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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Colorful Family Ties Give 'Relativity' Room to Grow

THE NEW TV SEASON * One in a series

September 24, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The fruitful TV partnership of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz that bore "My So-Called Life" and their signature "thirtysomething" now yields the soft, romantic, young- sightseers- in- Rome- instantly- fall- in- love- and- two- weeks- later- move- in- together "Relativity."

It premieres on ABC tonight before resurfacing in its regular Saturday time slot, the latter a curious spot for a series seemingly designed for an age group not likely to spend Saturday evenings in front of TV.

What you get from Zwick-Herskovitz here are the usual top production values, good acting, smart dialogue and arresting characters, but also a thick, smothering glob of schmaltz in a first episode that somehow drags slowly while depicting a whirlwind relationship.

Co-executive producers are Mark Piznarski, the show's director, and Jason Katims, who created "Relativity" and wrote tonight's episode. The opener finds 26-year-old Leo Roth (David Conrad) and 24-year-old Isabel Lukens (Kimberly Williams, the bride in the Steve Martin "Father of the Bride" remakes) meeting for the first time, then sharing romance, wine and a moped before jetting home to Los Angeles, deeply smitten and irrevocably revved up.

Awaiting Isabel there are her well-to-do parents (Cliff DeYoung and Mary Ellen Trainor), with whom she lives, a couple of sisters (Jane Adams and Poppy Montgomery) and a serious, marriage-minded boyfriend named Everett (Randall Batinkoff), who is perfectly groomed, perfectly behaved, perfectly placed, perfectly preppy, perfectly dependable and more than a little bit boring.

Awaiting Leo are a dysfunctional father (Richard Schiff), a troubled younger brother (Devon Gummersall), an older sister (Lisa Edelstein) who is a lesbian and a greasy roommate (Adam Goldberg) who could pass for someone selling hot watches out of a doorway--all of which makes this complex, untidy throng much more compelling than the tonier, glibber Lukenses across town.

Isabel and Leo going ga-ga is the kiss-off for smug Everett, and in a subsequent episode she'll move to Leo's crummy pad, much to the dismay of her mother and father. That contrasts sharply with their inexplicably flip, offhanded response tonight when learning that Isabel may be replacing Everett--whom everyone expects her to marry--with someone else.

But enough about them and the love-struck ooziness of Leo and Isabel. "Relativity" plays best initially when traveling across the tracks to monitor Leo with his flawed father, who shirks paternal responsibility, and his taciturn brother, whose school truancy falls on Leo's shoulders. The material here is more fertile, the performances more interesting.

Perhaps this quality will spread to the rest of "Relativity" as it matures. Unlike the Rome romance of Leo and Isabel, a series isn't built in a day.

* "Relativity" premieres at 10 tonight on ABC (Channel 7). Its regular time slot will be Saturdays at 10 p.m.

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