At the start of Sisters, siblings Alex (Swoosie Kurtz), Frankie (Julianne Phillips), and Georgie (thirtysomething's Patricia Kalember) sprawl languorously in a health-club steam room, pulling at their bath towels and asking each other sisterly things like, you know, how many orgasms they've ever had at one time.
''I had five once New Year's Eve, 1981,'' says Alex. Frankie declines to offer a number, but Georgie volunteers that she once had three and recalls that their absent fourth sister, Teddy (Nothing in Common's Sela Ward), told her ''she once had 25, but you know how she lies.'' Oh, brother...
Sisters gets off to a bad start, sending out the wrong signals. That orgasm scene leads you to think that the show shares TV's usual coy, sniggering attitude about sex, but it probably doesn't. This series was produced by a team that includes Robert Butler, a veteran of intelligent shows like Hill Street Blues and Moonlighting, and the rest of the episode is a touching one about the four sisters' attempts to comfort their recently widowed mother (Elizabeth Hoffman, who just happened to play Patricia Wettig's mother equally well on thirtysomething).
With its New Age piano soundtrack and lengthy scenes of apparently aimless chitchat, Sisters frequently seems like a soft-headed version of thirtysomething. The casting of Kalember, here playing a much warmer, more sympathetic character than that show's stubborn Susannah, only assures Sisters of such unfavorable comparisons.
But on its own terms, Sisters has a lot going for it. Its simple premise following the relationships among women ranging in age from their mid-20s to their late 30s is a terrific idea. And the actresses immediately establish an engrossing contrast in styles, from Kurtz's subtle wryness to Phillips' blank-eyed unknowability.
Furthermore, unlike most debut episodes, which rush to reveal everything you need to know about their protagonists, Sisters leaves you wanting to know more. In a series that goes heavy on the flashbacks, will we see how each of the sisters got along with their now- deceased father, who wanted a boy so bad he gave them each a male nickname? And will we be seeing more of Teddy's ex- husband, Mitch (Hill Street's Ed Marinaro)? He and Teddy are both such self-centered brats they seem made (or doomed) for each other. And what's the deal with Georgie's unemployed husband, John (Garrett M. Brown), who spends his days in a bathrobe, crooning schlock pop songs into a microphone set up in the living room?
Sisters is full of sharp lines (''Is Uncle John having a nervous breakdown?'' asks Teddy's daughter. ''No, dear,'' says Georgie. ''He's just in for repairs.'') and sharper possibilities for the future. B