Fall '99: "Ladies Man" and "Family Law"
No lives have been lost and no blood has been shed... yet. But it's only a matter of time. We are just two different groups of people, unable to peaceably co-exist, unwilling to live and work in close quarter. All it will take is one false move, one ill-advised gesture, one cruel twist of circumstance to light up this powder keg like a roman candle. And then...
Then the battle of the sexes becomes a full-scale gender war. And God have mercy on the poor slobs who think the Geneva Convention is going to be any help saving them from the carnage.
Men versus women. Boys stand girls. Guys square off against dolls. Shirts take on the skins.
That's the conclusion I've come to, at any rate, after watching the two rookie shows of CBS' Monday lineup. To take in Ladies Man and Family Law in one sitting is to come away convinced that men and women can barely tolerate one another. Forget years of sensitivity training, session after session of couples therapy, all those hours spent listening to radio call-in shows -- we hate each other's living guts. In the televised world of CBS, the opposite sex is a millstone around our necks, good only for browbeating us, taking away all our fun, liquidating our bank accounts, porking our hired help and driving us to any early grave.
Take Ladies Man. Alfred Molina plays Jimmy, the kind of lovable schlub who Tony Danza used to portray until America decided it'd had its fill. So instead, we get Molina, who's just this well-meaning, salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar kind of guy.
And he lives in a household of shrews.
For the better part of Ladies Man's 30-minute premiere, Molina stands around looking like someone's just asked him a difficult math problem. And for good reason. Over the course of the first half-hour, his mouthy, pregnant wife (Sharon Lawrence) alternately denies him sex and then forces herself upon him, his mouthy ex-wife (Park Overall) tries to pawn off his mouthy teenage daughter on him, his mouthy mother (Betty White) trades barbs with his mouthy mother-in-law (Dixie Carter) and his other mouthy daughter accuses him of pedophilia.
Hand to God, folks, this all happened in one episode.
"I don't hate women," Molina's character insists over and over again throughout the show. Which makes one ask the question, well, why the hell not? I only had to spend 30 minutes with these broads, and they had me white-knuckling the remote.
(And apparently, I'm not the only one. Word has it that the parts of Molina's two daughters were recast immediately after the pilot was shot. So viewers who tune in for a second installment of Ladies Man -- and dear God, I am not recommending that -- can expect to find two new mouthy nags in those crucial, crucial roles.)
It doesn't help Ladies Man that the cast -- save for the wonderful Stephen Root -- is populated with a bunch of unrepentant hams. Sharon Lawrence -- whose performance in her last sitcom, Fired Up, induced seizures -- manages to tone it down a smidge here. So viewers will escape Ladies Man with only blurred vision and a faint throbbing sensation in the temples.
It also doesn't help that not a single moment of Ladies Man feels authentic. It's an InstaSitcom -- just add water, stir in a laugh track, and serve. When Betty White and Dixie Carter fire off bons mots at one another, it doesn't so much resemble actual human dialogue as it does stilted one-liners scribbled by a room full of Harvard Lampoon alums.
But what kills Ladies Man is the fact that every female character on that show is an unrelenting harpy, deserving only scorn and ridicule. And yet, it appears that every episode will end in a tidy, little package with Alfred Molina saying something along the lines of, "Just kidding, folks. I really love the dames."
That kind of tripe moves Ladies Man out of the well-populated realm of pedestrian sitcoms and into the rarefied air of truly revolting programming.
Less odious (though similar in tone) is the hour-long drama Family Law. Like Ladies Man, it wears its contempt for the opposite sex on its sleeve. The difference: Family Law's playing for the other team.
One minute, poor Kathleen Quinlan is trying to canoodle with her husband in their modest Los Angeles home. The next minute, he's quit on the marriage, disbanded their joint law practice, taken all their clients and stuck her with the lease for an empty law office. So she calls up her good friend, Mickey Rooney, the two of them find an old, abandoned barn and, right there, they put on a show!
Oh wait. That's the plot to "Babes in Arms."
No, what happens is, Kathleen Quinlan decides to put a law firm of her own together, recruiting the likes of Christopher MacDonald and Dixie Carter to help right legal wrongs.
Yes, Dixie Carter fans, she's in two shows now. Your long, lonely vigil is over.
In the first episode, the lawyers spar over whether an ex-crack addict should get custody of her kids back now that she's kicked the habit. And in a divorce case, they argue over whether the husband or wife should get custody of a dead dog's ashes.
It's nothing you haven't on seen on L.A. Law or The Practice or a thousand other legal-themed programs that have dotted the airwaves over the years. The difference? Family Law's deep, abiding hatred for the menfolk.
Dixie Carter lays it on the line 30 minutes into the show. "I hate men and I play dirty," she says, explaining why she's such a kick-ass divorce attorney. And a few scenes later, Kathleen Quinlan is spotted prying the nameplate off the men's room with a letter opener. Presumably, the scene where she dices up a cucumber and runs a couple of cherry tomatoes through a garlic press were considered too subtle.
Family Law is produced, in part, by Paul Haggis, a talented man who gave us the magnificent EZ Streets. That show was canceled after just a handful of episodes. Clearly, the strain on Haggis was so great that he went insane and churned out this dishwater.
It's not that Family Law is a bad show. There are some nice flourishes with the camera work. Quinlan and MacDonald are capable actors. And Dixie Carter is... well, a big, dumb cracker. But that hasn't hurt her career so far, now has it?
But while Family Law isn't bad, it's certainly not good. There's no new twist on the law show genre, no compelling reason why you should watch this program over the hundreds of others that have come before it. Family Law's entire stock-in-trade seems to be its shout-out to the sisterhood to throw off the shackles of Monday Night Football and watch this estrogen-heavy slop before it takes up permanent residence on the Lifetime channel. And there's something rather distressing about that, frankly.
It's enough to make a fellow seek comfort in the gentle arms of the fairer sex. That is, you know, if they weren't such hags.
Got a comment? Mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.