Bombs Away: Fox Drops A Big One

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Sometimes the old dictionary still comes in handy, low-tech though it be. A "standoff," for instance, is defined as "a situation in which one force neutralizes or counterbalances the other," which is essentially what happens in, and to, "Standoff," getting a premature premiere tonight at 9 on Channel 5.

The opposing forces here, though "force" is too strong a word to apply to the show, are would-be drama and would-be comedy. Our heroes, yet another elite team of crack professionals dedicated to opposing the evil meanies in the world, go about their business with a certain saucy jauntiness, a certain quippy flippancy, a certain je ne sais quoi . In fact you probably won't want to "sais quoi" because, to boil it down to a word of two syllables, "Standoff" is a sleepwalk.

Matt Flannery (Ron Livingston) and Emily Lehman (Rosemarie DeWitt) head up the team, an FBI unit that deals in crisis negotiation. No, they won't help you balance your checkbook -- not that kind of crisis. But if, let's say, a lunatic straps explosives to himself and becomes a human bomb, then holds the patrons of a seemingly random coffeehouse hostage and threatens to blow them all up, then you would call in Matt and Emily and their little friends.

Unfortunately for you, if you happened to be one of the hostages, Matt and Emily are lovers or former lovers or have some kind of on-again, off-again relationship either on or off at the moment and so they spend a great deal of time bickering, snickering and making with the allegedly snappy banter, almost as if they had been watching too many "Moonlighting" reruns from a couple of decades ago.

Spatting mates can be endearing, of course, going all the way back to urbane detectives Nick and Nora Charles of the "Thin Man" movies. But when modern-day terrorism is involved, would these two jabbering magpies -- more inane than urbane -- be your choice to save the day, defuse Bomb Boy and rescue a couple dozen people? The series presents them as a flawed but preferable alternative to the more militant, macho side of the FBI, as personified by the excessively well-armed Frank (Michael Cudlitz), whose solution to every problem is to charge in with guns blazing, snipers sniping and bombs bursting in air, if not in diners.

So in addition to Matt and Emily and their ongoing tiff, you have the conflict between the let-us-reason-together side and the blast-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age school of thought. Yawn. It's hard to imagine a civilized audience of any significant size wanting to sit through these trumped-up conflicts and lazy-daisy crises week after week.

The bad guy on tonight's premiere isn't really bad; his mummy didn't wuv him, you see, and so naturally his first thought was to be The Bomb, though not in the way that girls used to mean when describing the latest singing heartthrob. When Mom shows up at the scene of the crisis, where you could cut the tension with a spoon, her idea of how to placate sonny boy and help to save lives is to tell him through a bullhorn: "I'm sorry. I never wanted children."

Whoa there, Mommy! Norman Bates in "Psycho" may have had a more compassionate mater. At least Norman stayed in the house and let victims come to him.

Some people, it seems, associate suicide bombers and terrorists with certain extremist Islamic groups and individuals. Imagine. Lest the producers be accused of any kind of racial profiling, they make the bomber a Caucasian American who happens to have an assortment of extremist Islamic magazines in his room and appears to have converted to that particular form of organized insanity.

There's a warm-up to the main plotline about the suicide bomber: another standoff, this one in the middle of a once-busy intersection, where our old friend Tom Wopat, who long ago held the auspicious title Duke of Hazzard (the one with dark hair), plays a man named Ray, who chooses that spot to have a nervous breakdown. He does it in a truck that also contains his two terrified little boys. Wondering if children are going to be blown to bits by overzealous FBI snipers is not an enjoyable form of suspense nor a very appealing way to begin a new series.

But -- Matt to the rescue! He gets close enough to the terrorist to tell him, "You and I share the same basic truths, Ray." We never do find out what those are.

Indeed, basic truths are a rare commodity in the script and performances that combine to make the series less entertainment than ordeal. It neutralizes itself right before your eyes, unless your eyes and the rest of you have wisely wandered off to another viewing alternative. Every show, no matter how awful, develops fans, but "Standoff" seems very likely to become a castoff in very short order.

Standoff (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 5.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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