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NBC adopts its own crime family

A lot of ink has been spilled over the so-called "Sopranos" effect, how much the gritty HBO mob drama has affected the rest of the TV landscape, with its cascade of foul-mouthed enforcers and casual, grisly violence.

Because of this, there has been great anticipation surrounding "Kingpin," NBC's saga about a Mexican drug lord and his family. It has been dubbed the network's answer to Tony Soprano, and speculation has been high. How far will the network go? Will broadcast TV break the bad-word barrier? How about the psychopathic level of mayhem?

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The six-part series begins airing this Sunday (10-11 p.m.), and the semigood news for NBC is that the show is nowhere near as foul-mouthed or even as brutally violent as "The Sopranos." It does have its moments, such as when a cranky drug prince feeds his pet tiger the limb of a DEA agent he had just ordered killed. The semibad news is that it's also not quite up to the same dramatic standards as the HBO hit series.

Those two things said, there is much to marvel at in this series, from the storytelling scope to its moody incorporation of music and edgy camera techniques. Whether it measures up to "The Sopranos" may not be important. What may matter more is the fact that the network took the "Sopranos" challenge and allowed top-notch talent to run with it.

Creator David Mills, an Emmy- and Peabody-winning writer, dismisses the language issue between cable and broadcast. "There are words that belong on HBO that don't belong on NBC," says Mr. Mills, who has also cut his dramatic teeth on some of TV's top dramas: "NYPD Blue," "ER," and HBO's "The Corner."

"But beyond that, it's all about a good story." For Mills, who serves as executive producer, the challenge was to write a tragedy about a man whose life is ultimately irredeemable.

"I wanted to tell the story of a man and the condition of his soul," says Mills. "A guy who has two sides to himself, because nobody is strictly evil. So it's challenging, because you're not tuning in to see a cop lock up a criminal, you're tuning in to measure the condition of this man's soul."

But comparisons with HBO are not the only issue dusting up around "Kingpin." This is the first prime-time network drama to feature a Latino family (PBS and cable have already broken that barrier), and it depicts them as uniformly criminal.

"It's the first Latino-themed drama, that's the good news," says Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza in Washington. "The not-so-good news is the imbalance. There is just one positive character, and every other character is either criminal or corrupt."

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Ms. Navarrete says her organization has been working with NBC since 1999 on the issue of on-air diversity, but she is disappointed not so much with the quality of this production as the fact that it stands alone. "The problem is that 'Kingpin' will be weighted," meaning given too much power, "because there is an absence of any other image for Hispanics."

Mills dismisses this concern. "I'm fed up with the notion that when it's a white character, it's a universal story," says Mills, "but when it's a Mexican character and Latino actor, it's a story about Mexicans. We're telling a story about a human being."

That's all well and good, says Navarrete, when you have the whole picture. "You get the whole gamut of white experience on television: good, bad, positive, rich, poor, smart, dumb," she says. "It's all there ... but [with 'Kingpin'], that's all there is."

The Latino actors in the cast say they believe that the quality of the drama will help counterbalance these problems. "We're human beings," says Yancey Arias, who plays the lead character, the US college-educated Miguel Cadena, who struggles to take over his family's drug business. "He's trying to hold on to anything that's good inside him, to protect his family."


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