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Mr. Clean & the Supremes

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Friday was Civics Night in our house: watching the mid-season premieres of two new network series respectively set in the legislative & judicial arenas, your humble viewer couldn’t help wondering What Hath The West Wing Wrought? Too much “thought-provoking” teledrama, and yours truly starts thinking about flipping over to The Cartoon Network.
I particularly had this impulse during Mister Sterling, NBC’s attempt at retooling Capra-corn populism for an imaginary 21st century Washington DC (a world where the Democrats hold a tenuous Senate majority!) The show tells the story of Bill Sterling, Jr. (Josh Brolin), scion of beloved retired Dem bigwig Bill Sr. (James Whitmore, looking as olde statesmanlike as ever). Junior gets drafted into the job of U.S. Senator when his predecessor, a scandal-ridden California politico, keels over dead. The state’s governor, seeking a replacement voters’ll see as “Mr. Clean,” hits on the idea of asking the untainted Sterling. Our hero, who’s been teaching convicts to get their high school equivalency (thus establishing his hard-nosed humanitarianism), reluctantly agrees, though he’s wary about becoming a career politico like the old man. Yeah, our boy’s got Father Issues.
The really big rub: nobody thinks to ask Bill Jr. what party he belongs to. Turns out he’s an Independent, which throws the delicate balance of power in the Senate into disarray – and allows Sterling to play His Own Man within the staid two-party system. You can tell Brolin’s character is gonna be a straight arrow when he refuses to let an unctuous lobbyist buy him breakfast, then cans the effete chief of staff who warns him not to be such a “Pollyanna.”
Mister Smith w./ bigger balls, in other words. Brolin is mannishly sincere in the role, but he and the rest of the show’s fine cast are in danger of being undone by the series’ timeslot. NBC has plugged it into the Friday feel-good zone once inhabited by Providence, is advertizing it as one of those shows that’ll make you feel proud about being an American. Which doesn’t bode well for fans of the flawed & spirited political wrestling matches dramatized by The West Wing.
The harried group of state Supreme Court judges who inhabit CBS’ Queens Supreme don’t have much time for any feel-good motions. As led by Oliver Platt, this be-robed bunch is too busy dealing w./ the chaotic legal system to waste time worrying about party affiliation or ideology. Not for them the niceties of liberal guilt: sitting in judgment on a case of alleged racial profiling, Annabella Sciorra’s judge looks at the guilty black defendant’s sweat-suit and concludes its fabric was unsuited to innocent jogging. Held hostage by a whacked-out juror whose thwarted desire for a cigarette has led to his pulling a gun on judge & fellow jurors, Platt’s Jack Moran effortlessly lies to get the man to drop his guns. As one juror notes, Moran’s a great lawyer even if he is a lousy judge.
Platt’s protagonist – the fast-talking, doubtless self-destructive reprobate – is a character he’s played before (and, c’mon, can you see the guy playing any other part?) But he’s suited to the rough-&-tumble milieu of Queens Supreme: a place so tough it has Big Pussy delivering coffee to the judges’ bench. As usual, Platt’s character’s actions make him a pain-in-the-ass to everyone else, including estranged wife Kristen Johnson (damn, I forgot how much I missed watching her on television!) But I’m betting it’ll also make his show more enduring than the squishy Mister Sterling – even if Moran does have Doogie Howser’s bud working for him as a law clerk.
And any law show w./ the smarts to use Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” as its opening theme has hooked me several weeks just on principal. . .

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.