Tonight's 'lost' 'Homefront' is powerful drama

July 28, 1992|By Hal Boedeker | Hal Boedeker,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

LOS ANGELES -- Tonight's previously unseen episode of "Homefront" wasn't lost. It was just too heavy, ABC decided last September.

"Because it is about a funeral and it is about a character who is not returning, it was the network's judgment call," said Bernard Lechowick, who created the post-World War II drama with his wife, Lynn Marie Latham.

"And I cannot second-guess at this distance [the decision] not to air the show in September as the second episode. They simply wanted to move on to episode three."

And they skipped right over one of the best hours of television you're likely to see this season.

One episode can redefine your whole view of a series. Last fall, after watching the 90-minute pilot of "Homefront," I complained that it was ersatz history and soapy drama. It captured little of the pain or grit of the post-war classic "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Well, tonight's episode (10 p.m. Channel 13) delivers. It's a powerful drama about the death of serviceman Mike Sloan Jr. and the reaction of his family and friends in River Run, Ohio.

In a letter to his black housekeeper Gloria (Hattie Winston), Mike casually says he would like her to sing at his funeral if he doesn't return.

Mike's witchy mother, Ruth (Mimi Kennedy), objects that it would be unseemly. Gloria's son, Robert (Sterling Macer Jr.), bristles at his mother's affection for the dead white man.

Mike's buddies, Hank Metcalf (David Newsom) and Charlie Hailey (Harry O'Reilly), find an unorthodox way to grant his final wish.

The dramatic payoffs are memorable:Gloria delivers a moving "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" under unusual circumstances. Mike's widow, Italian war bride Gina (Giuliana Santini), quietly stands up to mother-in-law Ruth at the cemetery. The last images are breathtaking.

This "Homefront" is so good it makes you wonder exactly what ABC execs are looking for in drama. First, they killed off the superior "thirtysomething" in favor of "Homefront." Then, they received a splendid episode like this but didn't show it. Come on, it shouldn't be any surprise that an episode set after a world war is depressing.

ABC Entertainment President Robert Iger tried to explain his network's new preference in drama: He sees a tendency away from "the drama that really kind of knocks you down and drags you through it." Rather, he finds appeal in a series like "Northern Exposure" that "doesn't necessarily create as much of an intense impact on the viewer."

But the quirky "Exposure" is clearly an exception on the TV landscape: neither comedy nor drama. Dramas, by their very nature, should knock you down once in a while.

ABC's original antsiness over tonight's "Homefront" might have been a problem of timing: Network research found that most series recruit three-quarters of their viewers in the first three episodes. But dropping the second installment of a series is like editing out the second chapter of a book.

To his credit, Mr. Iger has stuck with low-rated dramas like "Homefront" (No. 67 last season). It also helped that "Homefront" logged almost 100,000 supportive calls in a TV Guide campaign and more enthusiastic letters poured in when Dear Abby waged her own campaign.

But Mr. Iger has sent "Homefront" into battle this fall against formidable forces: NBC's "Cheers," Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" and CBS' "Street Stories." ("Homefront"moves to its new time slot, 9-10 p.m. Thursdays, this week.) Mr. Iger is banking on weakness at NBC in the post-"Cosby" era and unswerving support from "Homefront" fans.

Creator Lechowick welcomes the new time slot. "They're putting us in there as a strategic powerhouse, as modest as our number might be," he said. The reason: "Homefront" has the highest concentration of women viewers, ages 18 to 49, of any network show, he said. (It's surprising, though, that "Homefront" has won few fans among the over-55 audience who lived through the time.)

Mr. Lechowick cites another study that 40 percent of Californians have gone to bed by 10 p.m. In an earlier time slot, "Homefront" might stir more interest on the home front. Mr. Lechowick previewed upcoming stories:

* Union organizer Al Kahn (John Slattery) will face trouble, in an era of concern over Communists, because his first wife had "hair as red as her party affiliation."

* Linda Metcalf (Jessica Steen) will get in over her head as a cub reporter.

* Union leader Charlie will be torn between the widowed Gina and his British war bride, Caroline (Sammi Davis-Voss), who doesn't want a divorce. "And in those days in Ohio, if one party didn't want a divorce, they didn't get it," Mr. Lechowick said.

* Ginger Szabo (Tammy Lauren) will try to get her first break in radio. Her fiance, Jeff Metcalf (Kyle Chandler), will struggle in his rookie season with the Cleveland Indians. "Homefront" will continue to play up baseball stories, and the third episode will be directed by Roy Campanella Jr., son of the Dodgers catcher.

If viewers are lucky, "Homefront" will continue to explore the heavier drama found in tonight's episode.

Dramas without "intense impact" just don't cut it.

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