The Bochco touch is clearly visible in wrenching and wacky 'Civil Wars'

Television

November 20, 1991|By Michael Hill

YOU GET THE feeling when you first start watching "Civil pTC Wars" that it's just Steven Bochco up to his old tricks.

Oh, they're good tricks. No doubt about that. But you've seen them. You've seen the interweaving of three or four stories in an hour. You've seen the wacky, off-the-wall characters in the midst of serious drama. You've seen the juxtaposition of tragedy and black humor. And, of course, you've seen Bochco's take on lawyers in "L.A. Law."

Indeed, "Civil Wars," a new ABC series that premieres tonight at 10 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ), is something of a spinoff of "L.A. Law." This is a show about divorce lawyers, and certainly it was the experience of Bochco and friends with Arnie Becker that let them know this was fertile field for a series of its own.

When tonight's episode opens, a lawyer basically freaks out in themiddle of taking a deposition, looking at a woman and commenting that for her age, she has nice breasts (another Bochco trademark, an adolescent fascination with sex). He starts taking off his clothes.

Whether it was Belker biting the guy in the "Hill Street Blues" premiere or the beautiful Ann Kelsey propositioning Stuart Markowitz in the opener of "L.A. Law," you're used to Bochco trying to reach out and grab you right from the start.

But despite all the remembrances of series past, "Civil Wars" is

top-notch television. Tonight, that's mainly because you see a workable formula executed with admirable precision.

But next week, and in a couple of other episodes made available for preview, there's a better indication of the rich potential of this arena. Not only can it provide insight into the dark side of human relationships, but its dramas also contain the possibility of redemption.

The nervous breakdown in tonight's opening scene leaves Sydney Guilford -- Mariel Hemingway as the world's tallest, thinnest female divorce lawyer -- without a partner.

One thing leads to another during the hour, and an attorney on the other side of the legal fence, Charlie Howell, played by Peter Onorati, ends up taking the empty office. It's no surprise that the former occupant will be back to sprinkle a bit of his insanity throughout upcoming episodes.

During this first hour, Howell represents a man who's using dummy corporations to hide assets from his estranged wife, a scheme ferreted out by Guilford. And, in the tragi-comic plot, "Hill Street" alumnus Dennis Franz shows up to play a former mild-mannered type who has found a new identity impersonating Elvis Presley, all day, every day. This understandably leads his wife -- her name is Natalie but he calls her Priscilla -- to seek a divorce.

"Civil Wars" was actually created by William Finkelstein, a lawyer who worked on "L.A. Law" with Bochco. Gregory Hoblit, a veteran of "Hill Street" and "L.A. Law," directs these first two episodes beautifully.

The series is set in New York and, though the city does not intrude much on the plot developments, the offices and courtrooms dohave a nice frenetic clutter. And the East Coast edge is kept sharp by Debi Mazar's work as the tightly dressed, cigarette smoking secretary, Denise Ianello.

One nice twist is that, though there is clearly sexual attraction between our two principals in the offing, "Civil Wars" has none of that coy will-they-or-won't-they stuff that is usually the stock-in-trade of such relationships.

These are two grown-ups with busy lives who, like doctors who deal with disease all day, are surrounded by the horrific debris of human relationships. It makes them careful. We're just going to see what happens between them. The opener does introduce Sydney's pathetic schemer of an ex-husband. The squeaky-voiced Hemingway, who usually plays wide-eyed, woman-child characters, gives a creditable reading as an anything-but-naive attorney. Onorati, who was a bad cop in Bochco's "Cop Rock," is sharp and focused as Howell.

The word is that ABC Entertainment executives thought that the pilot -- tonight's show -- was a bit too dark and talked Bochco into lightening things up (literally in the case of Hemingway's hair) for future episodes. Usually such network meddling is bad news, but in this case it seems to have helped, letting Bochco, Finkelstein and crew realize that "Civil Wars" can be much more than a psychic-crash-of-the-week leavened by a few weird characters.

The result is that, though "Civil Wars" is not quite in the category of "thirtysomething" and "China Beach," the two shows ABC canceled last spring, it's a top-drawer drama that appeals on many intellectual and emotional levels.

Unless you were about to soak your hated ex-spouse out of a whopping alimony, you'd never think a visit to a divorce court could be so enriching.

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