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Second-rate television for women

Wednesday, Jan 24 2001
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The Division, a new series from Lifetime Television for Women (to use the formal address), created by Debra Joy Levine (Lois and Clark, Any Day Now), concerns a group of San Francisco police detectives, statistically improbable in their foxiness and youth and overwhelming glamorous femininity. Not that there aren’t glamorous foxy young policewomen in the world; we’ve all read, or more likely seen reported on Hard Edition or Late Copy, the story of the female cop or fireperson whose Playboy or Hustler or Naked Female Cop and Fireperson pictorial has landed her in hot water. And I’m not saying that Frisco chicks aren’t fine. Or that a not particularly ambitious or original TV show should be expected to be any more realistic or original in this regard than any of the many, many, many, many, many other not particularly ambitious, unoriginal television shows that clog the airspace/bandwidth and propose a universe in which almost everyone important is pretty and well-dressed. Even some of the best TV shows propose that universe; it’s just that the best ones fool you into not noticing it, by distracting you with, say, good writing or camerawork. So one feels a churl, in a way, bringing up this utterly average series mainly to put it down, when there are so many equally average series one lets go their average way without comment.

Still, this is perhaps a special case, as it represents cable TV’s increasing investment in original dramatic series, and is a niche-directed show from a niche-directed “women’s network” that seems, in this case, to be underserving its niche — though it is certainly possible that women are no more interested in watching lifelike women on television than men are. The Division is not supposed to be Charlie’s Angels, or even Snoops, a fantastic dollop of lipstick feminism, but (says the Lifetime Web site) a “good, old-fashioned drama about working women with real-life problems.” They’ve got man trouble. Sister trouble. Daughter trouble. Getting drunk and sleeping with strangers trouble. And, of course, perp trouble. But they get to carry guns, which they unholster with alarming frequency, and to kick ass — and yet they are, tough exteriors and drawn weapons notwithstanding, ultimately more empathetic and sensitive than your typical guy detective. Cagney & Lacey are the godmothers of this fearsome fivesome, but they were creatures of cinéma vérité compared to the women of The Division. One looks here in vain for a Dennis Franz, or Jerry Orbach, or Richard Belzer, some crusty old coot to balance the glamour. The Division’s idea of crusty is Bonnie Bedelia, as the woman in charge, and she is fine and foxy and totally all that, and drives a sporty convertible, and is having a clandestine affair with the hunky young dude from the D.A.’s Office.

Given the eight million cop shows and movies we have already lived through, it would be madness to expect something completely new. But why begin yet another series with a hard-assed old pro (Tracey Needham, who was on the first season of JAG) getting, and not getting along with, a new, green partner (Lela Rochon Fuqua, who was on The Wayans Brothers) brought in to replace the one killed in action just before the series began? (And of course the rookie beats the vet on the firing range.) Granted that Homicide kicked off with just such a pairing, but that was Andre Braugher and Kyle Secor, with Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana pulling the strings. As I say, a well-made show makes you forget you’ve seen it before; Shakespeare stole his plots, too. (And Homicide’s eventual capitulation to sex and glamour did throw a pall over the final season.) But I just don’t know what to make of a script that in the 21st century would contain the line, “Houston, we have a problem,” or what to do other than laugh when former Facts of Life star Nancy McKeon (the one who sleeps around and has trouble following orders) works off her anguish over having gotten a witness beaten up by going down to the dojo and whacking some air. As in many if not most other TV dramas, the actors have not been given people to play, only moments of attitude and snatches of “backstory,” and always say exactly what they mean, and explain far too much.

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At the same time, if you don’t think too hard, if you turn off your mind to the point at which you can be surprised, or at least mildly engaged, by things that should not surprise you, The Division is watchable in the way most TV is watchable — it’s a busy show, if nothing else — and its failures are exactly the failures of most every second-rate series: trite dialogue, creaky situations, lack of subtlety, indifferent photography and, most and worst of all, an air of things being thought only half through. But perhaps I want more from television than most people, because I think about it more. Geraldine Laybourne, who heads the not-yet-available-here Oxygen cable network — created about a year ago as a kind of hipper alternative to Lifetime — said recently of changes in her network’s programming, “We know that women want something that reflects their intelligence, and their status in the world today and how modern women attack life and life’s issues . . . but they want more entertainment, especially in prime time. They’re just not ready to stretch their thinking, they just don’t want it. They want entertainment.” When their working day is done, girls just want to have fun.

Dark Angel (People’s Choice winner!) is another don’t-think-too-hard-about-it ass-kicking-babe show, starring the physically unimpeachable Jessica Alba (Golden Globe nominee!) as a genetically superempowered crime fighter. This one’s definitely for the boys as much as or more than the girls. Co-created by James Cameron, the man who made the most expensive popular bad movie in history, it somewhat mitigates its own half-bakedness, abnormally high babe quotient and lack of depth with just-a-comic-book parameters and a high quality of ass-kicking. Set in a dystopic future Seattle (read: Vancouver) in the year my Social Security kicks in, the series warps whenever convenient its semiapocalyptic premise — an electromagnetic pulse set off sometime earlier by “terrorists” has supposedly fried the nation’s computers and major appliances, plunging it (I don’t know about the rest of the world, it might still be nice in France) into technological twilight, but there still seem to be telephones and television and restaurants and nice hotels and fancy computers and cars and wine and champagne and mass-produced candy and magazines for teenagers. (The terrorist pulse does seem to have put an end to the evolution of language, however: In the future people will still “get busy” and remember how things were “back in the day” and, I am sorry to say, say, “You know what I’m sayin’?”). The only questions that really matter here are when is Alba going to put on the leather catsuit, and when is she finally going to get busy with wheelchair-bound crusading “underground cyberjournalist” Michael Weatherly, who enlists her aid to battle evil. (It wants to be a romantic comedy.) Not as witty as Buffy or Xena, but intermittently cute in its way, and not hard to watch.

Nobody kicks any ass in Three Sisters, a new, inessential three-camera sitcom from NBC. It’s funny how sisters in literature and movies and TV shows so often come in threes (from Lear’s daughters to Hannah and Her Sisters to The Powerpuff Girls, and not forgetting Petticoat Junction, The Brady Bunch and that Chekhov play), and how they are almost always the same three: the responsible/uptight/controlling one, the crazy/bad/caustic one and the sweet/innocent/goofy one. In this instance they are, in order, Katherine LaNasa, Vicki Lewis (NewsRadio) and A.J. Langer (My So-Called Life). Like many TV siblings, they don’t seem actually related to each other, though any of them could plausibly be the daughter of Dyan Cannon, playing their rich-hippie mother. (And it is nice to see Bob Newhart orthodontist Peter Bonerz back in front of the camera, as their pop.) Such premise as there is involves the low tolerance David Alan Basche has for the raucous ever-presence of his tight-knit in-laws, which is, in a way, too much premise: He’ll have to be annoyed the whole time. And he doesn’t, frankly, have much to be annoyed about. The show is produced by the network itself, so it’ll be around for a bit, to age well, or not.

THE DIVISION | Lifetime | Sundays, 9 p.m.

THREE SISTERS | NBC | Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.

DARK ANGEL | Fox | Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

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