Fox offers fine adult drama in 'Tribeca'

March 23, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

If nothing else, "Tribeca" should prove that the Fox Network can do serious, adult drama as well as anyone else. The problem is there's not much of a market these days for serious, adult drama on TV. So, enjoy "Tribeca" while you can in its limited run starting tonight at 9 on WBFF (Channel 45).

Tribeca is a neighborhood in New York City. In the neighborhood is a production company owned by actor Robert De Niro and a couple of associates. The production company makes the series. The unifying element among the weekly stories in the series is that they are all set in Tribeca. The main cast and characters are different each week. De Niro does not act in the series, although, there is a moment near the end of tonight's episode where he does a Hitchcock-like walk-on.

The star of tonight's hour is Larry Fishburne as a police detective, Marty McHenry, whose brother is killed by a crack addict in a random act of violence. Cops and crack addicts might sound like the stuff of TV cliches, but not in "Tribeca." In fact, the joy of "Tribeca" is how it shatters stereotypes and replaces them with a diverse cast of complicated, rounded, living-and-breathing human beings.

Detective McHenry's brother, Ernie (played by Carl Lumbly), is a conservative, Ivy League investment banker who leaves behind a wife, two children and a set of values that his survivors spend most of the 35 minutes of drama after his death wrestling with. The values involve community, family and ethnic responsibilities.

Marty McHenry does most of the emotional wrestling. He loves his highly successful brother, but there's resentment, too.

"Why is this turning into a prayer meeting for the black, conservative, political caucus?" McHenry sarcastically asks early on when his brother starts talking to him about the "obligations of successful black men."

McHenry has to deal with that resentment and a flood of other emotions to get past his brother's slaying and go on with life. The second great joy of "Tribeca" is what a fascinating spiritual journey it is, thanks to Fishburne's performance. Fishburne takes McHenry from happy-go-lucky to consumed-by-rage to finding-some-wisdom with more stops in between than any actor should dare try in just an hour. And he only missteps once or twice.

Tonight's "Tribeca" is filled with fresh, on-location images and moments of filmmakers taking the kinds of chances that you won't seeanywhere else on network TV except in Barry Levinson's "Homicide." A dance scene used to express the grief of Ernie's wife (Victoria Dillard) after his death is both jarring and brilliant. It succeeds in doing what Steven Bochco unsuccessfully tried for in ABC's "Cop Rock."

And, for all the talk of death and violence, the hour has a nice balance of lighter moments. Part of that is the result of photography that emphasizes sunlight and morning. But there's also the light-hearted and gentle presence of Philip Bosco, who appears in a recurring role as the owner of a coffee bar and restaurant in the neighborhood. (Joe Morton also has a recurring role as a mounted policeman who patrols Tribeca.) In addition to the walk-on for De Niro, there's also one for Melanie Mayron, formerly of "thirtysomething," who does a quick and funny walk-by.

Mayron, by the way, will be featured in an episode that she wrote. Six episodes have been shot, but whether more are to be made depends on the show's ratings.

With "Class of '96" at 8 p.m. and "Tribeca" at 9 p.m. , Fox now has a Tuesday night of outstanding TV drama. The trouble is, "Class of '96" is consistently one of the five lowest-rated shows on all of network TV. It's not going to be easy for "Tribeca" to find an audience with that kind of lead-in at a time when viewers seem not much interested in TV drama.

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