THE FACT THAT "Evening Shade" is perhaps the most-anticipated new show of the season works to its disadvantage.
This is the CBS half-hour written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason of "Designing Women" fame expressly for Burt Reynolds of big box-office fame. It has a supporting cast that would carry most movies.
But for some reason it has a little trouble getting up and running. Match that with the anticipation and you're bound to feel a sense of disappointment. Stick with "Evening Shade," though, for by the end of this hour-long pilot that airs in the show's regular time slot tonight, 8 o'clock on Channel 11 (WBAL), you'll find that it lives up to its high expectations.
Reynolds displays his low-key wit playing Woodrow Newton, about the biggest thing ever to come out of the small burg of Evening Shade, Ark. After a professional career playing pro ball for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he has returned home where he coaches a high school team that isn't worth a lick.
His much younger wife, played by Marilu Henner, is running for the office of local prosecutor, now that the youngest of their three kids is in kindergarten. Her widower father, Hal Holbrook as the editor of the town's newspaper, still resents Wood for taking his daughter away when she was just 18.
Most of this is explained in an opening narration by Ossie Davis, who plays Ponder Blue, the proprietor of Evening Shade's world-class barbecue joint and Woodrow's best friend.
The hour covers a day in the life of Evening Shade, a Saturday that happens to be Wood's birthday and 15th anniversary. It's the day after another loss by the high school football team, hardly noteworthy except that the game was interrupted by the local stripper -- whose alleged zoning violation is an issue in the town prosecutor race -- streaking across the field into the arms of Coach Newton.
A picture of that occurrence on the front page of the paper combined with the news from Wood's wife that she is pregnant -- meaning that the vasectomy given by the town doctor, played by Charles Durning, didn't take -- has made this a less-than-blissful morning in the Newton house. But it provides plenty of gossip for Wood's aunt-in-law, the closest thing he's got to a mother-in-law, Elizabeth Ashley, playing a character out of "Designing Women."
With all this to work with, it's hard to figure why Thomason decided to start this first show with Holbrook's crusty character having breakfast with his three grandchildren, a scene that depends on the cliche of kids saying precocious things about sex for its laughs, especially when you can hardly understand the lines from the youngest one.
You move from there to the confrontation in the Newton bedroom -- good but nothing special -- and you start to wonder what all the fuss is about. But, scene by scene, despite a bit of sloppy direction, you begin to get to know these people. And you get to like them.
Unlike the characters in most sitcoms, they are fully realized, completely three-dimensional people. That's even true of the small characters, like Charlie Dell's portrayal of the town simpleton, Nub, or the nerdy math teacher, Wood's new assistant coach who springs to life in one scene that Tony Award winner Michael Jeter is given.
Moreover, Thomason takes what seems for the first half hour to be a bunch of loose ends -- one unconnected comic scene after another -- and by the end of the hour has woven them together into a tight-knit story that carries surprising satisfaction.
At its conclusion, "Evening Shade" gives you the indication that it can become what Arkansas-native Thomason hoped for, a show that contains the appeal of its setting, a small town in the South, the type of place that has given rise to some of the best of American literature from the pens of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.
It's a place where the laughs and tears, the warmth and cruelty, the kindness and hypocrisy, the honesty and deceit, the wealth and poverty, are all scrunched together and visible to one another, often present in the same person. But it's a place that contains an essential element missing from so many American lives these days, a sense of community.
"Evening Shade" looks like it will be such a place: an interesting, funny, poignant town worth visiting each week.
*** Wood Newton, former Pittsburgh Steeler star turned unsuccessful high school football coach, is at the center of stories set in a small Arkansas town.
CAST: Burt Reynolds, Marilu Henner, Ossie Davis, Elizabeth Ashley, Hal Holbrook
TIME: Fridays at 8 p.m.
CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)