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A PBS show is pioneering — and disappointing.

Dysfunctional Dysfunctional "Family"


PBS TV's new "American Family" series has problems. Serious problems.

Problem No. 1: It has an excellent cast, but they're searching in vain for a good script.

Problem No. 2: It's poorly visualized.

Problem No. 3: Ditto the audio.

Let's take the problems in order. To the producers' credit, they've cast Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos ("Stand and Deliver") as the head of the family and firebrand actress Raquel Welch ("Legally Blonde") as his sister, the aunt who lives next door. And the rest of the cast members, although not as well known, manage to more than hold their own. Among them are Constance Marie, Rachel Ticotin, A.J. Lamas, Austin Marques and Kurt Caceres.

But much to their discredit, the producers seemed to have skimped on the writing budget. The result: scripts that are hackneyed and pedestrian, plots that are shopworn and cliched, and story resolutions that can be seen coming long before they arrive.

The Gonzalez family of East L.A. seems to encompass one of everything. The father is a bellowing patriarch. The mother is a veritable saint. One daughter is a feminist attorney. One son is a doctor. Another son is just out of prison and struggling to stop Social Services from taking his young son away. Another daughter is a high-school academic standout. Another son chronicles the family's turmoil on his Web site. And then there's Aunt Dora, who bounces in and out of their lives — with a flamboyant toss of her head and an encouraging word — for no apparent reason at all except that she's Raquel Welch, and since they're paying her, they might as well use her.

Now to the look of the show: The video colorist seems to have been allowed to run amok. Scenes are bathed in orange and yellow tones that are apparently meant to suggest the warmth that radiates from the Gonzalez household. But the effect is not one of coziness so much as it is of visual weirdness. Watching it is like trying to match paint samples at sunset — while wearing dark glasses.

Then there's the audio -- or perhaps it's better described as the not-audio. Trying to follow the dialogue is like eavesdropping on a conversation taking place two rooms away down a long tiled hallway. Is there nobody in charge of making sure the microphones are at least in the same ZIP code as the actors?

PBS says the series is the first Latino drama to air on broadcast television. And the network says it's the first original prime-time American episodic drama to air on PBS in decades.

Heaven knows, I don't presume to speak as a Latino, but if I were, I think I'd feel cheated. I might even consider lettering up a few signs and picketing. The series is that bad -- insulting, even.

As for PBS' second claim, if I were a PBS publicist, I wouldn't be dashing off any bragging press releases now or anytime soon.

"American Family" airs on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on PBS TV.

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