Dead Dogs Roll Over

Burt Reynolds and Bobby Simone Pass in the Night

Or did. Bochco had good reason to prolong Simone's passing, because Smits's departure, like George Clooney's slow fade on ER this season, is the sort of transition that can alert viewers to a show's aging—if not their own growing boredom. Over the years, the Band-Aids required by cast changes often end up obscuring series concepts; especially since they're so well publicized, you're aware that these remedies are just desperate resorts to keep the cash cow mooing, come what may. But the effects are most damaging on shows that pretend to raw naturalism. If you're curious, Rick-not-Ricky Schroder, who started learning to tie Smits's shoes last week, is perfectly adequate. But no one's about to judge his work on its merits—and you'd look jumpy too if you knew you'd get the blame for a multiple Emmy-winner going down the tubes.

In any case, this whole once-buzzworthy genre has slid into warhorse status—with ER and Chicago Hope in their fifth seasons, NYPD Blue and Homicide in their sixth, and Law and Order, paradoxically the least enervated of the bunch, in its ninth. The hour dramas that connect with viewers now are teen-oriented romances and fantasies, a salutory development if you ask me; despite their less lofty cachet, they're often more imaginative. Even Bochco, whose Hill Street Blues got this ball rolling back in 1981, came a cropper with the much anticipated (though not here) Brooklyn South. Only David E. Kelley has managed to keep teaching dead dogs new tricks, although The Practice is drab and Skeletor in a Skirt, a/k/a Ally McBeal, more obnoxious than ever.

Macho director Burt Reynolds tries to convince macho actor Burt Reynolds to get inside his rug.
Eric Heinila
Macho director Burt Reynolds tries to convince macho actor Burt Reynolds to get inside his rug.

Everybody's unacknowledged weariness with the form may explain the groaning reception given a series I actually kind of like—L.A. Doctors, last seen hanging onto the CBS schedule like Wile E. Coyote in that frozen moment before he plummets Grand Canyon– wards. It's true that, unlike a Bochco series, you can hardly accuse this one of overdramatizing, but after years of hammers and tongs I think that's a plus. I like the clunky way it tries to make race a topic (white guilt, how quaint), and it's also one of the few L.A.-set series that makes me remember what it was like to live there—the affluence, the lovely vague earnestness, the unease. I'm pleased too that Ken Olin has finally decided it's OK to act Jewish, the way George Segal did. Don't like the confused way the scripts greet any reminder that Sheryl Lee is in the cast. But she is, and that's swell too. Anyhow, she's better off than poor old Bruce Dern, who you'll be glad to know is set to appear in the second Lambchop McQueen movie as an imprisoned murderer who helps Burt track a terrorist. Actual title: Hard Time: The Premonition. Alternate title: Silence of the Lambchops.

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