There's a wonderful scene in tonight's first episode of "Gabriel's Fire" that shows the lead character Gabriel Bird re-discovering the joys of a hot dog, calling up from the deep recesses of his memory the ecstasy of choice as he decides exactly what condiments will go on his purchase from a street vendor.
Actor James Earl Jones and director Robert Lieberman squeeze everything possible out of the scene, filmed on the streets of Chicago. It sums up the power of this hour of television about a man who gets out of prison after serving 20 years for a crime that was, at worst, enigmatic.
However, while this pilot of "Gabriel's Fire" is fine work, there are indications that this ABC series is headed for hackneyed street. It will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) at 10 o'clock tonight, repeating tomorrow in the series' normal slot of 9 o'clock Thursdays.
Bird was a Chicago cop who participated in a raid against black political activists in the '60s -- a raid set on Hampton Street, clearly a reference to Fred Hampton, the Black Panther killed by the Chicago police in a controversial raid. When he saw his partner about to shoot a mother and child, Bird shot and killed his fellow cop. He was sent away for life.
In prison, one of his contemporaries is killed while getting up a petition against harassment. Victoria Heller, a high-powered attorney -- the ultimate cellular phone, Type A yuppie as played by Laila Robins -- shows up to investigate her client's death. She runs into a stone wall with Bird and responds by re-opening his case and getting him freed.
As played by the inimitable Jones, Bird was reconciled to spending his life in jail. His reticent, almost angry approach to freedom, his attempts to modify the direct, violent methods of interaction he learned in prison into the more circumspect approach demanded on the outside, his reluctance to uncover a long-buried emotional life, all provide the most compelling moments in this program.
Not nearly as interesting is his teaming with Heller as an odd couple of justice-seeking vigilantes, tonight tracking down the guy who killed the convict in the prison. For one thing, Robins can't hold down her side of the see-saw in this team.
But the main problem is that this unlikely pairing of crime fighters simply reeks of a stale formula that can't be hidden by stylized direction or even the considerable skills of Jones. The re-entry of this fascinating character of Bird into society is the intriguing part of the first hour of "Gabriel's Fire," not the cops and robbers aspects that probably will carry the show from here on out.
Certainly there will continue to be a sprinkling of scenes that will deal with Bird's adjustment to his freedom, but he can only eat his first hot dog once.
"Gabriel's Fire" ** A beautiful high-powered attorney springs a convict who has been in prison for 20 years, an ex-cop who killed his partner in a raid on political activists 20 years ago. The ex-con then becomes an investigator for the lawyer.
CAST: James Earl Jones, Laila Robins
TIME: Tonight at 10 o'clock, then Thursdays at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)