Dispatches > The Buzz

Sopranos wannabe

NBC's "controversial" new drama reaches for new lows as it aspires to copy cable's hit series on the underworld

Issue: "The cost of war," Feb. 15, 2003

Kingpin, which debuted last week on NBC, is a gasping network effort to emulate the success of HBO's The Sopranos. No critical prowess is needed to see this: The show wears its aspirations on its sleeve. Ads tout the illegal-drug-themed drama as "controversial" and "envelope- pushing." The ads also highlight the creative involvement of the producer of (controversial) NYPD Blue and director of (controversial) The Sopranos.

Kingpin promises to be a Sopranos-like look at the Mexican drug trade, focusing on Miguel Cadena (Yancy Arias), a U.S.-educated husband and father who is rising fast in his family's business. He's supported by gringa wife Marlene (Sheryl Lee), who is, predictably, a perfect match for her husband's ambitions.

Like most knock-offs, Kingpin wants up front what The Sopranos took time to earn. Whatever its faults-and there are many-The Sopranos deserves some of the hype that surrounds it. The show has a unique vision, and is often dramatically compelling, despite its usual excess of violence and sex. The graphic nature of The Sopranos is a fatal flaw, and not at all to be commended, but even that has a contextual integrity on the show.

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Kingpin craves this same sort of attention. It announced itself as controversial before the first show aired, and it works hard to live up to this promise, within what remains of the constraints of broadcast TV. In the first two episodes, there were several gruesome moments, but they were so self-consciously dropped into the plot that they became almost ridiculous.

Although not touted in the advance advertising, schlock veteran Aaron Spelling also serves as a producer on the series, and it bears a stronger resemblance to his body of work (Melrose Place, 90210 among them) than to The Sopranos. Kingpin is standard melodrama, dressed up with guns and sex to achieve a sense of importance. It's a show that creates its international atmosphere by having its Mexican characters, all of whom speak English, occasionally use 6th-grade Spanish terms like familia or gracias or gringo.

While bloody, so far the show has nothing on, say, the unabated sleaze of Fox's Fastlane. If the show doesn't find an audience soon, however, look for the "controversial" content to pick up.

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