Classy new show about college life earns itself an 'A'

January 19, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LOS ANGELES — "Class of '96" is the class act of the youth ensemble drama field. It's a gentle, wise and funny look at the passage from home to college life. It's the "thirtysomething" for twentysomethings.

The series, which premieres at 8 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45), was pulled from the fall schedule when financial considerations led Fox to delay its expansion into Tuesday nights until this week. It is a series worth waiting for.

The setting is Havenhurst College, a fictional Ivy League school. The main players are seven freshmen -- four men and three women. Unlike many of the other ensemble dramas that failed to help viewers find their way among all the new characters, "Class of '96" has a focus.

At the center of the drama is David Morrissey (Jason Gedrick), a working-class kid from New Jersey attending Havenhurst on scholarship. Morrissey's coming-of-age story is told at key points by Morrissey himself in voice-over.

On one level, the voice-over is simply a smart way of helping viewers get inside Morrissey's head. But the voice-over is done with such gentleness and wisdom that at one point it approaches poetry, taking us inside Morrissey's heart.

The main story tonight, as the students arrive for the start of their first year of college, is about Morrissey's attraction to Jessica Cohen, played by Lisa Dean Ryan of "Doogie Howser, M.D." It might be difficult for some viewers to believe that a Fox youth show would deal with more than just the sexual aspect of such an attraction, but tonight's pilot does.

It hints at the heat, but it explores the nervousness and confusion that these two young people feel when they suddenly find themselves alone on a bed in a dormitory room late at night with no one around to tell them what they can or cannot do.

But most impressive of all is the way that the producers appreciate and ground the Morrissey-Cohen relationship in the context of its class and religious tensions. He's Catholic, she's Jewish; he's working class, she's upper class. There's an ache in the joy you feel for the promise of their relationship tonight. You just know there's going to be a heartache for them one of these Tuesday nights down the road.

There are a bunch of wonderful touches in tonight's show. It's directed by Peter Horton, of "thirtysomething." He also appears on screen as an English professor, the same role he played in the yuppie drama. One of tonight's best moments involves a scene in his English class when Morrissey and Cohen compete intellectually through their interpretations of "Moby Dick."

I love this pilot episode. It captures Morrissey's excitement and wonderment as he enters a world of endless green lawns, rock and roll,Melville, all-nighters, young women who invite him into their rooms and a library where all the world's knowledge seems to be stored up and waiting just for him.

As tonight's episode ends against a montage of college scenes, we hear Morrissey in voice-over: "Somebody said your true birthplace is not where you were born, but where you find out who you really are. This is the September of my 19th year, and I have come to Havenhurst. I've come to the place of my birth."

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