I have a feeling Lifetime may have two more summer hits on its hands, along with "Army Wives," which has become the channel's highest rated series ever. Not because "Side Order of Life" and "State of Mind" are so very good; they're not. Both of these new dramas are middling "Ally McBeal" wannabes, as stressed heroines deal with work-love tensions amid hallucinations and quirky supporting characters. They're average shows built on old bromides about the emotional growth of women who are living life instead of watching it on TV.
And yet the creators of these series clearly know Lifetime's target audience's taste. They know the channel is all about women at a crossroads, making hard, courageous choices. (Men, apparently, are more drawn to traction and metal, if you judge by Spike and Speed TV.) "Side Order of Life" and "State of Mind," which premiere Sunday night at 8 and 9 respectively, dive straight into two women's challenging emotional journeys, and shamelessly so. They play like serialized versions of so many Lifetime movies, where pain inevitably leads to gain.
"Side Order of Life," created by Margaret Nagle (who wrote HBO's FDR movie "Warm Springs" ), revolves around the awakening of Jenny, a magazine photographer about to marry a nice guy whom she kind-of loves. Played by Marisa Coughlan , who comes across like a young Faith Ford, she is in full-on bridezilla mode when she learns that her best friend, Vivy (Diana-Maria Riva) , has brain cancer. The news, and Vivy's insistence that Jenny take life by the horns, force Jenny into a major life reassessment. Is kind-of love enough, even when the man she kind-of loves is played by Jason Priestley ? Could she push herself into Pulitzer-level work at the magazine?
Jenny's situation is mildly engaging, as she takes Vivy's news to heart. And Coughlan smartly underplays Jenny's reaction to the thought of losing her friend. But Nagle and her writers plug a farcical charge into the show that is quickly annoying. For example, Jenny's magazine assignment involves a woman who has three husbands -- "No one can love all of you, and I want all of me to be loved," the overweight woman says on her own behalf. It's like David E. Kelley at his worst -- ridiculous, gimmicky, and cheaply symbolic.
Jenny also starts a telephone affair with a wrong number, and his disembodied voice soothes her with the likes of "Maybe the universe doesn't approve of your plan. It's OK to veer off the path once in a while." Sounds like mystery man is taking cues from Jack Handy, late of "Saturday Night Live." The profound connection between Jenny and phone guy is meant to be oh-so-magical, but it just feels forced.
The same kind of willful absurdity mars "State of Mind," which stars Lili Taylor as New Haven family therapist Ann Bellowes. Television dramas rarely get therapy right, and "State of Mind" only adds to that reputation. Early in the premiere, Ann shows up for her own couples counseling session to find her husband and their therapist in flagrante delicto. D'oh! Later on, in her therapist chair, Ann dresses down a married couple in a manner that borders on cruel and unethical. The session, in which she calls them "morons," becomes all about Ann's marital problems. Is it time to call the Narcissism Police?
"State of Mind," created by author-therapist Amy Bloom, is more of an ensemble vehicle than "Side Order of Life." Ann bonds and argues with the other professionals in her Victorian office building, including her psychologist friend Cordelia (Theresa Randle) ; a noble child psychologist with a Scottish accent named James (Derek Riddell) ; and newcomer Barry the lawyer (played sweetly by Devon Gummersall from "My So-Called Life") . The character of James, in particular, becomes unintentionally irritating by the end of the first hour, after he engages in the same kind of therapist self-righteousness as Ann when dealing with an adoptive family. He pontificates his way right out of our good graces.
Taylor was extremely effective on "Six Feet Under," as the insecure and passive-aggressive Lisa. And she has stolen hearts in her comic roles, notably as the songwriter in "Say Anything" ("That'll never be me, that'll never be me . . .") Here, she's less successful, playing frazzled, tough, and preachy. We can only hope that as the series progresses, Dr. Bellowes will learn to mellow.