CBS deserves to gloat over “The Education of Max Bickford.” With an Academy Award pedigree and a smart pilot, the much-promo’d Richard Dreyfuss starrer is primed to score with anyone looking for an adult sensibility on TV. A complete turnaround from “Touched by an Angel,” the timeslot resident who lived in the Sunday-at-8 spot for five years, project could use some tinkering here and there, but its literary proclivities and sharp dialogue translate into a noteworthy fall entry.
“Bickford” marks Dreyfuss’ first dramatic series role, and it’s hardly a “Mr. Holland’s Opus” redux. Whereas the 1995 film featured a permanently “on” actor – let’s tell the kids about the power of music! – here he’s low-key one moment and ticked off the next. Max Bickford is not a likable guy, but it’s a likable part, ready to mine narrative gold from anything that affects middle-aged men: jealousy, anger, pettiness, money and family.
Exec producer Dawn Prestwich, who has written for critically applauded skeins like “Picket Fences” and “Chicago Hope,” has surrounded Dreyfuss with an amiable cast, including 2000 supporting actress Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden (“Pollock”), Helen Shaver, Regina Taylor and Ron Glass. They are exactly what television doesn’t have: pompous but temperate intellectuals who know they’ve been hiding out but don’t care too much about their lack of coping skills. They work at fictional all-girl ivy league Chadwick College, adore their book-lined universe and have little use for consumerism or the stock market.
A widowed father of two, American Studies professor Max is ruled by women. Andrea Haskell (Harden) is coming in from Harvard to fill a chair post that Max felt he deserved. To make things worse, she’s an expert at pop culture, “gets” the real world and, oh yes, they had a relationship when she was in his class a decade ago.
He’s also stressed over Judith Bryant (Taylor), the school’s president who endorses Andrea’s hiring, and Erica (Shaver), a friend who recently returned from an 18-month sabbatical with a different perspective on life. She used to be a man named Steve.
On the home front, Max has daughter Nell (Katee Sackhoff), an angry songstress who may or may not be pregnant, lives in the dorms and resents Dad for being alone, being an academician and anything else she can find. Her comfort zone is centered around younger brother Lester (Eric Ian Goldberg), a lonely kid who cherishes Max but doesn’t see him very often, since he’s always either at the office or writing a semi-autobiographical book.
“Max Bickford” definitely has a post-Clinton feel: Every scene is filled with one man’s reactions to and problems with sexual tension. Female colleagues are threatening. Female friends take control of situations. Female relatives drive him crazy.
As for overall tone, despite the fringe people and emotionally charged events that define Max, the narrative is evenly paced. But as calm as the show is as a whole, some of it’s parts are very highstrung; on day one, there’s a sex-change operation, a resignation and a few arguments all wrapped together.
Prestwich, who co-wrote the first episode with Nicole Yorkin, has an ear for mature conversations, but their decision to complement them with random subplots could become a detriment. Still, the actual dialogues are breezy, and director Rod Holcomb nicely mixes urgency with light humor.
The scholarly angle to “Max Bickford” is its most intriguing aspect. It’s not perfect – the students’ please-teach-me-I-want-to-learn attitude is a bit much, and their responses are too scripted. What clicks, however, are the lectures Max gets to deliver on camera once in a while. They’re not full of “Mr. Chips” positivity or “Dead Poets Society” theatrics; instead, they’re warm and thought-provoking.
Perfs are solid all around. Dreyfuss anchors the show with a combination of heart and harriedness, and he’s symbolic of fiftysomething America, from child-raising to love affairs gone bad. Debut doesn’t do much with Harden, but introduces her as someone who will flame Max’s nervous energy. She’s confident, attractive, gutsy and savvy. Glass is used properly as Max’s buddy and a voice of reason, and Erick Avery is right-on as the department chief. Shaver is notable, but her character needs some fleshing out. In the middle of this wisdom and erudition is a transsexual plotline that seems a bit much.
Tech credits are tops. A warm-and-cozy atmosphere is appropriately captured by lenser Andy Dintenfass and production designer Jim Newport, while Don and David Was’ score hits the right notes. Pilot was filmed at USC, and subsequent hours will be filmed at Wagner College in Staten Island and Brooklyn College.