New crime boss is captivating; a twist on a familiar cop is not

One step forward, another backward.

Sunday night brings dueling premieres of unequal crime series. One is NBC's stunning, distinctive "Kingpin," which immediately enters a stratosphere occupied by the best of "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order," along with HBO's finest.

Because high expectations can be a lethal burden, the last thing an infant series may need is someone stamping it great or golden before it is even up on its legs. But "Kingpin" has that level of promise. With densely written criminal protagonists played by a persuasive cast, a uniquely dark tone and excellent production design, it comes close to redefining network crime drama.

Opposite it on Sunday at 10 p.m., in contrast, is a new ABC series whose umbilical cord is attached to a familiar hero from another era.

His name is Friday, and he's a cop.

Yup, once again "Dragnet" redux. It's the widely revisited and spoofed LAPD oldie from the '50s, this time slicked up for a new millennium with caustic, short-fused Ed O'Neill in for stony android Jack Webb, as a mounting hooker body count in L.A. evokes memories of those hillside stranglings in the 1970s.

O'Neill has some flair, the writing is crisp and the exhumed "Dragnet" is not bad. But "Kingpin" -- created by David Mills -- is special.

Drug drama is no stranger to Mills, who three years ago collaborated with David Simon on "The Corner," an extraordinary Emmy-winning HBO miniseries about a dope-ravaged Baltimore neighborhood. Mills, a former newspaper reporter, wrote the first two "Kingpin" scripts and supervised the rest in this six-episode order from NBC.

Think "Traffic" meets "The Sopranos" -- a Mexican drug cartel seen mainly through the prism of a top boss of the operation. The big shot getting bigger is Miguel Cadena (Yancey Arias), an attentive husband and gentle, devoted father who tucks his young son in at night like other loving parents. A well-spoken Stanford man, he is hardly someone you'd associate with big-time drugs and heavy violence.

"We are not murderers ... we are businessmen," this sleek villain insists tonight. You feel he believes it, his self-delusion and denial making him all the more captivating, an antihero nourished by greed and butchery in a world where nearly everyone, from cops to an army general, is on the take. Why would Miguel attract viewers? Because Mills, without softening his pivotal character, has him project at least some glints of decency that viewers will recognize in themselves. He's rotten, but not entirely rotten.

"Kingpin" is savage and volcanic, its narrative fluid and on the edge, its major characters in churning conflict while competing for the same turf. It's also complex, and highly seductive largely because of the moral fog that envelops Miguel and his coke-snorting wife, Marlene (Sheryl Lee), a coldblooded attorney and soldier for the cartel. Although she's no angel, you pull for her in the second episode when she's treated badly by some of Miguel's family because she's a "gringo." Marlene wears silky nightgowns and snuggles with her son, yet her eyes are hard. And Miguel's boyish good looks and passive exterior hide a dark heart.

Seeking to compartmentalize their lives, the Cardenas are at once the couple next door (albeit a fabulously wealthy one) and corrupt. There's irony here and hypocrisy: Miguel brings a box of cash to his church, and, turning the other cheek, the Catholic bishop ignores the money's origins.

Standing in the way of the couple's ambitions tonight are the cartel's reigning lord, Tio Jorge (Pepe Serna) -- Miguel's opium-head uncle who has found sanctuary from criminal indictment at sea on his boat -- and his son, El Huevudo (Jacob Vargas), a hothead whose tirades and poor judgment are bad for business.

Checking in also are DEA agent Rosa Flores (Angela Alvarado Rosa); Miguel's ruthless brother, Chato (Bobby Cannavale); and Heywood Klein (Brian Benben), a crooked plastic surgeon beholden to the cartel. He's involved in some grisly business but in the second episode is very funny when trying to unload his cocaine stash to buy his freedom from the cartel.

Just where all this would end -- should "Kingpin" earn life beyond this initial order -- only Mills knows. Life doesn't appear promising for any of his criminal characters, but the uncertainty of their futures somehow adds to their allure.

Loose ends are tightly knotted on "Dragnet," though. Forbidden are U-turns, hairpin curves or blindsides. The story you are about to see is straightforward, starting with the discovery of a hooker's body. Then another is found, and another and another, temporarily perplexing Sgt. Joe Friday (O'Neill) and his sidekick, Frank Smith (Ethan Embry), as they prowl a red-light universe teeming with pimps and prostitution.

Although O'Neill gets his voice-over, this remake from producing behemoth Dick Wolf (creator of the "Law & Order" franchise on NBC) discards most of the LAPD-worshiping original "Dragnet."

The newcomer includes such nods to modernism as a criminal profiler and put-downs of "media maggots" who cling to the coattails of criminal investigations.

There's even a bit of humor here. And in place of Webb's signature snarly monologues -- when nothing on his face moved but his lips -- the new Joe Friday rages and gets physical, sometimes out of control.

So here's the question: Why remake "Dragnet" if it's not going to be "Dragnet," with a Friday who is Friday? Why redo it if not to camp it up and rouge it bright pink mostly for laughs? Minus the old show's tailored-for-ridicule tics, which are now part of TV lore, the 2003 version of "Dragnet" becomes just another generic cop series set in L.A.

Unexciting and unnecessary.


The shows

What: "Kingpin," "Dragnet"

When and where: "Kingpin" is on NBC, 10-11 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, through Feb. 18; "Dragnet," ABC, 10-11 p.m. Sundays.

Rating: NBC has rated "Kingpin" TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14). ABC has rated "Dragnet" TV-14DLV (may be unsuitable for children under 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence).

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