Basically, there are two kinds of TV drama: the drama of action, which includes all genre series (cop shows, doctor shows, sci-fi shows, Westerns), and the drama of emotions — tremulous programming like Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, plus all non-sitcom family shows, which for some reason tend toward the one-word title: Family (1976-80) or Sisters (1991-96) or now Relativity (ABC, Saturdays, 10-11 p.m.). The latter is the most recent effulgence from executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who took television’s drama of emotions to high levels with thirtysomething and My So-Called Life.
Viewers who watched those shows will immediately feel at home in Relativity‘s quiet, white, privileged, guilt-ridden neighborhood (Zwicktown? Herskovitzville?). The show stars one sort-of-familiar face (button-eyed Kimberly Williams, from the Father of the Bride movies and Hallmark greeting-card commercials) and one unfamiliar-but-typical face (David Conrad, whose dark, brooding looks arrive soap-opera ready). Williams and Conrad play Isabel Lukens and Leo Roth, two young lovers in Los Angeles. In Relativity‘s pilot, we saw Isabel meet Leo while vacationing in Rome; they came back to L.A., where Isabel quickly dumped her fiance (Randall Batinkoff), a bespectacled fellow too kind, too calm — indeed, too much like nice Isabel herself — to be an interesting life partner (or TV series costar).
No, what Isabel needs is a Leo, an arty housepainter with a leather jacket much more scuffed and battered than her own; scruffily blue collar where Isabel is primly middle-class. One of the primary things this series is about is the sudden blossoming of Isabel. Part of her attraction to Leo includes the chain reaction he sets off in her life, shocking her fiance and the parents this twentysomething still lives with (they’re played with careful shadings of long suffering by Cliff DeYoung and Mary Ellen Trainor). By the fourth episode, good-girl Isabel, who’s probably never done anything silly, unexpected, or even embarrassing in her life, will be dragging Leo into a seedy bar where she can dance around a pool table with the kind of sexiness that is at once exuberantly uninhibited and highly self-conscious — precisely the kind of emotional paradox that a Herskovitz-Zwick effort thrives upon.
Like thirtysomething and MSCL, Relativity draws you into the vivid, complicated family life of its protagonists. Aside from Isabel’s serenely tortured parents, there’s her ferociously depressed, unlucky-in-love younger sister, Jennifer (Poppy Montgomery); Leo’s sister, Rhonda (Lisa Edelstein), distraught over a recent breakup with her female lover; and Devon Gummersall, so terrific as the alienated brain Brian Krakow in MSCL, now closely cropped but maintaining a sense of pained eloquence as Leo’s loser of a brother, Jake. Friends fans will recognize Adam Goldberg (Chandler’s weirdo roommate last season), wonderfully low-key here as Leo’s shlubby roommate.
Relativity was created for the producers by Jason Katims, who’s written numerous plays and cowrote the screenplay for The Pallbearer. Katims distinguishes his show from previous H-Z productions by adding a bit more joy to the lives we’re caught up in. He also gets his real-life father, Robert Katims, to play Leo’s grumpy granddad, Hal.
To enjoy drama such as this, you must be willing to have your emotions tugged and your mind blurred. Which is not to say that such programming is stupid, but rather that you must look at scenes like Isabel dancing in the bar or breaking her parents’ hearts by moving in with Leo, without dismissing the emotions on display as being merely melodramatic. Yes, there’s a lot of cutesy romantic banter in Relativity, and I’m still not sure that Leo and Isabel won’t become more annoying — more cloying — than interesting as the series proceeds. But I do know that, once again, Herskovitz and Zwick have overseen a piece of television unlike anything else out there, a show that keeps your heart engaged even when your mind is warning you not to get sucked in. A-