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

Fall 2000: "The District"

Recently, I found myself at a family get-together -- one of those extended visitors-from-all-corners-of-the-globe assemblies where you have aunts and uncles and cousins and folks so obscure they have to carry around dog-eared copies of the family tree just to assure people they're in the right place. And let me tell you, it destroyed all the delicate delusions I've managed to con myself into believing.

You see, I like to think I have a pretty good sense of what people like to watch and what they don't. It is this kind of insight into the psyche of the average viewer that allows me to understand how something as ill-conceived as Bette ever made it to the airwaves. Or why 3rd Rock from the Sun can survive scheduling overhauls, executive purges and, for all I know, atomic blasts, while far superior shows have curled up and died when someone so much as coughs in their direction. Or why UPN continues to exist.

In other words, I like to pretend to know what I'm talking about. That way, I don't feel nearly so bad when I cash my paycheck.

So how do my relatives help me out? By giving the lie to every notion about television that I've ever formulated.

"The XFL is the way football oughta be," an uncle told me -- the sport, apparently, in dire need of incomplete passes and Canadian Football League castoffs.

"When the celebrities appear on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, I never miss that," a cousin said, without a trace of regret in her voice. "I really get a kick out of that."

And, just in case you're wondering how Sally Jessy Raphael has stayed on the air lo these many years, it apparently has something to do with the fact that substantial portions of my kinfolk watch the talk show religiously.

No, no. Hold off on those Thank You notes. The knowledge that blood relatives have helped enrich daytime television is reward enough.

In short, 24 hours with my relatives taught me just how out of step I am with the populace at large, how there's an entire world of television favorites out there as strange and unknowable to me as the surface of Jupiter. It's a world where "irony" is something you do to shirts after you wash them, where NBC sitcoms are the height of urbane wit and sophistication, where reality TV is not a tired and dispiriting trend but a promise of the bright and uplifting programming to come.

And it is a world, no doubt, where The District is very much at home.

The District, which debuted last fall, is one of those shows we never got around to reviewing because, frankly, what's the point? Not to cast aspersions on The District's core audience, but the demographic sampling of folks staying home Saturday nights just to watch a Craig T. Nelson police drama probably don't spend too much time trolling the Web to find out what foul-mouthed whippersnapper TV reviewers think of their show. Let's face it -- the folks who will cast their lot with The District are going to do so whether we tell them to or not. And the rest of you? You probably saw the headline, shrugged and figured we're reviewing shows from overseas now -- that's how relevant The District is to your TV-watching routine.

God, how I envy you.

Just so we're all up to date then, The District stars Craig T. Nelson as a police commissioner brought in to clean up a crime-ridden city served and protected by a slothful police force. The city is ostensibly Washington, D.C., but only because the producers have lots of mood-setting stock footage of monuments and Capitol domes. Really, The District may as well be set in Minneapolis or Ithaca or Ottawa for all of its relevance to the issues facing the citizenry of our nation's capital. Don't expect that District-West Wing cross-over episode where President Bartlet joins Police Commissioner Coach for a ride-along through the mean streets of Anacostia, that's all I'm saying.

Joining Nelson on his quest to make the streets safe for the citizens of a city that may or may not be Washington is a diverse crew of do-gooders that includes: a widowed statistics expert; a Belfast policeman apparently in town as part of some TV cop exchange program; a wide-eyed, idealistic detective; a brassy secretary; and a weasely young man whom The District's Web site identifies as a "PR whiz kid." It says something about the evolution of police dramas in the early years of the 21st Century that no crusading crime-fighter worth his salt goes anywhere without his PR specialist anymore.

Perhaps it's not so difficult to believe this show is set in Washington, after all.

Rounding out the cast characters is Joe Noland, second-in-command to Nelson's Jack Mannion and a fellow who thought he should have gotten the gig instead of Our Hero. This is a potentially intriguing plot point -- Noland wanting a safe city and a first-rate police force while realizing it's not in his best interest to have Mannion succeed -- and actor Roger Aaron Brown does the best he can with the thin material he's given. But advancing that sort of thing requires a touch of nuance, which apparently doesn't interest the creative muse driving The District. So instead, the Noland character just glowers a lot.

Fans of Nelson's last TV series, Coach, -- and I'm guessing this covers most of my relatives -- will recognize his portrayal of Mannion. It's the same gruff-but-lovable-asshole persona Nelson took on for the role of Coach Hayden Fox. Only this time Nelson wears colorful vests -- the writers' idea of character development, I'm guessing.

Which beats the other form of character development on The District -- having Mannion constantly talk about how he's going to clean up this one-horse town. A dozen or so episodes into "The District's" run, and Nelson still has the burden of uttering lines like "I work for the people, not the powerful." Because his character cares about law enforcement, see -- he told us so himself.

Talking is something they do a lot of on The District. Coach's brain trust has to deal with a rash of burglaries in the Washington area? The District shows them plotting and planning and looking at multi-color computer graphics -- but it doesn't show them putting the plan into action. There's a disciplinary hearing for an officer accused of excessive force. The District shows 30 seconds, a minute tops, of the hearing itself. The rest of the time they're taking about the hearing, what's going to be said at the hearing, what was said at the hearing now that hearing's done, what's going to happen to the officer because of what was said at the hearing.

Perhaps Jack Mannion's plan is to bore the criminals into submission.

There's a problem with this tell-not-show approach to TV, and it was on full display in the episode of The District I watched. An ex-police chief's book dredges up memories of a 30-year-old investigation -- a case where Noland may have covered up evidence at the behest of his bosses to advance his career. This could be the stuff of engaging television -- the compromises we make in the name of getting ahead, how institutional racism affected Noland's career, how long-forgotten errors in judgment have a way of resurfacing -- but in leaden hands of The District's production team, it's an opportunity that's quickly booted away. A couple minutes of dialogue, and the dilemma is quickly talked away.

"Now that is a crime," exclaims Craig T. Nelson. He's talking about -- again -- what a hard-working, criminal-hating guy he is. But he may as well be talking about The District and it's missed creative opportunities.

Not that any of this matters. With The District airing on Saturday nights -- an evening where something as banal and idiotic as Walker: Texas Ranger can thrive for half-a-decade -- no one involved with the show should ever fear for their long-term prospects. Good or bad, The District will remain on the air until the sun explodes into a violent gassy ball, destroying all in its path and cooking the Earth into a burnt-out cinder. And after that happens, it will continue to air, providing hour after hour of bland enjoyment to the cockroaches and single-celled life forms that will doubtlessly survive the blast.

Presumably, by then, my relatives will have stopped watching The District. Sally Jessy, I'm not so sure...


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