Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is formulaic, but this is not necessarily bad, because it was produced by the man who invented the formula. Like Dick Wolf's "Law & Order," television's most taken-for-granted hit, his new spinoff is sparse, tough, nuts-and-bolts, hit-and-run TV. You'd need a magnifying glass to find a nuance.

But it works, and grippingly. In the series premiere, at 9 tonight on NBC (Channel 4), what seems a simple if grisly murder takes on wider and wider ramifications as the detectives of the "special victims unit" (that is, the sex crimes unit) investigate. Soon they are hearing tales of Serbian war crimes and atrocities in Yugoslavia.

And finally, as cut-and-dried as it has seemed along the way, the episode turns out to be about something, like so many of the best "Law & Order" shows. It is about the insane cruelty of the world, and what an uphill battle it is just to survive, much less combat it.

Similar in every superficial way to "Law & Order," the program begins with the old reliable solemn-voiced announcer, this time telling us about another facet of the "criminal justice system": cops who deal with "sexually based offenses" that are "especially heinous" and "vicious." Then comes that loud "plunk-plunk" musical stinger that is as familiar to "Law & Order" fans as dum-da-dum-dum was to those of "Dragnet" an eon or two ago.

The opening scene pulls you right in. Night, rain, a haphazardly parked cab. And on the front seat, its driver, not only stabbed 37 times but also Bobbittized, as it were. Somebody, says a cop, "sliced off his cigar, and took it with them." For the record, we never do learn the whereabouts of that object.

For the actors the challenges are especially formidable, because all the scenes tend to be short and terse. In casting Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay as the two main detectives, Wolf scored a coup. Meloni is a strong and compelling presence. So is Hargitay, who gets the most opportunities to act tonight, since the case she's investigating has particularly pungent ramifications for her as a cop, as a woman and as the daughter of a woman who was raped.

Both cops will eventually face the dilemma of whether to prosecute the killers of a killer who by moral and biblical standards clearly deserved to die.

Comic relief, dark though it be, comes mostly from the superb Richard Belzer, who's been transplanted from the late, great "Homicide: Life on the Street," still playing Detective John Munch. NBC recently announced it would produce a "Homicide" movie or two next season, but apparently Belzer will be absent, because Munch says tonight, "I'm never setting foot in the city of Baltimore again as long as I'm on this mortal sphere."

But then Munch has been known to change his mind. With jokes that depend on familiarity with Munch's quirks, Wolf may be assuming that many people who watch "Law & Order" also watched "Homicide," probably not an illogical thing to surmise. Perhaps it is also Wolf's way of paying tribute to a series even better than his own.

Among the weak links in the show is tired old Dann Florek, an "L&O" alumnus, as the barking, scowling head of the unit. His gimmick is, he is always eating something--though he drops a red licorice stick when he hears about the mutilation. Do the writers of these crime shows really think we'll be impressed or even interested when Florek snaps to underlings, "My office! Now!" Oh please. Not that again.

"Special Victims Unit" is adult television, absolutely, and Wolf has argued that NBC should air it at 10 instead of 9. At 10 on Monday nights, NBC has another "Dateline." Who on earth would miss that? Did NBC News President Andy Lack cast some sort of Rasputinny spell over NBC executives? There's probably a greater sense of reality to "Special Victims Unit" than there is to "Dateline" anyway.

At any rate, children should not be part of this show's audience, and a 10 p.m. time slot would make that less likely. Viewers who like their television gritty, fast-paced and yet sensitive and intelligent are the target demographic this time. There are few shows made for such people, which is all the more reason to be grateful for a spinoff of "Law & Order" that's truly worthy of the name.

'Family Law'

Clearly, CBS is aiming "Family Law" (premiering tonight at 10 on Channel 9) at a female audience, standard practice for Monday night shows that air opposite football. But the audience for "Family Law" need be limited only to people who find women fascinating and feel they can never learn enough about them. Who could, in one mere lifetime?

In "Family Law," not all the women are good and all the men bad, but the premise is set up in the proverbial no uncertain terms. Lawyer Lynn Holt (radiantly played by Kathleen Quinlan) is having a late-night chat with her fellow lawyer, and husband, and law partner, when he says those immortal words, "I don't feel like I love you anymore."

Cut to: the law firm, next day. Most of the furniture is gone and many of the clients with it. That fat-cat rat, the male Holt, has played a very nasty trick. Fortunately, a little later, Lynn gets help, a two-fisted attorney played fabulously by Dixie Carter, who looks like she'll have a high time with the role. The lawyer's credo: "I hate men, and I play very dirty."

At the revamped offices of what once was Holt & Holt, the men's room is liberated and the urinals turned to planters--a nice touch. Less necessary and more pandering is a scene in which Quinlan pitches a fit and performs a striptease at the same time.

Meanwhile, she has domestic cases to fight, one of them involving a mother who was addicted to crack, seems to have recovered and wants her son back. The subplot takes moving turns and then is touchingly resolved. It all makes for a satisfying, handsomely produced, semi-remarkable hour of television.

'Ladies Man'

Alfred Molina might do just fine in a Federico Fellini movie but unfortunately for the world, Fellini is dead. Squeezing Molina, with his garish clownish face and over-the-top demeanor, into a CBS sitcom does not seem the perfect second choice for him. Of course, the show itself happens to reek. That's a problem, too.

"Ladies Man," a hideously belabored sitcom premiering at 8:30 tonight on Channel 9, has Molina playing a beleaguered hubby living in a house swimmin' with women, one of them his pregnant wife, repeatedly insisting that he loves females to pieces, or just denying he hates them. It begins to seem he doth protest too much. Or maybe just too annoyingly, always braying and snorting around like a bull in a bookshop.

Sharon Lawrence, much too fine an actress for the assignment, has the unfortunate fate to play his wife, who in the premiere gives birth to another child. Will it be another girl or, joy of joys, a boy of boys? Who cares? Molina's character is such a repulsive clod one has no empathy. All empathy goes to Lawrence's character, whom one keeps waiting to consult a divorce lawyer. Perhaps Dixie Carter is available.

The weirdest interlude in the pilot is a locker-room conversation in which a heterosexual crony of Molina's mockingly laments, "I don't have what it takes to be gay" and says of homosexuality, "The sex is phenomenal, and you can do it while you're watching the Masters on TV." He longs to "stroke another man like a pussycat."

Then in walks a gay man--a gay stereotype actually--and Mr. Big Mouth freezes and panics. What precisely is the point of this scene, which drags on ad nauseam? But then again, the series itself is pointlessness personified. When Molina says later, "All right, all right, that's enough of this crap," he could well be talking about his own dumb show.