Ken Tucker
November 05, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

Were it not for the surprise success last season of NBC’s Providence, it’s unlikely that we’d have the two new fall series Judging Amy and Family Law. I say this because prior to Providence, prime time hadn’t had an hour-long, female-driven drama that was a ratings success since Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the hour drama format was heavily tilted toward either newsmagazines or male-dominated ensemble dramas such as Law & Order and ER.

But the central idea behind Providence — successful career woman overcomes personal-life disappointments (code for All Men Are Weasels) and strives for a richer, smaller-scaled, more balanced life — has proven a potent one for millions of viewers, and it’s a notion that Judging Amy and Family Law have seized upon with alacrity, if not subtlety. Family Law commences each week to the thunderous 1970 Edwin Starr soul-stirrer ”War,” and you may find yourself thinking the song’s line ”What is it good for?” as you watch. Kathleen Quinlan stars as Lynn Holt, a ”marital attorney” struggling to make a go of a private practice in L.A. after her husband/law partner leaves her, taking most of their shared clientele.

The ”family” in this Law are primarily Holt’s colleagues — Julie Warner as a colorless lawyer, Dixie Carter as a far too colorful one (she’s a Southern belle who killed her abusive husband, got off, and now practices with the motto ”I hate men and I play very dirty”; see All Men Are Weasels above), and Christopher McDonald as an egotistical attorney who makes TV commercials just like Jimmy did on The Practice.

Why this garishly lit, derivative, and obsessively antimale series was cocreated by writer-producer Paul Haggis, who gave us the darkly textured EZ Streets and the sunny Due South, is a more intriguing case to be adjudicated (TV viewers of America v. Haggis: guilty of hackwork or not guilty by reason of wanting, at long last, a hit?) than any that Family Law actually presents. That is, unless you’re riveted by such subplots as Quinlan’s daughter getting three pierces in one ear, poor-man’s-David E. Kelley story lines like a divorced white dad who teaches his kids that blacks are ”mud people” after his ex marries an African American, or Carter’s dalliance with a coworker young enough to be her son.

Judging Amy is a shrewder piece of work. Employed by CBS in her old NYPD Blue time slot, Amy Brenneman plays juvenile court judge Amy Gray, a single mom who lives with her retired-social-worker mother, portrayed with tart doughtiness by Tyne Daly. Set in Hartford — Providence with more soot and fewer trees — Amy does well by its topicality. It recently featured complementary plotlines about Amy getting involved in an anti-Halloween debate at her daughter’s school and a guy who wants custody of his child because his ex has become a Wiccan.

In the pilot, Brenneman’s character was a scattered nervous Nellie — the least authoritative of judges — so it’s good to report that in subsequent weeks, Amy has toughened up considerably. The show’s weak link is also its oddest: Amy’s brother, Vincent (Dan Futterman), is a struggling short-story writer, and the producers don’t seem to know what to do with him. He had a brief fling with an older woman (guest star Kathryn Harrold), who told him that her friend at Random House said, ”Short fiction is what’s selling now.” A week later, with Harrold gone, Vincent hooks up with an old admirer-turned-literary agent who says of short stories, ”Their day has come and gone.” Can we have the ghost of Raymond Carver in here to get a ruling on this, please?

Meanwhile, the new season of Providence is a good example of the way it can take weeks or months for a series’ tone and characters to jell. In this case, saintly Sydney Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes) is still an earnest doctor in a small clinic who has dreams about her dead mother (Concetta Tomei). Kanakaredes remains just dandy, but creator John Masius seems to have taken some of the criticisms of the show to heart and has made Syd’s bakery-owning sister (Paula Cale) and bartender brother (Seth Peterson) less whiny and more cheerful. Masius has also apparently given Syd’s veterinarian dad, played by Mike Farrell, some Visine — the pet doc is much less weepy. The series is still shamelessly cornball (sister Joanie advertises for a bakery assistant and interviews a mime who silently acts out his answers), but hey, it’s never as goofy as Ally McBeal.

Meanwhile, there are a few weird overlaps in these three series. In the Family Law pilot, a dog died when one of its owners fed it a box of chocolates; in Providence’s season premiere, a woman rushes her basset hound into Farrell’s office after he ate a batch of chocolate brownies. Two of the shows, Providence and Law, use flower power-era oldies as theme songs (the Beatles’ ”In My Life” and Starr’s ”War,” respectively). And all three consistently deploy high-in-the-sky, swooping camera pans of their respective cities to introduce scenes. I can only surmise that there’s some TV goddess in the heavens, looking down and giving these shows her production notes. Family Law: D Judging Amy: B- Providence: C+

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