I Swear

February 24 - March 2, 2014

By Vic Fleming

The phrase “civil war” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. And, of course, it’s generally used to refer to open hostilities between factions that occupy a common geographical sphere. The second word in the phrase, though, has been used figuratively in reference to litigation for ages. It’s hard to figure, then, just what went wrong with a certain TV show. Though never quite ready for prime time, apparently, it has now become iconic. And yet it’s practically unavailable.

“Civil Wars” debuted on ABC in 1991. This Steven Bochco production was no great success. Its theme centered on Big Apple divorce lawyers and their cases. Canceled in early 1993, this show saw two of its characters — Eli Levinson (Alan Rosenberg) and Denise Iannello (Debi Mazar) — actually network-hop to NBC’s “L.A. Law” (also produced by Bochco), which was in its final season. Notwithstanding its early demise, “Civil Wars” in 2009 was ranked 15th in the ABA Journal’s list of “Greatest Legal TV Shows.”

The Wikipedia article on “Civil Wars” runs just over 300 words. And that includes the chart of awards and nominations. There were no awards, actually, and only eight nominations. At the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), only one quotation is set forth from the show: “People come to court looking for justice, but sometimes all they get is money.” Apparently on one of the episodes, a judge said that. Not exactly punchy!

IMDb’s page for the show bears two viewer reviews. The first begins, “This drama about a law firm specializing in divorce cases represented a return to normality after . . . Bochco’s bizarre ‘Cop Rock.’ Peter Onorati (who got perhaps the only positive notices from the earlier show), Mariel Hemingway, and Alan Rosenberg played the lawyers [in] the firm, with Rosenberg’s character having a tenuous grip on mental health. Debi Mazar was the firm’s secretary, with David Marciano as her boyfriend, a delivery boy.”

The reviewer notes that the plots “probably suffered” as a result of being exclusively about divorce, but that “creatively the show was similar to ‘L.A. Law’ or ‘The Practice.’ Unfortunately, the series didn’t attract enough viewers to last longer than about a season and a half.”

The other reviewer calls “Civil Wars” “cute, sexy, [and] interesting,” a combination of “the smoky sensuality of Mariel Hemingway with the earthy charms of Pete Onorati” that featured “clever plots, interesting subtext, and funny cameos.” This viewer suggests that the show overlapped “a little too strongly” with the likes of “L. A. Law, “Homicide,” and “NYPD Blue.” She calls it “a classic that was pulled a little too soon.”

Best I can tell from researching it, “Civil Wars” bombed in the world of syndicated reruns, as well. Maybe there weren’t enough episodes. Or maybe TV junkies can’t abide a steady diet of dom-rel litigation.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.