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When it comes to its original series battle with pay-cable rival HBO, Showtime can't get arrested.

HBO's original series have driven subscriber orders and created far more buzz than "Queer as Folk," "The Street," "Soul Food" or any other Showtime original series. But with "Sex and the City" about to enter its final season, "The Sopranos" months away from its next season and "Six Feet Under" ending its third season Sunday, Showtime has a big opportunity.

HBO helps out Showtime Sunday by rerunning the intricately plotted police series, "The Wire," for another season after the first one impressed critics far more than viewers. The returning episode of "The Wire" (10 p.m.) is so dense that it practically dares viewers to put their remotes in action. More on that series later.

If the HBO viewer also has Showtime, that could lead to viewers giving the 90-minute Sunday premiere of its latest series, "Out of Order" (10 p.m.), a spin. It has an impressive cast that includes Eric Stoltz, Felicity Huffman ("Sports Night") and her real-life husband, William H. Macy ("Door to Door"), a grown-up Justine Bateman ("Family Ties"), Peter Bogdanovich and a sexy actress, Kim Dickens, who was the female lead in David Milch's short-lived CBS series, "Big Apple."

It also explores a rich theme, taking a look at a modern troubled marriage. Unfortunately, "Out of Order" spins out of control with a bad case of California Dreamin'. The dysfunctional relationships and behavior of almost all the principals may be unrecognizable to most beyond a 75-mile radius of Los Angeles.

This is a series in which a depressed married screenwriter, Lorna Colm (Huffman, who is wonderful in the role), drinks and talks the afternoons and evenings away with a married unemployed Hollywood type Steven (Macy), and for far to long, neither of their spouses seem to mind.

Lorna's husband, Mark (Stoltz, who plays a bit of a dip), is her screenwriting partner and the series' voice. Mark drives a Mercedes and his pretentious narration to his "jury" (the audience) may drive viewers a little crazy. He is determined to live out his own fantasy with the prettiest soccer mom, Danni (Dickens), from his son's team. Danni instantly shares her view of monogamy (overrated) and before long will be sharing the pool with him at an adult party. Incredibly, her husband seems oblivious to the R-rated goings on in the water. Let's just say that Dickens makes quite a splash in the scene and another provocative made-for-cable scene.

Written by Donna Powers and Wayne Powers ("Cagney & Lacey," "The Equalizer"), "Out of Order" takes a dip in the deep water and ultimately is in over its head. And in the end, the Powers' feel compelled to hit the viewer over the head by stating the obvious about humanity.

But at least "Out of Order" is an interesting failure, as watchable as it is improbable.

After Sunday's premiere, the final four episodes of this short-run series will air at 10 p.m. Mondays. Showtime might have found a way to keep it as a sexy Sunday alternative to HBO's depressingly noble failure, "The Wire."

After "The Wire" ended its first season with the conviction of Baltimore drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), Detective Jimmy McNulty's (Dominic West) reward is working on a police boat. His superior, Lt. Daniels (Lance Reddick) and another detective, Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), deal with similar indignities.

If you got bored or frustrated by the plotting last season and abandoned the series, you might be just as turned off by Barksdale's continuing plot line in jail. It is a secondary plot to creator David Simon's hook in season No. 2 -- crime on the waterfront in Baltimore, where drugs and human beings are smuggled. The first hour, which introduces the stubborn leader of a local union, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), is top heavy with scenes that chug along. But by episode two it looks like McNulty and company will be investigating the involvement of brutal foreigners in 14 murders. A lot of time is spent on who has jurisdiction, with all police agencies trying to avoid it because the cases threaten their clearance (solving) rates.

It is fashionable to proclaim "The Wire" as riveting TV, but it seems so determined to bury viewers with details that at times it can be no more involving than working on a tug boat.

The attempts to incorporate humor and details of the cops' personal lives seem to be tacked on as an afterthought and hardly register emotionally. Wearing its cynicism on its sleeve, "The Wire" may deserve a badge of honor for being one of the most painstaking television depictions of the games policemen play. But it certainly isn't the most entertaining.

Speaking of being out of order, this week's TV Guide has a revealing story about why "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin left his TV baby. As I suspected in a column earlier this month, Sorkin had much in common with another writing genius who departed his series, David Milch of "NYPD Blue." According to the magazine story, Sorkin was delivering scripts so late that at times the actors were sent home for a day or two. That led to budget overruns that upset the production company, Warner Brothers.

As I've said before, it isn't unusual for talented producers to leave series because of budgetary issues. Producing TV shows is an orderly business and, for the creative types, the devil can be in the details.

Ratings: "Out of Order" 2 and a half stars out of 4; "The Wire" 2 and a half stars


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