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The Right Spin-Off

TV: Rosenberg the New Season

'Special Victims,' an NBC sibling of 'Law & Order,' has potential. It's by far the best of four fall series debuting tonight.

September 20, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

After dripping for a month like a leaky water faucet, the new television season blows in tonight like tropical storm Floyd.

Easily the best of this new foursome is the NBC cop series, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," offspring of producer Dick Wolf and sibling of his durable Wednesday night crime hour that ranks as one of prime-time's smartest series.

Although not meeting that high standard, "Special Victims Unit" makes a strong debut, and is vastly better than two CBS newcomers--the weightless drama "Family Law" and foul screwball comedy "Ladies Man"--and the so-snug-it-snoozes "Safe Harbor" on the WB. Talk about placid.

There's hardly an instant of serenity on "Special Victims Unit," which focuses on sex crimes and opens nastily with a butchered cabbie's body being discovered minus its penis. Who is he? Who stabbed him 37 times and hacked off his "manhood?" And why?

These are questions that drive this good mystery, which touches ultimately on questions of war crimes and morality, exactly the kind of weighty business for which "Law & Order" is known.

And there are questions that also draw attention to NBC's boggling decision--reportedly fought by Wolf--to schedule "Special Victims Unit" at 9 p.m. instead of 10.

The new series has Dann Florek back as Capt. Don Cragen from the original "Law & Order" cast, and it also inherits such familiar accouterments as the older show's signature graphics and distinctive New York ambience, and its alignment of plots to current events.

Another familiar face in the squad room is Richard Belzer, still hovering between humor and gravity as dour, acerbic Det. John Munch of NBC's late, great "Homicide: Life on the Street." It seems he took his Baltimore PD pension and fled.

"Law & Order" Assistant D.A. Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon) drops by at the end of the hour to briefly tidy legal matters and remind viewers of the new show's roots. But otherwise "Special Victims Unit" is distinctive and on its own, handing tonight's murder investigation to Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler and Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson. The latter's emotionalism about the case, based on something horrific in her past, is an example of how "Special Victims Unit" weaves its plots through its characters' personal lives, in contrast to the more detached "Law & Order."

Despite a bizarre courtroom sequence that strains credibility early in the episode, this is a very good start for "Special Victims Unit," which promises to be a solid cop drama capable of occasionally stretching toward greatness.

"Law & Order" seeks to do just that Wednesday in a season opener whose slaughter of premed students in Central Park has amazing surface parallels with the shooting rampage at an Orange County hospital just last week.

The plot ultimately turns on gun control issues and, though a good effort, ultimately becomes preachy.

Meanwhile, in a series whose numerous cast turnovers have not seemed to affect ratings, here comes Jesse L. Martin (Calista Flockhart's former boyfriend on Fox's "Ally McBeal"). Martin's Det. Ed Jordan succeeds Benjamin Bratt's Det. Rey Curtis as Det. Lennie Briscoe's partner.

Unlike that straight-arrow Curtis, Jordan has a dark past that includes a pair of complaints about excessive force, and he builds on that by roughing up a suspect Wednesday. He fits fine as another spoke in a wheel that just keeps turning.

*

"Family Law" has no visible wheels, and its star, Kathleen Quinlan, wanders through its premiere looking mostly stunned.

Nor does it add anything worthwhile to TV's fat catalog of law series, this one centering on a suite of legal offices inhabited by Quinn as suffering Lynn Holt (marital), Julie Warner as scrappy Danni Lipton (general), Dixie Carter as butt-kicking Randi King (civil) and Christopher McDonald as hard-charging Rex Weller (criminal).

The herd begins massing by the end of the premiere, the catalyst coming in opening scenes when Holt's attorney husband splits with their joint practice and nearly all of their staff and furnishings, forcing her to scramble to keep the firm together and find a way to survive.

Lipton is the only attorney who didn't defect, King ("I hate men, and I play dirty") is the attorney Holt hires to counterattack her departed husband and Weller is the attorney whom Holt and everyone else finds repulsive. So naturally they would come together.

"Family Law" aggressively searches for humor where none exists, most notably in a sick plot line about a divorced couple squabbling over their dead dog's ashes.

Equally bad is Holt's method of representing a recovering drug addict trying to regain custody of her two young sons whom she once abused. When her angry elder son sandbags his mother with a rock of crack cocaine that sends her into a new drug spin, Holt's response is that her client "will have a much better chance of winning now" because the boy's behavior proves that he is poorly supervised by his foster parents. Say what?

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