- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

LOS ANGELES — For New York City police Detective Mike Mooney, deciding whether to sit down is a power play.

The dour Mooney refuses to pull up a chair in the office of FBI agents trying to commandeer a murder case and orders a young colleague to stand his ground, too.

This is the kind of tactic that would do a schemer on "Survivor" proud. But Mooney inhabits the world of "Big Apple, " a new CBS series helping allay fears that reality television means the death of drama.

Take a bite out of "Big Apple, " which premiered last week and airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. (Channel 9, WUSA), and be reminded why that matters. Its plotted conflicts are far juicier than faux-reality ones and ultimately more satisfying.

"Big Apple" is from two heavyweight police-series producers, David Milch, co-creator of "NYPD Blue, " and Anthony Yerkovich of "Miami Vice. " Their joint effort puts a new polish on the genre.

While "NYPD Blue" is heart and grit, and "Miami Vice" was flashy sex, "Big Apple" is a sophisticated chess game in which crooks, cops and G-men plot intricate moves that put lives and souls at stake.

The result is a drama of subtle complexity that bears watching, and watching again. Even those devoted to the adrenalin rush of "ER, " which airs against "Big Apple, " might consider a change of pace.

Ed ONeill (leaving his last series, "Married … With Children, " behind in impressive fashion) stars as Mooney, a hard-nosed lawman who is unfazed by power or its trappings.

When the FBI tries to dissuade Mooney and his partner, Vincent Trout (Jeffrey Pierce), from investigating a Park Avenue penthouse murder, Mooney thumbs his nose by interviewing the victims strip-club co-workers.

That earns Mooney a summons from FBI official William Preecher (David Strathairn) and an unexpected offer: Work with the agency on the murder case, which intersects with an FBI probe of Russian mobsters.

The police officer accepts, thrusting him into an uneasy alliance with FBI agent Jimmy Flynn (Titus Welliver), who has his own difficult partnership with informant Terry Maddock (Michael Madsen).

Throw in a new FBI agent, Sarah Day (Kim Dickens), brought into the New York bureau to look for evidence of agent misconduct, and its clear Mooney is stepping into a war zone more uncertain than the citys mean streets.

Avoiding the land mines takes a sharp eye and strong character.

"Whatever lip service it pays to morality in its charter does not make an institution moral, " Preecher warns agent Day at one point. "Only people make it moral."

The cast includes Glynn Turman as an FBI official and Donnie Wahlberg as a young hood whos learning the cruelties of the world.

The intensity of "Big Apple" is amplified by the black-and-white images generated by FBI surveillance cameras.

(The series does get down and dirty with the strip-club scene, apparently the favored post-"Sopranos" way to show some skin.)

In a bit of irony, "Big Apple" will be capping a night of prime-time programming that suddenly is strong for CBS because of a reality show, "Survivor: The Australian Outback."

Despite the advantage of having "Survivor" and the freshman hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" as its lead-ins, "Big Apple" will have to fight for viewers against NBCs top-rated "ER. " (Theres a brief respite when "Big Apple" moves to 9 p.m. Wednesday to accommodate NCAA basketball on March 14 and 21).

CBS, which has ordered 13 episodes of "Big Apple, " said it has realistic expectations as the drama takes over the Thursday time slot from the low-rated newsmagazine "48 Hours."

"There is not one person at CBS who expects 'Big Apple to beat or even be close to 'ER,' " network spokesman Chris Ender said. "All we want is to retain a higher percentage of viewers from the 'CSI lead-in."

Mr. ONeill, squeezing in a cell-phone interview during a lunch break, is asked how it feels to go against televisions most popular series.

"Gulp, " Mr. ONeill replies. "Were terrified of 'ER. Its a great show. Its a huge smash hit. I want to go up against a rerun of 'Captain Kangaroo.' "

Mr. Milch is more sanguine.

"I think the smart money tends to miss its bus every morning. Theres no way to know how were going to do against 'ER. Theres just too many imponderables."

Thats the same reality as in "Big Apple": intricate and unpredictable.

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