Michael Landon fans will be moved by "US." Others will find this film, which airs at 9 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11), simplistic and overly sentimental. In other words, "US" is classic Landon.
"US" is the two-hour pilot for a proposed weekly series that Landon made before his death. He wrote, produced, directed and stars in the story about a man released from prison after serving 18 years when new evidence clears him of murder.
The project did not make CBS' fall schedule. Then, after Landon died in July, the network said it would air the pilot during fall premiere week as Landon's "final gift to all of us," which is going overboard by any yardstick.
The show is remarkably similar to "Highway to Heaven" except instead of an angel the central character is an ex-con who becomes a newspaper columnist. Jeff Hayes' primary mission tonight, though, is still ministerial -- easing the loneliness of others, bringing estranged relatives back together, offering love where there was anger and literally burying the dead in one case.
Hayes is a TV version of what theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen termed "the wounded healer" in a book by that title; it showed how ministers can use their own confusion and hurt to help others in pain.
Tonight, Hayes uses love to overcome his son's anger, his father's inability to express himself and a prostitute's sense of worthlessness. He also uses his fists to overcome a bully who was about to beat up his son in a country-western bar.
At the end of the film, Hayes takes a job as a columnist commissioned "to rediscover America" and asks his son and father to accompany him on his odyssey. That's the double meaning of the title: Us is the three of them and all of us, and also U.S. as in United States. The series was to be about their journeys.
The pilot shows the world as a cold and lonely place, but promises that family ties and acts of love can make it less so. It's a simple gospel, but no one in prime time preached it quite as well as Michael Landon.