TONIGHT'S NEW ABC show "Homefront" is a bit like a beautifully decorated cake -- it looks wonderful, the icing is terrific, but once you bite into the thing, you realize it's really just a plain yellow cake.
The debut of "Homefront" is an exquisite-looking piece of television. Set in 1945 as the soldiers were returning from World War II, the cars are wonderfully vintage, the clothing impeccably accurate, the photography and direction impressive, the cast and performances top-notch.
But after you've been wowed by the seamed stockings and two-tone DeSotos, you realize you're being seduced and manipulated by a frustratingly predictable story. For underneath that impressive veneer, "Homefront" turns out to be another nighttime soap opera.
Not that that should come as a surprise since it comes out of a David Jacobs team that's been responsible for "Knots Landing" for the past few years. It's just that with all that attention to detail, and with this show going into the old "thirtysomething" time slot, you were hoping for a bit more.
Set in some unspecified All-American town, "Homefront" follows the inevitably intertwined lives of a group of families as the war ends. It gets a 90-minute send-off at 9:30 tonight on Channel 13 (WJZ) before settling into its 10 p.m. time slot next Tuesday.
The stories that preoccupy this opener center on the Metcalf family, headed by widowed mother Anne, played by Wendy Phillips, who seems too young to have a son away at war. This might not be miscasting but rather a reminder of the tender age of those who go to fight.
The younger Metcalf son, Jeff (Kyle Chandler), stayed home where, as we learn in an early scene, he managed to fall in love with his older brother's girlfriend, Sarah Brewer (Alexandra Wilson), who was supposed to be waiting faithfully for Hank Metcalf (David Newsome) to come back from the war.
Meanwhile, the Metcalf daughter, Linda (Jessica Steen), was already dumped by her boyfriend, Mike Sloan, who married an Italian woman overseas. Linda's getting into her welding job down at what is generically referred to as "the Plant." But, all the other women working there are happily returning to domesticity, leaving their jobs so the returning veterans can have them.
The Plant is owned by the rich and snobby Sloans -- Mike (Ken Jenkins) and Ruth (Mimi Kennedy) -- parents of the soldier who dumped Linda, which they approved of, and married this Italian, which they disapprove of. The Italian bride, Gina (Giuliana Santini), shows up in the show's emotional train-meeting scene, but much of the 90 minutes is spent waiting for Mike.
Linda isn't the only one to lose her love overseas as her best friend, Ginger Szabo (Tammy Lauren), goes to the train station in her wedding dress and meets her boyfriend's new English bride. That would be Caroline Hailey, played by Sammi Davis-Voss, married to Charlie Hailey, played by Harry O'Reilly.
Then there's the town's black family, the Davises, who work for the Sloans -- chauffeur Abe, played by Dick Anthony Williams, and domestic Gloria, played by Hattie Winston. Their son, Robert (Sterling Macer Jr.), comes back from fighting skeptical that the country will offer him the same thanks it gives the white veterans.
Though this pilot examines a few of the real problems that confronted the returning soldiers, such as the scramble for decent housing, and plants seeds for examining the origins of social movements over rights for blacks and women that would not blossom for another 20 years, it spends most of its time on fertile soap opera turf, the varieties of domestic turmoil and bliss that result from these sudden multiple homecomings.
A visual pleasure, "Homefront" is one of those shows that reveals most of its flaws in retrospect. You enjoy watching it, but when it's over you feel a bit let down. While appreciating that its plot was carefully and skillfully constructed, you realize that its various pieces have fallen into place a little too easily.
And it is in this respect that "Homefront" pales in comparison with its time-slot predecessor. The image it leaves you with is of life as a jigsaw puzzle that assembles itself into a huge coherent image. "thirtysomething" always let you know that there is no guarantee that the pieces we are given are ever going to fit.