The most successful dramas on television provide hours of face time with just the kinds of people we try hard to avoid in real life -- cops, lawyers, surgeons, judges, and pretty much anyone who analyzes bodily fluids for a living. That's mostly because network shows are made to be rerun, and the crime-and-punishment formula fits snugly into that economic model. Money talks, and it's louder in syndication. But considering the wide spectrum of cruel, inhumane, and just plain freaky things people do to each other, it would be nice if networks could branch out once in a while into areas of human experience that do not involve (or at least rarely involve) autopsies. Do we really need another season chockful of pervy miscreants with high-speed Internet connections and the gruff cops in no-nonsense footwear who stalk them? Survey says: no.
Leave it to ''Sex and the City'' creator Darren Star to come up with a different kind of forensic drama. ''Miss Match'' is a procedural romantic dramedy that deals in love crimes and misdemeanors of the heart in a ''Law & Order''-ly fashion. Alicia Silverstone plays Kate Fox, a hopelessly sentimental Los Angeles divorce attorney who begins a sideline career as a high-end yenta after a newspaper article unexpectedly credits her for putting together three marriages. Kate took her day job in an effort to get to know her father, Jerry (played with cheerful depravity by Ryan O'Neal), but is ambivalent about it and about Daddy's tricks, which include advising clients to meet with the city's top divorce attorneys so those clients' spouses will be barred from retaining them. When Kate objects, he tells her, ''Sweetheart...we're divorce attorneys. We could walk on water -- nobody's gonna be impressed.''
This sort of relationship sabotage doesn't sit well with Kate, who eventually warms to the idea of using her spare time to recalibrate her love karma by ministering to the emotional needs of lonely L.A. singles. The naughty-and-nice duality of Kate's jobs (she breaks couples up by day and gets them together by night) grants her a parallax view of love, and it gives ''Miss Match'' just the perky, uncomplicated engine it needs to keep churning out stories of relationship pathology. Among the deal-breaking quirks that afflict Kate's matchmaking clients (and dates): mid-dinner crying jags, bug-eyed desperation, and -- if you happen to be a chiropractor -- the angry venting of feelings of professional inadequacy disguised as disdain for orthopedic surgeons. Kate's day job is equally fruitful in the area of postmortem relationship analysis: Her tireless sleuthing reveals that neither a weight-gain clause in a prenup nor a tryst with a hot nanny are what they seem.
Although Kate is based on a real person (New York City matchmaker Samantha Daniels), she might as well be the Beverly Hills Cupid Silverstone played in ''Clueless,'' only older, wiser, and in possession of a law degree. ''Miss Match'' lacks the satirical bite of Silverstone's 1995 breakout comedy, and, at times, can be aggressively cute. Silverstone's squinchy-faced, Smurfette charm might have been in danger of overwhelming ''Miss Match'' had Star not plotted a realistically complicated love life for Kate (her boyfriend in the pilot is a passive-aggressive therapist who seems to disapprove of her very existence) and liberally splashed the dialogue with vinegar. In the third episode, Kate takes on Serena (Charisma Carpenter), a long-lost high school frenemy who has a relationship-destroying habit of lashing out at the service sector. ''Since when did cilantro become some basic staple of our daily diet that didn't require advance disclosure?'' she snaps during one ill-fated double date. ''The last time I checked, we weren't in Mexico.''
Papa Fox, his associate Nick (James Roday), and Kate's bartender buddy Victoria (Lake Bell) also regularly cut the sugar with their oblivious self-involvement (Nick: ''I hope my comment about desperate women didn't rub you the wrong way''), their weasel logic (Jerry: ''What woman in her right mind hires a hot nanny?''), and their dry, understated cracks (Victoria, bringing Serena a glass of ''room-temperature'' water as requested, deadpans: ''We're waiting on the thermometer'').
Hovering somewhere between the sincere optimism of the ''90210'' kids and the wry cynicism of the ''Sex and the City'' ladies, ''Miss Match'' feels like the ultimate Darren Star invention: a network product with enough cable attitude to keep it interesting. New series can be a lot like first dates, awkward and straining and full of disjointed information. But as Kate explains to a client who is about to give up on love, you can tell when something might work because ''it just feels right.'' And this just does.