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TV Reviews: Two freshman dramas offer contrasting styles. ‘The Education of Max Bickford’ and ‘24’


by Mark D. Johnson
January 17, 2002

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Old School and New Wave_Mark D. Johnson-TV Reviews: Two freshman dramas offer contrasting styles. ‘The Education of Max Bickford’ and ‘24’ In recent years, the prime-time drama has lost some ground on network programming schedules due to an increase in news magazines, reality-based shows, and bland sit-coms. While the best shows of the genre are well written and produced, there is still an overwhelming lack of originality to give viewers much reason to care. I mean, how many lawyer, cop, or doctor shows can we watch without getting bored? Are viewers ready for something different, like Fox’s “24”? Or do they still prefer the decent but uninspired drama like “The Education of Max Bickford” on CBS? The short answer: apparently neither.

At mid-season, these two freshman shows are pulling in just lukewarm ratings numbers and illustrate the difficulty networks have in finding an audience for a new drama. Or perhaps I should say, “in finding a drama for a new audience.” The fall season got under way amidst a world in chaos, and sobered television viewers had suddenly seen enough Reality TV as they dealt with an all-too-real Fear Factor. The stage was set for a dramatic resurgence, but the new dramas have come up short, as audiences preferred the old familiar: “ER,” “The West Wing,” “Friends,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” So what is it about the seemingly promising “Bickford” and “24” that fails to attract?

The Education of Max Bickford
(Sundays at 8:00 ET, CBS)

“Bickford” has a lot going for it: namely, its star, Richard Dreyfuss. He plays Max Bickford, a history professor at a women’s college who finds his life turned upside down as he gets overlooked for a prestigious academic chair in favor of a former student and lover (Marcia Gay Harden), now a professor of Pop Culture, which Bickford dismisses as fluff. As a widower, he is left to raise his pre-teen son, refrain from interfering with his moody songwriting daughter, a freshman at the school, and contemplate the meaning of his life by writing a fictionalized journal about his alter ego, “Schuyler.” He’s out of touch with students, clings to the past of dead white guys, and his best friend got a sex change. The Educator must now be educated, hence the title. Get it?

“Bickford” is a competent show in most regards; the concept, casting, acting, characterization, and writing are all solid enough to make for enjoyable entertainment. Dreyfuss is outstanding in a potential Emmy-winning role, and we’re given a fresh look at the politics within higher education. The show may well strive for perfection, but I can’t give it an A for Effort. At best, it deserves a B-minus. The title’s aforementioned irony is symptomatic of a larger problem: the writers try too hard to be clever and poignant. The parallels between the historical events being taught and argued in the phony teacher-student classroom interaction and how they relate to one of Max’s personal problems or some current events Issue occur far too often. The temptation to show off such tidy insights in the context of history is understandable, but a more subtle approach would prove both more realistic and thought provoking. The issues are presented, debated, and resolved in three-part harmony, while the situations are contrived to drive home an unmissable point. This is in-your-face cleverness, and the resulting message has all the profundity and artistic merit of an After School Special.

When ratings steadily declined in the weeks following its premiere, CBS decided that some retooling was in order, and the show’s creators left in disagreement. Now, in January, we are starting to see the “New and Improved” Max Bickford. Among the changes: a kinder, gentler Max with improving relationships (too bad – Dreyfuss makes a great curmudgeon), fewer storylines per episode to lessen confusion among viewers, and less “Schuyler” (never explained in the first place). Lo and behold: ratings for the show have been markedly higher for the past two weeks, finishing 20th and 31st places, respectively, among all prime-time shows.

The retooling might help “Bickford” in the Nielson Charts, but not in its artistic quality. The January 13th episode, which focused on post-September 11 paranoia and war-time activism, was by far the weakest yet. Not only did it seem to jump back in time to October (after recent end-of-the-semester references), it spoon-fed us lessons from history and gave us an overdose of heightened emotions. Generally, shows that try to Raise Awareness, especially after a recent news event, rarely overcome their propagandistic qualities to become works of art.

As great as Dreyfuss is, and though the show is about Max, he is onscreen for far too much of each episode, as much as 90% of the show by my rough estimate. One of his brightest costars, Regina Taylor, who was so terrific in NBC’s cancelled drama “I’ll Fly Away,” goes completely to waste as the college president and long-time friend of Max. The role conveys all the thrill and glamour of college administration and managerial issues. One episode tried to show a slice of her home life as she struggled to connect with her writer husband, but the plot went nowhere, and her personal life has since disappeared altogether. I could see casting Al Gore for this role, but Regina Taylor deserves better.

The ingredients are there for a great show, but the writers need to apply themselves a little more to make the Dean’s List.

24
(Tuesdays at 9:00 ET, Fox)

We’ve never seen a show quite like “24” before. The title is in reference to twenty-four consecutive hours in which the entire series takes place: twenty-four hour-long episodes taking place in “real time.” That alone is so unprecedented in television history that it deserves a serious look. As it turns out, “24” is not just a novel concept; it’s nearly flawless as a sharply-written, well-acted, and well-produced thriller.

Keifer Sutherland stars as Jack Bauer, head of the “Counter Terrorism Unit” in Los Angeles. The day is that of the California Presidential Primary, and Jack’s wife and daughter have been kidnapped as part of an elaborate plot to assassinate “the first black presidential candidate of a major political party,” Senator David Palmer. Complicating matters is the mole working within the CTU organization and a scandal cover-up involving Palmer’s son.

The series got off to a fast-paced start with respectable ratings, despite a late debut due to the World Series broadcasts, last-minute re-editing of an airplane bomb explosion, and unfortunate timing for a “terrorism”-related theme (though the show has nothing to do with the terrorism in today’s news). The story began at midnight, and no time was wasted in setting up the suspense, which has spiraled with each episode. The show is perfectly cast, with Sutherland leading the way, solidly conveying Jack’s quiet, but powerful authority and conflicting emotions. The production values are of feature film caliber, giving viewers the sense of watching a polished movie each week. The split-screen technique used at several points during each episode, showing two or more scenes going on simultaneously or one scene from two camera angles, reinforces the show’s temporal foundation and creates a consistent stylish look not seen elsewhere on TV. The plot twists are shocking, and each passing hour leaves us craving for more.

Yet for all its groundbreaking and intriguing characteristics, and for all the critical raves it has received, and for all hype Fox has given the show, “24” is performing astonishingly poor in the ratings. Fox has been unusually faithful and patient in its effort to build an audience for “24,” even rebroadcasting each episode on Fridays, but the show seems to have settled firmly around 60th place, barely outdrawing WB’s “Smallville.” Why? It might have something to do with the complex storyline (though there have been other successes just as complex). Or it might be a little too dark in nature for a nation trying to recover from a major tragedy. Or, despite the encore broadcasts, people might feel lost if they miss an earlier episode. Whatever the reasons, it’s a shame that it goes unwatched by so many. The excitement it offers is unmatched by any other television series. Sadly, its failure in the ratings could doom future projects willing to take an artistic leap. If nothing else, though, “24” may have started a mini-trend: Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ forthcoming sit-com will take place in real time (though only on a per episode basis).

One complaint I have is the occasional use of unbelievably high-tech gadgets employed by the CTU. I can think of at least three of their devices that are simply implausible, given some widely known limits of current technology. I can imagine that they would have state-of-the-art everything, but not machines that are at least 20 years away from development. I was also irritated that a hospital bed murder of an intensive care unit patient went unnoticed by the nurses down the hall for the few minutes it took for the murderer to leave the premises. But these are minor offenses in the grand scheme of a superbly well-conceived show.

If you haven’t been watching and feel like you’ve missed out, you can at least catch up on the previous episodes at the official website, www.fox.com/24. And maybe someday, on some holiday perhaps, a cable channel will graciously offer a “24” 24-hour marathon, beginning at midnight, so that you can experience Jack’s day from beginning to end in real time. Surely that would be the ultimate TV viewing experience.

Update (1/31/02)

An article in the January 30th USA Today revealed that the "24" producers are contemplating changes to the show's concept to boost ratings in the event that the show is renewed for a new season. Among the options: abandon the real time format in favor of covering 24 hours within each episode, replace the cast, telling the story of 24 hours in the lives of another group of people in a dire situation, or create sort of a repertory theatre company, with the current cast members taking on new roles in a different situation. This last option, done successfully in Rowan Atkinson's British comedy "Black Adder," appeals to me the most. It rewards this excellent cast with an opportunity to show their range as actors instead of getting tired of playing the same role and risk type-casting.

I was initially under the impression that there were no plans for a second season, and that this show was going to boldly restrict itself to one remarkable season. If the show is renewed, I will be sorely disappointed if 1) they use the same cast with the same characters: this would create a huge implausibility issue, or 2) if they abandon the real time theme: this is what separates it from all the other cop shows. The producers say they want to keep the real time going, but realize that TV entertainment is a business, and if the real time theme is preventing the show from succeeding, they are open to change that aspect. It would be a dreadful compromise and should be avoided at all costs.

Comments (2)


Post a Comment

Right Reverend from Wisconsin writes:
January 18, 2002
Your reviews of Max Bickford and 24 were excellent. I have never watched Bickford through.

I would enlarge on your comments and say that CBS is the The Reader's Digest of network television, especially when it comes to serious drama. It gives the audience no credit for insight or even maturity. It doesn't just make a point: it MAKES A POINT! DO YOU GET IT?

I try very much not to miss 24 and am glad for the taping option and also for the re-broadcast. It is indeed dark, but the characters are real people despite the outlandish but riveting story line.

Mark D. Johnson writes:
January 31, 2002
An article in the January 30th USA Today revealed that the 24 producers are contemplating changes to the show's concept to boost ratings in the event that the show is renewed for a new season. Among the options: abandon the real time format in favor of covering 24 hours within each episode, replace the cast, telling the story of 24 hours in the lives of another group of people in a dire situation, or create sort of a repertory theatre company, with the current cast members taking on new roles in a different situation. This last option, done successfully in Rowan Atkinson's British comedy Black Adder, appeals to me the most. It rewards this excellent cast with an opportunity to show their range as actors instead of getting tired of playing the same role and risk type-casting.

I was initially under the impression that there were no plans for a second season, and that this show was going to boldly restrict itself to one remarkable season. If the show is renewed, I will be sorely disappointed if 1) they use the same cast with the same characters: this would create a huge implausibility issue, or 2) if they abandon the real time theme: this is what separates it from all the other cop shows. The producers say they want to keep the real time going, but realize that TV entertainment is a business, and if the real time theme is preventing the show from succeeding, they are open to change that aspect. It would be a dreadful compromise and should be avoided at all costs.

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