Series TV is not exactly brimming with thought-provoking material -- unless you're intellectually stimulated by the outing of cleavage on "Forever Eden" or the in-ing of gay men on "Playing It Straight." Or the downing of worm pudding on "Fear Factor."
So it's not easy to criticize CBS's ambitious new "Century City" for its preoccupation with ethical questions. But the show, an "L.A. Law"-style drama set in 2030, is so completely taken with its meaty futuristic issues that it forsakes the importance of basic dramatic storytelling. At points, as it debates the likes of cloning humans and genetic engineering, the show operates more like a law-school classroom aid than a prime-time legal series. Writer-producer Paul Attanasio seems to forget that we need a few carbohydrates to help digest all that protein.
The focus on the issues is evident even in the set design of "Century City," which gives us a vision of the future uninfluenced by the likes of "Blade Runner" or even "The Jetsons." The fashions are very 2004, and we see only a handful of newfangled high-tech gadgets, including a hologram room in which virtual pretrial hearings are held. Los Angeles looks more like a souped-up present than a sci-fi future, but we soon learn that less obvious but more radical changes have taken place. Human cloning is possible but illegal in the United States, for example, and genome analysis makes it possible to predict an embryo's future. Oh yes, and thanks to a radical chromosome-rejuvenation treatment, Mick Jagger is still on tour.
But as it dives into the morality of these brave new developments, "Century City" is sterile and formulaic -- not unlike Attanasio's hospital drama "Gideon's Crossing." Each episode focuses on two cases brought to the LA law firm. One is a Big Issue case, such as tonight's clone-smuggling plot, while the other has a more whimsical, "Ally McBeal"-ish quality -- personality downloading, for instance. And the firm's lawyers are as predictable as the format -- except for Eric Schaeffer as a moody twit who thinks he's God's gift to women, including his virtual secretary. Ioan Gruffudd, from A&E's "Horatio Hornblower" series, is young and idealistic; Hector Elizondo is older and idealistic; Viola Davis is intense and idealistic; and Kristin Lehman is genetically doctored and idealistic.
As science threatens to depersonalize society, these lawyers invariably fight for the forces of love and humanity. Perhaps they can find some time to combat the blandness of depersonalized drama, too.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.
Starring: Nestor Carbonell, Viola Davis, Hector Elizondo, Ioan Gruffudd, Kristin Lehman, Eric Schaeffer
On: CBS, Ch. 4
Time: Tonight, 9-10 p.m.