The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Wednesday, March 13, 1996              TAG: 9603130042
TYPE: Column 
SOURCE: Larry Bonko 
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  108 lines


THERE'S A damn good drama on the tube tonight, and it isn't ``JAG.''

That laughable series about Navy lawyers who get no respect returns to NBC at 8.

The pick of the night is ``Swift Justice'' at 9 on the United Paramount Network. UPN, affiliated with WGNT in Portsmouth, begins a third night of programming tonight with ``Swift Justice,'' preceded by a special Wednesday showing of ``Star Trek: Voyager'' at 8.

Paramount has so far spent $100 million to launch a fifth network and isn't stopping now.

The hero of ``JAG,'' played by David James Elliott, is totally unbelievable as he slips out of his starchy whites and into camouflage gear to pretend he's a Navy SEAL on a Scott O'Grady-type rescue mission in Bosnia. On the other hand, James McCaffrey, who stars in ``Swift Justice,'' is dead-on as the rogue cop. You believe he means it when he says, ``I don't negotiate.''

He's Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Wesley Snipes all rolled into one. Batman minus the cape.

``The man's a mystery,'' said McCaffrey. He's most cool.

When McCaffrey as Mac Swift is kicked off the force for breaking the rules to bring down a scumbag mob boss, he turns to solving cases the cops can't or won't. Think of this as a 1990s ``Have Gun, Will Travel,'' said Dick Wolf, the show's creator and executive producer. An updated ``The Equalizer.''

This man Wolf knows how to do cops on TV, and do them well. He produces ``Law & Order'' on NBC and ``New York Undercover'' on Fox. When Wolf met TV writers in Los Angeles recently, he predicted that ``Swift Revenge'' will be a hit because it appeals to young guys 18 to 34 - the crowd that appreciates seeing one man waste another by driving golf balls into his body.

``There isn't anything on television at that hour geared to that young male audience,'' said Wolf, who is worrying and wondering what the V-chip will do to his career as a producer of edgy TV.

If the young men and women who are in the Navy watch tonight's ``JAG,'' they'll probably chuckle through the hour, which is bad news for producer Donald P. Bellisario because this isn't a sitcom. There is so much silly saluting and ``requesting permission to leave'' dialogue on that show that it makes me sick.

Nobody in the real Navy talks like they do on ``JAG.''

Speaking to TV writers in Los Angeles recently, Elliott acknowledged the show's critics when he said, ``I've had people tell me they really like the show but what they don't like is how inaccurate they think it is. We do take license for dramatic purposes. It would be great if the Navy cooperated on a larger basis.''

Not likely.

On ``JAG,'' the actors trade salutes indoors. Not regulation. They operate on a carrier named for a bird, the Seahawk. Not policy. Elliott as a lawyer in the judge advocate general's office dashes off to one dangerous assignment after another without orders. Yeah, sure.

The Navy won't endorse ``JAG'' or give Bellisario permission to use its ships or planes as background. He submits scripts to the Navy, hoping for the Pentagon's full cooperation, but the best he can get is the OK to use stock footage.

Bellisario says he understands the Navy's reluctance to bless a series that has shown the ultimate in sexual harassment when a female pilot is pushed off the deck of a carrier by her chauvinistic shipmates. In a boot camp episode, the female Marine instructors came off as sadistic.

``In the wake of the Tailgate scandal, the Navy's very gun-shy,''said Bellisario, who ought to do a better job of portraying the every-day life of sailors and officers. He was once in the Marine Corps.

The producer echoed the opinions of his star, Elliott, about ``JAG'' not showing the Navy strictly by the book. ``This is not a documentary. It's a show to entertain,'' said Bellisario. Entertain? I don't think so. Bore? Definitely. There is a phony look and feel to ``JAG.''

Bellisario thinks he has the next Tom Selleck or Scott Bakula in Elliott. His sex appeal couldn't keep ``JAG'' from finishing 75th in the ratings when the show aired on Saturdays. Now it's been moved.

Prediction: Bellisario will keep the sexual tension going between Elliott's character (the recently promoted Lt. Cmdr. Harmon Rabb Jr.) and his beautiful partner played by Tracey Needham.

Elliott and Needham make the tallest couple in primetime TV. He's 6-4. She's 5-11.

Note to Elliott's faithful: He answers his fan mail by sending an autographed picture to the writer. Nothing more. No notes. No letters.

``I don't want to encourage people to get obsessive,'' he said. ``People have been shot and stabbed by their fans. There are some strange people out there.''

Some are locked in cages.

Needham says much of her fan mail comes from men pulling time, including a prisoner with a foot fetish. ``Do you think if I actually send him a picture of my feet he'll stop writing?''

It's not likely that Elliott or his co-star will be getting fan mail from the Pentagon. ``JAG'' is that bad.

Needham thinks she's doing a public service playing a Navy officer who is also a lawyer sent on undercover assignments once in a while. ``It's about time we had female action heroes to show that women aren't wimpy and whiny.

``My character (Meg Austin) jumps in there and kicks butt. I think it's very appealing,'' said Needham.

And she works magic, too.

In one scene, Needham as Austin was on a simulated carrier flight deck with the wind and jet blasts blowing her hair all over the place. In the next scene, her 'do was perfect, with every blonde strand in place.

This lieutenant junior grade kicks butt alright - but only after her hair has been done. ILLUSTRATION: NBC Color photo

Tracey Needham and David James Elliot of "JAG"

by CNB