Originally created 09/24/01

'Bickford': Problems, problems, problems



It's hard to resist the temptation. Richard Dreyfuss is great at being angry, so the writers are throwing a million problems at his newest character, Max Bickford. Bickford is a liberal college history professor who believes the Vietnam War still matters.

The roller coaster of problems is both the blessing and the curse of "The Education of Max Bickford," which premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 23) on CBS.

The problems begin to mount up nicely, but the writers overdo it. An otherwise good drama becomes a melodrama.

Warning: There are plot spoilers in the next paragraph.

One minute, Bickford is dealing with his best friend Steve, who had a sex change and became Erica Bettis (Helen Shaver), and the next, he's worried about his angry daughter Nell (Katee Sackhoff), who studies at his college. Then Bickford is passed up for a promotion - but trust me, even with all that, I haven't given away too much of the script. The problems just keep walking up to Bickford on campus and at home.

"Max Bickford" has potential to be great because Dreyfuss has a firm grasp on his character. But Dawn Prestwich, Rod Holcomb and Nicole Yorkin, the series' creators and executive producers, need to slow down the problems and let Max breathe. Dreyfuss also is good at being reflective, and he can express a lot just by sitting and saying nothing, doing nothing. There's some of that in "Max Bickford," but I would like to see more of the quiet moments because Dreyfuss is a master at subtext, at what's not being said.

Bickford is a different kind of teacher than the music instructor he played in "Mr. Holland's Opus." Both teachers shared a passion for teaching, but Bickford is more upset with students who are more interested in today's pop culture than yesterday's milestones.

Dreyfuss has said if he were to give up acting, he would become a teacher.

"It's like a halfway house to my dream," Dreyfuss said about playing a professor. TV critics laughed at his joke during a CBS news conference this summer in Pasadena.

"I remember when I was a kid, there were four or five teachers at various points in my life who jolted me with an electric prod," Dreyfuss said. "I had an experience in revelation. And I very much remember when they were and who those people were. And they got me past all of the anxieties and problems and peer-pressure ... about learning. And I really loved learning from these people."

"The Education of Max Bickford" marks Dreyfuss' debut in a starring role in a TV series. The longtime star, whose movies have varied from "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" to "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," explained why he became interested in television.

"'The West Wing,' " Dreyfuss said. "'The West Wing' was pretty persuasive. And when I realized that one could write like that about subjects like that and that the quality could remain so high, my fear went down."

When "The Education of Max Bickford" slows down enough to look at what Bickford is learning, it has that quality. Like the rest of us, Max just needs fewer problems.

(Dave Mason is television editor of the Ventura County Star in California. He can be reached at mason(at)insidevc.com.)