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TELEVISION REVIEW

Heavy artillery

For 'Army Wives,' the skirmishes are domestic

Kim Delaney (center) and Catherine Bell, with Sterling K. Brown, play officers' spouses in Lifetime's "Army Wives." (LIFETIME TELEVISION)

The promos for Lifetime's "Army Wives" remind us, enthusiastically, that this new series has the ultimate chick-tube credential: It comes from a producer of "Grey's Anatomy." Indeed, many "Grey's" elements turn up here: t he sassy but conflicted women, the sensitive men who say the right things most of the time, the soft-pop soundtrack featuring female vocalists.

It's a tried-and-true formula, and, as with "Grey's," it generally works in ways that are both attractive and infuriating; it's strange how much we love getting our heartstrings tugged by predictable means, but nice when TV is available to exploit that need. And it's surprising, in a sense, that more shows haven't tried to wring drama from the domestic side of war. Just as a hospital setting can offer a life-and-death crisis behind every door, an army post provides endless possibilities for pathos.

"Army Wives," which premieres tomorrow night at 10, is at its best and most restrained when it's brushing past the ever-present dramas in military families' lives: t he phone calls and Web -cam conversations from halfway across the world, the fearsome drone of casualty reports on a TV screen in the background. In one scene in tomorrow's premiere, families gather on a grassy hill, awaiting a bus that will take husbands and wives to Iraq. The sight of extras in fatigues holding tight to tiny children has more tear-jerking potential than anything that comes before or after.

The main characters, unsurprisingly, deal with a far more heightened set of issues. The chief protagonist, Roxy LeBlanc (Sally Pressman), is a cheeky Southern bartender who marries a private first class whom she's known for a matter of days. She moves her two young sons to the post and tries to navigate a new, confounding culture, all while spitting out such supposedly authentic witticisms as "Well, if I didn't just serve up toe jam on an idiot cracker."

Among the spouses she encounters is a confident colonel's wife with the cumbersome name of Claudia Joy Holden; she's played by Kim Delaney , has meticulously plucked eyebrows, and witholds some sort of secret about her Harvard education. There's also a major's wife, played by "JAG" costar Catherine Bell , who deals with a surprising form of domestic abuse, and a former cop (Brigid Brannagh ) whose Delta Force husband is driving her family into debt. In due time, sex is had in a bathroom stall, a pair of babies is delivered on a pool table, and a lieutenant colonel (Wendy Davis ) with post-traumatic stress disorder is torturing her ever-caring husband (Sterling K. Brown).

It's not that these people aren't interesting; they're likable to a one, supportive of each other, deserving of our rooting interest, and less judgmental than the women on CBS's male-targeted "The Unit," who seem to treat unquestioning spousal support as a patriotic duty. But the range of souls feels almost too-perfectly constructed, as if their back stories and character traits were selected from a preordained menu. "Army Wives" delivers precisely what we demand from shows like this -- female bonding, minor intrigue, a steady stream of Meaningful Statements about marriage, secrets, and love.

As for politics? Not much; the first two episodes aim for a sort of vigorous neutrality, in which the main characters articulate the dangers of Iraq but don't question the mission itself. A future plotline will involve Holden's daughter at an anti-war protest, but the focus, it seems, will be on the interpersonal drama.

Some have suggested that this show is a departure for Lifetime, presumably because its characters aren't mere ciphers for social issues, and come close to uttering swear words from time to time. In truth, given the abundance of empathyfests and ripped-from-the-headline stories on network prime time, it's hard to know these days where Lifetime ends and a show like "Grey's Anatomy" begins -- something Mark Gordon , the aforementioned producer of both "Army Wives" and "Grey's," probably knows better than most. Still, "Army Wives" seems to try harder than most network shows to celebrate the nobility of its central cast, and dissuade us from questioning their choices too much. It's a mini-emotional workout without a whiff of challenge.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion.net

'Related'

Army Wives

On: Lifetime

Time: Tomorrow, 10 p.m.

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