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Fall '98: "To Have and To Hold"

A hundred and fifty years ago, the Irish were the poor white trash of America. Bostonians used to practice rigorous NINA hiring - No Irish Need Apply. Now, a few robber barons, bootleggers, and bought presidential elections later, the Irish are America's hot new ethnic group. Or so say the all-knowing television executives: of the kazillion new shows slated to debut this fall, at least four have the dubious premise of rejoicing in close-knit Irish families.

To Have and To Hold is the second clan debut of the season, part of CBS's attempt at programming for people who don't remember when NINA was in effect. The show is about two intermarried families, and revolves around newlywed couple Annie Connell and Sean McGrail. Naturally, he's a cop, as are two of his younger brothers.

Annie, on the other hand, is a public defender, cheerfully springing every perp her betrothed brings in. She's a feminist -- he has to exert extra effort to keep his knuckles from dragging behind him as he walks. He's rational and she's impulsive. The wacky contrasts continue, but since our couple loves each other, presumably America will want to tune in to watch two Irish people making smiling eyes at each other.

Actually, no, America won't. If America wanted to watch Irish people on the make, they'd send in more money to PBS as a bribe to show more of that sinister Michael Flatley and his red-haired coven of tap dancers mincing about Carnegie Hall.

But getting back to the show at hand: the selling point is how very Irish and close-knit Annie and Sean's families are, and the viewer is certainly presented with abundant cliches just in case we missed the pre-show hype. To Have and To Hold is set in Boston. At least 50 percent of the time, Ma McGrail and Pa McGrail have accents that would do Irish Spring proud. Annie's late and unlamented father was a drunk; her sister is a red-haired expectant mother.

Yet for all the attempts -- and we who are of Irish descent really do appreciate them -- the show ends up being about as Gaelic as Family Matters. Family loyalty -- an undisputed Irish trait responsible for more more bloody brawls than the Easter Rising of 1916 -- is tossed out the window during the first plot turn. The wedding is a far more sober affair than any actual Irish wedding would be. And it is physically impossible for nine Irish Catholics to go through life as guilt-free as the Connells and McGrails do.

These glaring flaws would almost be forgivable if the show were any good, but the stories are hackneyed and the dialogue is even worse. Sean McGrail seems to have gotten the short end of the schtick here: not ten minutes after he offers to sing "Danny Boy" to cheer up his fiancee, he storms in to confront a pair of married drunks whose mutual abuse has led to frisbee theft, gunplay, perjury, and the snuffing of the idealistic fire burning in Annie's soul. Bullying the two into a New Age 12-step counseling program, he growls, "A light in a certain girl's eyes is a little less bright because of you."

God forbid someone's Irish eyes aren't smiling on this show. Stereotype deserves stereotype: tack NINA to your remote control and move on.


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