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Lifetime series feature 2 fresh faces

In a few days, I'll be off to Los Angeles to preview several of next season's network shows featuring strong female characters. They star Julianna Margulies, Angie Harmon, Lucy Liu and several other actresses who aren't exactly household names.

Cable, however, has beaten the networks to the strong female trend. Following the success of Lifetime's "Army Wives" with Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell, the female-oriented network premieres two quirky series Sunday featuring lesser-known actresses Marisa Coughlan and Lili Taylor.

Taylor's series, "State of Mind," about a female psychiatrist with her own personal problems, is by far the more intriguing of the two shows premiering Sunday. It airs at 9 p.m.

Since Coughlan's series, "Side Order of Life," sets the table for "State of Mind" at 8 p.m., let's begin with it. Its producers, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, won an Academy Award for "American Beauty."

An attractive regular as Alan Shore's (James Spader) assistant on David E. Kelley's "Boston Legal," Coughlan plays a magazine photographer, Jenny McIntyre, who is engaged to a financial analyst, Ian (Jason Priestley). Jenny is a bit of a perfectionist who wants everything in her Beverly Hills life to be in order.

Her best friend, Vivy (Diana Maria Riva), wants Jenny to take risks and uses food as a metaphor for living life to the fullest. She doesn't believe Ian is right for Jenny even though he is a great guy. And since Vivy has brain cancer, she feels she doesn't have to hold back. She freely expresses her opinions about ugly bridesmaids dresses, unacceptable grooms and acceptable risks.

Jenny seems conflicted about her upcoming wedding anyway, as evidenced by her willingness to carry on cell phone conversations with a guy (he sounds like Steven Weber, but we never see him) she first communicates with by accident. The irony is Jenny may feel more connected with the cell phone guy than Ian even if she's never met the guy on the phone.

She also bonds with her photo subjects, including a hospitalized woman who is supposedly married to three men and has a fourth man on the side. The woman is in love with the fourth guy, who is played by an actor who specializes in playing sad sacks. He also plays Meredith Grey's estranged father on "Grey's Anatomy."

The dialogue often is too clever for its own good, including a line dealing with the late Karen Carpenter's eating disorder. The cancer story line also is a bit heavy for a show with comical and fantasy elements. In one fantasy moment, Jenny imagines the famous Hollywood sign give her advice. She also thinks her photos reveal things that aren't capable of being seen visually, like the insides of a man's heart.

Coughlan is pleasant to look at and her character is a sympathetic one, giving "Slice" a sweet overtone. But its quirkiness and metaphors about food and sports often seem forced and too precious. In short, "Slice" didn't speak much enough to me to go back for a second helping.

"State of Mind," which follows at 9 p.m. Sunday, is a much smarter show with a stronger ensemble cast from the executive producers of "The Closer" and "Nip/Tuck." Taylor may not have Coughlan's visual appeal but intelligence can count as much or more than looks in our relationships with TV shows.

Taylor stars as Dr. Ann Bellowes, a family psychiatrist in New Haven, Conn. Her personal and work lives are jolted when she discovers that her husband, Phil (Chris Diamantopoulos), a fellow therapist, is cheating on her.

Naturally, Ann is distracted during office visits with the angry people she meets with in couples counseling. She seeks some understanding from her colleagues, not all of whom have huge hearts. The ensemble cast is a strong one and the show gets more interesting in each act.

Dr. Taj Kalid (Mido Hamada) is more concerned about losing the rent money from Ann's hubby than about Ann's loss of trust. Dr. Cordelia Banks (Theresa Randle) lends a shoulder. Dr. James LeCroix (Derek Riddell), a child psychologist who has been married three times, is a little busy trying to get new parents to understand the difficulties that might come after adopting a young Russian boy with emotional scars.

Fred Smedresman (Kevin Chamberlin), the office manager, is entertained by all the insanity around him. And young attorney Barry White (Devon Gummersall), who has his own tortured family history, is around to endure jokes about his famous name and bail out anyone who gets in trouble after he takes the vacant office space.

Amy Bloom, the best-selling author and psychotherapist who created the series, sprinkles the pilot script with humor, heartache, sympathy and speeches about relationships that sparkle so much that it is tough to get "State" out of your mind.

An incredible scene late in the hour that features Ann (Taylor) giving a bickering couple some long and incredibly thoughtful advice about the give and take of marriage makes the pilot worth watching all by itself.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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>TV Review

"Side Order of Life"
8 p.m. Sunday
Review: Two stars (out of four)

"State of Mind"
9 p.m. Sunday
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

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