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'BROOKLYN' DEBUT GOES SOUTH, BUT GIVE MILCH TIME

Don't write off "Brooklyn South." Not yet, anyway. No show under the daily care of such talented people should ever be consigned to the ash can quickly. Its writers -- David Milch ("NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues") and William Finkelstein ("L.A. Law," "Civil Wars") are so good that they deserve an entire season to play with.

At any moment, "Brooklyn South" could get good in a hurry.

In fact, it had better. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings and discouraging words here, but its opener on Monday night was surprisingly bad -- painfully derivative of "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" and without any cast members likely to talk their way past the velvet rope in our hearts. After an admittedly bravura opening -- a rampaging "perp" (or "skel," in the lingo of "Brooklyn South" and "NYPD Blue") pops off a bunch of cops and ex-cops right in front of the station house -- everything went quickly downhill into the stiffest, rheumiest cop show episode I've seen in a long time.

It was a little like watching Satchel Paige pitch in his 60s (or 70s -- who knows?) for the Miami Marlins of yore. The heat was still there and the breaking balls could still do tricks, but he was good for only two innings. Then he'd go back to his rocking chair. What you were seeing was the compelling remnant of a legendary career.

By my score card, the pilot of "Brooklyn South" had exactly one scene that positively danced over the plate: A cop with a lousy marriage comes home to a stone-crushing wife who has carefully contrived to take off her blouse but do nothing special with an instant pickup, at the exact same moment her husband pulled into the driveway -- just to drive him a little crazy. It was a nice little snippet from the territory William Finkelstein's "Civil Wars" used to explore so well, but a snippet was all it was.

And that was it.

The premiere of "Brooklyn South" was neither especially well-written nor -- after the opening -- well-directed. In fact, director Mark Tinker -- doubtless immortal for his graceless public confidence at the Emmys that he had just brushed Kim Delaney's breast -- seemed either contemptuous of the script or utterly clueless about what to focus on.

In one scene, for instance, Jon Tenney, as the cop-house sergeant, cleaned out the locker of a dead cop and made two separate piles of effects -- one for the cop's wife and one for his mistress. It was, admittedly, reminiscent of an old "NYPD Blue" plot, but it was still tossed off carelessly and stupidly. It could have been much more wry and pointed than it wound up being. As played out on screen, it was heatless and meatless. It was merely vacant and tired.

If that's the way people are going to stage and play a scene, they probably shouldn't bother.

If anything, in fact, the painful lack of affect of "Brooklyn South's" pilot reminded me how much I'm going to miss "High Incident" this year. In its raucous pilot episode -- co-written by Eric Bogosian -- "High Incident" had already given us three or four cop characters worth following around for a year.

In fact, "High Incident" during its entire run was as criminally underrated as the pilot of "Brooklyn South" may have been overhyped. Some of its action scenes were almost shockingly good for TV (especially some of those directed by "Hill Street Blues' " Charles Haid, of all people).

Despite the presence of Tenney and Yancy Butler, the pilot of "Brooklyn South" couldn't come up with even one character worth cruising around with. The couple engaged in uncivil war, in fact, was all that I remembered the next day (besides the opening sequence, that is).

"Brooklyn South" also has a Monday evening problem no one could have predicted before the season began. It's in the CBS time slot right after the show that may be the freshest and best-written show of the season thus far, David E. Kelley's "Ally McBeal" on Fox. With such a lead-in for discriminating viewers, "Brooklyn South" looked that much more overstretched and tired.

This has been a surprising season. I wasn't surprised that "Nothing Sacred" -- despite its fresh milieu, fine acting and advance controversy -- turned out to be run-of-the-mill oat-bran liberalism. That's about the only kind of Catholic priest drama that TV is prepared to understand. But as surprising in its way as the stiffness and weariness of "Brooklyn South's" opener was the completely successful transplant of the great British series "Cracker" into American soil.

In truth, I always had hopes for the Americanized "Cracker." If we couldn't have huge, shambling Robbie Coltrane as the disreputable and relentless forensic psychiatrist, I understood immediately why someone had the inspired notion of casting Robert Pastorelli in the role.

Coltrane looks like an unmade king-size bed. With his broad face and big teeth, the sarcasms and provocations that spew from his mouth are like virtuoso phrases played on a piano keyboard. He is somehow both intimidating and pathetic.

Pastorelli doesn't have any of Coltrane's depth and neither does the Americanized version of the show. But he has some of Coltrane's slovenly street flamboyance. When, on the opener, Pastorelli riffed on sucking as a metaphysical principle in his introductory college lecture, I had that predictable chill I always get watching network TV that is what the show-biz types call "too good for the room." It's the shiver that usually precedes network brass saying how much they loved the series and the star but how can they be expected to carry such a charity case when the numbers aren't there?

Numbers?

Let's be serious here. Numbers simply aren't possible in "Cracker's" current time slot up against "Seinfeld." If ABC plays its cards right, that's good news for us vehement non-Seinfeldians.

So even more than "Brooklyn South," the networks couldn't devise a better game plan than letting "Cracker" go for a full year and seeing how very good this L.A. "Cracker" can be as he catches sad-sack maniacs and destroys himself in front of our eyes.

Let Seinfeld do what he does so profitably across the dial. I'm sticking with Pastorelli and "Cracker."

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