It may be that the pop-cultural pervasiveness of The Sopranos and Analyze This have temporarily made it impossible to mount a fresh gangster tale, but that doesn’t entirely explain the staleness that wafts off CBS’ often interesting, undeniably ambitious Falcone.
Certainly, casting Lillo Brancato Jr. (the young-punk hood who got blasted by Tony and Pussy in a recent Sopranos) as a central yet dull young-punk hood helps to explain a big chunk of the seen-this-before feeling. So does casting Mike Starr, from the CBS miniseries The Last Don, as a corrupt civil servant. But the show’s problems run deeper than that.
This new series, which is being run in one lump sum — nine hours over eight nights (CBS made six hours available for review) — follows the adventures of undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone, a real-life agent whose work was also used as the basis for the 1997 feature film Donnie Brasco. Here, Pistone is played by Jason Gedrick, a familiar TV face from Murder One, EZ Streets, the aforementioned Last Don, and the interminable Last Don II.
Falcone plays like EZ Streets II — it’s got both the same dark palette (everything seems to occur in the dead of night, against shiny, rain-slicked New York City streets), and the same bleak atmosphere as the critically acclaimed but ratings-emaciated 1996-97 Ken Olin series. If viewers didn’t cotton to this TV-noir aura the first time around — and, come to think of it, the excellent Donnie Brasco wasn’t a box office smash either — does CBS think Sopranos mania is suddenly going to make Falcone a good gamble?
In any case, Gedrick is his usual likable, earnest self, which actually works against him here. His Falcone seems too obviously an intelligent, sensitive guy to be believed as a thug — well, at least when compared with the show’s thick-skinned meanies, foremost among them Brooklyn South’s Titus Welliver as Sonny, a lizard-eyed Mob captain, and Eric Roberts in a few all-too-brief appearances as Mob boss Ricci ”The Madman” Volonte. Ricci’s confined to a psychiatric hospital, where he’s kept loaded up on antipsychotic medication, and Roberts practically makes you feel his brain cells straining to burst free of their mollifying effects. (When an underling asks ”How you feelin’, boss?” Roberts stretches his simple one-word reply ”Lousy” into a hiss of evil — ”Louse-eee” — and suddenly you wish Falcone were just a one-man show, with a camera trained on Volonte in his cell, talking to himself.)
Falcone works undercover as one of Sonny’s henchmen, but he’s forever stepping away from criminal activities to take cell-phone calls from his impossibly naive wife (a valiant but script-defeated Amy Carlson), who always wants to know what time he’ll be home for dinner and is confined to murmuring cliches like ”I don’t know what scares me more: not knowing what’s going on out there, or finding out.” (Maybe she’s speculating on the show’s ratings.) At one point, his cover almost blown, Falcone moves his wife and two daughters to a new home, with new identities, and the show never stops to explore such a wrenching experience. At the very least, 5-year-old Jess (Sarah Hyland) might find it difficult to learn a new last name to tell her kindergarten teacher.
Individual scenes in Falcone have dramatic power, especially ones in which the subtle Welliver gets to explore the reasons for Sonny’s explosive anger. But by the third hour, when Patti LuPone pops up as a pushy assistant district attorney and chews the scenery like a big bowl of pasta, Falcone starts looking like a misguided loser.
Like I said, I saw only six of Falcone’s nine hours, so maybe things rev up spectacularly in the finale. (At the very least, there must be more of Eric Roberts’ wonderfully wormy performance.) But the first two thirds of this series acts as the opposite of the Godfather line that Steven Van Zandt’s character is always quoting in The Sopranos: Every time I thought I was pulled in, the show kept pushing me out. C