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Season premiere of '7th Heaven' outclasses new series

Monday, September 20, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Forget about the four new series premiering tonight. None of them measures up to the season opener of The WB's "7th Heaven" (8 p.m. on WCWB).

The Camdens return for a new season of love, laughs and tears as their eldest son, Matt (Barry Watson), finally moves out of the family home.

Matt's departure is most touching in scenes where he tells his mom (Catherine Hicks) he's moving and reveals his intentions to Simon (David Gallagher), the little brother who looks up to him.

Sometimes "7th Heaven" is guilty of going for easy emotions, but these two scenes are poignant without being overly sentimental. The sap is saved for the end of the episode after a "shocking" turn of events that really isn't because of heavy-handed foreshadowing.

No matter, "7th Heaven" is quality family TV. Anyone who complains about an excess of sex and violence on the tube should set the dial for "Heaven."

"Safe Harbor" (9 p.m., WCWB)

Although it gets off to a limp beginning tonight, this family drama from the creator of "7th Heaven" shows potential in next week's episode.

Gregory Harrison stars as John Loring, father, widower and sheriff of scenic Magic Beach, Fla. He lives in the family's motel (it no longer takes guests) with his mother (Rue McClanahan) and three sons.

Hayden (Christopher Khayman Lee) is the oldest, a long-haired rebel in the throes of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend. Turner (Jeremy Lelliott) has a high IQ, while Jeff (Jamie Williams) spends every waking moment with his best friend, Chris (Orlando Brown), whom he considers his cosmic twin. Chris regularly sleeps over at the Loring motel and eats meals with the family.

Tonight's rickety introduction finds John tracking down his wife's killer, who in a ridiculous "Matlock" moment confesses his guilt when caught.

Next week's episode is more in line with what creator Brenda Hampton says she wants the show to be, a family-friendly "Northern Exposure." Just as she's developed some sense of community on "7th Heaven," Hampton begins to do the same in the second episode of "Safe Harbor." But even as she begins populating Magic Beach, it seems forced: Most of the characters are no more than glorified extras.

The second episode also introduces a runaway girl, Jamie (Chyler Leigh), who gets taken in by the Lorings. While it would be easy to guess she and Hayden may soon start dating, don't hold your breath: Actors Lee and Leigh are brother and sister, making the prospect of their characters getting all kissy-face a little oogie.

"Ladies Man" (8:30 p.m., KDKA)

"Diff'rent Strokes" had "What you talking 'bout, Willis?"

"ALF" always said, "I kill me!"

On "Ladies Man" the catch phrase is "What'd I do?"

That's what Jimmy Stiles (Alfred Molina) keeps saying throughout the first episode of CBS's newest Monday night comedy. He's a put-upon guy trying to do his best in a house of harping women.

His pregnant wife, Donna (Sharon Lawrence), demands sex; his daughter (Mariam Parris in the pilot, Shawna Waldron in subsequent episodes) from a previous marriage (to Claire, played by Park Overall) wants to move in with him, while his mother (Betty White) squabbles with Donna's mom (guest star Dixie Carter).

My family would describe the first scene as an "elephants in the bathroom" moment as every family member converges on Jimmy's bathroom as he attempts to shave. His mother enters proffering muffins.

"Ma, I'm using the bathroom," Jimmy says.

"Oh, that's OK, they're bran," she replies.

That joke pretty much sets the unsophisticated tone for "Ladies Man."

But if potty jokes make you laugh, "Ladies Man" is pretty funny. The funniest scene in the pilot comes when Jimmy and his friend, Gene (Stephen Root from "NewsRadio"), discuss Gene's admiration for gay culture.

"I envy those proud gay men, they have great taste," Gene says. "They're never confused about what goes with what."

It's nice to see Betty White back on the tube, but it's unfortunate she's given scenes like the one where she tries to affirm the family opinion that Jimmy hates women by announcing, "He used to spit my breasts out of his mouth."

Carter's a hoot, too, but her primary job is with another new series (keep reading).

"Ladies Man" seems particularly vulgar for the 8 p.m. hour on CBS, which in the past has respected the first hour of prime time as a family-friendly zone. Maybe respect for the hour and the audience is a thing of the past.

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (9 p.m., WPXI)

The sonorous between-scene "bong bongs" of "Law & Order" are alive and well in this spin-off series, but the "Order" part of the equation plays a greatly diminished role. "SVU" plays up the "Law," following a special unit that investigates sex crimes.

Detectives Elliott Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) are the lead investigators working for Capt. Donald Cragen (Dann Florek, reprising a role he played for three seasons on the original "Law & Order").

In tonight's premiere the pair investigate a murder where the victim's penis was severed and taken. The case becomes complicated fairly quickly and strikes a chord with Benson.

The characters' personal lives will play a larger part in "SVU" than "Law & Order." Stabler is a father of four and Benson's mother (Elizabeth Ashley) is a series regular.

Richard Belzer emigrates from the canceled "Homicide: Life on the Street," and he's still playing Detective John Munch. As a loyal "Homicide" viewer, for me Munch is the best part of "SVU," especially in tonight's scene where he explains his departure from Baltimore.

Belzer isn't the only "SVU" star who previously appeared in a show produced by Tom Fontana. Meloni stared in Fontana's "Oz" as Keller and Dean Winters starred in the HBO prison drama as O'Reilly. In "SVU," Winters plays Munch's new partner and in the process reveals a limited acting range, coming off very much like his hotheaded "Oz" character.

After a long day at the office, fighting traffic on the way home, do you really want to cap it all off with investigations of heinous crimes?

Why not? Millions tune into "Law & Order" each week. There's no reason to think they won't watch "SVU."

"Family Law" (10 p.m., KDKA)

If you think you're seeing double tonight on CBS, you are. Dixie Carter is in two different shows playing two different characters. On "Ladies Man" she's a vodka-gulping grandma, in "Family Law" a speechifying lawyer.

Unfortunately she's given little to do in tonight's pilot for this otherwise drab, male-bashing lawyer drama.

Kathleen Quinlan stars as Lynn Holt, whose husband leaves her and takes most of the associates and clients in their joint law firm with him. This leaves Lynn and loyal Danni (Julie Warner) to fend for themselves until rascally Rex (Christopher McDonald) and Randi (Carter) join the firm. Randi volunteers to serve as Lynn's divorce lawyer.

"Besides being a damn good attorney, I have only two qualifications," Randi says. "I hate men and I play very dirty."

Lynn is understandably distraught, but why does she strip down to her undergarments to reveal her frustration at having taken good care of her body for the husband who left her anyway?

Aside from personal strife, the firm handles two cases tonight. Lynn tries to help a crack-addicted mom get custody of her sons, and Danni tries to settle a divorce case where the sticking point is who gets to keep the ashes of the family dog.

Paul Haggis ("EZ Streets") is one of the show's executive producers, so perhaps he plans improvements. He better make them quick: Steven Bochco's midseason hospital drama "City of Angels" is waiting in the wings and Monday at 10 p.m. looks like a cushy CBS time slot.

WORTH NOTING: The fallout of the NAACP protests about the lack of diversity in prime time are readily apparent in "Family Law," "7th Heaven" and "Safe Harbor."

Since filming the original pilot, "Family Law" has added a Latin hunk to play Dixie Carter's boy toy on a recurring basis.

"Heaven" already turned a set of twins into best friends, making one African-American. Tonight's "Heaven" promotes a black character from recurring to series regular status. Chaz Lamar Shepherd plays John, another PK (pastor's kid) who becomes Matt's roommate.

The second episode of "Safe Harbor" introduces several Latino characters who may or may not have roles in future episodes. We'll have to wait and see.

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