'New frontier' humor, straight from the 'Harts of the West'

"Harts of the West," which premieres at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11), is one of the new season's nicest surprises.

Although, it's hard not to be surprised when you start with the kind of low expectations CBS' synopsis of the show inspires:


"Drama about a 41-year-old lingerie salesman who buys a broken-down Nevada ranch and convinces his family to join in when he decides to follow his lifelong dream to become a cowboy."

It sounded like "City Slickers" meets "Green Acres" without the jokes or Arnold, the pig.


And, to some extent, it is. But there's a lot more going on in "Harts of the West" than that.

First, it's not a drama. It's a comedy-drama. The comedy part makes a big difference. The show has a nice sense of humor about itself.

Then, there's the casting. The 41-year-old lingerie salesman is played by Beau Bridges. As TV actors go, Bridges is among the most interesting, if not the best. Bridges seems to have a nice sense of humor about himself, too.

But most important, the script is both entertaining and resonant.

On one level, it delivers laughs and low-schmaltz family drama in an easygoing, engaging way.

On another level, it deals intelligently with the very American notion of frontiers and new starts. This aspect of "Harts of the West" could make it an especially satisfying show for those of us who grew up with the rhetoric of "new frontiers" ringing in our ears, and are now starting to take middle-aged stock of our lives.

Bridges' character, Dave Hart, is forced to take stock when he suffers a heart attack while in the middle of making a bra sale ("the new retro bullet model") at Bloomingdale's.

Tonight's pilot opens in the middle of a dream Dave's having while hospitalized following the attack. I'm telling you this, because it's a little confusing. The worst thing about the show is the opening.


But once the dream ends and Dave wakes up to tell his wife and three kids of his decision to quit the job, sell the house in Chicago and buy a ranch he's been dreaming about in Sholo, Nev., the pilot starts to fly.

"Oh, God, Dave, not the West again?" his wife, Alison (Harley Jane Kozak) screams.

"Oh, God, Dave, not that ranch?"

And before you can say "saddle up," Dave's got Alison and their three kids -- sons Zane Grey and John Wayne, and daughter L'Amour -- loaded in the Bronco and headed west.

The ranch is a mess and, worse yet, it comes with a cranky, old ex-con of a foreman (played by Lloyd Bridges, Beau's dad). But Dave manages to talk his mutinous clan into toughing it out and, then, he rallies them into trying to bring the place back to life.

It sounds corny, but it works.


Despite it's time period following "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," "Harts of the West" is not a sure thing.

Comedy-drama is tricky in terms of tone. And this is a show that has to be very careful not to get too pop-psyche-preachy about men listening to their inner cowboy and all that.

Oh, God, Dave, not Robert Bly?

B6 ** 1/2 (with a bullet if it avoids the psycho-babble)