"Evening Shade"is an uneven, up-and-down hour of television. But the ups are higher than just about any others the new season has to offer. And that makes the lows more than worth it.
This is the show with the cast of casts (by the standards of weekly series television) you have been hearing so many good things about: Burt Reynolds, Ossie Davis, Hal Holbrook, Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley and Marilu Henner.
Overall, their performances are so good that by the final sequence many viewers will even remember what it was about Burt Reynolds that once made him such a talented and appealing leading man -- before he started doing "Smoky" movie sequels and producing game shows. Reynolds rises to the talent around him in theleading role of Wood Newton, former pro football player, come home to Evening Shade, Ark., to coach the high school team and raise his family of five.
Tonight's pilot, which airs at 8 on WBAL-TV (Channel 11), opens with the rich voice of Ossie Davis telling us, "It's morning in Evening Shade." The opening not only sounds like Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign commercials -- which began, "It's morning in America," -- it looks like them. It is shot through a soft, golden haze of morning sunshine.
The opening is producer and writer Linda Bloodworth Thomason's first wink at the audience. The first thing we see is not someone out of a Norman Rockwell illustration raising an American flag at City Hall (as the Reagan commercials showed), but an adult man racing down the street in a boy's coaster wagon emblazoned with the words "chariot of fire."
Davis -- whose narration opens and closes the hour -- tells us that's Nub delivering the Evening Shade Argus newspaper. It doesn't take long on Davis' "Our Town" tour toknow this is a town that goes its own way.
That way includes Friday night football games where Coach Newton's team has not won a game in 2 1/2 years. It includes the Barbecue Villa restaurant owned by Ponder Blue, played by Davis. It includes trips to the town's doctor, Harlan Elldridge, played by Durning.
Tonight's episode is about the aftermath of one of Newton's trips to Dr. Elldridge, a visit Newton made to have a vasectomy. The vasectomydid not take.
On the morning of his birthday and 15th anniversary, Newton and his wife, Ava Evans Newton (Henner), find out she's pregnant. Ava is running for prosecuting attorney of Evening Shade. Only four weeks away from the election, she and Wood think a baby is the last thing they want.
"Evening Shade" is funny and tender.
You'll laugh when Ava suggests that maybe Wood conveniently "forgot" to have a vasectomy. "Forgot?" he says. "I forgot four people standing over me and laughing? I forgot a 10-inch knife and a needle the size of a basketball pump? You could forget that as easily as being circumcized at a pep rally."
You'll be moved during the final scene of Wood and Ava's dancing at midnight on their front porch to "Blueberry Hill." It's sexy, romantic and touching.
And, for all the wall-to-wall acting talent, you'll probably come to see that the real star of "Evening Shade" is Bloodworth Thomason, who has created a town full of characters that look to be with us for years to come.