- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

LOS ANGELES
While the title character of "John Doe" searches for his identity, the new Fox drama is on an even more crucial quest for viewers.
Its mission is helped by an intriguing concept, that of a man who washes up on a Seattle-area island lacking any memory of himself or his life but with boundless knowledge and the ability to master a skill quickly.
That sets up clever scenes in which Doe, who becomes an amateur crime buster while trying to solve his own mystery, rattles off enough facts to fill a CNN Headline News screen and is an instant pilot, race-car driver or whatever is needed.
Another plus for "John Doe" is its handsome star, Dominic Purcell, who manages to make his know-it-all character both likable and swagger-free.
So what's conspiring against the drama? For starters, it airs on Friday night, when there are fewer TV viewers in general and fewer young adult viewers Fox's lifeblood in particular.
It also has the misfortune to follow the struggling science-fiction series "Firefly," which is showing barely a flicker of life in the ratings.
"Firefly," at 8 p.m., has averaged 4.9 million viewers per episode. "John Doe," at 9 p.m., has drawn an average 7 million viewers per episode.
"It would obviously have a much stronger chance if we were on a more-watched night of television," says Mimi Leder, one of the show's executive producers. "I wish we were on a different night, or I wish we had a stronger lead-in."
That said, Miss Leder expresses satisfaction with what she deems to be outstanding scripts, acting and directing.
"John Doe" is part of that breed of fresh and inventive series that attract small, devoted audiences and sometimes blossom into mainstream hits if a network is willing to be patient.
The same thing happened to another offbeat drama that debuted in 1993 in the tough Friday time slot now held by "John Doe." From an unimpressive start, "The X-Files" grew into an acclaimed success for Fox.
Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson, the creators as well as executive producers of "John Doe," would be happy to follow the path of "The X-Files." As for the character's journey to self-discovery, they already have that fully mapped out.
Mr. Camp and Mr. Thompson, who have been working in films ("Dragonfly" with Kevin Costner, the upcoming "Steinbeck's Point of View" with Richard Gere), initially envisioned "John Doe" as a big-screen drama complete with "endgame."
When it was revamped for television, they knew they would have to keep their eye on the planned outcome to avoid confusion.
"Is he an alien? Is he an android, an angel, a government construct? Is he just a guy who fell off a boat and has a tumor in his head?" Mr. Camp says. "We do intend to explore all of those possibilities. But it's important [for us] to know what the truth is so it all makes sense in the end."
Look for scattered clues and the growing presence of "nefarious forces" tracking Doe, the producers suggest.
The show has overtones of science fiction and fantasy (Mr. Camp and Mr. Thompson are coy about whether any such elements figure into Doe's origins), but the intent is to ground it in everyday life.
"John Doe is a metaphor for each of us," Mr. Thompson says, "exploring who we are, what's important in life, what are our priorities: Am I wasting my time or using it well?"
Mr. Purcell, who is part of the invasion of Australian actors (others on TV this season include Anthony LaPaglia and Poppy Montgomery on CBS' "Without a Trace"), says he plays Doe as a man often "uneasy in his own skin."
"I really shied away from the stereotypical hero who saves the world. I wanted him to be vulnerable and accessible," says Mr. Purcell, who cites Tom Selleck's affable detective in "Magnum, P.I." as a favorite character.
The larger mystery of John Doe is gradually pieced together while Doe takes on a succession of criminal cases that may or may not be linked to his quest.
He has established himself as a detective-without-portfolio with the Seattle police, working with Detective Frank Hayes (John Marshall Jones) and the reluctant Lt. Jamie Avery (Jayne Brook).
The idea of presenting a "neo-Sherlock Holmes" who could deduce his way to a solution was appealing, Mr. Thompson says.
"We also love the tragic irony of a guy who can solve other people's mysteries but can't solve his own," Mr. Camp adds.
Other members of Doe's newly formed circle are bar owner Digger (William Forsythe) and an energetic girl Friday, Karen (Sprague Grayden). Beginning in December, Gabrielle Anwar ("Scent of a Woman") brings romance into Doe's life.
Miss Leder, a veteran director and producer who has worked on both TV hits ("ER") and misses ("The Beast"), is philosophical about the chances for "John Doe."
"It's such a crapshoot when you make a TV show. 'ER' was like lightning in a bottle. That's hard to catch," she says. "All we can do is control the vision of the show, where it's going, and hope for the best."


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