Tom Shales, Style Columnist

Light-Fingered 'Smith' Makes for A Weightless Drama

Jonny Lee Miller, from left, Simon Baker, Franky G and Ray Liotta join as partners in crime in
Jonny Lee Miller, from left, Simon Baker, Franky G and Ray Liotta join as partners in crime in "Smith" on CBS. Smith is the name of the crew's mysterious leader and brains behind the theft ring. (By Norma Jean Roy -- Cbs)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Who doesn't enjoy a good, old-fashioned heist now and then? Or, as in the case of "Smith," the CBS drama premiering tonight, a good newfangled heist -- replete with the kind of high-tech gadgetry familiar to moviegoers from such films as the "Mission: Impossible" series?

Familiar, indeed. "Smith," which stars Ray Liotta as Bobby Stevens, smooth-talking and smooth-acting uberthief, follows in the footsteps of "The Thomas Crown Affair," which was filmed twice, and many another caper picture. The pilot is admittedly a swift, brisk bit of escapist whimsy, but one has to wonder whether the idea of a heist every week will really prove tenable.

One could, of course, ask the same question of many an episodic TV show. "Fear Factor" -- that awful mess that has finally left NBC -- enticed viewers with gross and disgusting inanities every week.

There's just something about "Smith" that seems to have monotony built in. It represents an ongoing trend: weekly TV shows that seem as though they ought to be (or already were) motion pictures, like the forthcoming "Kidnapped" and "Jericho."

Perhaps "Lost" and "24" made such distinctions obsolete by persuading viewers to tune in week after week for the kind of story normally wrapped up in a neat and tidy two hours at the cinema. Television is the great time-warper, and in recent years, those who work in TV have found new ways to do the warping.

It helps "Smith" that Liotta is a solid charmer in the role of Stevens, and he has extremely able assistance in Virginia Madsen, the ageless and agile actress who plays his wife.

The idea of leading a double life remains an appealing daydream, especially for people holding down jobs they consider routine -- though of course, Smith's two lives are not equal. By day, he works behind a door marked "Robert Stevens, Midwest Sales." Blah, humdrum. It's his after-hours night life, as the ringleader of a band of saucy rogues, that has all the allure: the fancy trappings and the gee-whiz gadgetry and, with each new creep around a corner, a seductive, pervasive sense of danger.

He's a thief, but we don't want him to get caught. And he isn't exactly in the business of robbing convenience stores or pilfering pension funds. In the pilot, he manages to remove a Rembrandt from a Pittsburgh gallery, among other daring acts carried off with flair and finesse. (And yes, he's very careful with the painting. He's a criminal with good taste.)

The executive producer of "Smith" is John Wells, who revolutionized prime-time television with "ER," a show that truly brought movie-quality production to weekly TV. It's been said, of course, that nobody ever left a musical humming the scenery, and handsome production values can go just so far. A key problem with "Smith" is that, at least in the premiere, it relies too heavily on them.

"Smith's" writers even find an excuse for a side trip to Las Vegas, which entails, naturally, generous shots of scantily clad dancers turning up the heat, bumpety-bumpety-bump. It's the kind of show of which one might reasonably say, "They don't miss a trick" -- except that maybe, like the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz," the poor thing was born without a heart.

(Of course, fellow baby boomers, there is the counterargument: that Oz didn't give nothin' to the Tin Man that he didn't, didn't already have.)

CBS has slotted "Smith" to follow David Mamet's extraordinary and literate action drama "The Unit" on Tuesday nights. So viewers are invited to watch the exploits of an elite team of do-gooders pull off amazing feats in the name of liberty, followed by the exploits of an elite team of do-badders pulling off amazing feats in the name of greed and self-indulgence. But also in the name of adventure, for the thrill of getting away with it and evading capture.

As a programming ploy, it might work. It's just too bad that "Smith" is so slight it keeps threatening to float away, like a runaway balloon that's not quite worth chasing down the street.

Smith (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 9.

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