The Monroe family of Maryland in ABC's "The Monroes," one of three new dramas the network is throwing against NBC's mega-successful Thursday night lineup, sure seems like it's been patterned after the Kennedy clan of Massachusetts. (The show previews tonight at 8 on KTVX Channel 4, then moves to its regular 8 p.m. time slot on Thursday.)
Like the real-life Kennedys, the fictional Monroe family is overflowing with politicians and power brokers. But don't point that out to William Devane. The actor and nominal star of "The Monroes" played John F. Kennedy 21 years ago in "The Missiles of October." And still, two decades later, the role remains closely linked to the former "Knots Landing" actor. So much so that when someone mentions that he's played a Kennedy, his mood seems to darken.
"I'm not the politician in this one," a cranky Devane told assembled TV critics at the Summer Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. "I'm the gangster, you know. So I would think he's more like Joe Kennedy, you know, than John Kennedy or anyone like that."
Devane's John Monroe, the patriarch of the Monroe clan, begins the series' premiere episode as a politician, but winds up stalled at the starting gate -- due to a skeleton in his closet. So he must be content to play puppetmaster to his children. One son is a congressman, another an astronaut and yet another a troubled Georgetown University law student.
His two daughters have chosen wildly different professions: One's a lawyer who's sleeping with a well-known Washington, D.C., wheeler-dealer. The other is an outlandish professional photographer.
John's wife, Kathryn (Susan Sullivan), endures all of it with the calm reserve of someone who's been through it all before. (She gives the finger to a snoopy TV news helicopter in episode one, as well.)
So, if you haven't guessed by now, "The Monroes" is nothing more than a gussied-up soap opera. But again, don't let that observation slip within earshot of Devane.
"What I want to know is, why don't you think 'NYPD Blue' is a soap opera?" Devane said, his irritation undiminished. "It seems to be a derogatory term from our point of view. ... It just seems to take you down a notch when you're thrown into that category.
"I don't have anything against it. But it does have a derogatory kind of feeling in the business."
Devane and company needn't worry too much about the quality of the show. Based on the first episode, "The Monroes" looks to be a frothy, funny, suds-o-rama. The thing the cast -- and the network -- ought to fear is the formidable competition on NBC ("Seinfeld" and "Caroline in the City").