Joe Queenan
August 19, 1996 12:00 PM

TRADITIONALLY, THE USA NETWORK hasn’t gotten a whole lot of respect. Despite bigger prime-time audiences than any other cable channel, USA has often seemed a kind of backwater, if not a dumping ground. With a hodgepodge lineup of Murder, She Wrote reruns, pro wrestling, a bunch of dud TV movies and the well-liked but dreadful Miami-set series Silk Stalkings, the network’s most prestigious programming in the past has been a few topflight sports events and the rare critical success like its version of Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

Lately, things have been changing: new management, bigger budgets, more original shows. This fall, USA will continue to enhance its image with several expensive new series. The first is The Big Easy (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET), a cop show based on the 1987 film and shot in New Orleans. On first glance, Big Easy seems to be merely Silk Stalkings, gumbo-style, since it is set in a creepy milieu and features two law-enforcement officials who can’t quite decide whether to become lovers. But there the similarity ends. Big Easy is funnier, more original and just plain better than its dumb Floridian cousin.

One big plus is New Orleans itself, a city unique in managing to fuse charm and sleaze. So there’s lots of atmosphere: zydeco, voodoo, gators, the city’s legendarily crooked pols. In addition, USA has put scads of money into the weekly series, and it looks it. “We’re spending $1.1 million per episode,” Rod Perth, president of USA Network Entertainment, told PEOPLE. “This is a tremendous risk for us.”

The risk could pay off. Relative unknown Tony Crane does a fine job reprising Dennis Quaid’s dumb-like-a-fox Cajun detective Remy McSwain. And Susan Walters, while no great actress, at least looks right as the public defender (Ellen Barkin’s role in the movie) who can’t decide whether to marry Remy or to prosecute him.

Of course, The Big Easy is still a formulaic cop show, but it has a quirky sense of humor that could be its saving grace. Take the episode in which a closet transvestite is killed by his best friend, also a cross-dresser. When the killer, in full regalia, is knocked to the ground by yet another drag queen, Crane compliments “Monica” on the jarring tackle. “Starting cornerback, LSU 1988,” snaps the athletic transvestite. “Now give me back my boa.”

Not great, but not bad.

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