Saturday, March 12, 2005

What's Going On With JAG?

It looks as if Donald Bellisario is trying to keep JAG running through the simple expedient of turning the clock back ten years. In the process he's easing out the actors that have made the show the success that it has been.

JAG has been running for ten years - one year on NBC and nine years on CBS - which if I'm not mistaken makes it the longest running drama currently on the six US broadcast networks now that NYPD Blue has left the air. David James Elliott has played Harmon Rabb for all ten seasons. In fact he is the only member of the cast who has been on the show since the start, although Patrick Labyorteaux, who plays Bud Roberts was in the series pilot playing that character. In the past few episodes, Elliott's role in the series has been reduced not just significantly but to near nonexistence. In the episode that aired Friday, Elliott had exactly five scenes totalling at most ten minutes of screen time. Labyorteaux by the way had one scene, and at most two minutes of screen time.

There's a story behind this. Elliott's current contract with the show ends at the end of this season. Before Elliott's agent even made an approach to producer Donald P. Bellisario, he was informed not to bother, Elliott's contract would not be renewed as a "cost cutting measure". The clear implication is that Bellisario believes that the show can continue, not just for one more season - at the end of which Catherine Bell's contract ends - but beyond. On the whole it seems to be a poor way to treat an actor who has been thoroughly identified with the show since its beginning and has become thoroughly identified with the show.

When JAG debuted, Elliott's character was a young hotshot lawyer - a naval Lieutenant - who was prepared to bend the rules in order to win a case. He was sometimes undisciplined - in one episode the character fired a pistol in a courtroom during a trial. He had adventures some of which had little or nothing to do with his duties as a lawyer. He was also very much a ladies man and in the pilot was having an affair with partner (played by Andrea Parker, later of The Pretender). Over the years he's settled down somewhat, although he still has an adventurous side, but with rank (he's now a full Commander) and age have come increased responsibility and stability. He even had an "adopted" daughter for a time over the past couple of seasons. At the same time the supporting cast - Labyorteaux's Lt. Commander Bud Roberts and Catherine Bell's Lt. Colonel Sarah Mackenzie among them - have also grown and developed a solid chemistry.

What Bellisario seems to be doing as he eases Elliott off the show - is to replace him with a carbon copy of the "old" Harmon Rabb. A new actor has been added to the cast specifically as a replacement for Elliott. The new character, Lieutenant Greg Vukovic (played by Chris Beetem, formerly of the daytime drama As The World Turns), is a young hotshot lawyer who is prepared to bend (and one at least one occasion break) the rules in order to win a case. He's had at least one adventure - in the three episodes that he's been on the show - which has had little or nothing to do with his duties as a lawyer. He's very much a ladies man. In fact, about the only difference between Rabb and Vukovic is that Rabb is pilot who joined the Judge Advocate Corps after he was disqualified from flying due to vision problems (later corrected), while Vukovic is a surface warfare officer.

Moreover this Friday's episodes introduced a couple of other characters who appear to be potential regulars - a new administrative officer, Lieutenant Catherine Graves played by Jordana Spiro, and a young female lawyer Lieutenant Tali Mayfield played by Meta Goulding. Lieutenant Mayfield has had a previous romantic and sexual relationship with Vukovic, while Graves appears as if she's interested in that sort of relationship with him. When Bud Roberts was first added to the series, he was a young administrative officer who later became a lawyer, although he did not have any interest in a romantic or sexual relationship with Rabb. That side of the equation was filled by Catherine Bell's character, who over the nine years that she's been on the show has had a love ... hate ... love ... fear commitment relationship with Harm. Tell me please, is this not an effort to take the show back to its origins?

By not signing Elliott to a one year contract which would coincide with the end of Bell's contract, and would presumably mark a way to bring the show to a natural conclusion by tying up loose ends in much the same manner that NYPD Blue did, Bellisario seems to be demonstrating his intention to keep the show on the air for as long as the audience is willing to accept it, even if that means replacing the entire cast. Assuming that JAG does survive this season, I would predict that Bellisario would not make a big effort to re-sign Bell beyond the end of her current contract. I already expect that Labyorteaux either won't be back next year or will have his role reduced to near nonexistence. The question is not whether the audience will accept JAG without David James Elliott, let alone without Elliott and Catherine Bell. If I were taking bets I'd say the answer is no.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Law and Order has been on since 1990, so I think it currently has the record at 15 seasons.

Brent McKee said...

Yeah, I remembered that after I posted the original article. They at least didn't try replacing the main cast in a period of three seasons - Admiral Chegwidden last year, Harm and probably Bud this year, and Mac next year, in an order to keep the show "fresh".

Brent McKee said...
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Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

They at least didn't try replacing the main cast in a period of three seasons - Admiral Chegwidden last year, Harm and probably Bud this year, and Mac next year, in an order to keep the show "fresh".
Nope...the only time anyone is threatened on that series with a pink slip is if someone thinks about asking for a raise--then it's Katie bar the door...

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

No more freshness for this baby: