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Originality again shows potential

July 14, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Although Lifetime Television dropped the "for Women" from its tagline a couple of years ago, it remains fundamentally gynocentric nonetheless. There's certainly nothing wrong with that -- as long as Spike TV continues to exist, its presence may be regarded at the very least as balancing the cosmic scales. And although it's easy to mock the house style -- especially as seen in its TV movies, with their endless catalog of threatened women, catastrophic illnesses and even more catastrophic men -- the network is capable of mounting a decent original show now and again.

"Army Wives," which began last month to a generally warm reception, is one such program, and it is being joined Sunday night by two new series that offer varying degrees of tactical support. In "State of Mind," Lili Taylor plays a psychiatrist with problems of her own -- novel idea, that -- while "Side Order of Life" features Marisa Coughlan as a magazine photographer grappling with those things with which women have grappled since time immemorial, or at least since the movies were born.

Both series begin with a dream sequence, oddly enough. (Did anyone say, "You can't open your show with a dream sequence because we're opening our show with a dream sequence?") Taylor's Dr. Ann Bellowes imagines she has misplaced her husband, a presentiment of things to come in the waking world, while Coughlan's Jenny McIntyre dreams she is marching down the aisle in her underwear, which could be a sign that she doesn't really want the husband she is about to have. Both characters daydream, as well, and see things that aren't there -- a little something picked up at the "Ally McBeal" estate sale, no doubt -- although where Ann just pictures garroting the odd patient, Jenny's visions are ongoing, a series of bulletins from the universe.

Created by novelist-psychiatrist Amy Bloom, "State of Mind" is the weaker (and the more strenuous and sour) of the two, and all the more disappointing for the presence of the reliably interesting Taylor.

Lifetime calls it "a quirky and comedic drama series," which may be another way of saying that it's a comedy that isn't funny. (The drama is certainly not all that dramatic.)

The action centers around the offices of the New Haven Psychiatric Associates, where Dr. Bellowes shares space with three therapists and the young lawyer (Devon Gummersall, filled out nicely since "My So-Called Life") who comes in to occupy the room vacated by Ann's unfaithful husband, caught in flagrante delicto just after that bad dream. Gummersall's character is named Barry White, a set-up to a joke -- or a series of jokes -- that never arrives. (Perhaps it isn't a comedy after all.) The fact that his father was a hit man has left him "pathologically committed to being good and nice."

Of the two shows, "Mind" is the harder on the less fair sex. "There's not a man on earth, straight, gay or quadriplegic, about whom I'd say, 'Oh, honey, he'll never cheat on you,' " says colleague Cordelia (Theresa Randle). To another therapist, who is possibly cheating with her: "If I were your wife, I'd stab you in your sleep." There is stuff about "kissing frogs" and wanting to get rid of a decent guy "just because he was so boring he made you long for fame."

But also in the Lifetime way, there are more sensitive, stronger types for contrast and possible love interest. Gummersall, who has a nice, light touch, may be one; Derek Riddell, as a Scots children's therapist who plays the guitar and makes his points with puppets, could be another.

In "Side Order of Life," the world around Coughlan's Jenny gets all surreal and kibitzy after brassy BFF Vivy (Diana Maria Riva) announces the return of her cancer. (Someone was going to have to get bravely ill here.) Created by Margaret Nagle (author of the HBO Roosevelt biopic "Warm Springs"), it's insistent on the magic of the one true love seen in a "blinding flash of total recognition," and on trusting the universe to give you what you need when you need it. Here, the cosmos communicates via fortune cookie, or by rearranging the Hollywood sign, or by putting Jenny in touch with a mysterious stranger -- just a voice, and an ear, on the other end of a misdialed cellphone for now. (But, ladies, he knows how to listen, and just what to say.)

Although the particulars of Jenny's job -- she works for a People-like magazine, but with better art direction -- are not particularly persuasive, the production itself is sunny and conducive to a good mood. Coughlan wears well, as does Jason Priestley in the role of the fiance she puts on hold -- "a good-looking shoe that's not in your size," Vivy calls him. The show flirts with type, then coyly backs off from it. Priestley's Ian is a money man -- as these usually disposable characters often are -- but the actor snatches him back toward something more well-rounded and genial. In any case, those old "Beverly Hills 90210" boys are doing good work in surprising places.

Neither pilot fully flowers. But if "State of Mind" can lighten up a little and "Side Order of Life" can manage not to effervesce into thin air, something might yet take root, even blossom into love.


`State of Mind'

Where: Lifetime

When: 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)


`Side Order of Life'

Where: Lifetime

When: 8 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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