Emmy-winning producer Dick Wolf may have something of a lighter side after all. Wolf, vying with David E. Kelley for the moniker of hardest working man in television, maintains his “Law & Order” standard of drama and realism with “Deadline,” but there’s a hint of whimsy in this engaging new series toplining Oliver Platt.
While the show isn’t as dark as Wolf flagship “Law & Order” and spinoff “Special Victims Unit,” chances are no one will think the TV veteran has become an eternal optimist — an outlook he may need to adopt, with “Deadline” facing ABC’s “Monday Night Football” CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” and Fox’s “Ally McBeal” in the brutal Monday-at-9 slot.
Writers Wolf and Robert Palm explore the often conflicted world of Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Wallace Benton (Platt) as he uncovers “Nothing but the Truth” in his weekly column for the fictional New York Ledger. Between dogging the streets for the inside scoop, Benton also tutors grad students on the finer points of investigative journalism.
Molded in the tradition of Jimmy Breslin, Mike McAlary and Murray Kempton, Benton is built with smarts, guts and instinct, with a healthy dose of ego and appetite thrown in. If he’s not battling over stories with his editor Nikki Masucci (Bebe Neuwirth), he’s jousting with his not-yet-ex-wife and fellow journalist Brooke Benton (Hope Davis).
In the pilot, we learn that Benton won his Pulitzer for covering a high-profile fast-food murder case, which led to the conviction of two local thugs. But when a copycat crime occurs in Chicago, Benton decides to investigate the original case further. His own words come back to haunt him when it looks as if the wrong men are about to face execution for the crime in New York.
Platt, best-known for his work on the bigscreen (“Bulworth,” “Gun Shy”), is a colorful choice for Benton, and, judging from the first episode, he can carry the bulk of the action. But with a stellar cast that includes Neuwirth, Tom Conti and the engaging Lili Taylor, there’s no reason to go it alone.
Debut episode serves up a nice introduction to Benton — a prima donna chauffeured around town by his students, but besieged by a nagging conscience that keeps him on an even keel — but there’s only a taste of the wealth of characters lurking about him. Davis gets the most airtime next to Platt as Benton’s estranged wife — and their dysfunctional Nick-and-Nora routine produces some of the show’s best dialogue.
Realism is always a big part of a Wolf project, and “Deadline” maintains that satisfying patina, thanks to director Don Scardino, who has been fundamental in cultivating the look of “Law & Order” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The set, located on the premises of the New York Post’s old newsroom, lends a great boost to the show’s authenticity.