'Relativity' is well-bred, but it has growing up to do Preview: You want angst, you've got it. But new TV series from the 'thirtysomething' and 'My So-Called Life' guys needs more than that to make us fall in love.

September 24, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

If only Leo Roth and Isabel Lukens were interesting people.

But they're not, and that could prove bad news for "Relativity," the series premiering at 10 tonight on WMAR, Channel 2, as the latest offering from angst-meisters Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz.

Not that "Relativity" is bad TV. The dialogue is crisp, the supporting characters winning, the production values top-notch. You might even enjoy the show, but you won't remember anything about it five minutes after it's over. And we've come to expect much more from the men who brought "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life" to television.

Isabel is 24. She's about to marry a guy named Everett, who designs CD-ROMs. That worries her -- this marriage thing seems so permanent, you know -- so she jets to Rome to think things through.

Bad move. Anyone who's ever been to the movies knows the only thing single women find in Europe is men far more appealing than the poor schlep they plan on marrying. Think Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline in "French Kiss." Think Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. in "Only You."

Isabel's significantly better other turns out to be Leo, an American house painter, fellow L.A. Clippers fan (they both cheer on losers cute) and aspiring architect who tells her A) her fiance doesn't appreciate her quirky wonderfulness, and B) she's got a great flume (that's what he calls the little ridge-thing under hernose cute).

Immediately, they fall in love, embracing all over Rome, kissing passionately in front of all sorts of scenic fountains.

Poor Everett. You just know this poor guy is toast 10 minutes into the show. Sure, Isabel keeps insisting this is just a fling; I mean, all they do is kiss. But every time she suggests same to Leo, he gets this sort of hurt-puppy, you-wouldn't-kick-your-own-dog look that says, "Don't worry, people, we're gonna make it after all."

So Leo keeps pursuing Isabel, even after she tells him, "You've ruined my life," even after she begs him not to call her, even after she slops through the rain to tell him, once again, that it's over.

But poor Everett doesn't stand a chance. His hair is short, his job is technical, he can't pout like Leo. And worst of all, he loves Isabel so much, he'll do anything to make them work.

Too bad. He's history.

This series may be, too, unless executive producers Zwick and Herskovitz do something to make the central characters more compelling. Kimberly Williams (Steve Martin's daughter in "Father of the Bride") is adorable as Isabel, but her character never gets to display other adjectives. As Leo, David Conrad can look pensive and charming and hurt and also adorable. Everything but complex, interesting or noble especially when compared to poor Everett (Randall Batinkoff) who, faced with a similar situation, would have listened to Isabel and walked away.

Some of the peripheral characters fare better, especially those on Leo's side of the family. Devon Gummersall (the nerdy neighbor on "My So-Called Life") plays Leo's younger brother, Jake, who's been turned into an emotional zombie by the death of their mother. Their well-meaning dad, Barry (Richard Schiff), isn't much help: When he has to choose between a sales meeting in San Francisco or a conference with Jake's teacher, guess where he ends up.

As with any Zwick/Herskovitz series, you can cut the angst in "Relativity" with a knife. No one portrays that emotion on TV -- adolescent and otherwise -- better. "thirtysomething" parlayed the angst of baby boomers, faced with an all-too-real world their youthful idealism never considered, into a critical and popular phenomenon that won a batch of Emmys and a place in the national vocabulary. "My So-Called Life" so perfectly captured the angst of a teen-age generation struggling to be understood that the entire series, all 21 episodes, has become a mainstay of MTV.

"Relativity" concerns itself with lovers. Maybe the field should be narrowed a bit. Maybe the series just needs time to develop (with Zwick and Herskovitz at the helm, it certainly deserves the chance). Or maybe it needs to find a better pair of lovers.

Me? I'm rooting for Everett.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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