The story goes that producer Steven Bochco, the man who brought us Hill Street Blues; L.A. Law; Doogie Howser, M.D.; and Cop Rock, thought up Civil Wars because he always liked the story lines on L.A. Law that dealt with divorce. And so he, along with executive producer William M. Finkelstein (the L.A. Law veteran ultimately credited with creating Civil Wars), decided to do a whole weekly series about venomous spouses, bitter custody battles, and the attorneys who make big bucks tidying up these messes.
Is it any wonder that ABC, the network with whom Bochco has an exclusive contract, was hesitant about put-ting Civil Wars on the air? By all reports, the show was ready to go for the fall, but ABC saw the pilot and passed. If there’s one thing the networks hate, it’s a show that’s a downer, a series that refuses to patch things together at the end of each episode and assure viewers that everything is okay and people are basically good. In fact, ABC had spent the past year ridding itself of a lot of shows like that — you know, depressing, feel-bad stuff like thirtysomething, Equal Justice, China Beach, and Twin Peaks.
But, having sacrificed any claims to innovation or prestige by jettisoning these shows, and being all too aware that new fall efforts like FBI: The Untold Stories and The Commish weren’t turning into the pop-culture events they were improbably conceived to be, ABC relented, shuffled around its faltering Wednesday schedule, and is now offering Civil Wars as its slightly belated class act of the season.
But Civil Wars turns out to be a case of classiness compromised. The series stars Mariel Hemingway and Cop Rock’s Peter Onorati as New York City divorce lawyers Sydney Guilford and Charlie Howell. In the show’s debut, Sydney’s law-firm partner, Eli (Alan Rosenberg), had a nervous breakdown and left her with too many divorce cases to handle; Charlie stepped in to help out and ended up joining the small firm.
The episode set up the series methodically: Sydney and Charlie established themselves as tough but good-hearted people by delivering lines like ”I see to it that people who want to kill each other don’t.” We watched Eli break down in front of his client, tearing off his clothes while babbling about the + pressures of being a divorce lawyer (”We minister to people we’re their avengers”). Typical Civil Wars divorce cases have included one about a woman who was divorcing her husband because he insisted on dressing and talking like Elvis Presley. (He was portrayed by Dennis Franz, and it’s depressing the way Franz’s TV career has devolved from the complex character he inhabited as Lieut. Norman Buntz on Hill Street, to the buffoonish Buntz who got his own short-lived spin-off, to the yammering, cartoonish Elvis that Franz portrays here.)
I’ve seen two more Civil Wars since then, and this format has been consistent; the only significant alteration has been in Hemingway’s hair color. Reports have it that ABC thought the pilot’s plot lines, dimly lit color scheme, and the star’s flat-brown hair were all too dark; of these objections, it seems the only one Bochco took to heart was the last — by the second episode, Hemingway was back to her trademark bright blond, and virtually every man in the show complimented her on it.
Except for that odd, blithely sexist twist, Civil Wars is exactly what you might imagine a mediocre Bochco creation about divorce to be: N.Y. Law, with good acting and a ceaseless flow of angry, selfish, and often unbelievably eccentric clients. I’m already heartily sick of all the petty hostilities that our noble heroes are trying to resolve, and of characters who glare, purse their lips, and snap out lines like ”Listen, I put evaporated milk in my coffee for four years — I’m entitled to that condo.” There’s a crucial problem built into the concept of Civil Wars: The sort of people who can afford high-powered lawyers like Sydney and Charlie are divvying up money and possessions beyond the dreams of most of the television audience; why should we care whether some belligerent guy gets to keep his townhouse, or that a furious woman feels entitled to an $80,000 monthly clothing allowance in her settlement?
Bochco and Finkelstein try to remedy this by, for example, turning that furious woman (guest star Gail Strickland) into an overwrought but Basically Good Person by having her give some money to Sydney’s poor stenographer, who can’t pay for an operation her child needs. But it doesn’t work as drama-far from being redeemed, the woman seems, if anything, even more cold and cynical, the sort of person who assuages her conscience by throwing money at every problem.
Under the circumstances — stuck in a derivative show with unsympathetic plots — Hemingway and Onorati acquit themselves awfully well. She has lost the coltish goofiness that made her effective but borderline mannered in movies like Manhattan and Personal Best; he has achieved a near-perfect balance of in-your-face aggressiveness and strong-man sensitivity. Equally good is the series’ most important supporting character, office secretary Denise Iannello. With her bat-wing eyebrows, teased hair, and so-ugly-they’re-sexy late-’50s outfits, Debi Mazar’s Denise is the only eccentric character who’s a true pleasure.
But as well acted as it is, Civil Wars hasn’t offered us anything we haven’t seen before, and serves primarily to suggest that many people enduring a painful divorce tend to be humorless, hostile bores. C+