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The Marshal

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Trapped between those squirmy NBC Sisters and that wooden Walker, Texas Ranger on CBS, The Marshal (ABC, Saturdays, 10-11 p.m.) is having a devil of a time attracting an audience. Would you please start watching it? The Marshal stars Jeff Fahey as U.S. Marshal Winston MacBride, who is, as someone remarked in an early episode, ”a big-time retriever.” MacBride is the guy they call in when the local police are stumped by a tough case or have failed to track down a particularly dangerous suspect. As a federal officer assigned to capture fugitives from justice, MacBride can throw his weight around just about anywhere in America, and part of the fun is following him as he moves from the Deep South to the rainy Northwest to some big Eastern city to take over a case and make smart-aleck remarks to baffled law-enforcement sad sacks. Fahey is perfectly suited to this task. He has the chiseled good looks and thick wuffly hair of a thousand actors, but he also has disconcertingly big pouty lips and thoroughly unnerving light blue eyes that seem downright spooky when he fixes the camera with a tough-guy stare. Until now, Fahey was known primarily for sporting a strikingly ugly blond mop in The Lawnmower Man and for starring in such straight-to-cable schlock films as 1993’s Woman of Desire, the title character played by, of course, Bo Derek. The Marshal, which premiered Jan. 31, allows him to strut his stuff. The best thing that series creators Daniel Pyne and John Mankiewicz have done is to give MacBride that Jim Rockford thing: an air of fallibility. Sure, MacBride looks cool-he wears his badge clipped to his belt over his right hip, and it glints when he swaggers-but he also goofs up regularly. MacBride may momentarily lose a suspect when he trips and falls; he sometimes pursues quirky hunches that-unlike the quirky hunching done by any number of other lumbering TV lawmen (have I mentioned Walker, Texas Ranger?)-don’t always prove to be uncannily true. MacBride is an eccentric in the body of a hotshot. One of the series’ executive producers is actor Don Johnson, no stranger himself to spoofing macho posturing in his days on Miami Vice. Johnson directed a recent episode that was a standard suspense tale, right down to the old hero-running-across- the-top-of-train-cars routine to catch the criminal. But as usual, The Marshal distinguished itself by the caliber of its cast, which included the veteran character actor and acting teacher Jeff Corey as well as Miami Vice’s John Diehl as a ruthless escapee known as the Beast. So far, my favorite Marshal was the one where Kari Wuhrer, an accomplished C-grade horror-movie actress and revered as the token ”girl” on MTV’s awful game show Remote Control, played a stripper who liked to pull a large gun out of her extremely small costume to rob the aroused patrons of whatever joint she was working. When a smitten customer (John Hawkes, wonderfully dazed and confused) helped her complete a robbery, they took off together, and The Marshal turned into a small-screen version of Thieves Like Us, as the unlikely lovers left a trail of crime for MacBride to follow. At once true to action- show rules and properly parodic about the role of good guys in the late 20th century, The Marshal is an underrated pleasure. B+