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

Fall '01: "Citizen Baines"

As you might expect from a show brought to you by two of the movers and shakers behind ER, CBS's Citizen Baines begins with a bang. Its first episode has a thrill-ride aspect to it, not too different from an episode of ER in its heyday or even The West Wing: three-term Senator Elliott Baines is running for re-election, and it's the last day of the campaign. He's frenetically campaigning, stopping only to reflect briefly on his service, worry about losing the election, and deal with his three demanding daughters.

Making excellent use of the show's Seattle setting, Citizen Baines starts off as an interesting, fast-paced mixture of the personal and the professional, high-stakes politics and high-stakes marital challenges, the problemating relationships between politicans and their constituents... and parents and their children.

It all sounds good. But there's just one problem: At the end of the series' first hour, the election is over and Baines has lost. Thus begins the series... but without a lot of the energy that was in our introduction to it. It's usually hard to judge a series based on its pilot; when a pilot's plot is so unrepresentative as Citizen Baines's, it's almost impossible.

Judged by the performance of James Cromwell as Senator Baines, Citizen Baines has a good shot. Cromwell is a nuanced actor who really lends weight to the role. Baines comes across as a multifaceted person, an idealistic man who has become a pragmatic politician, and has sacrificed his children (and perhaps his relationship with his now-deceased wife) for the power that he suddenly, shockingly, no longer has. And Cromwell's long, furrowed, asymmetric face is fascinating to stare at, whether he's looking happy, angry, resigned, or simply puzzled by the whirlwind around him.

The whirlwind around Baines is the storm summoned up by his three daughters -- paging King Lear! -- Ellen (Embeth Davidtz), Reeva (Jane Adams), and Dori (Jacinda Barrett). They provide the serious dysfunction that will apparently drive Citizen Baines once the excitement of the election and its aftermath recedes into the past. And therein lies Citizen Baines's problem: without all the hubbub about the election, its pilot is a family-drama soap opera on the level of Once and Again, with all the angst but none of the charm of Jane Adams' last network series, Relativity.

Ellen Baines wants to run for congress... or does she? Her law firm is putting pressure on her to do it, her dad wants her to do it, but she's having second thoughts... and she's now got the albatross of her father's failed re-election campaign (which she managed) around her neck. Dori's a wild child who wakes up with a random guy in one of the series' first scenes, has a record of substance abuse problems that till now have been swept under the table by the Senator's staff, and is generally grumpy about being in Dad's shadow.

And Reeva's got the best package of the lot. She's trapped in a marriage that's going south, with a husband who may or may not be having an affair. He's checked out of the relationship, in any case. And that makes her election-day diagnosis -- she's pregnant! -- that much more painful.

Meanwhile, the two older daughters take a moment to point out to little sis Dori that their father's relationship with their sainted dead mother was also not as happy as she'd like to believe.

Herein lies another problem with Citizen Baines, on top of the fact that it's just too damned hard to judge what this show will be like after five weeks on the air: it's not clear how much of the show is going to be about James Cromwell trying to adapt to life away from the circles of power in Washington, about trying to become a regular citizen back in Seattle after 24 years away from home. That fish-out-of-water tale, using the intriguing Cromwell to his fullest, would be a show worth watching.

But the danger is that the show will only be peripherally about that topic, and will really be a more standard-issue family drama, with Cromwell playing the patriarch part as his daughters each get a chance to be dysfunctional and unhappy... all the while blaming it on the absentee father, Senator Dad.

If that sounds like a great show to you, Citizen Baines is right up your alley. For the rest of us, we can only cross our fingers and hope that Citizen Baines is more about Citizen Baines than it is his offspring.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *