This summer I had the opportunity to watch the TV movie of the “Growing Pains” reunion. Remember the premise? Mom Maggie Seaver runs for political office, her lawyer daughter with the type-A personality manages the campaign, one of her children goofs up and at the end they all realize what they have is each other. Well, watching the pilot of “Citizen Baines” was sort of like that. Minus the catchy theme song.
James Cromwell (“Babe”) takes on the role of Elliott Baines, three-term incumbent senator from the state of Washington. Up for re-election, he is confident he can defeat his young republican opponent so of course he loses. All the while his three daughters slowly reveal their typecast personalities bit by bit.
Ellen (Embeth Davidtz, “Bridget Jones”s Diary”) is the hotshot lawyer managing her father”s campaign. Ellen is high strung and perhaps frustrated by her law firm, which wants her to run for office to give it more political clout, and in the next episode will tender her father a job offer. The nerve!
Jane Adams (“Frasier”) is Reeva, the Married Daughter. With two rambunctious kids at home and a failing marriage, she is a wreck. She discovers her husband might be cheating on her, and to make matters worse, she is pregnant again.
Dori (Jacinda Barrett, “The Real World”) is the Young Daughter Who Wants to be Out of Daddy”s Shadow But Doesn”t Want to Lose the Perks. When she goes in for an interview for a position as a photographer in Seattle, she discovers that her dad”s connections gave her the job. But Elliott reminds her of all the help he”s given her through the years, such as wiping out reckless driving and marijuana possession issues. Still, she wants to break free.
It seems natural to want to root for Elliott Baines. After all, he”s a bit old but still reasonably liberal frustrated by life yet still cares for the people, and his wife died years ago, complicating his family life. He”s no Josiah Bartlett, but he”s no Jesse Helms either. But then again, the pilot spent a whole hour focusing on the doomed campaign of a character called Citizen Baines. That tends to deflate a little of the buildup the episode worked so hard to create.
Part of the problem is the sad, clichd plot. Besides stealing from NBC”s “Three Sisters” (three girls bond over sisterhood, bail each other out, help loving father), “Baines” has the feel of “ER.” Not fresh “ER” circa 1994, but older, clunkier “ER.” Perhaps Executive Producer John Wells should share at least some of the blame for this. As a writer/director on “ER,” he has overseen some of the most pathetic, melodramatic sap in recent years. Tears, weepy violin music, the whole nine yards. But Wells also works on NBC”s much superior drama “The West Wing.” So why can”t he create similar magic here?
The chief reason may be the absence of writers as gifted as Aaron Sorkin of “The West Wing.” He would never stoop to having Baines encounter a rabid religious man declare, “it will be as God wants it to be,” then use that very line in Baines” concession speech.
The only saving grace of the show is Paul McCrane, a name not familiar to most TV fans, but a talented character actor nonetheless. Viewers of “ER” know him better as resident bastard Dr. Romano. Here he is not used to maximize his talents, but he is still the best part of the cast. Perhaps the writers should have Cromwell call out “bah ram ewe” and magically get Babe to save this show. Even that couldn”t work.