Fox's 'Defender' wears blue collar wonderfully well

March 04, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Let's just say no matter how hard I wash, I can't seem to get the blue outta my collar," tough-talking attorney Lou Frischetti (Michael Rispoli) tells one of his clients in the pilot of "The Great Defender," which debuts at 7 tomorrow night on WBFF (Channel As long as Frischetti's collar stays blue and his sympathies remain with the working class, this new Fox dramedy series has a chance. And I'll be rooting for it as a welcome break from the homogenized, middle-class worldview that so dominates prime-time network television.

Frischetti is a Boston attorney with a night-school degree and a ++ television advertising campaign that features a doo-wop group singing "The Great Defender," as satisfied former clients testify about how Frischetti won them big settlements or kept them out of jail. His specialty is personal injury and workers' compensation.

With his courtroom swagger and good heart, Frischetti is a roly-poly Italian version of the attorney played by Denzel Washington in the feature film, "Philadelphia."

Much of the action in tomorrow night's pilot centers on a case involving a cab driver who was injured while shopping in a department store. He's now laid up in a hospital bed, unable to pay his bills. There's no question of liability, and the blue-blood, Beacon Hill law firm that represents the store is willing to settle for $200,000, which will make everybody happy.

But the young, totally incompetent Harvard grad handling the case finds Frischetti detestable and tells him so. After Frischetti tells the rich boy what he thinks of him, hope of settlement seems impossible. This is where Frischetti yells, "I'll see you in court," slams his briefcase and walks out.

I didn't say it was great writing. After all, this is Fox we're talking about. But the writing is not that important. What matters is all the social-class business going on in "The Great Defender."

Frischetti's confrontation with, and ultimate whipping of, the boy-attorney with the silver spoon in his mouth is playing to class differences and resentments. And there was something very satisfying for this viewer in watching it -- despite the stereotypes, clunky writing and balsa wood acting by Peter Krause as the Ivy Leaguer.

That kind of class tension is at the heart of the series. A senior partner of the blue-blood firm, Jason DeWitt (Richard Kiley), ultimately comes hat in hand to Frischetti and begs him to join the firm. The rich boys need Frischetti's energy and smarts, DeWitt tells him.

Frischetti agrees -- as long as he can keep the television ads, his mom as receptionist, his underdog clients and a very sexy private investigator. (Remember, this is Fox. Don't expect social reality when you can have young, sexy P.I.s making our working-class hero seem more, well, heroic -- even if he is a tad pudgy.)

Fox is the only network that seems interested in making shows about ethnic, working-class characters. Remember "Roc"?

In the early days of television, there were a lot of ethnic, working-class characters -- like the Jewish family in "The Goldbergs," the Italians in "Life With Luigi" and the Swedes in "Mama." But all of those shows were gone by 1956, as television went corporate, suburban, homogenized, with too many fathers in white shirts and mothers in aprons.

There was a brief ethnic renaissance of working-class characters in the mid-1970s -- "Chico and the Man" and "Sanford and Son." But by the 1980s we were back to the upper-middle-class mores of "Family Ties" and "The Cosby Show."

So, here's hoping Lou Frischetti finds a home alongside such good proletariat folks as Homer Simpson and Al Bundy on Sunday nights. Solidarity forever, Lou, and keep the collar blue.

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