LOS ANGELES -- NBC is aggressively pushing "Kingpin," its new drug-cartel drama getting a tryout during the key February ratings sweeps.
It's a centerpiece of the network's schedule, with two episodes airing weekly from Sunday, Feb. 2, through Tuesday, Feb. 18. The series has been heavily promoted. And NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker even deemed "Kingpin" to be Shakespearean in its depth.
"I don't think it'll be all that," David Mills, the series' executive producer, said with a modest laugh.
But he's unfazed by comparisons, Mills says - including to HBO's "The Sopranos" and the Oscar-winning film "Traffic," which have already broken ground on "Kingpin" themes of drugs, families and the criminal ties that bind and destroy.
"People can say whatever they want to now. They can say we ripped off 'Traffic,' they can say we ripped off 'The Sopranos,"' Mills said. "Four weeks from now, they're going to be talking about what 'Kingpin' is, not what it's similar to."
The first two episodes reveal a taut drama with its own distinctive tone. "Kingpin" layers tragic inevitability and touches of farce with demanding complexity; you have to keep your eye on the action and relationships to keep up with the story.
The focus of the series (airing 10 p.m. EST Sundays and Tuesdays) is on Miguel Cadena (Yancey Arias), a Stanford-educated Mexican angling to head his extended family's drug-trafficking operation.
Standing behind Cadena, and pushing him hard toward the top of the criminal heap, is his ambitious American wife, Marlene (Sheryl Lee). Cadena's rough-and-tumble brother, Chato (Bobby Cannavale), is another ally. U.S. federal agents and assorted relatives are among the obstacles.
Like "The Sopranos," "Kingpin" features a morally conflicted central figure who revels in power and money but must rationalize how he gains them. Like "Traffic," the series connects the dots between a foreign drug cartel and U.S. users and sellers.
The parallels end there, said Zucker, who considers the Cadena character evocative of "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" in his emotional makeup and actions.
"Where some see 'Sopranos,' I see Shakespeare," Zucker told reporters at a recent news conference.
There are echoes of the Bard when Mills ("The Corner," "ER") describes his vision for "Kingpin."
"The drug business to me is merely a big canvas on which to play these big themes and big high-stakes stories of pride and greed and ambition and self-delusion and betrayal," he said. "Five hundred years ago, it would have been European royal families."
An uncle falls victim to his nephews' ambitions in one scene, while another shows a drug lord killed awaiting plastic surgery (tweaking the classic barbershop-chair deaths of towel-swaddled mobsters).
NBC was known to be in the market for a drama that could equal HBO's critically acclaimed mob drama without cable's freedom to push the boundaries of language, violence and nudity.
Although a racier version of "Kingpin" was shot for Bravo, the NBC-owned cable channel, the broadcast version is relatively tame when it comes to sex and language. Violence is mostly suggested, although there are some gory depictions of its aftermath.
(The Bravo edition will air in March, as will a Spanish-language version of the NBC series set for Telemundo.)
Good drama isn't the result of profanity, argues Mills. He learned that lesson working on "NYPD Blue," when the ABC series was helping network TV pick up a controversial new vocabulary.
"I quickly realized it had nothing to do with enhancing one's ability to tell a story," Mills said. "I don't think 'Kingpin' could be better told on HBO. I think the focus should be on the storytelling."
The series risks criticism on a different front. Given the scarcity of Hispanic dramas on network television, observers have asked, could there be objections to one focused on a family of criminals?
Mills argues that viewers, including Hispanics, are likely to embrace the drama because it avoids cardboard, stereotyped characters, especially in the case of Cadena.
"As long as you are making him a full-fledged human being and not an emblem of his ethnicity, then you've got a chance to make a tragic figure who everybody can relate to," Mills said.
"Kingpin" has allowed Hispanic writers and dozens of Hispanic actors the chance to be part of a top-notch drama, said Arias.
The actor said he looks forward to the day when Hispanics are allowed access to a range of roles and he has the chance to play "a farmer, a cowboy, a doctor, a lawyer."
"If this is the beginning or catalyst for things to come, then I'm proud to be part of it," Arias said.
NBC ordered six episodes of "Kingpin" and six more scripts are ready to be filmed if the network is pleased with the initial performance, Mills said.
He worries that the highly competitive sweeps environment - when networks work to drive up ratings used to set local ad rates - could undermine it.
"It's an index of NBC's faith in the show that they threw it into February, but I don't know," said Mills. "I don't know if it's a good gamble or a bad gamble."
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