NBC has saved its best new drama for last. "I'll Fly Away," which premieres at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), is so thick with fine writing, acting, mood and texture that at times it feels more like a feature film or a novel than a television show.
That doesn't mean, though, that "I'll Fly Away" is flat-out terrific. Feeling like a novel or a feature film can be both blessing and curse for a weekly show trying to make it with TV viewers. And the curse could be enough to keep this drama from finding and holding an audience.
Sam Waterston stars here as Forrest Bedford, a sensitive and principled prosecuting attorney living in a small Southern town at the start of the civil rights era in the late '50s. (Comparisons to "To Kill a Mockingbird" are inevitable and appear to be the intent of creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who also brought us "St. Elsewhere" and "Northern Exposure").
Regina Taylor co-stars as Lilly Harper, the black housekeeper he hires to help him with his three children. Bedford's wife is in a hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown, and the youngest of his children, 6-year-old John Morgan (John Aaron Bennett), is having an especially hard time adjusting to both his mother's illness and the retirement of the housekeeper who preceded Harper.
The dramatic juice is in the tension, suspicion, tentativeness and attempts at real communication between Bedford and Harper. They are both struggling with 200 years of racial baggage as they try to relate to one another. Taylor plays her character with anger headed toward rage. That anger lights up her scenes with Bedford, who is all concern and seriousness.
But "I'll Fly Away" loses altitude in the many scenes that don't include Harper, when Bedford's seriousness and the producers' solemn treatment of the civil rights movement make for a somber tone. And because this show moves at the stately pace of an older feature film, such as "To Kill a Mockingbird," rather than the bam-bam of TV, that tone can seem oppressive.
This is a show that comes with a warning. You'll understand the need for it when you see tonight's final scene -- a candlelight vigil by blacks in the courthouse square.
As the camera pans up from allthose points of light, you will probably be deeply moved by the tableau and Harper's words heard in voice-over.
Let your heart go out to the fictional characters, but keep reminding yourself that what you are seeing isn't necessarily the way it was. It's white, Hollywood producers in 1991 telling the history of black people in the 1950s in a television show that's meant to entertain.