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Fall 2000: "Madigan Men"

Two things disappointed me about Madigan Men, the new ABC sitcom starring Gabriel Byrne. The first came early on, before the show even premiered. Because of poor reading comprehension skills, I initially thought the name of the show was Madrigal Men -- the story of four kooky minstrels who wander the countryside singing canticles and ballads and jaunty tunes in four-part harmony and, every now and then, solve crimes.

The show is not called Madrigal Men. And nobody sings. No "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In." No "It's A Long Way To Tipperary." They don't sing crap.

And my second disappointment? That came when I actually had to sit through Madigan Men.

It's not that Madigan Men is a particularly hateful sitcom. It's not even the worst show ABC airs on its rebuilt Friday night lineup -- although when you share the Friday schedule with Norm, that's hardly a distinction you want to put on your resumé.

But while Madigan Men looks like Emmy fodder alongside the likes of Two Guys and a Girl, that doesn't make it a good show. Instead, Madigan Men is paint-by-the-numbers comedy, nothing you haven't seen before in a thousand other forgettable shows: a newly divorced architect tries to jump back into the dating pool, while raising his teenaged son and enduring advice from his meddlesome father. Madigan Men's twist on this twice-told tale? It's banal with an Irish lilt.

That lilt comes courtesy of Gabriel Byrne, who plays the divorced dad. Byrne, who's made his bones by portraying moody mopes, seems grimly out of place here, eager to wring laughs of Madigan Men's thin material but too gloomy to succeed.

"Since when do you eat hot dogs?" asks best pal Grant Shaud, whose voice has not become any less grating since leaving Murphy Brown.

"Since my wife left me for a nutritionist," replies Byrne in Madigan Men's first joke. "It's payback time."

Payback time for whom? The nutritionist? Or the folks who have to listen to this drivel?

The cast also features John Hensley as Byrne's son -- one of those smart-alecky kids who only exist on TV because if they talked like that in real life, they'd be beaten beyond recognition. There's also Shaud and -- in the pilot, at least -- a woman who gives the former Miles Silverberg a run for his money in the "Voice That Sets Off Car Alarms" competition. Sabrina Lloyd of Sports Night is supposed to join the cast in future episodes, and, hopefully, she'll bring some earplugs.

Roy Dotrice holds down the role of Byrne's father, Seamus -- a name the writers no doubt arrived at after rejecting Paddy O'Mick for its subtlety and nuance. Ever the hammy Mick, Dotrice tackles his role with the Gaelic bluster, firing off aphorisms like "A good horse pulls his own cart," and "The road is always shorter when two people walk it," and "You can't judge a man by the thickness of his brogue, but by the size of his cliché."

OK, he didn't say that last one. But he could have.

You can fill entire library shelves with books devoted to the various travails and tragedies the Irish have had to endure. Famines. Bloodshed. Internecine warfare. Add to that list the TV networks' insistence on portraying the Sons of Erin as a bunch of dim-witted, big-hearted slobs with as much fondness for quaint sayings as they have for the drink. Madigan Men isn't the biggest offender -- not after the Great Irish-Themed Show Epidemic of '98 -- but it still treads the same tired trail blazed by other blarney-filled offerings.

(Being partly Irish myself, I appreciate all of network TV's attention. But where are the shows that exploit my German and Polish heritage for ratings gain? The German show could be about a boisterous, menacingly efficient family where zany Grandpa is always muttering about annexing Czechoslovakia. And the Polish-themed show could be about... I don't know, guys trying to change a lightbulb every week?)

But what's objectionable about Madigan Men isn't the fact that ABC could show a couple of Paddies getting looped in a pub outside Dublin for 30 minutes and treat the Irish with more dignity. It's that I've watched one episode of the show, and I can pretty much guess how it plays out from here. Dad and son will quarrel. Grandpa will meddle. Dad and son and Grandpa will bond. And Dad will have quite the adventures wooing the ladies.

It's somewhat disturbing watching a show co-executive produced by Gabriel Byrne that features the recently divorced Byrne playing a recently divorced man who's constantly being told by everyone what a catch he is. Would that every lovesick man could score his own half-hour show to toot his horn about what a wonderful suitor he'd make if only there was some woman out there sensible enough to give him the chance.

And who knows? Every lovesick man might get his own show. ABC will certainly have holes to fill on its Friday night schedule after a few more weeks of this pabulum.

Of course, if the ghostly specter of Two Guys and a Girl hasn't frightened you away from ABC earlier in the evening, chances are you're going to stick around for Madigan Men at 9:30. God's mercy on you, then. Because like they say back in the old country, bland shows are like homemade whiskey; too much of either and you'll need to get your stomach pumped.

Seamus Madigan didn't say that one, either. But he should have.


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