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TV REVIEW : ‘Civil Wars’ Loses Battle to Absurdities

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

There’s not one early episode of ABC’s new drama series “Civil Wars” that isn’t captivating or amusing in spots. There’s also not one that isn’t seriously flawed.

In style and content, “Civil Wars” at times echoes “L.A. Law"--hardly a surprise, since its creator and executive producer is William M. Finkelstein, a former writer and producer on the acclaimed NBC legal drama who is making the new series for the production company of Steven Bochco, co-creator of “L.A. Law.”

“Civil Wars” premieres at 10 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, teaming Mariel Hemingway and Peter Onorati as skilled divorce attorneys who decide to join forces despite barely knowing each other.

“Look, I’m gonna throw something out here,” says Charlie Howell (Onorati), proposing partnership with Sydney Guilford (Hemingway). “We don’t even know each other,” she notes. “What if it turns out we hate each other?”

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Fat chance.

The catalyst for this business union is the mental crackup of Sydney’s stressed-out partner, Eli (Alan Rosenberg), who nevertheless hangs around for the first several episodes. His bizarre behavior is an example of how “Civil Wars” too often sails over the top with supporting characters so farcically outrageous as to be distracting and out of sync with serious storytelling. They include a client who thinks he’s Elvis, another who tries to murder Charlie, another who keeps 25 guns at home and another who steals artificial sweetener.

We also get unnaturally tidy endings, people behaving out of character and a woman who--right out of Perry Mason--breaks down under Charlie’s questioning and makes a startling admission in court.

The lanky Hemingway and the short Onorati (who was the tainted detective in last season’s “Cop Rock”) make an interesting pair, and Debi Mazar adds fun as a brassy office secretary. And a little bit down the line is an episode that, while uneven, powerfully expresses the rage and frustration of a black man fighting his white ex-wife for custody of their young son.

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But for several episodes, “Civil Wars” is little more than a constant drone of splitting spouses wildly battling over money as their lawyers watch helplessly. For this, you can watch “Divorce Court.”


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