Classy Original, Sleazy Spin-off

Posted: September 20, 1999

The most disappointing new show of the TV season, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, premieres tonight at 9 on NBC.

Executives decided Sex Crimes Unit, which is what it's about, might turn people off. This way, we get to do the turning off, after looking in on a degrading parade of the sleaziest New York has to offer.

Standing in pleasant contrast is another new series, the squeaky clean, but surprisingly entertaining, Safe Harbor on the WB.

CBS rounds out the season's busiest premiere night with two losers, a drama and a sitcom. By Sunday, the end of this opening week of the 1999-2000 TV season, 17 series will have premiered.

* Tough-guy Capt. Don Cragen can't stand the disgusting doings at the sex crimes unit he oversees.He's moved to spit out his candy when he hears what happened to the victim in tonight's central case.

Cragen, played by Dann Florek, who's reprising his role from the first three years of Law & Order, lives with this stuff every day. If he can't take it, what's to become of us flabby couch potatoes, who are just looking for a little diversion?

It's getting to be a litany: Sensitive readers might want to skip this section of this article. There are 10 or 15 offensive outbursts in tonight's episode. A couple of them will be repeated here.

The main case involves a cabbie found stabbed to death in his taxi. A stabbing isn't necessarily a sex crime, SVU detective Elliot Stabler tells the investigating officer.

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

"Whoever did this," the cop relies, "sliced off his cigar and took it with him."

There are cigar references and unit references, rocks - even penis gets used when our organ-obsessed heroes are lost for euphemisms.

I'll stop. Special Victims Unit never does.

Caught up in this mess are a team of detectives including Stabler, played by Christopher Meloni from HBO's Oz; Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), the issue of the rape of her mother, which is why she's an SVU volunteer; and Richard Belzer's John Munch, recently retired from the Baltimore P.D., but still his feisty self.

SVU helps you appreciate the "order" part of Law & Order. Though it will have the same crazy-quilt plot twists, this one's straight police work and seems a little drawn-out, not nearly as richly satisfying as a puzzler as its progenitor.

It will also look more closely at its police characters, which may seem like a distraction to L&O fans and a disappointment to lovers of other cop shows (Munch's Homicide: Life on the Street was an example) that have done it better.

Executive producer Dick Wolf, keeper of the Law & Order franchise, is livid that NBC scheduled his show at 9. Perhaps he set his premiere on an especially low plane to embarrass the network into moving it to 10. That's giving the benefit of the doubt to the creator of L&O, one of the most entertaining, least violent cop shows in TV history. Or maybe he's just positioning the new show for its second home, cable's USA Network, whose main claim to fame is WWF Wrestling.

In a precedent-setting deal, USA, whose sister company produces the L&O franchise, will show SVU the second Sunday after it's on NBC.

Some deal.

* Safe Harbor, also going at 9 tonight, may seem a little like a rerun of 7th Heaven, which precedes it on the WB. It's written and produced by the same people, and features an attractive cast of teens, natch.

Most of them play the sons of Sheriff John Loring, that mainstay of American TV, the widower father. A cute girl and an African American boy have wheedled their way into the family, living in the Magic Beach Motel somewhere on a Florida coast. The boy was added to the pilot after all the fuss this summer over lack of minorities on TV. The girl shows up next week, added, most likely, when testing proved the initial all-boy lineup was too exclusive.

The show feels more like a TV recipe than a literary creation, but it does have some gourmet ingredients: Gregory Harrison as the dad and Rue McClanahan as the grandma.

With Dad a sheriff, there's also a little action. And it seems you won't have as much sugary syrup to slog through as on most of these family-friendly feel-good shows.

* Ladies Man (CBS, 8:30 p.m.) is a feel-bad family sitcom, with every dumb-bunny sexual stereotype you can imagine. Alfred Molina is the sex-starved, dim-bulb papa. Sharon Lawrence is his wife. Betty White, Park Overall and Stephen Root make the thing look like a sitcom orphanage. Dixie Carter will turn up now and then, too.

The little girls who play the daughters took off after the first episode, but, hey, it was paid for, so it will air. Al and Sharon's brood will mysteriously look real different next week, as if anybody cared.

* And then we get to Family Law (CBS, 10 p.m.), in which Kathleen Quinlan's husband leaves her and loots their law partnership, and she runs sobbing around in her high-priced underwear.

Dixie Carter will work full-time in this one, as an ex-con lawyer who hates men. Rounding out the cast are two more lawyers, which at least positions the show to defend itself when viewers file suit for TV-drama malpractice.

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