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Fall TV preview: Monday new shows

‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,’ ‘The Parkers,’ and other new shows premiering on Mondays in fall 1999

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LAW & ORDER: Special Victims Unit
NBC 9-10 PM Debuts Sept. 20

Taking a break between scenes of NBC’s Law & Order spin-off, Special Victims Unit, Chris Meloni — a guy who’s actually tried to seduce a nun on HBO’s prison romp Oz — still can’t help but nervously chuckle when he describes the plot of the bleak episode they’re filming. ”This one’s about a cheerleader who gets raped and murdered,” he says. ”It’s a lot of laughs.”

Of course, it’s not like the original Law & Order leaves viewers rolling in the aisles. But Dick Wolf, who created both shows, insists SVU — which focuses on New York City detectives who deal almost exclusively with sex crimes — is ”a sibling, not a clone.” At times, though, the new show does reach at least Siamese-twin status — with its familiar opening voice-over (”In the criminal justice system … ” yada, yada, yada), the ”chun-chungs” before every new scene, and the return of L&O vet Dann Florek.

But unlike the Dragnet-esque ”Just the facts, ma’am” style of its predecessor, SVU will delve deeper into the private lives of its characters. In the very first episode, for example, we learn that Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was conceived during a rape. About the only personal thing we learned in the first Law & Order was that Mike Logan (Chris Noth) had a thing for plaid ties.

Whatever comic relief there is will come from Homicide: Life on the Street alum Richard Belzer, who is reprising his role as sardonic conspiracy-nut detective John Munch. Once again, Munch will tread the line between witty and bothersome. Says Belzer, ”He has that gallows humor that is necessary to dilute the horror, but other times he talks too much and annoys people.”

As for those annoying whispers that this is little more than L&O lite (or dark, as the case may be) — would that be so wrong? After all, Law & Order has been NBC’s one constant creative and ratings success in a Wednesday lineup that changes more often than Wolf replaces cast members. If the producer can bring that magic to the network’s fading Monday night — where SVU is sandwiched between Thursday reject Veronica’s Closet and Dateline at 10 p.m. — don’t be surprised if NBC begs him to make a spin-off of this spin-off next year.

But first, it seems, SVU must endure a rookie hazing ritual. Not only did NBC pit the show against Monday powerhouses Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS), Monday Night Football (ABC), and Ally McBeal (Fox), but the net also refused to station it in the more grisly-plotline-friendly 10 p.m. time slot. ”I shot my wad on this and couldn’t get it moved,” says Wolf of the internal power struggle. Sounds like it’s time to call in some backup.

The PARKERS
UPN, 8:30-9 p.m. Debuted Aug. 30

CONCEPT Spinning off from Moesha, Countess Vaughn’s bodacious Kim Parker attends college with her equally-all-that, returning-to-school mom, played by comedian Mo’Nique.
THE SCOOP ”They’re best friends, and very similar ladies,” says series cocreator Ralph Farquhar. ”Kim is clearly her mother’s daughter, but that can come back and bite you when you’re trying to grow and find your way in the world. We’ll have a lot of fun with that.” Upcoming plots? ”They’re going to take Tae-Bo together and wind up in the ring with some WWF wrestlers.” Hey, who on UPN won’t?
BOTTOM LINE Could be a whole load o’ fun.

Ladies MAN
CBS, 8:30-9 p.m. Debuts Sept. 20

CONCEPT Nice doofus guy (Brit actor Alfred Molina, pictured) in a house overrun with women: wife Sharon Lawrence, ex-wife Park Overall, mother Betty White, and two daughters. ”What’d I do?” is Molina’s constant refrain/lament/tag line.
THE SCOOP Executive producer Chris Thompson (who also created the Fox newcomer Action) observes, ”Alfred is going to be more of a confrontational character than, say, Raymond [as in Everybody Loves ... ]. Raymond just sort of seeks peace and wants to be left alone. Fred’s character is going to be a guy who will say his wife is wrong if he thinks so — I sort of want a spokesman for men.”
BOTTOM LINE We sort of want a funnier show. ”Why’d you do?” is the question we have for Molina.

Grown UPS
UPN, 9-9:30 p.m. Debuted Aug. 23

CONCEPT Remember Steve Urkel’s alter ego in Family Matters, the smoothie Stefan? Well, this is a show all about him, except he’s called J., a case of arrested development who’s trying to, well, grow up and be a responsible yet fun guy.
THE SCOOP Says star Jaleel White (above), ”It’s all about the uncertainty years: being an adult but not feeling like one, [having] that crappy job you’re hoping will go somewhere, or that girl you’re dating — is she the one?” Any chance we’ll ever see Urkel? Y’know, a sweeps-period dual role? ”No. I can assure you of that right now. So you can go ahead and leave his name out of this interview because that’s not going to happen.” BOTTOM LINE White is eager to prove he’s a manly man, but his slack punchlines need more sinew.

Safe HARBOR
The WB, 9-10 p.m. Debuts Sept. 20

CONCEPT Sheriff of sleepy Florida town (Gregory Harrison, above) tries to raise three boys despite meddling from Grandma (played with much rue and rouge by Rue McClanahan).
THE SCOOP Creator Brenda Hampton has devised a show to follow her own 7th Heaven, The WB’s biggest ratings draw. One of the boys playing twins in the pilot was recast with a black actor — he’ll now be the white kid’s bestest buddy. ”It’s quirkier [than Heaven],” says Hampton. ”I’m aiming more for a Northern Exposure with kids. It’s a small town with oddball people. Good people, but odd people.”
BOTTOM LINE For odd, you can’t go wrong with McClanahan as a magician’s widow. But with the exception of her, we wonder whether the drama may skew too male for 7th’s girl-happy audience.

Family LAW
CBS, 10-11 p.m. Debuts Sept. 20

CONCEPT It’s The First Wives Club meets Ally McBeal. Kathleen Quinlan (above) starts an estrogen-heavy law practice after her husband leaves her; she and partner Dixie Carter mix salty humor with sweet sisterhood.
THE SCOOP ”It’s about how the characters’ lives conflict with [the cases] they morally have to take on and how unsettling that can be for them,” says Quinlan. ”My character is a single parent trying to keep all the balls in the air unsuccessfully but trying nonetheless. I appreciate [producers] Paul Haggis and Anne Kenney’s writing. My character isn’t perfect; she’s burning the candle at both ends, trying to keep it all together.”
BOTTOM LINE What’s the opposite of misogyny? Talk about a pilot that screams ”No men should watch!” Quinlan seems awkward in a role that asks her to be vulnerable one minute and a male basher the next, but maybe women will groove on the drama’s passive aggressiveness. And producer Haggis (EZ Streets) does know how to mix light and dark tones deftly.

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