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Fall 2000: "The Fugitive"

It is fashionable among casual observers to bemoan the lack of originality in today's programs. This is perhaps fair criticism in some cases. For example, one need only watch a few minutes of the bland CBS sitcom Yes, Dear before exclaiming in exasperation, "Dammit, isn't this that same hayseed rube from Boston Common on the set of the bland CBS sitcom Dave's World telling stale one-liners in that hayseed rube way of his?" And you would be right.

But certainly it cannot be said that television across the board is a wasteland of recycled plots and secondhand conceits. Take the new show The Fugitive, a creative force of stunning plot twists and poignant dramatic peaks that, I dare say, has never before been contemplated in any entertainment medium.

To sum up: Seems there's this fella Kimball. He's some kind of doctor. He's got a hot toddy of a little wife. They love each other. But as luck would have it, this other fella -- no name, but goes by the moniker One Arm -- sneaks into the house one night and offs the lovely Ms. Kimball in a grotesque and hideous manner. Mr. Kimball stumbles in as One Arm is finishing the deed. They scuffle and in the ensuing donnybrook, Kimball pulls off One Arm's prosthetic limb. One Arm -- whose name is never really explained -- flees.

It's at this point that a hulking lox of a lieutenant with the Chicago Police Department, guy by the name of Gerard, enters the picture. The hulking lox is a frighteningly efficient and competent police officer uncowed by shoddy investigation and spectacular leaps in deduction. He does not believe Kimball's tale about One Arm -- again, no explanation for the name -- and immediately and wrongly fixates on Kimball himself. To make a long story short, the hulking lox arrests Kimball, and Kimball is convicted of killing his hot toddy wife.

Fortunately for Kimball, in a startling and unforeseen turn of events, the van taking Kimball to prison overturns. Kimball escapes and becomes what's known as a "fugitive." This is roughly defined as a wrongly convicted man who surfs the web for newspaper articles about "one armed men."

Now, at this point the casual web user may be somewhat skeptical of this tactic. The casual web user may fear that such a search will turn up hundreds if not thousands of potential hits. Worse, the casual web user may fear that such a search will uncover a pornographic web site for freaks. This just proves that the casual web user is an idiot. Kimball's search locates precisely one article about a one-armed man in the Miami Herald, so it is off to south Florida with the hulking lox -- unburdened by other cases, undeterred by the jurisdictional limits of the Chicago Police Department, informed by America's Most Wanted -- in pursuit.

It has been suggested by some that The Fugitive bears some resemblance to the 1994 film "The Fugitive" starring Harrison Ford and the mid-60s television drama The Fugitive starring David Janssen. I find this argument tenuous. Aside from the title, the successful doctors, the hot toddy wives, the loving marriages, the horrific murders, Doc Kimball's struggles with the one-armed man, the thickheaded disbelieving investigators, Cook County's appalling habit of convicting innocent men, our protagonists' flights from justice, the pursuits by a hulking lox, Kimball's solitary and noble search for the real killer, certain plot twists and stunts, and lines of dialogue, there are no similarities at all.

For one thing, in the 1994 film, Kimball is played by Harrison Ford, the biggest box office draw of all time, and Gerard is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is white and once shared space with Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore at Harvard. In the TV show currently airing, Kimball is played by Tim Daly, who once portrayed David Koresh in a movie of the week. Gerard is played by Mykelti Williamson, who is black and once killed a man. In the film, the vehicle transporting Kimball that crashes is a bus (it crashes into a train); in the TV show, it's a van. In the film, when Gerard has him at gunpoint, Kimball does a half-gainer off an aqueduct into a river below. In the TV show, when Gerard has him at gunpoint, Kimball does a half-gainer off a high-rise onto a net below. In the film, Gerard locates Kimball through the ludicrous device of telling his nitwit assistant to find a federal judge, say they need a bunch of wiretaps, and they'll explain why later. In the TV show, Gerard locates Kimball through the ludicrous device of examining a picture of a wrench and concluding, much to his nitwit assistant's amazement, that Kimball is working at a high-rise construction site. In the film, Kimball saves Gerard's life by clocking a would-be assailant in the back of the head with a pipe. In the TV show, Kimball saves Gerard's life by clocking a would-be assailant in the back of the head with a wrench. In the film, Kimball saves a young boy's life by ordering emergency surgery while in full flight. In the TV show, Kimball saves a young woman's life by performing an emergency medical procedure while in full flight. Perhaps most importantly, in the film, Kimball alters his appearance by dying his hair and cutting his beard. In the TV show, Kimball just dyes his hair.

See? Completely different.

Still, notwithstanding these clear differences, there are bound to be some unforgiving cynics out there who will stubbornly insist on comparing the merits of "The Fugitive"(s). Despite my personal belief that this would be like comparing Hooters waitresses and Hawaiian Tropic girls, I will endeavor to provide some insights.

It could be said, I suppose, that The Fugitive is a paler, weaker, more sickly, less daring, less clever, in certain ways more implausible version of The Fugitive and "The Fugitive." Or a healthier, more robust, more adventurous variant of The Pretender. Indeed, if I were to rank them in order of accomplishment, it probably would go like this: "The Fugitive," The Fugitive, The Fugitive. The best illustration of the relative merits of "The Fugitive" and The Fugitive lies in perhaps the most famous exchange. In the film, when Kimball yells at Gerard "I didn't kill my wife!" Gerard utters the classic, pithy response, "I don't care." In the TV show, when Kimball yells at Gerard "I didn't kill my wife!" Gerard launches into a meandering, unfocused discourse about how in our American system of justice the ultimate responsibility for deciding such matters lies with the jury, and the jury in Kimball's case has adjudicated him guilty, yada, yada, yada.

Lacks... pithiness.

(In all fairness, the line would not work in the TV show because there Gerard was also the investigator who initially arrested Kimball and thus he must or should care, whereas in the movie Gerard is just a Deputy U.S. Marshal who is unknowingly helping perpetuate some other guy's screw-up and therefore he can legitimately pass the buck. This is an unwieldy explanation, of course, but it is no less unwieldy than Gerard's jury monologue, which just proves my point: screw civics lessons. Since Gerard already got it wrong once, the correct response from his perspective should have been "Yes, you did.")

Finally, a word about The Fugitive's likelihood of success. In this respect, I find instructive the first season of the CBS reality-based program Survivor. Survivor, you will recall, was a ratings smash during its original run because we, the viewing public, were captivated by the suspense: will they or won't they bounce the sinister fat guy? However, once we learned that the sinister fat guy not only didn't get bounced, but in fact made off with the booty, nothing -- not even the pain of a tape-delayed Olympic marathon -- could make us tune in again. Survivor thus teaches that once suspense is removed from the equation, we really could care less if Kelly, Susan, Richard, Sean, or anyone else in their contemptible lot dies in a fiery bus crash.

See, a fiery bus crash -- the parallels here should be obvious.


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