Pedigree Still Counts In TV

This week, CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard reviews this fallÂ's new television programs: CBSÂ's Family Law, ABCÂ's Once and Again and, NBCÂ's The West Wing.

Pedigree still counts in entertainment television, although maybe not as much as which network owns which production studio. But people who made good TV in the past donÂ't get dumb overnight.

For one of three instances this morning, I would have watched Family Law, the new series starting Monday night on CBS, just because it was dreamed up by Paul Haggis, the writer-producer whoÂ's already given us Due South and EZ Streets. IÂ'm not surprised I like it.

John Leonard
Kathleen Quinlan stars as the suddenly single mother whose husband has left their bed and their family law firm, taking most of their partners and clients with him. With the help of a single associate, Julie Warner, she rebuilds from scratch, hiring a sleazy Christopher McDonald (who advertises on cable) and flamboyant Dixie Carter ("I hate men and I play dirty.")

Reminiscent of Renaissance Revenge Playcolor>

As they scramble for divorce and custody cases - one involving the ashes of a dead dog - we are treated to a sort of weekly Renaissance revenge play, with a wickedly feminist slant. I especially like what Quinlan does to the urinals in the menÂ's room, planting flowers to be flushed.

Equally pedigreed are Marshal Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. Although the baby boomers on thirtysomething always felt sorrier for themselves than I did, it was a weekly open wound. Heskovitz and Zwick followed it up with the superb teen angst of My So-Called Life. And now they go fortysomething with Once and Again, Tuesday nights on ABC.

Reviews by CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard
Sela Ward and Bill Campbell are both parents, divorced and suburban. Somehow they must find each other and romance between the problems her high-school daughter has with her weight and self-esteem, and his high-school son has with homework.

Almost immediately we root for them to triumph over adolescent disarrangement as preposterous as Romeo and Juliet. One week they'll spend a night together, but not before some terrific guy talk ("jerk").

A Liberal Dose of Beltway Bantercolor>

Finally, Aaron Sorkin created Sports Night, last yearÂ's best sitcom, while John Wells co-produced ER and China Beach. Together, starting Wednesday night on NBC, theyÂ've made The West Wing, a below-the-Beltway look at All the PresidentÂ's Men, and the new seasonÂ's smartest dramatic series.

Never mind sorting out all the names and faces of a huge ensemble cast. YouÂ'll immediately recognize Martin Sheen as president, John Spencer as his chief of staff and Rob Lowe as a deputy director of communications.

Between cell phone pratfalls, they must deal in the first hour with medium-range missiles, Cuban refugees, anti-Semitism, health care and the economy ("Economists were put on this planet to make astrologists look good").

Not to mention, and this is astonishing in a network pilot: the Christian right and abortion.

Not since Murphy Brown has a prime-time series been both witty and edgy about politics. It is of course scandalous that a liberal president like Martin Sheen has a staff entirely white. They promise to fix this.

And maybe weÂ're all so weary of Washington that no one will want to watch West Wing. In which case we should fix ourselves.