Picks and Pans Review: Middle Ages

updated 09/07/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

CBS (Thurs., Sept. 3, 9 P.M. ET)

A

Here's a delightful preseason surprise. CBS unwraps a limited-run series with unlimited potential. With the notable exception of Roseanne, most TV series exist in a sanitary bubble in which the '90s are not all that much different from the '50s. This show carries the acrid air of realism, acknowledging in almost every scene that the world is changing around us. Peter Riegert, William Russ and Michael O'Keefe play baby-boomer friends in the Chicago area who are navigating the tricky shoals of their 40s. They live in a recessionary economy, full of job insecurity, corporate downsizing and diminished expectations, while still trying to cling to the dreams of their youth.

The details are right. At a party, people bemoan the glut of classic-rock stations on the radio. At the breakfast table, Riegert says to his young son, "Why don't you come home after school and play football or something?" "We can't." "Why not?" "Because we broke that cartridge. All we have left is hockey and Space Wars"

It's a rare treat in episodic television to see a talented cast acting a spicy, wry, nicely paced script. The supporting ensemble includes Maria Pitillo, Lisa Zane, Ashley Crow, Kyle Secor, Ruby Dee, Amy Brenneman, Richard Portnow and bluesman Albert Collins. (Russ' character is a small businessman who has never completely given up on the idea of playing rock guitar as he did when he was a longhaired teen. Collins plays a recently paroled convict whom Russ auditions and hires for his prospective band.)

Middle Ages is completely stolen, though, by veteran character actor James Gammon. With his bullfrog voice and gruff, Richard Boone-like charm, Gammon is marvelous as a boozy, 60-year-old salesman whose dismissal after 30 years with the same company first terrifies and then liberates him. His character is designed to prove that what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

After this two-hour premiere, the show will air on the same night at 10 P.M. ET for four weeks. Those still mourning the loss of thirtysomething just got a temporary reprieve.

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