ABC's 'Civil Wars' gives TV viewers an enticing new heroine

November 20, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

She's Colleen McMurphy from "China Beach" dressed like Grace Van Owen from "L.A. Law." She's tough, but she's also nurturing -- maybe the strongest woman on prime-time TV.

She's Sydney Guilford of "Civil Wars," the new lawyer drama from Steven Bochco Productions that debuts at 10 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13). Played by Mariel Hemingway, she's someone lots of viewers are going to be talking about tomorrow morning -- especially male viewers.

"Civil Wars" is for all those relatively young, urban professionals out there who miss adult dramas, like "Shannon's Deal," "Equal Justice" or "Hill Street Blues." If you felt cheated when ABC canceled "China Beach" or "thirtysomething," you're going to feel a lot better when you see this show.

Guilford -- herself divorced -- is a divorce attorney, one-half of a small law firm in Manhattan that specializes in what's euphemistically referred to as family law. Tonight's opening is a brilliant, absurd, sweet, sad scene in which Guilford's partner (Alan Rosenberg) has a nervous breakdown during a deposition, rending his clothes and collapsing. Notice the tableau that the scene ends on before the opening credits: Guilford holding her almost-naked partner in her arms in the conference room. You'll see that posture of support and nurturance repeated often -- just like McMurphy in "China Beach," silently sharing her strength with the victims of another kind of warfare.

But that's the heavier stuff. There's also the funny and generally dark humor that plays throughout the hour. One story line tonight involves the case of a woman seeking divorce from her husband because he thinks he is Elvis Presley. The man, an appliance salesman from Long Island named Murray Seidelman (Dennis Franz), believes Presley's spirit took possession of his body during a visit to Graceland.

"Murray Seidelman has left the building, and the King has moved in," is the way he puts it on the witness stand. The laughs, though, ultimately give way to hard-eyed, melancholy insights into Seidelman, middle-age and a relationship gone wrong.

One thing that goes right for Guilford is that she finds a new partner, Charlie Howell (Peter Onorati). Howell's main purpose tonight is to be smitten by Guilford and to serve as an on-screen surrogate for all the feelings male viewers will likely experience toward his partner. In next week's episode, however, he plays a larger role: escorting one of his clients to her 20th college reunion. Their good-night kiss is one of the most gentle and touching scenes you will ever see on TV.

It may seem strange to be talking about next week's show already. But there's a reason for that. Bochco -- the creator of "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law" -- did not create "Civil Wars." He is an executive consultant and his company produces the series. William Finkelstein created it. While Finkelstein serves up a terrific pilot tonight, next week's show is co-authored by Bochco, and it's twice as terrific.

Like "Hill Street Blues," there's lots of rain, pain and melancholy in "Civil Wars." The world is absurd, existential and out to break your heart. Transcendence is found in moments of compassion and caring -- which brings us back to Guilford.

Here's something to get the water-cooler talk about her started tomorrow. Is she an ideal woman or is she a male notion of an ideal woman -- with a gender-neutral first name, a kind of tomboyish sexuality, a certain inscrutability and a strength when everyone else is falling apart? If she were a literary character in the 1920s, she might have been called a "Hemingway heroine."

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