They've been there before; so have we

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One of the fascinating things about television is the way that mediocre series often can still have something important to tell us about ourselves. Even the worst can be a useful window into the national psyche. That's the case with three new network fall series premiering tonight and tomorrow night - series that are worth thinking about even if you are less than dazzled by the pilots.

They say lightning never strikes twice. But, then, they haven't yet seen That Was Then, a new drama on ABC, and Do Over, a sitcom premiering tonight on WB.

One of the weirder aspects of a decidedly weird and largely uninspired lineup of new series is the remarkable similarities between these two shows. Each deals with going back in time and starting over, but the real deja vu is in the details.

Each series features an unhappy and relatively lonely salesman (one sells doors, the other paper) in his 30s who suffers a freak accident that involves a huge jolt of electricity shooting through his body.

Instead of getting electrocuted, though, both men are transported back in time to high school - on the eve of making a big speech at an all-school assembly. The first time around, each of them blew the speech and lost the girl of his dreams, and they both feel it has been downhill ever since to what they think of as middle-aged failure.

The nearest we come to any difference in the two series is that one takes place in 1980 and the other 1988. What are the odds of this all being a coincidence?

Granted, Hollywood has no shortage of brain-dead thieves who will steal even a bad idea if they think it will get them a pilot deal. Still, the identical concept of these series seems noteworthy, especially as it links up with other messages about "starting over" seen elsewhere on television these days. You can't help but think these series might be speaking to or feeding off of something audience members are feeling - or, at least, network executives think American viewers are feeling.

Jordan Levin, the entertainment president of WB, has been quoted as saying, "In times of uncertainty, we seek nostalgia," and his network seems to have a very clear idea of where the audience is one year after the 9/11 attacks.

In addition to Do Over, Levin's network has another series exploring the notion of starting over: Everwood, a Monday drama starring Treat Williams as a renowned neurosurgeon and father of two "whose life is changed forever the day his loving wife dies," in the words of the WB promotional campaign. He quits his Manhattan practice and moves himself and his kids to Colorado in an effort to reconnect with what remains of his family.

New series are often about fresh starts -it's partly formulaic. But, if you decide to check out Do Over tonight or That Was Then when it premieres next week, notice how going back and starting over is coupled with a renewed appreciation for family by both time travelers.

One of the deepest sources of malaise in the life of both adult salesmen is what has happened to their families via death, divorce and drugs. One of the most important missions for both as born-again teen-agers is to treasure their families while they are still together. Not a bad message at all.

Do Over premieres at 8:30 tonight on WNUV (Channel 54).

'Greetings From Tucson'

Greetings From Tucson is also about family, but what matters in this WB sitcom is the ethnic makeup of the family.

The series is seen through the eyes of 15-year-old David Tiant (Pablo Santos), whose father, Joaquin (Julio Oscar Mechoso), is Mexican-American and whose mother, Elizabeth (Rebecca Creskoff), is Irish-American.

Like the character played by George Lopez in ABC's The George Lopez Show, David's father has been promoted into management, and the family is moving up in the world. This means ethnicity is coupled with issues of social class, especially when the family settles in a new upscale and decidedly non-ethnic neighborhood.

Overall, the focus of the series is the relationship between David and his strong-willed dad, and in the pilot they battle over what David is going to wear to a junior cotillion.

David was asked to the formal dance by the girl next door, Sarah (Sara Paxton), the only friend he's managed to make in his new neighborhood and school.

David wants to wear a flashy sharkskin suit that caught his eye at the mall. Joaquin tells David he can have the suit, and then he secretly buys a more conservative, traditional suit for his son. David trashes the garment when he finds out what his father has done.

Ethnicity is constantly referenced in the pilot, particularly as it troubles the waters of David's sense of who he is.

The very WASP-y mother of the girl next door has already made friends with David's mom but has not yet met his dad. As she's leaving the Tiants' home after a friendly chat with Elizabeth about the coming dance, the woman asks if she can have the name and phone number of "the Mexicans building that wall behind your house." She has some yard work she wants done, "and they look trustworthy." The woman is referring to Joaquin and his friends.

The neighbor is mortified when Elizabeth sets her straight. She apologizes and explains to Elizabeth that she thought the Tiants were Spanish, because David's older sister, Maria (Aimee Garcia), said they were "all from Spain."

The neighbor spends the rest of the episode sending over pies and baskets of cookies by way of reparation, most of which are eaten by David's uncle, Ernesto (David Vargas), who has moved in with the Tiants and is constantly reminding his brother, Joaquin, of his ethnic roots.

"The neighbor lady brought them over," Ernesto tells David as he offers him a cookie. "She also said she's a big fan of Edward James Olmos. Personally, he's a little intense for me, but to each his own."

A young son from one of Ernesto's three failed marriages is also on hand. The boy looks up to David and is dazzled by the upward mobility of David's family.

"Wow, it must be so cool to be half white," he says to David.

"What can I say? It's all I know," David replies.

It's not just that Greetings From Tucson brings more desperately needed Latino identity to prime-time network television. What's most important is what the series has to say about the way ethnic and racial groups meet, mix and come together in this country.

Greetings From Tucson isn't a great sitcom, but it is one of the first series to try and depict in a comic way some of the tensions and joys involved in this very American journey. And that's a good thing.

Greetings From Tucson premieres at 11:30 tomorrow night on WNUV (Channel 54). The series' normal time period is 9:30 Friday nights, but it's delayed tomorrow because WNUV is carrying an Orioles game. The series will air in its normal time spot at 9:30 tomorrow on WBDC (Channel 50).

'John Doe'

John Doe, a new Fox drama premiering tomorrow night, plugs into another current of programming that deals with misfit men who fix, protect and avenge things for those less empowered, particularly children.

At one end of this spectrum, you have your comic book superheroes like Superman, a teen version of which can be found in Smallville on WB.

There's some of that in John Doe with a pilot that opens on an overhead shot of a naked man curled up in a fetal position on a deserted island. This is our mythic hero, and this is where we begin the drama.

After swimming away from the island, he's picked up by a fishing boat not far from Seattle. While he has an incredible mind that can tell you everything from how many horses were involved in the Battle of Waterloo to how many Applejacks there are in a box of cereal, he can't remember who he is or where he comes from.

As he searches for his identity, he helps police solve major crimes. In the pilot, it's the kidnapping of a 6-year-old girl.

Hack, a CBS drama that premieres next week, has a similar though less mythic hero with David Morse (St. Elsewhere) as a disgraced cop who sets aside his job as a cab driver each week to take on some seemingly hopeless case involving a bad thing happening to a good person. By the way, it's as awful as it sounds.

A more successful and realistic version of the narrative is found in CBS' The Guardian, which features a self-absorbed corporate lawyer forced to become a children's advocate after he's busted for doing drugs. I suspect the success of The Guardian last year has as much to do with the appearance of shows like Hack and John Doe as anything.

Still, there is a feeling in the country that something terrible was done to us, and there are many who would like to see it avenged. There is certainly no doubt that we have been thinking a lot about what makes for an American hero as all the images and stories about rescue workers attest.

The question is whether John Doe can effectively speak to that.

John Doe premieres at 9 tomorrow night on WBFF (Channel 45).

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