Following the law of U.S. remakes

Preview: `First Years,' based on a British series about young attorneys, gets rid of the characteristics that make the original great TV.

March 19, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Please forgive me. I'm at a great disadvantage in previewing "First Years," a midseason NBC legal drama aimed at viewers in their 20s: I am familiar with the British series "This Life," on which it is based. In fact, I am a fan of "This Life," and I hate what NBC has done to the fire, ire and soul of that edgy, sexy series.

I'm not going to rant or go and on about a series many readers have not seen, because you must have digital cable or a satellite dish to see it on BBC America in our land of the free. But one of the fundamental responsibilities of my job is to try to remember how good American television could be and to make sure viewers at least know about all the potential that's routinely wasted.

Like the BBC series, "First Years" is about five young lawyers in their first year out of law school. In the NBC version, which debuts tonight, four of them save money by sharing a house in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

If you are of the baby-boomer generation and Haight-Ashbury meant something to you in terms of ideology, all I can say is wait until you see what they've done to your song. But let's not get generational and political, or my head might explode with outrage.

The four young lawyers are: Miles Lawton (Ken Marino), a good-looking guy who comes from a privileged background; Edgar "Egg" Ross, the least-serious lawyer but the most-serious sports fan among the crew; Riley Kessler (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), the most promising lawyer in the house; and Warren Harrison (Mackenzie Astin), who is quiet and gay. Edgar and Riley are deeply involved in a relationship. Warren is in therapy.

Not living with the four, but always at the house is Anna Weller (Samantha Mathis). She's defined in the pilot by her ability to belch louder than any of the men and by arriving for a staff meeting late and without underwear because the man with whom she was sleeping could not be awakened and her favorite pair of panties was somewhere underneath him. In the first two episodes of this ensemble drama, Anna appears to be the first among equals.

In NBC press materials, creator Jill Gordon describes the five by saying, "Despite the long hours and the grind [of their jobs], these people don't take themselves too seriously. They are fun and appropriately screwed up, but nobody is neurotic. If any of these characters do become neurotic or whiny, we will kill them off."

Well, Jill, in the British version, they were all neurotic in one way or another, and the BBC was proud of it. The BBC promotional package described Anna, played by the brilliant Daniela Nardini, as "smart, shocking, sexy and drunk." If she wasn't an alcoholic, she was at the top of the waiting list, and it only made her more fascinating. She drank because she was angry, and she was angry about everything: social class, generational issues, gender inequality, and the fact that she was deeply in love with Miles and he couldn't care less.

The BBC pilot took me back in my mind to the incredible excitement I felt as a 20-year-old student when I was introduced in a course on post-World War II British literature to the Angry Young Man school of writing with plays like "Look Back in Anger" and short stories like "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." As I watched "This Life," I thought, "Yes, here's the female version of the angry young man for this generation of people in their 20s," and I was hooked on getting to know her.

In the NBC version, Anna has no passion or anger that I can discern. She's unhappy about getting what Gordon describes as "all the grunt work and receiving none of the glory" by nature of being a first-year associate. But that's reduced to jokes about spitting in the coffee she's occasionally asked to fetch. Oh yeah, she and her friends are also unhappy about having to work so hard that they are too tired to go to concerts.

I know, it's too sad to even contemplate. But not to worry: This is a show in which the producer promises no neuroses; by the end of the second episode, they all get to go to a concert.

If there is any promise here, it is in the character of Riley and the easygoing, engaging performance of Poitier. One of the story lines of the pilot involves Riley representing an African-American woman who gave her baby up for adoption when she went to prison but is now fighting the adoption because the foster parents are white. Riley is biracial, and her story has its moments tonight.

But don't be fooled. By the second episode, any such serious moments of sociology have been eliminated from this safely scrubbed comedy-drama about "fun" people. After all, we wouldn't want anyone taking themselves - or television - "too seriously."

`First Years'

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: A serious British drama, neutered for American TV.

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