`People' could go a little bit deeper

Show has potential, but main characters are way too shallow

TV Preview

July 20, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One is a white liberal with a busted marriage and a caffeine-jangled edge that has her bouncing off walls as she races from courtroom to courtroom. The other is an African-American conservative with an all-American-looking family and a cool, steady-handed style of running the district attorney's office. Can they learn to work together?

That, in brief, is the heart and core of For the People, a legal drama starring Lea Thompson (Caroline in the City) and Debbi Morgan (The Hurricane) that premieres tomorrow night on Lifetime. As dramatic conflict in a weekly series goes, it isn't bad. It's focused, that's for sure.

But, at least as it plays in the pilot, it is too focused with almost no nuance, ambiguity or the subtle shadings of personality that intrigue you enough to keep coming back week after week to see where the characters are going. Don't blame Thompson and Morgan - both actresses turn in their usual solidly professional performances. Blame creator and executive producer Catherine LePard for the kind of just-keep-things-moving-along, thin writing more suitable to daytime soap opera than prime-time legal drama.

Thompson's character, Camille Paris, has fought her way up through the ranks of the Los Angeles district attorney's office to become chief deputy assistant district attorney, the person really in charge of making the department run. But there's been an election, and the person voters have put in place to be her new boss is Lora Gibson (Morgan). The pilot opens on Gibson's first day on the job at the start of the week that Paris fully expects to be her last. Everyone in the courthouse expects that one of Gibson's first orders of business in her new job will be firing Paris and bringing in one of her cronies.

I give nothing away by telling you it doesn't work out that way in the pilot. And that's part of the problem. By the end of the hour, Gibson asks Paris to stay on, but you don't really understand why.

Gibson does talk about herself and Paris being the two hardest-working and most-caring people in the department. We also see them work together in trying to make a case before a grand jury. But it all feels way too pat - and just a bit phony - for two folks who were supposed to be so ideologically opposed and different in their psychic hard wiring.

Granted, there is only so much you can do in an hour-long pilot; it's an incredibly limited straitjacket of a formula. But you can do a lot more than LePard does.

On a superficial level, you could start by explaining why this chief assistant DA has such a fabulous house overlooking the twinkling lights of Los Angeles. On a deeper level, give me someone I can care about.

LePard gives us the one character trait of Paris pounding down caffeine nonstop during the day. But it is played over and over instead of using, say, a half-dozen of those coffee moments to show us one or two other aspects of her character - or maybe even some of the quieter corners of her psyche. There is almost one moment like that, at night when Paris' nephew asks her if she's going to get fired and how she feels about it, but it lasts all of about five seconds and goes nowhere.

For the People has some potential, especially in supporting characters such as Anita Lopez (Cecilia Suarez), who is promoted to chief prosecutor in part because her political views match those of the new district attorney. She doesn't like Paris at all, and makes no effort to keep it from her supervisor.

But, in the end, none of it will matter if the writing doesn't go beyond one or two dimensions in these characters. What For the People needs is to make these people real.

For the People

When: Tomorrow night at 10

Where: Lifetime

In brief: New legal drama has a talented cast, but weak writing.

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