This week, Civil Wars returns from a brief hiatus and gets a new day and time — Tuesdays at 10, switching places with Homefront. Maybe the top-rated squabbling on Roseanne earlier in the evening will get more people in the mood for this low-rated but steadily improving divorce- lawyer series. Since its premiere last November, Civil Wars has pulled off a neat trick, becoming denser and lighter at the same time. This weekly chronicle of a New York firm staffed by Mariel Hemingway and Peter Onorati is no longer L.A. Law with a bad attitude — Wars has found its own quirky style and rhythm.
To be sure, executive producer and ex-Law man William M. Finkelstein has made sure that each recent episode has contained the requisite number of oddball court cases for a series emanating from Steven Bochco’s production company. There was the tycoon played by Darren McGavin who threw a million dollars in small bills out a law office window rather than let his wife get it in a settlement; and maybe you missed the divorcing husband-and-wife wrestling team who came to court dressed as muscle-flexing Egyptian gods.
But these nutty litigants have tended to be better-written eccentrics than L.A. Law has managed recently, and perhaps more important, Wars has also begun taking advantage of its small cast, developing vividly detailed characters. The ongoing friendship of law partners Sydney Guilford (Hemingway) and Charlie Howell (Onorati) has become one of the most enjoyable in prime-time. There’s none of the smirky flirtiness that characterizes so many male-female professional relationships on TV, and as the series progresses, the partners’ dialogue is losing its smart-aleck glibness. These are pals, peers, and pros whose out-of-court chatter about financial worries, bad dates, and that great-new-little-restaurant-discovered-the-night-before has taken on a convincing casualness.
There are still kinks to be worked out — the crazy-client humor can be labored, and after starting out strong, the character of Debi Mazar’s office secretary has become a bit vague — is she kooky or all-knowing or what? But if you, like me, thought its early episodes were lame downers, Civil Wars deserves a second look. It has become a tighter, quicker, more intriguing show. B+