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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Law, the Hard Way

Compelling stories and characters make for a strong 'Feds.' Debi Mazar's 'Temporarily Yours' and 'Arsenio' are also worth watching.

March 05, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

There may be too many pundits gabbing about the law, but this is a smashing week for new series depicting it.

Tuesday's addition of "The Practice" and tonight's "Feds" put even more of a fade to those black-and-white memories of boxy Perry Mason and his obedient sidekicks, Della and Paul, outfoxing the ever-willing, but reliably overmatched Hamilton Burger and his own snap-brimmed toady, Lt. Tragg.

Prime-time justice had abandoned its airbrush long before television's O.J. Simpson extravaganza. In any case, Perry and his see-through bag of courtroom tricks wouldn't cut it today. Perry wouldn't last past brown-bag lunchtime in the tiny firm of Boston scrappers introduced by ABC in "The Practice." They'd have him for lunch. And the jurisprudence-challenged Burger, boasting the longest losing streak in courtroom history, at best would rate a desk beside the urinals in NBC's "Law & Order."

Or a mop and pail in "Feds," a highly promising CBS drama from Dick Wolf, whose flagship, "Law & Order," has for seven seasons been one of prime time's brainiest, freshest, most seductive hours.

Although some of those good genes appear to have transferred, it remains to be seen whether "Feds" will ever soar quite as high as "Law & Order." But it's getting a chance, tonight joining the premiering "Arsenio" on ABC and "Temporarily Yours" on CBS, two above-average sitcoms with potential for growth, as networks continue to make this week a launching pad for series getting late-season tryouts.

"Feds" orbits its heavy caseload around the Manhattan federal prosecutor's office run by fictional U.S. Attorney Erica Stanton (Blair Brown), said to be second only to Janet Reno in the hierarchy of federal law enforcement. Unlike D.A. Adam Schiff, her counterpart on "Law & Order," Stanton is given more to do than show up occasionally to grumble and bark orders.

Her staff of assistant U.S. attorneys include Sandra Broome (Regina Taylor), Michael Mancini (John Slattery), C. Oliver Resor (Adrian Pasdar) and Jessica Graham (Grace Phillips), who also is a crime novelist. Rounding out the team is its head investigator, FBI agent Jack Gaffney (Dylan Baker).

Scrunched (but not obscured, one hopes) between "Temporarily Yours" and the returning "EZ Streets," newcomer "Feds" is a legal series to closely watch. With Michael Chernuchin as executive producer with Wolf, its strengths are evident: strong stories, strong characters and a strong cast, with the versatile Brown conveying just the right authority as Stanton, for example; Taylor as discreetly spiny as she was playing a Southern maid on NBC's "I'll Fly Away"; and Pasdar retaining glints of quiet danger from the antihero he played last season on Fox's brief "Profit."

There are no soft spots in the cast, all the way through the supporting ranks. That includes edgy actress Lorraine Toussaint (familiar to "Law & Order" viewers from her recurring work on that series), who energizes every frame she's in tonight as Shambala Brown, a combative black attorney defending a black police officer accused of beating up a white supremacist skinhead who was taunting him. The prosecutor in the case and an African American herself, Broome is immediately pounced on by Brown: "Who are you doing this for, that prissy white bitch in the corner office?" That would be Stanton. Broome: "No, the blind bitch on the wall."

If Brown's provocation stings, the reply is too sanctimonious, and "Feds" at times gets suckered by platitudes, some less tailored to mouths than inscription in marble. Yet the moment is also electrifying, displaying "Feds" at its finest. As do its depictions of simmering turf rivalries between Stanton's attorneys and the Brooklyn D.A.'s office.

Other weaknesses include the TV-compressed reality of its courtroom sequences (which can't be avoided) and the way cases speed to trial as if clogged courts were imaginary. The series also occasionally pursues humor down a greased slope of absurdity, as in a petty crook fresh from Rwanda later in the series making a fool of Graham in court while acting as his own counsel. Moreover, "Feds" opens too wide a peephole into its characters' private lives.

Although Mancini's obsession with the Mafia chief responsible for the murder of his family provides a credible plot hook, a coming fracas over Broome's French diplomat boyfriend does not. Nor does Stanton as the other woman in a scandalous love triangle that earns space in the New York Post. "How was it sweating up the sheets with my husband?" the wife of Stanton's lover asks her.

Forget that. "Feds" is most effective sweating up the courtroom.

*

There are three reasons "Temporarily Yours" deserves to succeed: Debi Mazar, Debi Mazar and Debi Mazar.

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