad Everett) has fallen on hard times since the accidental death of his favorite son, Guy.
That is about to change, however, with the return of Jack's estranged younger son, Brick (Eric Close), with his runaway little sister, Cassidy (Vinessa Shaw in the premiere, Jennifer Love Hewitt after that). Although father and son open old wounds, arguing bitterly, it's Brick who supplies the pat ending for "McKenna," arriving just in time when an accident in the wild threatens to end Jack's life.
These are not merely Manly Men, though. In the big scene of the premiere, Jack recites William Blake while suspended on a wire high above a canyon.
Almost as over-the-top are a group of female hikers identified as feminists. Aha! That accounts for their asexuality, lack of a sense of humor and dislike of children.
Stereotypes aside, the cast of "McKenna" is too fresh-scrubbed and pretty. Brick, Cassidy and Guy's widow, Leigh (Shawn Huff), have that Melrose Place Northwest look. And wilderness-chic Jack looks as if he ordered the entire L.L. Bean catalogue. If only he'd ordered a script.
As believable drama, "Sweet Justice" is the wilderness, its first two episodes confirming what we've always suspected: that a lawyer having little information about her case, little time to prepare and little court presence will always win.
If her name is Kate Delacroy and she's played by Melissa Gilbert.
Tonight's premiere and Saturday's second episode (in the show's regular time slot) are both ineptly conceived and executed, with Gilbert--and even her more skilled co-star, Cicely Tyson--lacking what it takes to overcome moribund material.
At no time is Gilbert persuasive as a gifted Wall Street attorney who decides to return to her Southern hometown and team with her late mother's friend, renowned civil rights leader Carrie Grace Battle (Tyson). Tyson is only marginally more successful as a sort of casual, New Age attorney who pads around in sweats and spends much of her office time potting plants.
It turns out that Kate's father (Ronny Cox) not only symbolizes the Old South and all its prejudices, but also heads a posh law firm whose snotty, old-monied client is pitted against Kate's waitress client in a child custody case tonight.
Kate argues this case, and Saturday's--involving a wealthy 80-year-old woman whose daughters claim she's mentally unfit to manage her affairs--with scant information or time to prepare.
If you can do it off the top of your head, however, why worry? The loopy courtroom sequences in both episodes lead to the inevitable results. And tonight, despite projecting no strength in the courtroom, she even gets someone to make a damaging admission on the stand, Perry Mason-style.
Despite devoting so much time to the courtroom, neither episode conveys conflict or dramatic tension. Nor is there much here that's atmospheric. "Sweet Justice" is about as Southern as Col. Sanders.
As Kate's gardening mentor, Tyson has little to do but nod knowingly at the right times, spit out aphorisms that make Kate nod knowingly and urge her protege to do "the kind of work you were meant to do."
* "Due South" airs at 8 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8). "McKenna" premieres at 9 tonight on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42). "Sweet Justice" premieres at 10 tonight and then will be seen Saturdays at 9 p.m. on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39). Also premiering on NBC at 8:30 tonight is "The Martin Short Show," but it was not available for review.