Bruce Fretts and Kristen Baldwin
September 11, 1998 AT 04:00 AM EDT

New Show

VENGEANCE UNLIMITED
Sure, he’s got more than 38 movie under his belt (including such Oscar-nominated humdingers as Donnie Brasco and Thelma & Louise) and is widely recognized as the big screen’s brooding character actor extraordinaire. That doesn’t mean Michael Madsen is too cool for an arena snobbishly referred to as feature film’s stepchild.

”This thing came to me and I didn’t give a damn whether it was TV or not,” the actor says in the seductive growl he employed to such menacing effect in Reservoir Dogs. ”I thought it was a good premise and character.” Madsen plays the mysterious Mr. Chapel, a loner who, like Dellaventura and the Equalizer before him, brings justice to those who have been wronged by criminal scum. The twist? Chapel concocts elaborate, sadistic schemes to force said criminal scum (from a murderous wealthy exec to a corrupt small-town sheriff) to confess. While the shadowy Mr. Chapel comes across as a loose cannon in Vengeance‘s pilot, Madsen insists his character is not a lunatic.

”I’m not shooting anybody, I’m not killing anybody,” he says. ”If he was walking around with a glock in one hand and a .45 in the other, then you’d say, ‘Wow. This f—in’ guy is f—in’ nuts!”’

Maybe it’s executive producer John McNamara who’s #*%! nuts. He’s the same guy who signed with ABC just months after the network unceremoniously dumped his campy Spy Game after three episodes last year. And now they’ve given his show one the most dreaded time slots. ”It hasn’t bothered me that much because I think every night on ABC is a hard night,” says McNamara. ”That’s not to knock ABC. I think they’re fighting back.”
BOTTOM LINE Madsen has a slow-burn charm, and this violent, low-rent production could be the ticket for those seeking an alternative to the urban slick of NBC’s Thursday juggernaut.

Returning Shows

FRIENDS
When last we saw Ross (David Schwimmer), he had just accidentally blurted out the name of ex-girlfriend Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) during his wedding to Emily (Helen Baxendale). What lies ahead? ”A bumpy road,” promises cocreator David Crane. ”Rachel knows she loves him, but he doesn’t know what he wants. And Emily’s not leaving the picture so fast.” There’ll also be a ”neurotic roller coaster” for secret new couple Monica (Courteney Cox) and Chandler (Matthew Perry): ”Where it ends we don’t know yet,” says Crane. We do know that perennially struggling actor Joey (Matt LeBlanc) may stage a one-man show, Joey: A Life, and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) will give birth to her brother’s triplets in the third episode — which just happens to be Friends‘ 100th episode. Gee, you think NBC will publicize that?

FRASIER
Even as they move into Seinfeld‘s plush former digs, Frasier‘s characters seem to be experiencing downward mobility. Having lost his job at KACL by inadvertently persuading the station owner to switch to an all-Latino-music format, Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) seeks employment elsewhere, with little success. At the same time, the divorce between Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Maris turns ugly, which, says exec producer Christopher Lloyd, ”results in Niles having to move out of his beautiful, stately apartment building and into a shabby convenience bachelor apartment.” Two rough-edged recurring characters, a waitress at Cafe Nervosa and Niles’ disreputable divorce attorney, join the ensemble (the roles are not yet cast). And Bebe Neuwirth’s Lilith may not be the only Cheers alum making a guest appearance: Producers have approached Woody Harrelson about paying a visit to his old time slot.

VERONICA’S CLOSET
Kirstie Alley’s lingerie magnate gets a new partner — and potential love interest — in Ron Silver (Chicago Hope). He’ll play a hard-nosed businessman who buys a controlling interest in her company. Turns out he’s the stepdad of the fake-Brit rich brat played by James Wilder (Alley’s real-life beau, who’ll thankfully appear in only four episodes) and the ex-husband of Holland Taylor’s character, who expired last season while making love to Veronica’s presumed-gay assistant, Josh (Wallace Langham). Don’t expect Josh to figure out his sexuality. ”He’s a man with even more questions,” says cocreator David Crane. ”But with an actor as funny as Wally, the more confusion, the better.” And with a show as uneven as Veronica, the more Wally, the better.

ER
This time last year, Kellie Martin was an art history major at Yale. She was also a major ER fan. ”At school, everything stops for ER and South Park,” she reports. Then she got a call from ER exec producer John Wells, who remembered her from Life Goes On. ”He asked if I was interested in doing the show,” marvels Martin, who was equally awed her first day as med student Lucy Knight: ”I was starstruck, but then I went, ‘Okay, these are your coworkers — you can’t ask for autographs.’ ”

It was exactly this sort of naïveté that led Wells to cast Martin. ”She has that general medical-student combination of enthusiasm, intelligence, and deer-caught-in-the-headlights,” he says. Sounds like Noah Wyle’s Dr. John Carter in the first season, although now he’s matured into the role of Lucy’s mentor. With George Clooney exiting at the end of this season, Wyle is also expected to segue into the role of ER‘s romantic leading man — even though his leading lady, Maria Bello (Dr. Anna Del Amico), left the show. ”She has a burgeoning film career,” explains Wells of Bello’s amicable departure. ”And she expressed some unhappiness [with her character], which she was absolutely right about. We were going to soften her, but we ended up making her harder. I think she was finding it a little boring to play, frankly.”

Wells is tight-lipped about how Clooney’s Dr. Doug Ross will depart, although he acknowledges Ross’ ”conflict with the hospital administration” will continue. Wells seems more concerned Ross’ absence will mean that Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Mark Greene is losing yet another pal after Sherry Stringfield’s Dr. Susan Lewis split two seasons ago: ”The poor guy won’t have any friends.” With a new $35 million deal, that may be the last time you’ll hear the words Anthony Edwards and poor guy in the same sentence.

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