When NBC announced that Tom Fontana, the executive producer of "Homicide," was working on a courtroom drama with Lynda La Plante, the British writer who created "Prime Suspect," it sounded like a dream marriage between the mother of Jane Tennison and the father of Frank Pembleton.
The first-born of that union arrives tonight as a made-for-television movie, "The Prosecutors," and, sad to say, it is one of those projects that sounded so much better on paper than it looks on screen.
The biggest disappointment is that, while it's billed by NBC as a "movie about the lives of three women who work in the New York City district attorney's office," La Plante offers nothing new or interesting in terms of images of feminine identity. What we get are elements of the chain-smoking, ambitious, hard-driving Chief Inspector Tennison -- a refreshingly original type for American television five years ago in the hands of Helen Mirren -- chopped up and spread too thinly among three characters.
Foremost among the three is Rachel Simone, a seems-to-have-it-all star prosecutor played by Michelle Forbes of Homicide." "All" includes a loving husband (Clark Johnson of "Homicide"), two children, lots of money, media-good-looks and a power-suits career she finds fulfilling.
The film opens with Simone prosecuting a headline-making case of sexual harassment over the Internet that promises to make her an even bigger star in the DA's office.
But the first major dramatic moment in the movie comes when her husband is killed during an armed robbery with one of their children watching.
In case anyone isn't yet clear about Simone's priorities, she goes into the office the morning after her husband's murder. But her boss still takes her off the Internet case, ultimately assigning it to Ingrid Maynard (Stockard Channing), a brilliant but bitter assistant district attorney now doing legal research in the basement of the courthouse since an accident that left her confined to a wheelchair.
The third of the main female characters is Maria Valquez (Judy Reyes), a legal intern who starts out working for Simone but winds up assisting Maynard. Valquez is the least-developed character of the three -- all energy and ambition but not enough beyond that to see her as a person.
In one way or another, all the characters lack a sufficient sense of believable identity -- a major surprise given the pedigrees of La Plante, Fontana and "Homicide" producer Julie Martin, who shared a screenwriting credit as well.
For example, in a press conference to promote the film, La Plante said the central truth about Simone is that "she is a woman who will do anything rather than face up to and come to terms with the death of her husband." That could make for a highly interesting character, but only if the film tells us why she behaves that way.
Such an answer is never given. Furthermore, the suggestions of why she might act this way are contradictory. While press material accompanying the film defines Simone by her "obsession with justice," the film shows her clearly willing to distort the facts to win a case.
Simply put, it does not seem like enough thought or care went into "The Prosecutors" starting from frame one.
The opening images are of New York City photographed from a level just above the skyscrapers. Nice pictures, but we've seen them a thousand times before and they tell us nothing except that we are in New York City.
From there, we move to a first scene between Simone and a mob of reporters in the courthouse lobby that is so heavy-handed in its exposition that you wonder if La Plante, Fontana and Martin were abducted by aliens and impostors crafted it.
"The Prosecutors" is not a horrible film. Forbes and Channing deliver fine performances, and the spiky relationship between their characters creates its own interest and tension.
For its part, NBC is calling tonight's film a "backdoor pilot," which means it still could become a weekly series.
But, as big a fan of Fontana and La Plante as I am, I hope such a series is not made. "The Prosecutors" is not their best work, nor does it enrich the world of prime-time television in any of the many ways that "Homicide" and "Prime Suspect" do.
Pub Date: 12/02/96