"Gabriel's Fire" is a tour de force for actor James Earl Jones. And what a fine trip his performance makes it for viewers.
That does not mean the new series, which debuts at 10 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), is great drama. It has a few too many structural and casting problems for that. But Jones does some of his best and most ambitious work since "The Great White Hope" in the role of Gabriel Bird. And watching him makes "Gabriel's Fire" one of the more rewarding hours of television viewing this fall.
Bird is a former Chicago police officer who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole for shooting his partner while raiding a house alleged to have been headquarters of a black radical group. In fact, it was not headquarters for a black radical group, but police covered that up. Bird shot his partner during the raid to stop him from shooting an innocent woman.
Twenty years later, though, high-powered attorney Victoria Heller (Laila Robins) wins Bird's release on a writ of habeas corpus. Bird's sudden freedom evokes in him both surprise and horror -- yes, horror: He had been certain he would never know any life but that of the prison.
The moral and legal ambiguities involved in Bird's crime, sentence and release on irregularities in his initial defense are important to understand. This is a show that is comfortable with moral ambiguity and a flawed hero -- unlike so many shows elsewhere on television.
As good as Jones is in the early prison scenes, following Bird's release his performance jumps to a level seldom achieved by television actors. There is a scene on a bridge in downtown Chicago that is the best single sequence of television acting since Lane Smith as Richard Nixon saying his final goodbye in last year's "The Final Days."
The scene involves Bird ordering a hot dog from a street vendor and being overwhelmed by the possible choices of toppings available. It is eloquent, existential and it speaks volumes about what happens to the human heart and mind in prison. Jones makes a hot dog seem like a thing a glory. His body language changes from one of tentativeness and suspicion as he approaches the vendor to a literal dance of life once he completes the order and bites into the food. If you have a VCR, tape this sequence, and then play it back without the sound to appreciate what a great actor can do without words.
In addition to Jones' performance, "Gabriel's Fire" is also distinguished by a richly textured and evocative camera style.
Problems include the continuing concept for the series. Bird's going to work for Heller as an investigator has an improbable feel to it, which is compounded by the disparity between the acting talents of Robins and Jones.
But don't worry about that tonight. Just enjoy one of the richest television performances of the year.