Law does a double take in NBC's 'Sweet Justice'

September 15, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Call them the Cagney and Lacey of small-town Southern justice.

That's what NBC is hoping we'll call Melissa Gilbert and Cicely Tyson when we see them tonight in "Sweet Justice," a drama that will premiere at 10 on WMAR (Channel 2).

The premise is that two women, who could not be more different, find common ground in the cases that arrive at their storefront law firm in an unnamed Southern town. If you're thinking you've been there before with, say, "Young Lawyers" (ABC, 1971, Lee J. Cobb, Zalman King and Judy Pace), you're thinking right. There are just a few variations worth of difference.

Gilbert's character is Kate Delacroy, daughter of the town's richest fat-cat lawyer (Ronnie Cox). She usually practices big-time corporate law in New York City. But tonight she is home for her sister's wedding and winds up taking on a child custody case. (Yes, I know corporate and family law are very different specialties but apparently the producers don't. So, sue them.)

Tyson plays Carrie Grace Battle, the head of the storefront law firm and a long-time civil rights worker. Carrie Grace was a friend of Kate Delacroy's late mother, who was also an attorney.

With Tyson cast as a crusading lawyer working for social justice in the South, some viewers might expect a show about race, prejudice or civil rights.

It isn't -- at least, not in this first hour. Instead, it's about social class. Kate's client is a working-class waitress taking on her rich ex-husband and his family, which seems to own about half the unnamed Southern state in which the show is set. Natch, the law firm representing the family is that of Kate's fat-cat dad.

The hour is choked with influence peddling, favors done, favors remembered and threats of no more favors to come. It is not huge on law or trial procedure, as you might have guessed from the little problem regarding the nature of Kate's legal specialty.

With the court case being resolved through an oh-so-convenient, 11th-hour confession pulled from the rich boy by a Perry-Mason-like Kate, give the pilot a C- for plot.

As for the rest of the show, it's too early to make a clean call. Tyson and Gilbert are impressive actresses in their own ways. But it's all about chemistry in a series like this. It was the chemistry as much as the cops-and-robbers stuff or sheer acting talent that carried "Cagney & Lacey."

Maybe it's the nature of pilots to be uneven, but the chemistry between Gilbert and Tyson changes from scene to scene tonight. One moment, they're connecting like Pat Summerall and John Madden; the next, they're Jimmy Johnson and Terry Bradshaw.

"Sweet Justice" has a righteous time period at 9 on Saturday nights. If Gilbert and Tyson can click, I'm betting viewers will go straight from CBS' "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" to NBC with Kate Delacroy and Carrie Grace Battle, legal women. But that's a big "if," and the jury is still out.

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