Spinoff looks for its legs; Preview: Lead detectives in 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' are a bit shaky in the pilot episode. And John Munch (Richard Belzer) deserves to be more than comic relief.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A New York City cab driver is found dead in his vehicle. He's been stabbed 37 times and dismembered in a particularly grisly way. There's so much blood even a hard rain can't wash it away.

This is how the world begins in "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," a new NBC drama, premiering tonight at 9.

By the time the pilot ends an hour later, I guarantee you will believe in this semi-new universe created by Dick Wolf; it has that realistic a feel. But whether you will want to return to it week after week is less certain.

I say "semi-new," because "Special Victims" is a spin-off from "Law & Order," and a number of elements have been borrowed from the original, which is now the longest-running drama on network TV. By using the same graphics and visual style as "Law & Order," the new drama looks almost identical to its progenitor.

But Wolf wants more than that. He wants us to feel like the Special Victims Unit is right down the hall from the New York City Police Department squadroom that houses Detective Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and his cohorts on "L&O.;"

One of the ways he accomplishes that is by bringing back Dann Florek and his character, Capt. Donald Cragen, as head of the unit. Cragen was the boss cop on "Law & Order" during its first three seasons. The sense of familiarity is further enhanced with a crossover appearance in tonight's pilot by Angie Harmon as Assistant District Attorney Abbie Carmichael. More crossovers are promised.

Florek is again wonderful as the wry, wise, no-nonsense boss. But the series is going to live or die in the performances of Chris Meloni ("Runaway Bride") and Mariska Hargitay ("ER"), who play lead detectives, Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. And neither is all that wonderful in the pilot.

One of the beauties of "Law & Order" over the years was great actors delivering understated performances. I'm thinking of Paul Sorvino, George Dzunda and Orbach. Neither Meloni nor Hargitay is a great actor, and both are guilty of overacting here.

The limited range of each is suggested by their over-reliance on one or two basics moves. Meloni purses his lips and bugs his eyes out to tell us he's intense and/or getting mad. Hargitay runs her hand through her hair to tell us she's stressed. She does the hair thing so many times tonight you fear she'll have pulled all her hair out by midseason.

But these two need to be even better than the lead detectives on "Law & Order," because "Special Victims" is not going to be split into one-half police investigation and one-half courtroom drama like "Law & Order." While some legal matters will come into play, the whole hour will essentially be the police investigation.

Furthermore, unlike "Law & Order," which ignores the personal lives of the detectives and mainly shows them only at work, "Specials Victims" takes us inside Stabler's and Benson's lives. So, the writers and actors better make us care about them -- something that doesn't happen for me with the pilot.

The ultimate measure of their performance is how fabulous Harmon seems in her brief appearance onscreen. Harmon is not that good; she only seems that way with these folks vs. being with her usual partner, Sam Waterston.

There is a supporting cast of detectives: Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch from "Homicide: Life on the Street," "Dean Winters ("Oz") and Monique Jeffries ("The Practice"). If the series finds an audience, I think Winters is going to be a big star. Despite "L&O;" crossovers with "Homicide" in seasons past, Belzer's Munch is a disappointment. He's used only for humor and the squad-room scenes with Munch clash horribly with the tone of the sex crime being investigated.

Given the fine writing in most Wolf series, I suspect this might get straightened out. But, in the pilot, Munch feels like a bad fit.

I can't tell you much about tonight's episode without giving away several nice surprise turns. Like the original "Law & Order," the investigators go down a few blind alleys before finding themselves, and the ultimate explanation of the murder involves headline-making current events. Such clever plotting coupled with Wolf's reputation make me want to believe this series is going to get better real fast.

But, even if it does, will viewers want to see the aftermath of sex crimes explored week after week? The shattered lives of the victims we meet this week are hard to forget. As a viewer, I feel like I could burn out on this after only a few weeks.

At the end of Week 1, I'm left wondering whether Wolf and NBC thought "Special Victims" through before rushing to air. But I'll be back for Week 2.

Other new series opening tonight are:

'Family Law'

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

Like "Judging Amy" and "Work With Me," "Family Law" is yet another lady lawyer show from CBS. This one stars Kathleen Quinlan as a divorce attorney whose lawyer husband leaves her and takes most of their law practice with him.

Quinlan ("Apollo 13") is a fine actress, and executive producer Paul Haggis ("EZ Streets") is one of the great under-appreciated writing talents in Hollywood. But the male-bashing is so easy, obvious and heavy-handed that you wonder what's left after the vitriol. Tonight, it's mainly vitriol and phony female bonding. I think women viewers are smarter than this. We'll see.

'Ladies Man'

When: 8: 30 to 9 tonight

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

"Ladies Man" opens with its leading man (Alfred Molina) trying to have sex in the bathroom with his very pregnant wife (Sharon Lawrence). The new CBS sitcom goes down hill from there.

I'm sure it looked good on paper: What's it like being the only guy in a house full of women. But on screen Molina mugs so large and loud his performance seems better suited to vaudeville than television, while Lawrence's assertiveness is so far over the top she scares me. Park Overall ("Empty Nest") and Betty White ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") are also on hand in supporting roles, but they are not enough to make me like "Ladies Man" even a little.

All of which might mean nothing to the success of the show, it has a great time slot between "King of Queens" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."

'Safe Harbor'

When: 9 to 10 tonight 9

Where: WNUV (Channel 54)

Does American need another series from Aaron Spelling? I don't think so, but the WB network would like another family drama that attracts young viewers to pair with its hit, "7th Heaven." That's the idea here with Gregory Harrison as a single dad and small town Florida sheriff trying to raise three boys with the help of his eccentric mom (Rue McClanahan).

The small town is on the Florida coast, so we got lots of teen flesh, but it is leavened with Harrison trying to teach his sons a more enlightened notion of love and commitment. Instead of a house with a white picket fence, the family lives in a motel that's been mostly vacant since a new interstate highway was built on the other side of the county. Each kid with his own motel room, what a concept!

The currents of drama don't run real deep in "Safe Harbor," but I wouldn't bet against modest success for this series with its intended teen audience.

Premiere

What: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

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