Three character-driven dramas premiere over the next two nights, including CBS's "Smith" (10 tonight).Patrick Ecclesine/Warner Bros.
Ray Liotta plays Bobby Stevens, a criminal mastermind, in 'Smith.'
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When: 10 tonight, CBS.
Starring: Ray Liotta.
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow, CBS.
Starring: Skeet Ulrich.
When: 10 p.m. tomorrow, NBC.
Starring: Jeremy Sisto.
In the TV business, the first episode of "Smith" is what's called a "premise pilot," meaning it establishes the situations and characters, but isn't necessarily representative of future episodes. That makes the series more difficult than usual to judge from a critical perspective, because it's unclear what kind of stories the show will tell in future weeks.
This much I can say about the pilot: Though it airs with limited commercial interruptions, it feels pretty long. This story of professional thieves is beautifully shot, but the structure of the pilot -- it begins with the start of the robbery, flashes back to the planning of the robbery, returns to the robbery and shows its aftermath -- is a little repetitive, which takes away from attempts to build tension and surprise.
Filmed partially in Pittsburgh earlier this year -- PNC Park gets a brightly-lit nighttime cameo in a scene starring a speeding boat on the Allegheny River and police cars on the 10th Street Bypass -- "Smith" follows Bobby Stevens (Ray Liotta), a professional thief who wants to go straight but needs just a few more big scores before retiring his criminal ways for a more stable Southern California suburban life with his wife, Hope (Virginia Madsen), and children. But first he has to pull off a heist at the fictional Tanner Museum in Pittsburgh (the real Shadyside and Beechwood Boulevard get name checked in some of the locally shot dialogue).
His team includes transportation supplier Joe (Franky G); murderous gun expert Jeff (Simon Baker, "The Guardian"); Shawn (Mike Doyle), who needs to share in proceeds of the heist to pay off his gambling debts; parolee Tom (Johnny Lee Miller) and Vegas show girl Annie (Amy Smart), who supplies the team with fake IDs.
Written by executive producer and Carnegie Mellon University alum John Wells and directed by "ER" veteran Christopher Chulack, the "Smith" pilot crams in a lot of character information (Hope is a recovering drug addict, Tom once had a fling with Annie), including an explanation of the title (according to the show, "Smith" is the name the FBI assigns to an unknown felon, in this case, Bobby).
Future episodes won't feature a heist every week, concentrating more on the morally ambiguous characters (they're pretty reprehensible, at least in the persona of Jeff) and planning for another robbery that will be staged a few episodes into the show. How well those episodes turn out will determine the true quality and appeal of "Smith."
An intriguing idea for a series is squandered in this CBS drama, premiering tomorrow night at 8. It had a weak pilot to begin with, but the second episode is even more of a tedious bore.
Skeet Ulrich stars as Jake Green, who returns to his hometown of Jericho, Kansas, after being away for five years. What he was doing during that time remains a mystery as he tells different people different stories.
Jake and his dad, Jericho mayor Johnston Green (Gerald McRaney), are on the outs, but they'll soon have to put their differences aside after a mushroom cloud is seen to the West, rising over a mountain range that does not exist between Western Kansas and Denver, Colo.
The "Jericho" pilot is chock full of character introductions, including Jake's old flame, Emily (Ashley Scott); a mysterious town newcomer, Rod Hawkins (Lennie James); a school teacher (Sprague Grayden) on a field trip whose school bus runs off the road; a grocery store proprietor (Beth Grant) and her youngest employee, Dale (Erik Knudsen), the first resident to realize the explosion probably wasn't an accident.
Add to the ensuing chaos a prison bus crash that releases who-knows-how-many convicts and you've got a series overflowing with plot possibilities. And yet in episode two, not a lot gets explained. Instead, the story gets dragged into a hostage crisis tangent and preparation for radiation-infused rain that's in the forecast.
"Jericho" desperately wants to be "Lost" without the character flashbacks, which makes it only half a show -- and a dull show at that.
NBC's kidnapping drama (10 p.m. tomorrow) follows last month's premiere of Fox's kidnap show "Vanished," but "Kidnapped" is easily the better pilot. But while "Vanished" has a "DaVinci Code"-like conspiracy to keep viewers coming back, "Kidnapped" is more of a straight-ahead, "24"-like drama focused specifically on the kidnapping of 15-year-old Leopold Cain (Will Denton).
Will viewers want to see anguished parents Conrad (Timothy Hutton) and Ellie (Dana Delany, "China Beach") in jittery hysterics each week as the search for Leopold continues? "Kidnapped" feels more real than "Vanished" -- whether or not that's good for drawing viewers could cut either way.
An intense, attention-grabbing thriller, the Cains call in Knapp (Jeremy Sisto, "Six Feet Under"), a private investigator who's skilled in retrieving kidnapping victims. The FBI, led by special agent Latimer King (Delroy Lindo), also gets involved in trying to find Leopold.
Tomorrow's premiere is certainly a taut, involving thriller, and next week's episode keeps up the pace, revealing background on Conrad Cain (vis-a-vis his relationship with his father) and explaining the whereabouts of out-of-touch Cain daughter, Aubrey.
In addition to a less convoluted story, "Kidnapped" bests "Vanished" with its high-sheen cast. Sisto's determined investigator will make you forget his nutty "Six Feet Under" character quickly, while Delany, who last showed her WASP side on Fox's short-lived "Pasadena," effortlessly inhabits this new role.
TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2582.