By Terry Kelleher
January 13, 2003 12:00 PM

NBC (Fridays, 8 p.m. ET)

In a 21st-century version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, bright young Bill Sterling (Josh Brolin) accepts the California governor’s appointment to a suddenly vacant U.S. Senate seat, then stuns the pros and pundits by revealing he’s an independent, not a loyal Democrat like his famous father, a popular ex-governor (James Whitmore). Okay, this new drama (premiering Jan. 10) isn’t overly plausible, and the first couple of episodes are shy on political substance. But the crowd-pleasing premise—honest maverick confounds the mandarins—and strong performances by Whitmore and Audra McDonald, who plays Bill’s chief of staff, earn the series a tentative aye vote.

BOTTOM LINE: Viable candidate