NBC HAS SAVED its best for last. "I'll Fly Away," which premieres as a two-hour movie tonight, is far and away the best new drama of this season, a sensitive and eloquent work that looks into the past so that we may better see into the future.
Set in a small southern town just as the quiet of the '50s was about to erupt into the tumult of the '60s, "I'll Fly Away" focuses on the family of a lawyer -- a decent white man trying to do what is right -- who owes more than a small debt to Atticus Finch.
But unlike the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird," which told its moving morality tale in the year 1962 using few shades other than the black and white it was filmed in, "I'll Fly Away" is enough years removed from the that era of civil rights polarization to examine the complexities of these people and their relationships.
Sam Waterston plays Forrest Bedford, a prosecuting attorney raising three children alone as his wife is hospitalized with mental problems. He hires a black woman as his domestic to help do the household chores.
Though Lilly Harper may not have the social standing of her employer, she is more than his equal in all other respects. Regina Taylor turns in a remarkable, understated performance, giving Lilly a quiet strength that demands respect.
"I'll Fly Away," which will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 p.m., is the creation of Joshua Brand and John Falsey, which means they are behind two of the best shows on television. NBC's decision to schedule this pilot tonight means that it will be up against Brand and Falsey's "Northern Exposure" on CBS at 10 o'clock.
But that competition won't last long: tomorrow night "I'll Fly Away" moves into its regular 8 o'clock time slot. Many think that this series is too gentle to survive in the current cutthroat world of network television, particularly unprotected early in the evening; that it is too slow for an audience known for its itchy remote-control trigger fingers.
Forget all that stuff.
"I'll Fly Away," which is not afraid to be quiet, does not shy away from ambiguity, either. It is one of those shows worthy of having the entire family watch. Look at it as a Michael Landon series with depth and complexity. Watch it with your kids and then talk about it.
Tonight's two hours set the tone for the balance between public issues and private concerns that will apparently be the hallmark of the series. Bedford hires Lilly to take the place of a longtime housekeeper while he is preparing to prosecute a young white man who drove a bus filled with a black church group off a bridge, resulting in several deaths.
As he deals with the schism his court case is causing in the community, he also helps his young son face up to the absence of his mother. Lilly's strange, strong presence in the household puts both their personal and professional problems in a sharper focus.
Tonight's episode ends with a sit-in at the courthouse. Tomorrow's episode picks up in the aftermath of that as a case comes to Bedford involving a violent confrontation between a police officer and demonstrator. At home, Lilly wrestles with a much smaller, but still wrenching, dilemma involving a cowboy hat belonging to the youngest Bedford, 6-year-old John Morgan.
Next week's poignant hour turns on the Bedford daughter, 13-year-old Francie, getting her first menstrual period without a mother around to guide her through that milestone, finding instead a new friend in Lilly. Her father is off on a hunting trip, exploring his political ambitions, as John Morgan faces his own crisis, assuming in his 6-year-old way that he is personally responsible for a neighbor's accident.
Though a few minor notes here and there are off key -- the champagne-and-piano-player hunting expedition is a bit much -- only one major element fails to ring true. That's Forrest's potential lady friend, a knockout lawyer named Christina LeKatzis, played by Kathryn Harrold, who has always been a beautiful woman with limited acting ability, a reputation she furthers in this role.
For the most part, however, "I'll Fly Away" sings its song in perfect tune. It is never better than when it follows Lilly as she crosses the dividing line between the white world she inhabits and the home she lives in, a black community whose many brilliant facets remained, as Ralph Ellison pointed out, invisible to the town's dominant white community. When 16-year-old Nathaniel Bedford makes a few tentative forays across the line, the tension is palpable.
Certainly in choosing this time period for "I'll Fly Away," Brand and Falsey have turned to a era when the issues in the civil rights struggle were much more clear-cut, away from the present when those same issues seem murkier and less obvious.
But they do not look to this period of the past to find simplicity. Instead, they seem to be trying to uncover the era's many complexities -- to let us know the complexities were always there so we may better understand them in their current manifestations.