Don't join `girls club'

`McBeal'-like trio of lawyers is a trial, of viewers' patience

TV Preview

October 21, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Talk about nothing new under the sun in network television this season, wait until you see girls club, the David E. Kelley drama premiering tonight on Fox in the time slot formerly held by Ally McBeal.

Gone from prime-time television is one young, self-absorbed attorney from a background of privilege - only to be replaced by three young, self-absorbed attorneys from backgrounds of privilege. I didn't think it possible, but I dislike this series even more than I did Ally McBeal.

Instead of McBeal's Harvard, the three leading characters here went to Stanford Law School. Instead of Boston, girls club is set in San Francisco. But all three of these highly attractive women in their 20s - Lynne Camden (Gretchen Mol), Sarah Mickle (Chyler Leigh) and Jeannie Falls (Kathleen Robertson) - could have been practicing what passed for law alongside McBeal.

To be fair, there are differences. These three are not quite as self-absorbed as Ally. They are somewhat interested in each other, at least enough to allow them to share a fabulous loft and go out to eat and shop together. And there's a decided attempt to make girls club look and feel more realistic: Gone are the flights of fancy, surrealism and song regularly taken on Ally McBeal.

The show also attempts to tackle issues of gender, generation and power with Kelley and Fox promotional materials spelling out that the title alludes to an "old boys club." As the news release puts it, "The girls look to each other for comfort and counsel - both in and out of the courtroom - as they learn the consequences of trying to crack open the door of the old boys club."

Kelley's slick but simplistic exploitation of gender is a big part of what makes me dislike girls club even more than Ally McBeal. I say "slick," because this is a cleverly crafted series that feels more like The Practice, a long-running Kelley legal drama on ABC, than Ally McBeal.

Kelley doesn't waste a second establishing point of view or empathy with the three women. As the opening credits roll, viewers see, in almost a child's-eye view, huge, downtown towers of chromium, steel and tinted glass, temples of corporate law to which these three come each workday as associates.

Each of the pilot's main story lines have the women being exploited in one way or another. Lynne (Mol) is rudely woman-handled in court by an experienced district attorney (Felicity Huffman) and then is berated for it by her boss (Giancarlo Esposito). Jeannie (Robertson) has an older male supervisor who keeps touching her. Sarah (Leigh), meanwhile, brings a new client to the firm only to have another associate (Christina Chang) try the case as a result of what appears to be some serious back-stabbing.

The last story line is the one that made me seriously question whether Kelley is the guy we want explaining the politics of power and gender to millions of young people.

In confronting her colleague, Sarah calls the woman a "dyke" in the middle of the firm's crowded waiting room. While Kelley does his best to make us understand how "deeply embarrassed" Sarah is by the whole room hearing what she said, not for a second are we given any indication or asked to comprehend what the victim of that hateful remark felt.

Worse, Sarah's attempt at an apology later ends with her warning the woman, "I'm going to get you. Watch your back." And, yet, it's clear that Kelley somehow wants us to like Sarah - a lot.

No thanks. There is more to female solidarity than shopping together, eating at cool restaurants and sitting around in skimpy underwear in your trendy loft.

And, check out the negative way older women are treated in girls club - the generation of women who in the '70s really did "crack open the door of the old boys club" often at great cost to their careers and lives. But, hey, who cares about such truth in the face of good, young demographics?

Girls Club

When: Tonight at 9.

Where: WBFF (Channel 45).

In brief: A more serious Ally McBeal times three, plus David E. Kelley's silly politics.

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