The Man Shows
The heroes of Smith, Jericho, and Shark—and the women who love them.
What hath Marg Helgenberger wrought? Each of the three new dramas on CBS this fall features a blonde fashioned, almost successfully, in the image of the CSI star. I am not speaking of Virginia Madsen, who plays Ray Liotta's wife on the serviceable heist drama Smith (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) and is easily the best thing about the show. Madsen has a curly mane, an attractively beaky nose, a spectral languor, and an undeniably forceful screen presence. Though she is a blonde with a new CBS show, these attributes disqualify her as a new CBS blonde.
No, on Smith, our gal is Annie (Amy Smart), one of Liotta's worker bees, a Vegas showgirl whose interests extend to credit-card fraud and art thievery. On the terror-exploitation drama Jericho (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET), she takes the form of Emily Sullivan (Ashley Scott), the hero's old high-school sweetheart. On the legal procedural Shark (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET), she is district attorney Jessica Devlin (Jeri Ryan), the former nemesis and current boss of James Woods' greaseball savant. All three have straight hair, strict posture, narrowly set eyes, a hard gaze, and a slightly pinched face peaking in a retroussé nose. Such is the new CBS blonde, a haunting presence in the life of the new CBS man—a trophy he's striving for, maybe, like a gold watch with nice teeth.
On Smith, Ray Liotta plays Bobby Stevens, a professional thief. Given his attitude and circumstances, you could almost call him a corporate thief. His job involves all the hassles of a business drone's, and even his cover—working in "Midwest sales" for a place that sells cups—is aggressively mundane. And while Bobby gets to steal Rembrandts and blow up stuff, he doesn't seem terribly excited about it. (Perhaps he's acutely aware, as so many of us are, that he's living a kind of cliché.) Liotta really puts his muscle into it only when roughing up a gambling-addicted subordinate who's planning to spend too much too conspicuously—his character perhaps learned a lesson from that movie about the Lufthansa heist—and telling off his nominal boss at the cup company. This edition of the new CBS man is reticent and explosive, with a gothic Batman quality. (His blonde, thus far, is a glamorous accessory.)
Onward to Jericho. Last winter, back when TV producers were casting pilots, Sam Schechner wrote a Wall Street Journal piece headlined "The Hunk Shortage." He explained therein that sexy male actors who actually know how to act were a commodity in short supply: "The scuffles can become so fierce that executives are making snap decisions to lock in even relatively unknown actors before losing them to another network." I'm mentioning my friend's article by way of explaining that the star of Jericho is Skeet Ulrich.
Skeet, best known for his turn in Scream, is now charged with defending the homeland. His character, Jake Green, is a prodigal son returning home to Jericho, Kan., after many mysterious years away. Jake wants to tap into the trust fund set up for him by Granpappy. Dad, the town's mayor, is not having it. But then there are mushroom clouds in many distant cities and bad juju in the neighborly streets, and Jake must rescue a school bus's worth of adorably stupid children from extreme inconvenience. So far, it's looking good for both the homeland and for Ulrich's chances with his blonde.
On Shark, James Woods plays Sebastian Stark, a star defense attorney who has a crisis of conscience and decides to switch sides, which involves rallying a team of young prosecutors and making inappropriate remarks to his new blond boss. Stark also must endure a 16-year-old daughter who talks like a 32-year-old ex-girlfriend: "I'll be screwed up for life if I don't get some closure on you and me." The show works only because Woods is a honey-baked ham playing a character who lives to be a showman. Like the rest of CBS's new-school heroes, he is animated only by a certain sense of mission and the potential promise of an ice queen waiting for him, trophylike, at the end of the line.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Stills from: Smith by Norman Jean Roy; Jericho by Cliff Lipson; Shark by Ron P. Jaffe © 2006 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved.