'John Doe' flaunts but flubs its Seattle connection

Today, I call on Seattleites to resist the cheap thrill of the over-hyped "local connection" yarn. You have nothing to lose but your navel lint.

Nearly every other day, we learn that someone from Seattle, sort of from Seattle, or who used the word "Seattle" once in a sentence, did something interesting somewhere else.

Should our population reflexively swell with collective chest-beating pride? Nah.

Firstly, a third of the population isn't even native. The presumptive cheer that goes up when Maggie from Maple Leaf places third in the National Spelling Bee finals more likely just expresses relief that the public schools are still decent.

Secondly, we've all been suckered by the exaggerated "local" link: the terrorist that stayed in a hotel here before journeying to his real target, the theatrical production that dallied for several weeks before moving to New York.

Or, for that matter, the television show set in Seattle that ends up having not much to do with the city. Viewers, meet "John Doe."

Debuting tonight at 9 on Fox (KCPQ-TV), "John Doe" centers on an eponymous mystery man. In tonight's opener, he awakens naked in the forest on a small island off Seattle, tumbles into the water and is rescued by Khmer fishermen.

It shortly becomes evident that this John Doe knows everything except who he is. He can summon an amazing range of facts — in a scene at Seattle's main public library, he reels off the capital of Zimbabwe, the tallest mountain and how many dimples are on a golf ball.

The show is the co-creation of Mike Thompson and Brandon Camp. Thompson, who grew up in Bellevue and graduated from Newport High School, selected the Seattle locale.

"John Doe is a reflection of the city," he said in an interview last July. "Seattle is a place of darkness and unpredictability. When the sun comes out, it's a celebration.

"John, who's engaged in this search to find himself, is a dark, moody guy. When he makes discoveries in this show, there's a burst of light."

The concept is deeply appealing: a rational, literate brainiac with a strong case of self-repression. The execution, however, is deeply flawed, making "John Doe" one of the new season's more crushing disappointments.

What begins on a level comparable to "The Matrix" or "Memento" deteriorates into gimmicky police procedural. The series tails away from cultural reflections of Seattle, settling for mere meteorological ambience by way of filming in Vancouver.

The mighty fracture in "John Doe" concerns logic. Viewers are asked to place their faith in a certain set of rules governing John's behavior so that we may join in the search for his identity. Yet almost immediately, the show breaks its rules.

There's an early scene where John can't buy a hot dog because he doesn't know what he wants; one scene later, he sits at a piano and impulsively starts playing. He can't tell a person when she'll die because the future depends on variable human behavior, but he somehow can win on the stock market, also known to be driven by human nature.

More infractions occur when John is drawn to solve the case of a missing child. He's supposed to know all existing facts, so why does he need a file on the case? He further confuses us by citing facts from another case to win the police's confidence.

Coming from an experienced director like Mimi Leder, the show's setups are unbelievably clumsy. Not since "Starsky and Hutch" has a criminal lingered so long on a scene waiting for action to erupt instead of making his getaway.

Perhaps the plot-toppling inconsistencies wouldn't matter if "John Doe" offered great characters and performances. It doesn't, despite last-minute recasting of several supporting roles.

Star Dominic Purcell is a wooden hunk. Strive though he might to register inner grief with drawn-out pauses, he more often looks as if he's just forgotten the lines. Purcell should research old episodes of NBC's "The Pretender" and study Michael T. Weiss's charming portrayal of a lost genius.

Tonight's pilot has an excruciatingly sappy ending. Having rescued the little girl, John Doe begins to explain why he felt a special connection to her. She listens for a moment, then interrupts: "Can I go home now?" I know how she feels.

"Firefly," 8-9 p.m., Fox. If Friday is a scheduling graveyard second only to Saturday, then it doesn't take a John Doe-like genius to know there's something wrong with Joss Whedon's new series.

Having tried his hand at coming-of-age distress mixed with the supernatural in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," Whedon now tackles a new genre: the sci-fi western.

Set in the not-too-distant future, "Firefly" concerns the crew of a scrappy transport ship that does shady business on the fringes of a universe dominated by a central government called the Alliance.

The crew members have occupational designations: the Captain (Nathan Fillion), the Warrior (Gina Torres), the Companion (a proto-prostitute played by Morena Baccarin), the Shepherd (Ron Glass — yes, they've actually cast an African-American male in the stereotyped role of community conscience).

There are nine members. Whedon is determined to have us meet everyone in the pilot, a choice that leads to many choppy scenes not always connected to a wispy plot about a train robbery.

Most surprising, though, is the series' utter lack of surprise. Reprising every George Lucas and Steven Spielberg action-adventure ever made, Whedon's hotheaded gunslinger, calm commander and empathic saloon girl do what they've always done.

It's pretty forgettable. After all, what Lucas and Spielberg made were copies; by now, the carbon's getting hard to read. Nor does the claustrophobic photography help — viewers are unlikely to cower in their seats the way they did a century ago for "The Great Train Robbery."

When Joss Whedon saddles up, audiences get chapped.

"What I Like About You," 8-8:30 p.m., The WB (KTWB-TV). It's an algebraic formula of parenting: your kids inevitably like something in direct ratio to how much you dislike it.

In that case, the youthful following for former Nickelodeon star Amanda Bynes should multiply a kazillion times on "What I Like About You."

She plays Holly, a 16-year-old who gets to live with her adult sibling (Jennie Garth) in New York. It's a fantasy for adolescent female viewers: shopping with your big sis and living in her Manhattan loft while you accidentally wreck her social life.

They probably won't care that the show is idiotic fluff, that Garth can't do physical comedy and that Bynes has the loud, broad acting style of a young Ethel Merman. It's hard to imagine a more irritating presence. Mom and Dad, get out the earplugs.

"Greetings from Tucson," 9:30-10 p.m. The WB. Somewhere between the preachy feel of PBS' "American Family" and the dumb, cartoon style of UPN's "The Parkers," there must be room for a good, brassy ethnic comedy. This is the one.

"Greetings from Tucson" features a Mexican-American/Irish-American family caught up in traditional clashes: older vs. younger, blue-collar vs. white, assimilation vs. ethnic pride.

The main point-of-view character is 15-year-old David Tiant (Pablo Santos), who must put up with the various demands of different factions in his loving, bickering family: notably parents Joaquin (Julio Oscar Mechoso) and Elizabeth (Rebecca Creskoff), and sister Maria (Aimee Garcia), who insists on telling people she's from Spain.

The writers handle these eternal situations well. The jokes are earthy, as if to banish the demons of political correctness in favor of having fun, and it's hard not to see a long line of blunt humor extending back to other immigrant groups.

The show also benefits from good performances, along with a big enough cast to pursue different story lines. And if those stories tend toward the formulaic, at least the humor and style do not.

Finally, its heart is in the right place. "Greetings from Tucson" has a loving saltiness that's welcome in this season of bland and tasteless family sitcoms.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com or 206-382-8888.