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'Standoff' is flirting with disaster

Alas, sometimes an amazing idea for a TV show just doesn't work out. The concept soars in the meetings, but then the writing or the acting or the directing falls flat.

Warning: ``Standoff," which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 25, is not such a show.

Seriously, who ever thought that love spats + tense suicide-bomber situations = great weekly television? Does Jack Bauer have time for coquetry amid apocalypse? This new Fox series, about a romantic couple who work together in the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit, is a shaky idea that just about dooms its writers and actors from the start. The tonal dissonance in ``Standoff" is deafening, like pairing up, say, Jewel and Meat Loaf for a duet.

To be fair, Fox and ``Standoff" creator Craig Silverstein may have hoped to duplicate ``Bones," which takes a similar approach to mixing procedural drama and light romance . (Dramance? Nah . ) And the ``Bones" people (including Silverstein, who has written for the show) may have their eyes on the successful ``Moonlighting" as a role model. But while ``Bones" works, more or less, since the leads have yet to even kiss, ``Standoff" has already thrown its couple -- played by Ron Livingston and Rosemarie DeWitt -- into bed together. They're already bickering and doing the ``Mad About You" thing, when they're not defusing hostage takers, that is, and sometimes when they are.

``I can't win when she gets all smart like that," Livingston's character, Matt, complains to their boss when DeWitt's Emily decides to take over a case.

As a suspense drama, ``Standoff" has some potential. Matt and Emily are charged with getting inside the heads of hostage takers, talking him or her out of rash action with some informed psychological prodding. As the clock ticks, the FBI gunmen, led by a bullet-loving dude played by Michael Cudlitz, are itching to move past Matt and Emily's sensitive approach and take out the bad guy. With some tweaking, including more interesting hostage takers, ``Standoff" could take advantage of the built-in time pressures to create tension.

But it turns out that the negotiating is more of a metaphor for Matt and Emily's relationship than a dramatic vehicle in itself, and so the standoffs are half-baked. And the romantic negotiating is irritating from the show's opening minutes, when Matt confesses to a man holding a gun on his two children that Matt and Emily are sleeping together. The whole department hears Matt's confession and proceeds to buzz about it. That guy with the gun? He's almost irrelevant.

With his forlorn everyman expressions, Ron Livingston is generally likable, even when he's playing insecure (``Sex and the City") or arrogant (``House"). But he and DeWitt don't have a lot of chemistry here. Their characters banter, but it's hard to feel the attraction behind the barbed quips. Maybe they're meant to be just colleagues and not lovers? We'd all benefit from a breakup.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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