Ah, Iowa, where the men are men and the women love it that way. Just home, family, church, male chauvinism, all the midwestern cliche's. That's the backdrop of "Two Marriages," a prime-time soap for the heartland. It's "Dynasty" for the downscale, but not too downscale. Its denizens are engineers, surgeons, dairy kings and matrons of the Junior League.
"Two Marriages," which premieres at 9:30 tonight on Channel 7, might be sudsy, even sappy, but it's well acted and emotionally captivating, what with its hassled heroines and misunderstood teens. It's also alive with Campbell Soup-cute kids who relieve tensions by saying "I love you" every chance they get. The dialogue makes "Little House on the Prairie" sound mean.
It is an episodic story of two families, the Daleys and the Armstrongs, neighbors and friends in a mythical all-American town far, far from Babbitt land. The series, scheduled for a limited summer run, features Tom Mason and Karen Carlson as second-time marrieds Jim and Ann Daley. He works for his father's dairy and is never seen out of his flannel shirt; he's a liberal like you haven't seen since love beads. Ann and Jim parent his half-Vietnamese daughter Kim (Tiffany Toyoshima), her rebellious teen-ager Scott (C. Thomas Howell) and their co-spawned 6-year-old Willie (Ian Fried).
She's an engineer for a construction firm, where her boss refuses to promote her because "women make babies, not buildings." Guess her boss doesn't know about sullen, surly Scott, who skips school and even smacks his mother. It's no wonder, after she tries to turn his life around with this bit of advice: "This marriage, this town, the whole midwestern thing about family, work, church, marriage . . . the simplicity of it . . . the quiet of it healed me. And if you let it, it'll heal you, too." The miracle is that he didn't smack her sooner.
This is not the stuff cynicism's made of, but a dive headfirst into the nostalgia womb. At least we've left happy days behind and moved into the '60s. Somehow, it all seems irrelevant to the '80s. It's just for soaking in a soothing bath of alpha waves, nothing to bother your brain. Though well produced and directed, it's all kind of disconnected, kind of relaxed, shifting scenes from family to family. Loose interaction between the kids at school and at church ties the Daleys to the Armstrongs. Shelby (Louanne), the Armstrongs' eldest, has a crush on Scott, who in turn crushes her glasses. She's the resident psychobabbler, the smart one who's been jumped a grade, a maladjusted fat girl who can't dance. She's an alleged genius who says things like "for sure" and "totally awesome" just to make her more Freudian pronouncements sound human.
Her father, Art (Michael Murphy), is the show's second heavy. There's trouble between Art, a respected surgeon, and his traditional wife, Nancy (Janet Eilber). He's always on her case about kitchen chaos or some such. "He may look like a husband," says Shelby, "but down deep he looks like an only child." But nobody benefits from the live-in analyst. Later Art attacks Nancy for looking at a house with a male real estate agent: "You've got a beautiful house, beautiful kids and a closet full of tennis rackets." But she wants a relationship with a capital R. She doesn't want to be a "disposable" wife, and who can blame her. But he doesn't want to talk about it. Sometimes it's a little like "Couples," without Dr. Brackelmanns.
Somehow it seems as if everybody in this show just heard about quiche. They should be worrying more about nuclear buildup than the nuclear family, but there you have it. Yet on some scrunchy level, with a pair of warm slippers and your favorite nail polish, "Two Marriages" works.