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Fall '01: "The Education of Max Bickford"

All great art seeks to shock. It can be the elegance of the technique or the daring of the subject matter or the sheer, unadulterated beauty of the perspective, but all truly great art wants to leave the people who experience it reeling in their shoes, overwhelmed and amazed. And so, the first five minutes of the premiere of The Education of Max Bickford are triumphantly, unapologetically great art. You can't help but boggle at the screen and think, "My God, is that really Ron Glass? From Barney Miller? What the hell happened to him?"

But other than that, pfft. Max Bickford is a limp meal of American cheese on white bread, aged in a closet since 1968. The self-absorbed adventures of a self-absorbed college professor (Richard Dreyfuss) as he struggles to find relevance, Bickford couldn't be less relevant. What the world needs now is most emphatically not wayward ex-hippies bemoaning the fact that time is linear. Yet another boomer longing for his bomb-throwing, dope-smoking, student-fucking glory days, Max Bickford is exactly as interesting as you'd expect, by which I mean not at all. Well-enough acted by Dreyfuss (and almost no one else), the show falls somewhere between the low-grade whine of a spoiled infant and the feces-flinging rage of the senile. "What's wrong with these kids today? Why do things have to keep changing? I'm tired. Where's my pudding? Get off my lawn, you damned punks!"

Does CBS know its audience or what?

Reportedly inspired by Dreyfuss' own mid-life crisis, Max Bickford has all the hallmarks of a classic, woe-begotten vanity project. It's pretty and expensive and them Oscar-winners -- Bickford has two, Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden -- don't just wander in off the street, y'know. But, of course, almost nothing interesting is being done with any of it, save providing pre-fab situations for the self-pitying title character to be frustrated by. Golly. Sounds fun. While you're at it, can I have a kick in the groin, too?

A long-tenured professor at a northeastern liberal arts college, Bickford finds a promotion handed to a former student in the same week that his teen-age daughter announces her pregnancy and -- yes, this is right, I double-checked -- his best friend returns following a sex change operation. Any of this might be entertaining if it were better acted or better written, but save Dreyfuss' usual gruff geezer routine, all the significant players fumble and grope and find nothing to grab on to. The most amusing thing about Helen Shaver's transsexual is how, ahem, grafted-on the character feels, a last-second stab at something other than generational cat-fighting. Katee Sackhoof's Nell, Bickford's daughter, has all the emotional stability of a speed freak. And poor, poor Marcia Gay Harden has to deliver the most inelegant, hammer-heavy line of the whole rickety carnival: "Is this because we slept together?" (Not actually said: "You people at home getting all this?")

Somewhere out there, agents are being fired.

But it's really Dreyfuss' show -- in far, far too many ways -- and given the number of embarrassing things he has to do, he does a pretty game job of pulling most of them off. Voice-overs that explain the obvious? No problem! Delivered as quotes from a thinly-disguised autobiographical novel? Sure! On the inspiration provided by his 11-year-old son, the only character in the whole thing who acts even remotely like an adult? Well, two out of three ain't bad. At least Philip Roth will be watching.

Dreyfuss has chops, give him that. If only the effort were in service of something, anything, better than Max Bickford. The show will undoubtedly be a hit with aging northeastern liberal arts college professors -- one shudders to think of the drinking games -- but there's no reason for the rest of us to give a damn. An aging boomer, starring in a thinly-disguised autobiographical show, playing an aging boomer, writing a thinly-disguised autobiographical novel -- you can only hope that all that self-referentially eventually collapses in on itself, compresses to an infinitely dense point, and disappears from our universe entirely. The Education of Max Bickford is of interest to exactly no one, save Richard Dreyfuss, his mother and his therapist -- not necessarily in that order.

But, man, Ron Glass. Wow.


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