'E-Ring': Sir! No, Sir!

Benjamin Bratt is the smart-talking, go-get-'em Maj. Jim Tisnewski, who butts heads with Col. McNulty (Dennis Hopper) at the Pentagon.
Benjamin Bratt is the smart-talking, go-get-'em Maj. Jim Tisnewski, who butts heads with Col. McNulty (Dennis Hopper) at the Pentagon. (By Mitch Haaseth -- Nbc Universal)
By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Don't try this at the office, but here's a basic rule for TV action heroes: If you're young, good-looking and central to the story line, pretend your bosses work for you -- and by episode's end, they probably will.

That's certainly the MO for Maj. Jim "J.T." Tisnewski, the improbably perfect, perfectly improbable hunk of American military man-flesh played by Benjamin Bratt in the new NBC series "E-Ring." The show, premiering tonight at 9 on Channel 4, gives Tisnewski ample opportunity to educate and enlighten his backward superiors at the Pentagon while impressing the rest of us with his strength, morality and fat-free physique.

The show's title -- it sounds like something you buy at the drugstore -- is explained at the outset after a tip of the hat to "the men and women who serve in the five rings of the Pentagon." The narrator continues with, "Before any military action can be taken, approval must come from the outer and most important ring, the E-Ring."

Tonight's story opens in Shanghai, where a young woman is seen running frantically through crowded streets, hotly pursued by official-looking men in suits. It turns out that she's been spying for the United States for several years, her cover's been blown and she's sent a signal that an emergency plan to get her out of the country must be activated.

Cut to Washington, where Tisnewski is roused from a little bedroom ballet by his superior, Col. McNulty (Dennis Hopper), and instructed to get to the E-Ring immediately. This he does, pedaling his bike across the Potomac faster than Lance Armstrong -- either because action heroes don't ride the Metro, or because the writers don't know there's a Pentagon stop, or maybe because executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer & Co. want to take any opportunity they can to pick up a little outdoor footage.

Tisnewski, a Green Beret just reassigned to the Pentagon after a long stretch in Afghanistan -- he's so efficient that it's amazing there's a thing left to do over there in Kabul -- quickly runs into resistance in his efforts to spring the spy. Some powerful military officials think the risks that come with invading Chinese waters to pick up "the asset," as they call her, far outweigh any strategic benefit of a rescue, and they don't want to hear any talk about our moral obligation to her. Finally, as a tense meeting breaks up, an indignant Tisnewski, his eyes blazing, takes a defense undersecretary down a few pegs: "Hold on, Mr. Secretary -- we're not really gonna let her die, are we, Sir? Forgive me for not being better acquainted with the building, but I've been in the military now for 20 years, and I've never left anybody behind -- ever!"

Something has to give, and obviously it's the military establishment. But in addition to its preposterousness, that speech points to a big problem for the show: Bratt isn't an action hero at all. He, Hopper and their colleagues spend all their time in this or that situation room in the bowels -- the most important bowels, but bowels nonetheless -- of the Pentagon. It's left to others to perform the actual mission. Indeed, when the time comes for a little military action, Bratt spends the entire time clenching and wincing and sighing like a tenderhearted Little League coach whose team is 10 runs down.

"I feel like I'm stuck at the kiddie table at Christmas dinner," he laments.

Col. McNulty is set up as an unholy terror of the kind Jack Nicholson played in "A Few Good Men." Early on he threatens Tisnewski with "Your [bottom] is grass, and I will defoliate you!" But he turns out to be an ineffectual boob, bleating orders that sound increasingly like heartfelt requests as Tisnewski ever more brazenly ignores them. By episode's end McNulty has nothing but moist admiration for the single-minded major.

Nicholson would take the little twerp apart.

The righteous underling who knows the truth and ignores orders and overrules his bosses and in his own small way changes the world -- who buys this retro baloney? Actually, in its current position opposite ABC's blister-hot "Lost," the answer will probably be "Not too many." The show is perhaps best described as harmlessly expendable, not worth the energy it would take to wish it ill. But for Bratt, the most crucial mission may be to hop on his bike and pedal hard toward a new time slot.

E-Ring (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 4.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company