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Dude, Where's My Estrogen?

About three-quarters of the way through the series premiere of Big Apple -- long after police detectives stumble across the vivisected body of an exotic dancer but just before a New York City cop dope-slaps an FBI agent for looking at him funny -- I felt strangely out of place. Maybe it was the 45 minutes of law enforcement officials trying to out-swagger one another. Maybe it was the salty language and earthy turns-of-phrase for all things feminine. Maybe it was the on-screen presence of Michael Madsen and the potential for ear-related mishaps that portends. Whatever the reason, I almost felt like I shouldn't be watching Big Apple. Any moment, I expected Nielsen enforcers to kick down the door and demand proof that I fit within the show's demographic -- sing baritone, crush beer cans against my forehead, gut a live pig, anything. Just so that I proved I was man enough to keep watching the show.

Which is a problem, you know, when you're not a man.

Make no mistake -- Big Apple is macho. Extremely macho. So macho as to ignite the suspicion that excess testosterone will actually spill out from the TV and splash on anyone within a 10-foot radius. Big Apple men who express the slightest bit of hesitation are chided by their fellow characters for being "half a homo." As for the women, the aforementioned stripper comprised 50 percent of the female characters in the pilot -- just the sort of thing to warm the hearts of the sisters at N.O.W.

Big Apple springs from the mind of Davild Milch, who -- as the CBS promos like to remind viewers -- is a co-creator of NYPD Blue. If his work on Big Apple is any indication, Milch can claim a lion's share of the credit for showing America more of Dennis Franz than it realized it wanted to see. Here, Milch must content himself to simply add Olympic-style lap dancing to the list of once-verboten sights you can now watch in prime time. It's not a distinguished addition to the collection of ground-breaking TV moments.

After two episodes, despite my fondness for several individual actors --Titus Welliver, David Strathairn and the ear-chopper himself, Michael Madsen -- I didn't connect with the show. Of course, maybe I'm just being reactionary here. Maybe I'm just tired of crime dramas starring New York City and its assortment of world-weary cops. Maybe I'm just a little oversensitive.

Or maybe not. In episode two, the Michael Madsen character takes issue with the lack of respect he feels he's receiving from the world at large with this witty rejoinder: "Am I wearing a dress?"

So what did we learn this week from Big Apple, kids? If you're a man and you're not getting respect, you must be a woman. A frilly dress-wearin' woman.

I realize it's not television's place to blaze a trail for equal rights. There are several channels doing a brisk business by catering to men and women who are just fine with gender roles hewn out of the Mesozoic Era. And few showrunners probably apply rigorous egalitarianism to whatever gender-related perceptions percolate through their show.

But we're a handful episodes into Big Apple, and it's one display of territoriality after another. The entire show is based on a law-enforcement pissing match -- NYPD vs. FBI -- and every interaction between the characters reads like something out of Jane Goodall's field notes.

And lest you think this is just uptight Lisa trying to bring down the patriarchy and spoil everybody's good time, consider that Big Apple's second episode lost 43 percent of its lead-in audience from CSI. That's 43 percent of a fairly large sample that looked at Big Apple, saw Ed O'Neill and Titus Welliver making like silverback gorillas during mating seasons, and decided they had better things to do with their time.

And that's not terribly surprising. Look at CSI as a program: whether or not its creators intended it to be, it's a chick show. It emphasizes perception, patience and analysis over confrontation and heroics. CSI attracts the kind of viewers who like goal-oriented stories with a little personal melodrama thrown in. Read some Tania Modleski -- go ahead, it's fun! -- and you'll learn that a lot of the pop culture phenomena that appeal to the distaff demographic have the traits that make CSI something of a surprise success.

CSI does a masterful job of avoiding the implication that men who are not militantly masculine are women -- again, something to which people with XX chromosomes might respond warmly.

And the William Peterson thing doesn't hurt either. He's a lot better looking than Quincy.

Pulchritudinous actors aside, I'm sure the programming geniuses over at CBS thought they had an early ratings lock on their hands --both shows are about crime and law enforcement, CSI is about the undainty field of forensics, Big Apple is just plain undainty. It would be two hours of gritty, crime-busting fun!

Which would be true, if the two shows had anything in common except for the thick-skulled network on which they both air.

Simply put, CSI and Big Apple share no elements that would induce the audience of one show to stay for the other. If you're into watching Gary Dourdan conduct a solitary analysis of pipe-bomb etchings, you're probably not going to take too kindly to watching Ed O'Neill and Titus Welliver engage in the same chest-beating antics that Dian Fossey used to observe in Zaire. And if you're into watching women strut around semi-naked while Russian thugs conduct complex financial negotiations, you're going to be disappointed with CSI and its lack of semi-nudity, Russians and semi-nude Russians.

Because of the NCAA basketball tournament, CBS moved Big Apple to Wednesdays, sticking in the time slot after Survivor and testing the theory that it was ER killing the show and not the oppressive stink of alpha-male urine splashed all over the plots. When Big Apple only kept 23 percent of its lead-in audience -- richly ironic, given all the territorial battles taking place in Mark Burnett's little kingdom -- network suits professed shock.

They shouldn't. Instead, they should opt for a more simple and elegant solution to Big Apple's rating woes -- take it off CBS and sell it to the Discovery channel as a modern-day parable of primatology. You might have more success there.


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