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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

It's (too) Pat!

By Belinda Acosta

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  What becomes a "chick," and should I worry that I don't seem to be one? That's the question I had after reading some of the ink spilled over the new prime-time offerings and some returning favorites.Shows like Providence, Judging Amy, Once and Again, Family Law, and Lifetime's Any Day Now have been dubbed "chick dramas," because of their decidedly unhip storylines that mix old-fashioned values with contemporary conundrums, and the fact that they have an unexpected appeal to a mostly female, 24- to 54-year-old audience.

So what's my problem with these shows? I don't understand what all the fuss is about. Granted, I've yet to see a full episode of Once and Again or Judging Amy, but I've seen the others and enough of the former to say, "So what?"

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the fact that women past their prime (by Hollywood standards, that is) are getting so much airplay. What I cringe at is the decidedly moral stance each of these shows seems to take, their consistently middle-class focus, and the fact that thus far, from what I've sampled, each episode seems to be conveniently tied up with a bow and delivered with few, if any, dangling plot threads.

Take Providence, the NBC drama starring Melina Kanakaredes. The couple of episodes I caught dealt with Sydney Hansen (Kanakaredes) inserting herself (fairly aggressively) into the life of a runaway teen. She becomes so involved, she brings the teen home, enrolls her in school, gives her money, treats her like family -- as if it were perfectly natural for a troubled teen to forget her past and take up residence with a "nice" suburban family. All seems well, until the girl begins to lie and steal and then eventually runs away. The girl gets into a car accident, sustaining massive head injuries -- though you'd never know it by looking at her slightly ruffled hair and unmarked face as she lies in the hospital. Soon, she dies, and Sydney, as the dutiful daughter, has to break the news to the family, which has (hark) grown to love the little scamp. The episode ends with family members in a tearful group embrace, necks craning, brows furrowed, mouths agape, as soapy, sad music plays as background to the slow-motion orgy of grief. Cynically, perhaps, I couldn't help but think: Who wouldn't drive their car off a cliff to get away from these people who insist on sucking you into their bruised, but open-at-all-hours, hearts? The real answer, according to the show, is: Bad things happen to good people -- but once you clean up the unpleasant, emotional mess, onward with life! In this case, onward to the next episode.

In the October 18 episode of Family Law, the errant teen is more treacherous than misguided. Main character Lynn Holt (Kathleen Quinlan) is asked by a detective friend to help him get his daughter committed to a mental institution. But is the daughter crazy, or is her rebellious dress and attitude simply running on overdrive? When the angry teen confronts Lynn in a deserted garage, is it a threat or a desperate effort to get Lynn to see her side of the story? In the end, the judge sends the teen home under the supervision of her father. But alas, Lynn is called away in the middle of the night (late-night calls seem to be popular on these shows) to her friend's house. There is the detective, covered in blood. His darling daughter began to stab him in his sleep, yet he somehow managed to get his revolver and shoot her. The tearful father is wheeled away in emotional and physical pain, while the body of his evil daughter awaits the coroner. Lynn casts one of those"if only --" glances across pictures of the teen as a little girl, a convenient reminder of what was and what could have been.

Perhaps part of my eye-rolling toward these programs is that I was never a fan of the romance novel, which these shows, in a large measure, seem to emulate. With that in mind, no one should be surprised that these shows are doing well among women. The romance novel has an unbelievably broad audience, from Ph.D.'d professionals to stay-at-home moms to young women both in and out of college. I know this because I tinkered with the idea of writing one of these novels, until the awful truth stared me in the face: I couldn't stand them.

But that's just me. I've heard enough good things about Once and Again, and I'm a longtime fan of Tyne Daly (featured in Judging Amy) to give those shows a chance. And so I will.

As always, stay tuned.

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