We watch... so you don't have to.

T-Minus 3, 2, 1... Syndicate!

God spoke to me. Actually it wasn't the Big Guy himself, but His messenger, Flu. You can be certain, though, that Flu's words were God's words. "Pete," he said, wrapping his arm around my shoulder and taking hold with a viselike grip, "we're a little concerned about some of the TV programs you've been watching lately."

"Ah geez. I swear, that's the last time I watch 'Caroline in the City.' It's just, I don't have a remote and..."

"No, no, no! We have nothing against Lea Thompson, except, well, you know, 'Howard the Duck.' By the way, Caroline's coloring boy? Gay."


"Really. But we're getting off topic here. I didn't come all the way from Kuala Lumpur just to point out the obvious. I mean, come on: bitter, effete Soho artist who always wears black? You must have known."

"I see what you mean..."

"No, what I'm here to talk about is far, far worse than 'Caroline.' Worse than a CBS drama. Worse than a WB sitcom. Worse than one of the 43 'Star Trek'-type programs spawned by UPN -- man, they're milking that cow for every last drop..."

"...Oh no..."

"... Pete, we need to talk about those syndicated programs you've been watching."

It's no coincidence that the day after I saw my first episode of "The Cape," I'm caught in the throes of death -- head pounding, body aching, stuff coming out of orifices I didn't know existed. The Almighty can only put up with so much nonsense, before He must intervene and put matters back in their proper order. It's one thing to linger over the remote while "Profiler," "Savannah," or "Moesha" plays on the screen. It's an entirely different thing to stop and actually watch "One West Waikiki," starring Cheryl Ladd; "Renegade," starring Lorenzo Lamas and a fat Indian; "Baywatch"; "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys"; "Xena: Warrior Princess"; "Flipper"; "Thunder in Paradise"; or, yes, even "The Cape."

What? You've never heard of "The Cape"? How can this be? Actually, until last night, I hadn't heard of "The Cape" either. I should be clear about one thing: It's not like I grab the TV Guide every Sunday, rifle through it, and eagerly seek out the new episode of "Baywatch Nights." No, watching syndicated TV is like falling in love; it just happens. There you are, usually on a weekend, flipping mindlessly through the channels, and--powee!--some wiseacre slaps a shot of Cheryl Ladd's gams on the screen. Before you know it, you're breathlessly caught up in the adventures of Honolulu's lithesome medical examiner as she battles renegade CIA operatives; stalks a "Thunder from Down Under" troupe that's actually a front for the Australian Secret Police; is framed for murder by her arch-nemesis, Lily (much like "Hawaii Five-0's" McGarrett was always battling wits with Chinese superspy, Wo Fat); and generally dispels the myth that autopsies *can't* be done while wearing light, clingy summer dresses.

Or something like that.

Alas, that is neither here nor there. We're not here to discuss the wherefores and whatnots of tawdry island dramas; that's for another day. We're here to discuss "The Cape." Yes, "The Cape"...

Some background is in order: Simply put, "The Cape" is about astronauts. Astronauts, astronauts, astronauts. All the cool astronaut stuff they get to wear; all the astronaut stuff they get to do; all the astronaut stuff they get to say (like "Whoa! We just caught a wicked shimmy! Hey, we're astronauts!"); and all the trials and tribulations that astronauts experience while doing their astronaut things--you know, groupies, stalkers, who'll be the first commander of the U.S. space station. Frankly, the show is astro-obsessed.

"The Cape" is set at Cape Canaveral, which accounts for its title. (No one explicitly says this, but I'm quick that way.) Less explainable is the cast, headed by Corbin Bernsen, erstwhile star of "L.A. Law," "Major League," and--as Michaels no doubt will remind us--"Frozen Assets." Bernsen plays Henry "Bull" Eckert, grizzled veteran and leading contender to command the first U.S. space station. I'm not sure about anyone else, but the thought of Bernsen *in* a space shuttle, to say nothing of commanding one, gives me the willies.

That said, Bernsen is the least of the show's casting problems. According to published reports, NASA has eagerly cooperated with "The Cape," because it sees a public relations gold mine. (I guess that means no astronaut will be exposed in the coming weeks as, say, a serial axe murderer.) Ex-astronaut Buzz Aldrin is listed as a consultant, and the show is rife with actual space shuttle footage. All this, say the producers, to make it as realistic as possible. But if that's the case, a congressional investigation should be initiated forthwith, because NASA is, by all appearances, running a Webelo camp.

Among the ensemble cast is Cameron Bancroft, last seen on "Beverly Hills 90210" playing the waifish "California University" quarterback who courts Tori Spelling; and Bobbie Phillips, Richard Cross's nubile bride on "Murder One." Suffice it to say, neither of these kids could have been cast in the ABC drama, "thirtysomething." Bobby Hosea, who played O.J. Simpson in FOX's version of "I Killed My Ex-Wife and Got Off Scot-Free!," and Adam Baldwin (formerly the bodyguard in "My Bodyguard") are slightly closer to maturity, but not by much.

Age aside, "The Cape" has other problems--namely, it's dull as spit. If ever there was a way to make exploring the unknown seem trite; to make sitting on the business end of two oversized Roman candles seem humdrum; to make "The Right Stuff" appear wrong, all wrong, "The Cape" has done it. Don't get me wrong. It tries; lord knows, it tries. Every episode is chock full of near catastrophe and requires the astronauts to do things "that have never been done before." Suspense-filled moments are heightened by background music so uplifting, so patriotic that I'd stand and salute, if only I gave a damn.

Problem is, on "The Cape," every wrong always becomes a right; every obstacle is always hurdled; every snafu always straightens out. Eventually you come to expect these miracles, even if it means expecting that an astronaut without any medical training or the proper tools will successfully perform life-saving surgery in space, guided only by the verbal commands of a flight surgeon back on Earth. What these folks need is a good old-fashioned grisly death to put some uncertainty back in the drama. Cut the lifeline on an astronaut walking in space so he goes floating off towards Uranus or have a fellow implode, and maybe, just maybe, I'll start to think the surgery patient might bleed out, leaving little droplets of blood to dot all of the shuttle's knobs and doohickeys.

Zero gravity and all.

Unfortunately for fans of grisly death, that probably will never happen, because in the end, "The Cape" is about getting the kids excited again about space exploration, and grisly death tends to do just the opposite. We live in an age when certain Paramount productions that shall not be named, among others, have raised the stakes of the space game to unreasonable heights. After all, building a space station is small peanuts when compared to the prospect of defending the populous from relentless alien metalloids hellbent on world domination. Unless NASA installs the wrong rubber stopper and a space shuttle blows up, we take it for granted. "The Cape," I suspect, is the producers'--and, make no mistake, NASA's--way of fighting back.

Does it work? I doubt it. "The Cape" is still, first and foremost, syndicated TV, and that makes it hard to take seriously. Personally, I can't look at Bernsen anymore without thinking that he once played a character who sacrificed his marriage for a fling with Susan Ruttan. More importantly, though, I suspect the people who really matter-- the congressmen who fund NASA--have better things to do and watch. Running a nation takes time, and I doubt many elected folks are channel surfing at four in the afternoon on Sunday, or whenever it is "The Cape" airs in your local market.

Then again, I hear lifeguard funding is through the roof.


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