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The Right Spin-Off

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?

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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?

“Family Law” juxtaposes the asinine and the maudlin, shamelessly piling on the sanctimonious and saccharine in an attempt to pull heartstrings like they were taffy. If the premiere is any indication, this is one law firm that deserves to be out of business.

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As does “Ladies Man,” the sitcom arriving earlier in the evening on CBS, with the brand of coarse humor that producer Chris Thompson so adroitly sliced into the premiere of his funny new adult movie-biz comedy on Fox, “Action.” “Ladies Man” is utterly off-key in this 8:30 p.m. show whose protagonist is frustrated by being amid only women.

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The premiere begins flagrantly with that capable, versatile British actor Alfred Molina somehow as Jimmy Stiles, who is in the bathroom in his pajamas innocently hugging his very pregnant wife, Donna (Sharon Lawrence), from behind when in walks their 10-year-old daughter, Wendy. She immediately rats to her 15-year-old sister, Bonnie:

“Guess what daddy’s doing? He’s climbing on mom like some horn dog.”

Bonnie then tells her own mother, Jimmy’s ex-wife Claire (Park Overall), who has arrived: “Dad was wiggling all over Donna, in front of us kids!”

Here’s the basic plot: Jimmy wants a son after having two daughters, but insists he doesn’t dislike females, a debate joined by his catty mother, Mitzi (Betty White), and other females in the vicinity.

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This sets off an obnoxious spewing of pedophile and gay jokes, followed later by a smutty sexual reference to female breasts, each greeted by a huge crescendo of sweetened laughter. As is another joke about Jimmy running over the family cat with his car, and another sequence in which Donna practically assaults Jimmy sexually.

Mariam Parris and Katie Volding, who play Bonnie and Wendy respectively in the premiere, have been replaced. Yeah, that’ll make a difference.

And Hollywood wonders why so many Americans are angry at it.

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“Safe Harbor” is so mellow in comparison, it barely exists. And as widowed Sheriff John Loring, Gregory Harrison is so earnest about his three sons (Christopher Khayman, Jamie Williams and Jeremy Lelliott and their sleepover pal (Orlando Brown) being squeaky clean in the Florida coastal town where they all live, that you want to give three cheers for pastel.

On paper, moreover, “Safe Harbor” sure does seem to be a nice companion for gentle “7th Heaven,” executive producer Brenda Hampton’s other series that precedes it in the WB lineup. That’s evident from Sheriff John’s mighty efforts to bar his boys from slipping gals into their rooms at the converted beachfront motel where the family lives. And from any funny business with the comely troubled runaway (Chyler Leigh) who moves in at the end of tonight’s hour.

A nice try.

But initial episodes are simplistic and predictable. When the eldest son (Khayman) wants to drop out of high school in the second episode, for example, you’ve no doubt that his father can ultimately make things right merely by raising a brow. And even with Harrison, and Rue McClanahan as the sheriff’s adventurous mother, the acting here is shaky.

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Bottom line, “Safe Harbor” has no discernible pulse, making it a candidate to join the other dead fish in the sea.

* “Ladies Man” airs at 8:30 p.m. Mondays on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language)

* “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” airs at 9 p.m. Mondays on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

* “Safe Harbor” airs at 9 p.m. Mondays on WB. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language).

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* “Family Law” airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language).


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