'Guardian' stands among the best new shows

It's hard to tell even from the pilot if a series will actually remain interesting as the season wears on.

The new law show The Guardian (CBS, Tuesdays, 9-10 p.m.) has a chance to endure, thanks to its intriguing central character, Nick Fallin, a corporate lawyer played by Australian actor Simon Baker. He isn't the typical nice guy, the kind that sparkles in the presence of beautiful women and wittily challenges authority.

Busted for drug possession, Nick is sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service. He doesn't even like children, but the corporate hotshot becomes a children's advocate. Public service doesn't seem to be in his nature.

The real point of the show seems to be that a willingness to do public service leads to a life of genuine character. Creator-producer David Hollander avoids clich├ęs by "stacking the two worlds [corporate and community] next to each other," he said in a recent interview.

He also doesn't make the world of business an evil place. "I go way out of my way to humanize the corporate world," Mr. Hollander says.

But for viewers, it doesn't matter how much is at stake in the corporate world. What touches the vast majority of people are human values - the well-being of children, the issues of justice and people in crises, Hollander says. The appeal of the show lies in the fact that human beings are imperfect, but we try to do our best, he says. "I know how good it feels to be of service," Hollander says. "I wanted to write about someone who finds that out.

"But I thought it would have greater dramatic impact, that it would be so much more interesting, if the character actively did not want that [experience]."

Nick is surprised by his own capacity for goodness. There is nothing sentimental about what Nick sees - or how he sees beyond self-interest. The victims he aids are not always good or right or easy to care about. But the issues are always serious and worthy.

Of course, Mr. Baker is a dashing fellow. How could any character developed for TV and played by someone that handsome, that mysterious, and that accomplished remain a total jerk for long? Still, Hollander sees to it that Nick keeps his hard edges intact. Drawing on his own motherless childhood, Hollander centers on the icy ambition deep within Nick.

But Baker gives him intelligence and class, and allows him a gradual, believable evolution as a human being.

Baker is surrounded by an outstanding cast. Particularly expressive and engaging is Dabney Coleman, who plays Nick's father, Burton Fallin, a successful lawyer who owns his own firm and has come up the hard way.

"I appreciate his code," said Mr. Coleman in a recent interview. "I see him very clearly. He is a lot of people I've known. He's a realist, a strong working-class guy brought up tough - and I appreciate those qualities."

Coleman says his own father-in-law was his role model for the character. "I never knew a more caring man, and I was always impressed by that...."

The actor adds that the relationship in the show between father and son breaks his heart: The father had raised the boy after his mother died, yet they never really connected. "It's really like a relationship with a teenager," he says. As they work together, that relationship, too, will unfold in coming episodes.

Anne Rice's The Feast of All Saints' Day (Showtime, Sunday and Monday, 8-9:40 p.m.) has nothing to do with vampires or specters of any kind, despite its title. It boasts one of the largest and best casts of African-American actors since "Roots," and it covers a place and an institutional evil seldom investigated in the arts. The institution was called "placage" - a genteel form of concubinage whereby free women of color (the descendants of slaves and masters) were placed in a legal "arrangement" with rich white men who provided for them and any children of the liaison for life.

A whole class of "gens de couleur libres" flourished from the early 19th century in New Orleans - the only city in the South to offer the privileges of middle-class life to those of slave descent. Ms. Rice tells the story of one complex family arrangement without undue moralizing, but with the warmth of a writer who sees the connections between misuses of power, sex, and human emotions, and the inevitable suffering involved.

Flawed by melodrama, the miniseries has its problems. The story is convoluted, and the characters too muddled in their motivations. But there are moments of beauty - as when James Earl Jones explains the meaning behind the title, or when Ossie Davis, playing a gifted carpenter, bequeaths his journals to the central character, young Marcel Ste. Marie (Robert Richard).

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