Sunday New Shows, Fall 2001

By Bruce Fretts
Updated September 07, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • TV Show
  • CBS

CBS, 8-9 p.m., Sunday
Debuts September 23

”Marcia Gay Harden, you’ve just won an Oscar. What are you going to do next?”

”I’m going to costar in a show for CBS!”

Okay, so it’s not the most traditional career path. Harden had already been nominated for Best Supporting Actress when she signed on for ”The Education of Max Bickford,” but nobody — including her — thought she’d win. If she had known she was going to take home a statuette for ”Pollock,” would she have still agreed to do a TV show?

”Gosh, that’s a really hard question,” the 42-year-old actress admits. ”I’d like to think that I would’ve, because it’s a life choice I really want. Doing TV is a way an actor can explore their creative self, continue to make a living, and have a family.” (Harden has a two-year-old daughter, Eulala, with her husband, documentary filmmaker Thaddaeus Scheel.)

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that her leading man is also an Oscar winner: Richard Dreyfuss, who was named Best Actor for 1977’s ”The Goodbye Girl.” He plays Bickford, a middle-aged history professor at the fictional Chadwick College who had a fling with Harden’s Andrea Haskell when she was one of his students — and he was still married to his late wife. Now Andrea has returned to Chadwick as an endowed chair of the American studies department, a job Max desperately wanted.

Will romance reblossom? ”I don’t know where it’s going,” says Harden. ”But the tension is pretty palpable.” Maybe an even bigger question is: Will viewers sympathize with a couple who carried on an extramarital affair? ”We forgive Presidents who blow it, so I think we can forgive Max Bickford,” says Nicole Yorkin, who created ”Max” with fellow ”Judging Amy” alum Dawn Prestwich. Dreyfuss isn’t worried: ”I’m absolutely convinced there will not be placards and shouting and demonstrations against Max Bickford because he had an affair.” Harden’s not so sure, however, how people will react to her character: ”They’ll probably feel like I’m a terrible heathen.”

That isn’t the only potentially eyebrow-raising plotline for ”Max.” His best male friend has just undergone a sex-change operation and returns in the person of Helen Shaver (”The Craft”). ”Helen’s got this great strong jaw,” says Prestwich. ”It’s kinda believable.”

Pretty spicy stuff for a show inheriting the home long occupied by the tapioca likes of ”Touched by an Angel” and ”Murder, She Wrote.” ”It’s got a reputation of being a soft family [slot], and we hope we’re a little edgier,” says Dreyfuss. Enthuses CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem, ”It’s a great transition from ”60 Minutes,” which deals with a lot of adult content.”

One might think CBS would be hesitant to do a series with big-screen talent after last season’s ”Bette” debacle, yet Tellem has no fear: ”It isn’t the big movie star” that makes or breaks a show, she says. ”The substance of the series has to work week in and week out.” Has Dreyfuss consulted with Midler, his ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills” costar, about her experiences with the Eye? ”No, I haven’t,” he says. Then, with a laugh: ”Maybe I should.”

The Education of Max Bickford

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  • In Season
  • CBS