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We Mean It, Man

Nash Bridges
Bridges to the 21st Century: Don Johnson and Cheech Marin seek redemption and syndication.

When irony turns to sincerity, 'Nash Bridges' becomes lovable

By Zack Stentz

PEOPLE IN THEIR 20s get justly slammed in the media for being part of a generation addicted to the smirk. Why take anything seriously or risk emotional entanglements when one can view the world through the comforting lens of irony and detachment?--or so goes the stereotype.

But a strange thing happens when one sits down to have a laugh at Charlie's Angels reruns, Monster Truck racing or dad's bowling-shirt collection. As slowly and inexorably as amber trapping a fly, the urge to mock can turn into an openhearted, unreserved love and appreciation for the phenomenon in question.

Example one: Visiting a friend's house the other day, I was only a little surprised to find a copy of William Shatner's The Transformed Man in the CD changer. It's a Gen X rite of passage to chortle at the Toupeed One's rendition of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."

Something else, however, was at work here, some strange alchemical force that transmutes irony into sincerity. "Well," my friend sheepishly explained. "I bought it because it was funny--you know, Captain Kirk doing a dramatic reading of 'Mr. Tambourine Man.' But now, I just listen to it because I like it. I don't know how it happened."

Example two: Nash Bridges, the CBS Friday cop show. Obeying the dictum that there must always be at least one prime-time drama set in San Francisco, just as there has to be one in Hawaii (and indeed, a pilot for a new version of Hawaii Five-O is in the works), Nash has emerged as the network's unlikeliest hit of the fall season.

I'll admit, I started watching Nash Bridges with my critical knives sharpened. Even though the show was created by Carlton Cuse, one of the geniuses behind the late, great Brisco County Jr. and Crime Story series; provided welcome employment to the guy who played the sweet gay English teacher in My So-Called Life (here he plays a goofy hetero detective); and pumped much-needed revenue into San Francisco's coffers, I remained skeptical.

In the debit column was one Don Johnson, who had long ago erased fond memories of his previous Friday hit, Miami Vice (a show that actually got better after everyone stopped watching it), with films like Born Yesterday and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. But a couple episodes into watching Nash, ready and raring to mock, I actually started to like the show.

The obligatory cop-show action scenes are fairly routine, if well-executed, but the interactions among the affable, multiculti cast are quite engaging, and there's a sly sense of humor at work that suggests Cuse's previous show, Brisco County Jr. "That's my sensibility," acknowledges Cuse, on the phone from his Los Angeles office. "Nash isn't as broad as Brisco was, but we like to have humor in there as well as action and drama."

And as he did with the eponymous protagonist of Brisco County Jr., Cuse has fashioned a lead character who breaks from the tiresome "hero with a dark side" cliché by staying virtuous and decent, yet somehow off-kilter.

"Our whole idea for the character of Nash was to have a guy who got all A's as a cop but flunked his personal life," explains Cuse. "And like a lot of people in his 40s, this neglect of his personal life has come home to roost." Two divorces, a willful teenage daughter and aging dad both living at home--Cuse is right, the guy's a poster boy for baby-boomer midlife disappointment.


Nash Bridges, the official home page for the program.

An online discussion group about the show.


INHABITING that flawed persona is, appropriately enough, Johnson, who amazingly turns out to be quite charming in this context. The years of big-screen disappointment and Melanie Griffith estrangement have given Johnson a welcome humility. His crumbling pretty-boy looks actually lend him a pathos he never achieved in his days as a sneering, Armani-clad hipster.

Of course, Johnson and the cast get to frolic and chase bad guys in the incomparable setting of San Francisco, which means that even if the dialogue falters, there's always a pretty view to look at. Unlike most Bay Area­based shows, which send a second unit up to shoot a few exteriors and do the rest on a Burbank sound stage, Nash's producers are justifiably proud of shooting the entire show in the Bay Area.

They must have some sort of technical adviser working on the program as well, ensuring that the proper Bay Area names get dropped and not too many laws of geography egregiously violated during the car chases, as in last summer's aggressively stupid The Rock, in which Sean Connery seemed to pass through interdimensional null-space to drive almost instantaneously between vastly separate locations.

Matters are also helped by the fact that the Bay Area's CBS affiliate, KPIX, broadcasts prime time an hour earlier, which results in Nash appearing before NBC's Homicide rather than head-to-head as in most markets (when a particularly bizarre event occurred on the rival cop show earlier this season, one of the detectives was heard to declare, "It's like an episode of 'Nash Bridges' around here").

"We've actually got beaten up a bit in the press because of that," says Cuse. "Because Homicide is such a critics' darling, a lot of television writers resent us for cutting into their ratings."

NOT THIS CRITIC. Although Homicide is undoubtedly the superior show, its high-strung cast and demanding storytelling style often come across as simply too heavy for an end-of-the-work-week evening of viewing (and don't even start on that other Friday at 9 bleakfest, Millennium). But with the addition of Nash's warmth and anarchic sense of fun, Friday becomes a damn-near perfect night of television.

It's sort of like confession. Say 10 "Hail Barry Levinsons," observe Andre Braugher emote and all your TV sins are forgiven. In fact, enjoying Nash leaves one feeling downright cleansed and decent (though without the saccharine aftertaste caused by exposure to Touched by an Angel).

After all, irony in all its modern incarnations, from Saturday Night Live on down to David Letterman, at heart represents the stance of a bully. Stripped of the subversive veneer, getting a chuckle from kitsch isn't all that different from making fun of the fat kid in junior high P.E. or laughing at a foreigner's funny accent. How much better to simply like a TV show, without the tiresome chore of having to put that fondness inside quotation marks.

And besides, who needs ironic detachment when one can instead have Don Johnson and sidekick "Cheech" Marin bounce and weave through San Francisco's photogenically hilly streets in that cool-ass yellow Barracuda with a rumbling engine that sounds like it was grafted from a deep-sea trawler? Now that's entertainment.

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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