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As diversions go, CBS's 'Cane' proves sweet enough

Smits adds heft to prime-time soap

Hector Elizondo and Rita Moreno star in a story of a Cuban-American family running a rum and sugar empire. Hector Elizondo and Rita Moreno star in a story of a Cuban-American family running a rum and sugar empire. (Monty Brinton/CBS Entertainment)

"Cane" is a night-time soap opera throwback to the 1980s. The CBS series, also known as Jimmy Smits's new vehicle, has none of the psycho-dynamic family confrontation of the state-of-the-art soap "Brothers & Sisters." No one in "Cane" is deep enough for that kind of Freudian shtick. And then it doesn't lean on comic wit like "The O.C.," which ushered the genre into the 2000s with ironic quotes around every plot twist. Indeed, "Cane" is humorless - "Falcon Crest" sans shoulder pads.

But those are not reasons to write it off. Premiering tonight at 10 on Channel 4, "Cane" arrives with a few pluses, not least of them Smits, who is one of network TV's most agreeable leading men. Playing the cornerstone in a large Cuban-American family, Smits projects moral integrity without a hint of sanctimony or gloom, unlike, say, David Caruso or Gary Sinise. And on "Cane," as on "NYPD Blue" and "The West Wing," he holds the lead without grabbing for it. He's commanding without commanding, as are two of his costars, Rita Moreno and Hector Elizondo, who play his adoptive parents.

"Cane" also has some rich texture. It's not yet another TV drama set amid the skyscrapers and coffee shops of Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Boston, featuring an ethnically balanced ensemble cast. About the business tensions in the large Duque clan, who preside over a rum and sugar empire in Palm Beach County, the show features dazzling shots of cane fields stretching beneath gold sunlight. And the show's creator, Cynthia Cidre, who wrote the "Mambo Kings" screenplay, wholly embraces the Duques's Cuban-American background, having them occasionally speak in Spanish (with subtitles) and winding a critical plot around events in Cuba.

But "Cane" is not ambitious storytelling. It's a plot-driven, multi-generational melodrama, which feels particularly shallow at a time when shows such as "Friday Night Lights," "Mad Men," "Dexter," and "Nip/Tuck" are pushing their narrative reach. "Cane" uses sugar in the same way "Dallas" used oil and "Falcon Crest" used wine - to create scandal and conflict within a family. There is jealousy, duplicity, and murder afoot. The characters have one or two characteristics apiece, and they bear viewer scrutiny only in relation to the plot turns. You can almost immediately see where it will all be going, like a TV-plot GPS.

Elizondo's Pancho Duque is the patriarch who decides to turn his business over to Smits's Alex, whom he adopted when Alex came from Cuba alone at 14. Frank (Nestor Carbonell), Pancho's crooked, impulsive natural son, is enraged. He wants to sell the sugar fields, but Alex is a forward thinker whose political friends tell him sugar will replace corn in the country's production of ethanol. A sibling struggle ensues, complicated by the fact that Alex is married to Pancho's daughter, Isabel (Paola Turbay), and therefore also his son-in-law. Meanwhile, Alex and Isabel's children have their own dramas, including one son's decision not to go to college.

It's all kind of "add water and stir," particularly when a rival sugar family, the Samuels, makes a play for the Duque fields. Oddly, in a show that aims for cultural authenticity, the casting of the British Polly Walker (Atia on "Rome") as one of the evil Samuels is misguided. Her botched Southern accent confounds her efforts to be a sultry villain.

But despite its shortcomings, "Cane" is a diversion that may well catch an audience looking for a simple, old-school serial. Last season, many viewers were ticked off when they invested time in serials such as "Kidnapped" and "The Nine" that were canceled before they reached resolution. These viewers became serial phobic. My sense is that "Cane" will survive for at least a year, perhaps only thanks to Smits's appeal. So if you're one of those suffering from a fear of TV commitment, you probably won't be able to blame it on "Cane."

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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Cane

Starring: Jimmy Smits, Nestor Carbonell, Rita Moreno, Polly Walker, Hector Elizondo, Ken Howard, Lee Tergesen

On: CBS, Channel 4

Time: Tonight, 10-11

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