Important Topics, Formulaic Approaches

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Well, at least they made the effort. . . .

Sunday night, ABC and NBC sound the alarm about a couple of hot-button social issues: unplanned parenthood and domestic violence. Unfortunately, their movies addressing these topics--"Unwed Father" at 9 p.m. on ABC and "Every 9 Seconds" at the same time on NBC--cling to formula plotting, which garbles their messages.

"Unwed Father"--featuring teen dream actors Brian Austin Green ("Beverly Hills, 90210") and Nicholle Tom ("The Nanny")--seems pretty clearly targeted at viewers in their teens and early 20s.

The first few minutes are a sorry string of cliches: Tom's Melanie Crane visits a club where Green's Jason Kempler fronts a rock band; they lock eyes and are instantly smitten. Once they slip away, kissing leads to something more.

Jason--a spoiled rich kid heading into his junior year of college--refuses to take responsibility for the resulting pregnancy. Melanie tries to move bravely on, but the baby's colicky squall and a fight with her mom send her into a panic. She drives to Jason's house, shoves the baby into his arms and splits town.

In a meeting with a social worker a short while later, Jason howls: "This is ruining my life. I can't sleep. I can't work. I have no time for myself. I'm like a 24-hour-a-day diaper-changing service." The social worker fixes her gaze on him and replies: "Welcome to parenthood."

Nina Shengold's script and Michael Switzer's direction gradually coalesce into a pretty solid movie. But if "Unwed Father" succeeds as a cautionary tale, it does so largely by making parenthood seem about as appealing as a 21-year, round-the-clock tax audit.

Targeted at a broader audience, "Every 9 Seconds" conveys a mind-numbing statistic: that somewhere in America, a woman is battered every nine seconds. The plot is so absurdly formulaic, however, that Adam Greenman's script--directed by Kenneth Fink--quickly disintegrates into just another of Hollywood's cheapening women-in-peril stories.

Amy Pietz ("Caroline in the City") stars as Carrie Breiter, a journalist who--while writing a story about domestic violence--goes undercover as a crisis hotline volunteer. This brings her into contact, via the phone lines, with two women: Janet ("NYPD Blue's" Gail O'Grady) fears for herself and her young daughter when her husband, who's been jailed for beating her, shows up on the doorstep after an early release. Missy (Emily Hampshire) is a teen caught up in a romance she doesn't understand.

In both cases, the men appear to the world to be first-rate guys. But they see everything in terms of "us" versus "them," and when things don't go their way, they belittle and batter their mates. Their twisted thinking in turn twists the women's. When O'Grady's Janet is asked why she didn't just leave her husband, she replies: "I was afraid he'd kill me. And I was afraid I couldn't live without him."

Ignoring warnings, Pietz's Carrie sets off to intervene for Janet. Given a chance to escape the suddenly returned husband (Christopher Meloni), however, Carrie flees not to a neighbor's house but to a faraway public phone. When it doesn't work, she returns to the house, solo, to play heroine--stupid behavior with no purpose other than to sustain the so-called suspense. Will she succeed in saving Janet? If she does, it will merely validate ignoring safeguards and putting oneself needlessly in danger.

* "Unwed Father" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC (Channel 7). The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

* "Every 9 Seconds" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on NBC (Channel 4). The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14). It also carries an advisory about its scenes of violence.

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