Empty10-11 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 25
Quick: What was the last Latino-themed drama series to have a decent run on network television? (Beeeeep. Your time is up.) Sorry, that was a trick question -- because there haven't been any. Showtime had "Resurrection Blvd." and PBS the superb "American Family" earlier this decade, but that has essentially been it. The broadcast guys haven't been able to mount an hour featuring a predominantly Latino cast, but they finally scored a comedy hit with "George Lopez."
This season, CBS is giving drama another shot with "Cane," a slick and earnest soap about rival families in South Florida. One makes sugar and rum; the other makes trouble. And presiding over it all is the ever-capable Jimmy Smits, who has been around long enough to play a world-weary heavyweight rather than the affable hunk of roles past. The show will sink or swim on his broad shoulders, and early indications are reasonably promising.
Despite the title, there is actually nobody named Cane here. The primary clan here is the Duques, a Cuban-American family headed by patriarch Pancho (Hector Elizondo) and matriarch Amalia (Rita Moreno, still breathing fire). They have an ambitious son, Frank (Nestor Carbonell), who sees as his birthright the assumption of their mega-successful rum and sugar empire. Frank is locked in a power struggle with Alex Vega (Smits), Pancho's son-in-law who married into the business via his daughter Isabel (Paola Turbay), while youngest son Henry (Eddie Matos) is content to stay on the sidelines and away from the battle.
On the other side are members of the Samuels family, the Duques' bitter adversaries who run their own sugar biz and resort to dirty tricks like killing family members when things don't go their way.
In the opener, penned by executive producer Cynthia Cidre, things heat up after the Samuels family makes a business proposition to buy out the Duques' sugar interest and leave them concentrating solely on rum. Pancho agrees to hear them out despite his abiding mistrust. Frank wants to sell, but he has his own conflicted agenda (as well as a romantic relationship with a Samuels lass).
Alex, trying to sort things out and keep his family from doing any business with the dreaded enemy, is the purported good guy here, struggling to keep his own family (including three kids, one of whom wants to bag a scholarship to M.I.T. to join the service!) in line while at the same time showing that he's not above dirty trickery himself.
The dialogue in Cidre's teleplay has a propensity for stiff pronouncements that too often finds the characters talking at, rather than to, each other. Direction from Christian Duguay, who helmed the 2003 CBS miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil," is stylish and savvy, evoking quiet intensity despite the script's shortcomings. Smits is convincingly passionate, his charismatic countenance very much in evidence.
There's enough juice in the "Cane" premise to build a following. It may help that the characters' ethnicity is mostly incidental to the story line rather than central. Even so, the deck is a bit stacked in its having to compete head-to-head with ABC's "Boston Legal" and "Law & Order: SVU" on NBC. While this is not an impossible time slot in which to make headway, a breakthrough could be iffy.
CBS Paramount Network Television in association with ABC Studios
Executive producers: Cynthia Cidre, Jonathan Prince, Jimmy Lovine, Polly Anthony
Co-executive producer: Jimmy Smits
Producer: Dennis Bishop
Co-producer: John A. Smith
Teleplay: Cynthia Cidre
Director: Christian Duguay
Director of photography: David Connell
Production designer: Eve Cauley
Costume designer: Perri Kimono
Editor: David Post
Sound mixer: Mark Steinbeck
Casting: Bonnie Finnegan, Steven Jacobs
Alex Vega: Jimmy Smits
Pancho Duque: Hector Elizondo
Frank Duque: Nestor Carbonell
Amalia Duque: Rita Moreno
Ellis Samuels: Polly Walker
Isabel Vega: Paola Turbay
Henry Duque: Eddie Matos
Jaime Vega: Michael Trevino
Katie Vega: Lina Esco
Rebecca King: Alona Tal
Artie Vega: Samuel Carman
Joe Samuels: Ken Howard
Santo: Oscar Torres
Grasso: Jason Beghe