Nobody walks around a chalk outline in this pilot, which, given CBS’ recent history, represents something of an upset. Rather, the show hearks back to the network’s 1970s roots, when family dynasties collided against fabulously opulent backdrops — in this case, focusing on a Cuban-American clan’s sugar empire. Well cast, with a sturdy central presence in Jimmy Smits as the adopted son handed the keys to the kingdom, “Cane” yearns to be “Dallas” with a salsa flavor, providing an early test of the Eye web’s strategy to stretch beyond its crime-and-punishment profile.
Boil it down, and “Cane” emerges as a corporate succession battle, pitting the principled Alex (Smits) against his adopted brother Frank (Nestor Carbonell), as their dad (Hector Elizondo) begins to loosen his grip on the family’s holdings. (The old man is said to be fading, but given Elizondo’s gristly performance, let’s hope he miraculously hangs on for awhile.)
Alex has married into the family by wedding Isabel (Paola Turbay), with whom he’s produced gorgeous kids. Meanwhile, another major land-owning family, the Samuels — among them “Rome’s” sultry Polly Walker — seeks to buy out the Duques’ holdings, promising plenty of high-stakes chicanery as Alex attempts to protect the family business from enemies within and without.
Unlike “Ugly Betty,” which reinvented the telenovela as dramedy to attract Hispanics and still cross over, “Cane” tacitly recognizes the tastes of that growing audience segment while positioning itself as a conventional soap. In that respect, the series owes far more to “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest” than, say, “Mesa Para Tres” (one of the Latin American soaps that helped birth MyNetworkTV’s best-forgotten original lineup). Still, “Cane” faces the uphill battle of establishing a grown-up serial on a network steeped in procedural crime.
Smits reminded everyone just what a compelling TV star he is on “The West Wing’s” underappreciated final season, and he’s clearly the show’s principal asset — battling over which direction to steer the company, and based on the pilot, ruthless enough to avoid (it is hoped) being too saintly and bland. Thus far, though, other than being muy caliente, there’s little to distinguish the rest of the cast, beyond a calculated attempt to attract a younger crowd (or at least get kids to sit down with their grandmothers) by adding teenagers to the frothy doings.
With “The Unit” as a lead-in, this series created by Cynthia Cidre (“The Mambo Kings”) seemingly has an opportunity to get noticed, with the necessary disclaimer that such serialized fare has proven extremely fragile — especially on a network so strongly associated with procedurals that it might be extra difficult to raise “Cane.”