Great drama returns with 'I'll Fly Away'

February 28, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

You might think you missed "I'll Fly Away" since NBC pulled it from the schedule in December, but you won't know how much you missed it until you see tonight's episode at 9 on Channel 2.

The dramatic series about a southern attorney and his family at the dawn of the civil rights era returns to NBC's schedule tonight with the network's promise it will stay on for the rest of the season. Tonight's show is one of the finest hours of episodic drama you'll see this year.

Part of the show is a coming-of-age story involving Francie (Ashlee Levitch), the teen-age daughter of Forrest Bedford (Sam Waterston). TV does boys' coming-of-age stories all over the place with such shows as "Wonder Years" and "Brooklyn Bridge." But you don't see the same treatment for girls. Francie's story tonight is as sensitive, smart and touching as the best moments of "Brooklyn Bridge."

Another story line concerns Lilly Harper (Regina Taylor), the Bedfords' black housekeeper, and her effort to register to vote. This is the real measure of the dramatic mettle of "I'll Fly Away."

We have witnessed so many TV and film dramatizations of the white racist clerk keeping the qualified black voter from registering with an impossible literacy test that it's easy to think that the tableau can never be made fresh again. But the script and Taylor's suppressed-anger-mixed-with-fear take on it manages to make the scene specific, unsettling and riveting.

The landscape of network television can be a fairly bleak place on some Friday nights with too many of the shows aimed at grades K through 2. The return of "I'll Fly Away" brightens it considerably.

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