Sunday, November 6, 2011

Flipping Channels: Mark Harmon Chases Certain Prey Tonight on USA

Posted By on Sun, Nov 6, 2011 at 12:34 PM

Few people paid much attention in August 2003 when a two-part spinoff episode of the long-running CBS show JAG introduced a branch of military investigators known as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. It seemed like just another routine show — except for two things.

First, the chemistry between the characters of Leroy Gibbs (Mark Harmon), Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), forensics specialist Abby (Pauley Perrette) and medical examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum) far exceeded the program's content. Second, it was a huge hit, generating some of the biggest ratings JAG (at that point nearing the end of its long run) had garnered in years. Navy NCIS debuted as a weekly series Sept. 23, 2003. It was soon shortened to NCIS.

What began as a mild success (No. 26 its first year) has since become a phenomenon. It is a very rare show that's far more popular in its ninth season, but NCIS currently tops all scripted shows. Many weeks it is network TV's No. 1 show across the board. Despite constant reruns on the USA, Cloo and ION networks, NCIS repeats on CBS often finish in the Top 20. It is seldom pre-empted or replaced during the summer for reality shows.

Not even its biggest booster would label NCIS an innovative or imaginative property. Still, it has flourished by emphasizing character evolution and interaction, even as episodes filter their way through the usual array of spies, gangsters, and other domestic and foreign threats to national security. The program's enormous popularity has also made the pedestrian spinoff NCIS Los Angeles a Top 10 smash in its own right.

Though he's signed to NCIS through 2012, Harmon, a former All-American quarterback at UCLA whose acting career dates back to the '70s, doesn't plan for that show to be his final acting destination. Sunday he appears on USA in what he hopes will become a new franchise. John Sandford's Certain Prey (8 p.m.) features Harmon as Lucas Davenport, Minneapolis' ultra-rich, sophisticated deputy police chief. He's a maverick type far more interested in results than rules.

Certain Prey is the 10th of 20 Davenport novels penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Roswell Camp under his Sandford identity. It spotlights Davenport in a cat-and-mouse game with not only a contract killer, but also the FBI, who aren't anxious to see a local cop get the glory in a high profile case.

Harmon was also executive producer of the film. The project took more than a year to complete, as he fit acting and producing duties around his NCIS schedule. Lucas Davenport is far outgoing and dashing than his NCIS character, though both share a penchant for justice and a disdain for authority figures overly enamored with procedure and red tape. Harmon's hopeful this role could do for him what the Jesse Stone films have done for Tom Selleck — provide him a vehicle outside network activity to display more versatility, while performing in a longer-form property.

The show will be closely watched by mystery/crime buffs. The Sandford novels remain among the genre's most beloved. Internet message boards have been buzzing with fan speculation regarding whether Harmon can bring Lucas Davenport to the same screen in a worthy manner. Not surprisingly, USA will lead into John Sandford's Certain Prey with an NCIS marathon — maybe not the best idea under the circumstances.

'Hell on Wheels' steams ahead
We're a long way away from 1959 when the networks boasted 26 Westerns between them, eight of them in the Top 10. But Westerns are now hot properties again. At least 10 are in development for 2012 as either films or TV shows. AMC throws its Stetson into the corral Sunday with Hell on Wheels (9 p.m.), a show that depicts the building of the Union Pacific Railroad.

That event represented America at both its best (expansion of opportunity, development of the transportation industry, unprecedented human achievement) and worst (rank exploitation of Chinese workers, land grabbing, rampant corruption, mistreatment of Native Americans). The show stars White Bluff native Anson Mount (who talks to Scene interviewer Betsy Pickle this week) in the title role of former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon. He's primarily on a revenge mission, seeking the killers of his wife.

Hell on Wheels co-stars Colm Meaney as railroad boss "Doc" Durrant, the prototype 19th century overseer/brute hired to ensure the railroad gets built on time and at minimum expense. His presence is a sure sign Hell on Wheels won't be offering the romanticized treatments of past eras. There are no absolute heroes or villains, and the cast is admirably diverse: Hip-hop idol Common co-stars as a newly freed, mixed-race slave working on the railroad, and Native American and Asian actors fill numerous supporting roles.

"Our characters are complex, jumbled," executive producer Tony Gayton told Reuters. "They've all got good in them. They've all got a lot of bad in them. Anson's character is driven first by revenge, but he's also an ex slave-owner." "We want to tell a story about civilization vs. untouched nature," added co-executive producer Joe Guyton in the same interview. "The imposing of civilization can be absolutely brutal. I'm amazed by the tenacity, the boldness and the sheer courage. There was death around every corner, but they continued on."

AMC struck gold with its last Western venture, the 2006 miniseries Broken Trail, co-starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Hayden Church and directed by Walter Hill, which set ratings records. Where that project received mostly sterling reviews, Hell on Wheels has already gotten a kick in the caboose from TV Guide critic Matt Roush. But Western fans are extremely loyal, and will certainly tune in for Sunday's opening episode at 9 p.m.

Paisley parks at CMAs
The 45th annual Country Music Association Awards show airs Wednesday on WKRN-Channel 2 at 7 p.m., co-hosted for the fourth consecutive year by Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley (who will perform their duet "Remind Me" live). Underwood and Paisley are nominated for their fair share of awards, and there are other intriguing stories to follow (including whether Keith Urban, slated for throat surgery, will win Male Vocalist of the Year. He led fan balloting in TV Guide). Regardless who goes home with a trophy, though, the real winner will likely be ABC — since last year's program trailed only the Grammy Awards in ratings among all adults and in the 18-49 demo.

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