Can TV be too good for its own good? If most of prime-time TV -- laugh tracks, moving moments, lessons learned -- is life made simple, then NBC's "I'll Fly Away" is TV made difficult. Is it too difficult? Or have we all watched so much "good TV" that we can't recognize something great when it comes along?
"Away," which returns Friday (9 p.m. on Channel 2) for nine weeks of new episodes, is not always easy to take. It offers few answers. It creeps along toward uncertain conclusions, its 1950s Southern setting unenhanced by stock characters or fake antebellum atmosphere.
Its premise -- upstanding district attorney of Bryland, Ga., hires young black woman as housekeeper for him and his three children -- means that many of its stories are about race. But politically, "Away" usually is more complicated than correct. For every scene that comes wrapped in a tidy package, two scenes leave you, and the characters, dangling. Watching, you are simultaneously bored and transfixed.
In Friday's episode, housekeeper Lilly Harper (Regina Taylor) tries to register to vote. An early scene has her standing at a counter in the county office building. The dialogue is simple but loaded.
"You the one that wants to register?"
The scene unfolds in real time, not TV time. It takes forever, or at least long enough for a white person watching TV in 1992 to climb into the head of a black person 40 years earlier. This is a quantum leap, and "Away's" deliberate pacing forces you to make it. When the payoff scene finally comes, and Lilly speaks up ("Mrs. Davis, I am a colored woman in a roomful of white
people. I'm not going to call you a liar . . .") everybody, including the viewer, gets what he or she deserves.
Sam Waterston, who plays "Away's" district attorney Forrest Bedford: "If you're going to be genuinely moved, it has to be genuinely earned. You can't rush to tragedy. You can't rush inside John Morgan."
RTC John Morgan (Jon Aaron Bennett) is the youngest Bedford child, and he's so cute he could have been kidnapped from "The Waltons." Executive producer David Chase: "John Morgan gets more than the usual number of emotional beats. That's because, when you're 6, it's your job to learn things. The other characters don't learn neat little lessons."
This is not to say that things don't happen on "Away." In its next two episodes, you will see: an election, the wrap-up of a homicide subplot, some racial terrorism, a breach and rapprochement between Bedford and one of his older children, and another chapter in the on-again, off-again romance between Bedford (whose wife is in a mental institution) and a local lawyer played by Kathryn Harrold. "Away" is as full of tortured relationships as "Knots Landing"; it just doesn't depend on them to keep the pages turning.
Mr. Chase: "Nobody needs to get pregnant at this point."
Because "Away's" surface is sturdy and conventional, its strangeness can take you by surprise. Mr. Waterston: "You know, life is a lot more implausible than what you see on TV. [The producers] have said, 'Oh, it's got to be as weird as life.' "
"Away" is full of extras without being contrived, theatrical without being pretentious. Its secondary characters -- the miserable adolescent cracker Paul Slocum, the spartan wrestling coach Zollicofer -- are so unusual they could have their own spinoffs. That is why their roles stay small on "Away," which never makes an easy choice, or fills a scene with something that is merely amusing, or merely heroic.
Mr. Chase: "On 'I'll Fly Away,' you just don't know what's going to happen next."
Mr. Waterston: "On TV, you have to give something up. You can either be raw and honest and not polished, or, on another end, all technical with no life in it. What we do is we dive in without checking to see if the pool is full."
Mr. Waterston's character spends an inordinate amount of time thinking, and then making the wrong choice anyway. The TV viewer in you wants Forrest Bedford to turn into Atticus Finch or Fred MacMurray, but that is not the choice he's going to make.
As another secondary character, cynical journalist Tucker Anderson, says of Bedford: "He seems like somebody who could bring change to this clown show we call a social structure down here. . . . But then I see him look at you with that parson's frown -- that troubled, ineffectual stare -- and then I think, why am I wasting my time on somebody like this?"
Because, like all flawed (but decent) characters, like everybody who's neither a hero nor a villain, he's interesting. This is something Shakespeare and Woody Allen know, and TV, awash in heroes, villains and clowns, but no combinations of the three, seems to have forgotten. At least "Away" is going to be around for a while longer to remind us.