Relax, Angela Lansbury fans, NBC has a scheduling ploy for you.
Assuming the World Series goes five games, CBS will be pre-empting Lansbury's popular series "Murder, She Wrote" on Sunday night. But, at the same moment it usually comes on the air -- 8 o'clock -- NBC (Channel 2, WMAR) will show a new TV movie starring Lansbury, "The Love She Sought."
And, in fact, it's a lot better than an episode of "Murder, She Wrote." Though its plot always teeters on the edge of cliche and contrivance, "The Love She Sought" is constantly pulled back onto the terra firma of solid drama by excellent acting and insightful characterizations.
The story is well set-up as Lansbury plays Agatha McGee, a venerable, almost legendary, seventh grade teacher at a parochial school in a small Minnesota town. McGee's an old-fashioned type who has little use for the new-fangled ways that have come into the church, but it is established that though her opinions might have hardened, her heart has not as she takes a local unwed mother-to-be into her home.
As various happenings in this small burg establish McGee's character -- she's unmarried, facing retirement, and can't stand the progressive new bishop who plays the trombone and asks everyone to call him Dick -- we also see her exchanging warm, revealing letters with a man in Ireland named James O'Hannon.
Though the genesis of their relationship is wisely kept hidden for about half the film, it is clear that McGee sees in it a chance for redemption, for finding at her age an opportunity to open doors that she thought had closed long ago.
So, when a trip to Ireland -- led by the despised bishop -- is proffered as a retirement gift, she accepts eagerly. And there she finds that James is all she had hoped for. But he's also more, as a part of his identity he has never mentioned frustrates her intense hopes.
"The Love She Sought" puts a bit too much of itself on its shirtsleeve -- the allegedly ironic mirroring of the unwed mother's story and McGee's younger life is too obvious -- and draws its ending out for too long. But it is still well worth watching for many reasons.
For one, its story is compelling as it manages to be romantic, suspenseful, occasionally funny and always interesting, without resorting to gimmicky tricks. For another, it confronts the issue of the individual's relationship to the church, usually deemed too controversial for television. And the location filming in Ireland helps the film capture the elusive sense of community present in that country's ancient small towns.
But mainly, it's worth watching to see these fantastic actors at work. Lansbury's McGee is matched by Robert Prosky's bishop and Denholm Elliott's O'Hannon. Though Prosky goes slightly over the top at times, there are some scenes between Lansbury and Elliott that are exquisite, among the best you will ever see on commercial television.
Both of these actors are such masters of their craft that they are able to introduce layer upon layer of subtle shading to their characterizations. Their portrayals take on a fine patina that you appreciate for its deep resonance, not its showy gloss.
"The Love She Sought" is not merely a woman's film designed to attract viewers not interested in baseball, it's an excellent movie that should attract anyone interested in good drama and great acting.
"The Love She Sought"
*** An unmarried parochial school teacher, about to retire, takes a trip to Ireland to meet a man she has corresponded with for years.
CAST: Angela Lansbury, Denholm Elliott, Robert Prosky
TIME: Sunday at 8 p.m.
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)