GIVING 'DUE SOUTH' ITS DUE

NEWSDAY

Ever turn on the tube for background noise while you're doing something else, then cast a glance at the screen and suddenly get sucked into something amazing?

Like maybe one of the best shows you've seen on television ever?

Something so innovative and moving and profound and mesmerizing that you can't believe it's actually airing on network TV?

And, this season being what it's been, it's also something that is--you guessed it--already canceled.

What took my breath away was the "Due South" episode that aired on June 9, something that was supposed to be just video wallpaper as I packed my bag that Friday night for a week's vacation away from the tube. But before I even realized what was happening, I was glued to the screen, and then scribbling notes on any paper handy, and then even itching to get back from vacation to tell you about it. I mean, this hour was so fine, I applauded out loud at the end of it.

Thank goodness it's not too late for you to get there, too. Fridays nights through the summer, CBS is running off some leftover "Due South" originals (like that June 9 winner), and also offering up some choice repeats. (But you'll have to wait until July 28 for the next one: This Friday the network is running another "The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show" revue and the following week a "Circus of the Stars" special. Such is summer.)

"Due South" is a show for people who think TV's too loud, too obvious and, yes, too dumb. Rarely does TV get character so subtly right as in this Paul Haggis creation--a rambling, rumbling Canadian co-production about a cantankerous Chicago cop, the misplaced upright Mountie who becomes his de facto partner, and the Mountie's deaf, lip-reading wolf.

Call it haiku TV. Little emotional glances and peculiar remarks blend with spare Canadian guitar folk-pop. (TV's coolest soundtrack features the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Loreena McKennit and Crash Test Dummies.) It all creates an enveloping mood that takes you to the very souls of people, places and happenings--with a heapin' helpin' of quirky humor to keep it deliciously off-kilter.

The buzz is building. Go online and see how many fans have only recently discovered "Due South" and gone bonkers for it. (Airing Thursday nights earlier in the year, it was after the same smart viewer as "My So-Called Life" and "Mad About You.") Viewers for Quality Television is on board, too. This show is sly, sexy, exciting and perceptive--all those things we say TV so seldom seems to be.

Maybe it's too good, eh? Though Canada's CTV has rightly given "Due South" a second-season pickup, CBS hasn't signed on. Embarrassed because we can't match it in the States, guys? Let's hope the new Leslie Moonves regime or some other channel sees the window of opportunity here and dives in, head first, the way Fraser would--ever eager to do the right thing and save an honorable law-abider from the wolves.

"Due South" isn't the only lame duck you can still savor before the fall season hits us in the face. While lots of freshman gems will continue to shine --high-raters like "ER" and even a few Nielsen also-rans like "Party of Five"--far too many delights are disappearing come fall. Take the opportunity to catch some of the top freshmen who failed the networks' tests, even as they passed those of discerning viewers.

Last summer, we got one final shot at taping gone-too-soon series like "Bakersfield P.D." and "Against the Grain." This year, along with MTV's "My So-Called Life" repeats and straggling installments of "Madman of the People" (Saturday nights on NBC) we get second runs of a couple of other worthy weak-raters.

The most notable is "Under Suspicion," another CBS gem of compelling character and moody moviemaking lost in the network's shuffle to survive its nose-dive. Like "Due South," this cop chronicle of lone woman police detective "Phil" Phillips (unbeatable Karen Sillas) was a sharp, sophisticated study in a time slot where its obvious audience was already occupied. (Originally airing Friday nights, "Under Suspicion" found its potential fans plugged into "The X-Files.")

It's hard to believe this starkly personal drama couldn't have developed a loyal audience of demographic desirables, given half a chance. Let's prove 'em wrong by watching the repeats, Wednesday nights at 10.

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