Does prime time need another stalwart prosecuting attorney? Clearly the answer is no, but as long as CBS is providing one for us, it might as well be Annabeth Chase, the seriously pretty -- or is it prettily serious? -- protagonist of "Close to Home."
The show, premiering tonight at 10 on Channel 9, is earnest, inoffensive and old-fashioned. If this sounds like faint praise, well, it is -- but then a lot of series don't rise even to that level. At the outset of tonight's episode, Annabeth (Jennifer Finnigan) is conflicted: She's just given birth to a beautiful baby, and now her 12-week maternity leave from the Indianapolis DA's office is over.
"I want to be a mommy and I want to work," she tells her husband, Jack (Christian Kane). "I want everything."
Interspersed with these early glimpses of Annabeth's tenderly maternal home life are scenes of a horrific, albeit computer-enhanced, fire in a house not far away. A woman and her two children are rescued, and just in time. When Annabeth returns to work, her first task is to prosecute the woman for setting the blaze and nearly killing her offspring.
The fire outrages Annabeth -- she wants to nail the woman. The chief prosecutor is delighted. "I want a mother in front of the judge today," he tells her.
"No, you want me on this case because I'm a great prosecutor, and yes, I happen to have a baby," she responds tartly.
That exchange tells you a lot about the show. Yes, Annabeth is right. And yes, motherhood and career continue to mingle anxiously in many lives. But we've been watching this same conversation on television since about 1972, and the days when it could inspire righteous anger in a viewer -- or even raise the pulse a notch -- are long gone.
Upon showing up at the office, Annabeth learns that a promotion she was expecting has gone instead to a colleague named Maureen (Kimberly Elise), who shows no sympathy for the frustrations of working mothers and is a very bossy boss to boot.
"You have got to stop making decisions with your hormones or your emotions or whatever else it is you're not thinking with and start thinking like a prosecutor again," she barks at Annabeth.
These two don't like each other, and that's dramatically promising. When Maureen fixes Annabeth in her sights and says, "I know you don't like reporting to me. But you're going to have to get used to it," the tension is real. But at the very end of tonight's episode Maureen warms up alarmingly -- and abruptly -- and appears intent on morphing into yet another gruff but lovable TV boss.
Ultimately Annabeth concludes that her arson case isn't what it seems on the surface and changes her strategy accordingly. Her superiors strongly disagree, which thrusts her into the ranks of another huge demographic: rebellious TV underlings. Now there's a real population explosion -- just about everywhere you look in prime time, somebody is refusing to follow an order and getting punished and/or berated for it. (Of course, it's almost a given that rebellious underlings are never wrong, but that's another story.)
So Annabeth feels a lot of heat. The bosses screech that she's crazy, that she's going to "blow that perfect little conviction record you're so proud of" -- and do people really talk this way? But she is an indomitable crusader, and besides, you obviously don't get your own TV show by listening to your boss.
We've seen our share of morally compromised prosecutors on television -- they've been one of the strengths of the "Law & Order" franchise. We've seen them do the right thing for the wrong reason and we've seen them flout the rules for what they see as the greater good. Annabeth belongs to another era; she's meticulously pure in both motive and conduct. She and "Close to Home" are comfort TV, meant to soothe us before bedtime. But you may find that the lights have gone out before the show is half over.
Close to Home (60 minutes) premieres tonight in its regular time slot at 10 on Channel 9.