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Military drama 'JAG' reaches 150th episode, ratings high

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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ ``JAG,'' network television's only military themed show, has enlisted new viewers and critical attention this year.

``Since 9-11, I have done more interviews than I did in the prior six seasons of the show,'' says Donald Bellisario, creator and executive producer of the show that's airing its 150th episode Tuesday.

The show's higher profile has been matched by its ratings. For the season to date, the CBS drama about intrepid military attorneys working for the Judge Advocate General Corps is 12th in households among all prime-time programs compared to 28th last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Network TV's last military drama, ``China Beach,'' which ended in 1991, had the anti-war sensibility of the Vietnam War era in which it was set. ``JAG'' strikes a less dissonant tone, one that's proved right for its time.

Bellisario can ``take a genre and concept that sounds like it's 20 years old and is able to turn them into good, solid, old-fashioned TV entertainment,'' said educator and media observer Robert Thompson.

Bellisario made his name in TV with the Tom Selleck detective series ``Magnum, P.I.'' (1980-88) and the 1989-93 sci-fi drama ``Quantum Leap'' with Scott Bakula.

``JAG'' shows the same Bellisario touch: Solid, well-crafted and well-cast drama that is reliably entertaining.

The veteran producer prides himself on being a micromanager involved in writing, rewriting and editing. (For now, he's doing double duty with ``JAG'' and his new Supreme Court drama ``First Monday,'' also on CBS.)

``JAG'' (8 p.m. EST Tuesday) stars David James Elliott as dashing Navy Lt. Cmdr. Harmon Rabb, a pilot turned lawyer. Catherine Bell plays Marine Maj. Sarah MacKenzie, fellow JAG attorney and his on-again, off-again love interest.

After a rocky start _ NBC canceled the show after a season _ audiences discovered the program when it moved to CBS.

``I think Don Bellisario realized when 'JAG' came out that we were now living in a very different world than in the years immediately after Vietnam and Watergate,'' said Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. ``There were major shifts in the American heart in regard to the military.''

Part of it had to do with the end of the Cold War, part of it with seeing America's ``Gulf War muscles flexed in a satisfactory way,'' Thompson added.

Bellisario, who said he's always felt like the odd man out in what he calls ``very, very left'' Hollywood, had no reservations about doing a pro-military series. The first TV show he worked on was the 1976-78 World War II drama ``Baa Baa Black Sheep.''

But ``JAG'' seems to have its roots more in good storytelling than politics.

Eight years ago, after reading news reports on the deployment of the first female aviators to carrier ships, Bellisario began working on a script about a woman flier who ends up a murder victim.

``I had to find out who investigates these things,'' he recalled. ``When I found out JAG officers prosecute, defend and investigate, all with the same people, I thought, 'Wow, what a franchise.' I sold it to NBC as a kind of combination of 'Top Gun' meets 'A Few Good Men.'''

In moving to CBS, Bellisario decided _with the network's blessing _ to focus more on law and less on action.

Another change came in the government cooperation given ``JAG.''

``What they saw by the end of the second year was we have very attractive, honorable men and women who were very effective at doing their jobs,'' he said. ``I think that fact that recruitment went up on Wednesday mornings after the show might have had something to do with it.''

With the Navy's blessing, ``JAG'' can now film aboard carriers and at bases in San Diego and elsewhere in Southern California. The bulk of production takes place at a studio north of Los Angeles which includes shipboard and other sets.

Incorporating current events, ``JAG'' will end the season with a multi-episode story in which its characters are called on to thwart an al-Qaida terrorist plot.

Bellisario believes the ratings jump has more to do with the competition than with the nation's patriotic high. Last season ``JAG'' faced ABC's then powerful ``Who Wants to be a Millionaire''; this year it's finding easier going against sitcoms like ``Dharma & Greg.''

Certainly, he says, the show's basic mission hasn't changed since the shattering events of last fall.

``We didn't discover our patriotism on 9-11,'' he said. ``We've always been a show that's pro-military but not jingoistic.''
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