It's an old trope in Hollywood that imitation is the sincerest form of television. CBS's "Falcone" is sincere in the extreme. It is a TV series based on a movie ("Donnie Brasco") based on a book (Joe Pistone's "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia"). It is imitation squared.

Mark Johnson, one of the producers for "Donnie Brasco" in 1997, has now brought the same tired story of Mob life to television. When Johnson's pitch landed on the desk of network head Leslie Moonves in late April 1999, the timing looked just right: With the success of the Mob movies "Analyze This" and "The Sopranos," "Falcone" seemed like a sure thing for the fall lineup.

But when Moonves announced CBS's fall schedule last May, the lineup did not include "Falcone." In the weeks that followed, the line that emerged as the reason for shying away from the show was that Moonves and CBS were concerned with violence on television after the Columbine shooting, which had just taken place.

Ten months later, though, Moonves declared that "Falcone" would be given a shot in prime time. Explaining why the show was dumped in May but picked up in March, he said, "Columbine happened a few days before we scheduled our shows. 'Falcone' was an adult drama. There was a certain violence in the piece. We thought the timing was bad. Now we don't."

Something didn't seem quite right about the Columbine rationale. After pulling the show in May, Moonves said, "We knew qualitatively that it was a terrific show, one of our best pilots. It has a lot of fans throughout the company." He added, "It's not the right time to have people whacked on the streets of New York." That suggests that there is a right time. For Moonves, the question of violence on television appears one of temporal aesthetics rather than resolute values.

The truth however, may be a shade more crass. CBS is already heavy on guy-action shows, with "Walker, Texas Ranger," "Martial Law," and "Nash Bridges," each of which have enough violence to make any Columbine-conscious executive blanche. The Los Angeles Times reported that network insiders claimed that CBS sales executives had some qualms about finding advertisers for the show, there wasn't an obvious late-time period available, and the show's tone didn't fit with the rest of the network's fare.

People in Studio City whispered around the water cooler last May that the network was not really that high on "Falcone." The network was worried that it didn't, as they say, "skew femme" heavily enough--in other words, it was one more macho wise-guy show with very little cross-gender appeal.

Adding fuel to the rumors that Moonves passed on "Falcone" not because of social sensitivity but because of demographics were these two facts: In the show's place, two dramas were scheduled that directly target adult women, "Judging Amy" and "Family Law." And after "Falcone" was put into turn-around, Johnson and the producers re-edited it to add more scenes of Falcone with his family, under the dubious assumption that more family scenes would mean more female viewers ages 18-49.

What Moonves seems to have done is declared his concern about violence on television, not because he cares, or even because he thought he should pretend to care, but because it was a convenient way to avoid having to say that "Falcone" didn't play to the right niche.

Of course, this isn't the first time Hollywood powers had feigned sincerity. After Bill Clinton gave a speech on violence in the media some years ago, a member of the audience, then Sony president Mark Canton, famously said, "I'm going to think about what the president said all weekend long." But it may be the first time a Hollywood big has played a card like Columbine to make his network look good.

"Falcone" itself is nothing more than nearly adequate television. Learning from ABC's brilliant positioning of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," CBS is broadcasting "Falcone"'s eight initial episodes in nine nearly consecutive nights.

Everything about the show feels repackaged. Its star, Jason Gedrick, has been down this road before in "EZ Streets" and "The Last Don" (I and II). Gedrick plays Joe Falcone, an FBI agent who has infiltrated the Mob and has to balance his dangerous job with his family life. His wife, Maggie, is played by Amy Carlson (a dead-ringer for Anne Heche, who played Maggie in the movie version).

Whatever happens in Mob movies happens here. Guys get stabbed with ice picks under the Brooklyn bridge. Guys get whacked in restaurants. Guys get strangled with piano wire in a bar. Six people are murdered in the first hour.

The family scenes, largely added after the show was shelved last year, feel tacked-on and prefabricated. No obvious point is left unmade. When Falcone returns home to his family after weeks away infiltrating the Mob, he reads his girls a bedtime story. It is Homer's "Odyssey."

Mercifully, Falcone is already a dead-man walking. The show's two-hour debut finished third behind various combinations of "Sports Night," "NYPD Blue," "Dharma & Greg," "Dateline," and reruns of "Just Shoot Me." Even worse, Falcone lost 28% of its lead-in audience from "Jag," then lost viewers every half-hour for two hours. In a matter of days, CBS will pull the plug formally.

And rightly so. Let's hope they don't try to disguise "Falcone"'s poor ratings with crocodile tears about the upcoming anniversary of Columbine.

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