Cloning may be a moral issue in the world of science, but in television it’s business as usual. If a new show reminds you of an old favorite — or even a new favorite from last season — the network tinkerers think maybe you’ll feel comforted with a concept you’ve responded to before. If you’re watching Shark, maybe it’s because you dig James Woods’ long-established gift for manic invective, but the networks are guessing that you might like that it’s the lawyer version of the damaged-goods antihero on House. Of course, cloning can work against a good series. If you skipped Kidnapped (which, really, you shouldn’t have), maybe it’s because you only have room in your brain to follow one or two can’t-miss-an-episode serials, and if you already watch 24 or Prison Break, that’s enough.
The networks aren’t done, though. Debuting next week are the newest copycats, one that embraces its gimmick with infectious abandon, the other so slickly derivative it might as well have come from K-Tel. The fun entry is ABC’s colorfully suspenseful Day Break, which takes its storytelling cue from the superb 1993 Harold Ramis comedy about Sisyphusian alternate reality, Groundhog Day (Rule One: Steal from the best). Here, it’s L.A. detective Brett Hopper, played by Taye Diggs, who is the guy perpetually reliving the same day, only the goal isn’t a romantic happy ending, but to keep his ass from being sent to prison — and a few loved ones from violent death. By the end of Hopper’s first go-round with this particularly fraught 24-hour period, he’s been arrested for the murder of an assistant D.A., he discovers that a safe house holding a police-cultivated gang leader has been exposed, his sister (Meta Golding) has shown signs of being an abuse victim, he’s narrowly avoided being killed, and at night awakens from a beating to find himself in a rock quarry at the mercy of bad guys who show him video of his girlfriend being killed.
Now, sure, Jack Bauer would probably host a kegger at his place if that was all he had to handle in his 24 hours. But for most of us these are the trappings of a truly shitty day, yet it’s one for which Hopper mysteriously gets a do-over. He wakes up again in his smiling lover’s bed promptly at 6:17 a.m., the memory of what’s happened and hasn’t yet happened spurring him to get a grip on how everything went nuts. Although there’s plenty of action whichever way he opts to chase down the day, creator/writer Paul Zbyszewski understands that there’s humor, too, in his Choose Your Own Adventure setup — consider the odd look Hopper gets from a colleague after being caught muttering to himself, “If I can get here earlier tomorrow .?.?. ”
Of course, the cosmic joke is that this is a goof on the sameness of a lot of television, a procedural in which switching up one’s routine is truly a matter of life or death. But because Hopper can radically rejigger events for better or worse — a decision that prevents one disaster might cause another — Day Break also feels like the first video-game-era series. Its mantra is game over, reset, then start again, a little wiser. (Plus, the actress who plays the girlfriend is named Moon Bloodgood, which sounds like something a game designer came up with.) In the end, Hopper’s essentially a guy trying to crack the next level so he can go from pawn to wizard of his own destiny. All that’s missing now is the code for everyone’s remote that takes viewers to the hidden sex scenes, no?
If Day Break is a tasty fusion of influences, the slick, imitative tedium of the CBS medical drama 3 Lbs. seems like microwaved leftovers. Set in a New York hospital’s neurosurgery wing in which a brilliant but misunderstood eccentric (Stanley Tucci) ruffles feathers but saves lives, it can literally be called House with brains. (The title refers to the full-grown weight of the thing in your head.) We’re told that Tucci’s brooding Doug Hanson is such a rigorous adherent to the cold, uncompromising logic of science at the expense of a patient’s fragile emotional state that, as a colleague explains to the sensitive, touchy-feely new protégé (Mark Feuerstein), “He’s like Spock.” Well, that’s because the show can’t call him Sherlock Holmes, who is the logic icon that the creators of House acknowledge as the inspiration for their prickly deductive genius. What’s next? A series about a gifted, crabby podiatrist who’s hailed as the Ellery Queen of bunion removal? Eventually, while watching the competent yet uninvolving pilot, I entertained the fantasy-hope that a mad scientist element would introduce itself — a brain in a jar, diabolical laughter, lightning, something. Then I realized that this is a market House has cornered too, with its malpractice-worthy approach to risky treatments and love of terrifying patient seizure scenes right out of horror movies. Maybe there was no chance a show like 3 Lbs. could feel like anything but comatose upon arrival.
Well before the ending of the first part in the newest — and last — installment of Prime Suspect, I successfully guessed the who in the whodunit. But that shouldn’t keep Jane Tennison fans or anyone else from watching it. The draw of this now-legendary British detective series has always been the magnificent and fascinating Helen Mirren. She’s turned headstrong, embattled Detective Superintendent Tennison into a riveting mix of crusading drive and private demons that has only been matched in this country by Dennis Franz’s self-destructive badge wearer Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue. Writer Frank Deasy isn’t going to win any awards for the sputtering plot mechanics of the missing-preteen-girl case at the heart of Prime Suspect: The Final Act, but to follow Tennison around is to get swept up in Mirren’s skills at galvanizing your attention through sheer force of character.
This time the strain on Tennison is formidable: impending retirement, a losing struggle with alcoholism and watching her father (Frank Finlay) die. Never married and as lonely a figure that crime fiction has ever produced, the heart nearly swells when she takes the minimal effort to befriend one of the victim’s school chums, a smart-yet-troubled 14-year-old (Laura Greenwood) whose flirtation with rebellion and disarming caginess she recognizes and — considering the trajectory of her own working woman’s life, from carefree idealist to authority fighter to management figure — obviously mourns. The big question here is whether Tennison, who is as much defined by her mistakes as her accomplishments, can make it to pensionhood without one more personal indiscretion becoming one more professional screwup. That you’ll be more worried about Tennison’s race to the finish of her career than her race to catch a culprit is testament to the lasting legacy of this 15-year-old bastion of U.K. television and the everyday majesty Mirren brings to her scrappy, flawed, inelegantly tough female crime solver.
DAY BREAK | ABC | Wed., 9 p.m. Premieres Nov. 15.
3 LBS.| CBS | Tues., 10 p.m. Premiers Nov. 14.
PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT| PBS | Sun., Nov. 12 & 19, 9 p.m.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes