'Christy' on CBS has Kellie Martin as teacher

April 02, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

CBS calls it "Christy," but you can call it "Daughter of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."

It's a new drama series that premieres tomorrow night, starring Kellie Martin as a turn-of-the-century mission-school teacher in the hills of Tennessee. It's based on Catherine Marshall's novel of the same title.

The series is part adventure story and part girl-coming-of-age, with a heavy dose of "The Waltons" thrown in.

It's romantic, sentimental, sometimes stereotyped and, in the end, a great showcase for the considerable talents of Martin, who almost singlehandedly carried "Life Goes On" in its final season last year.

The year here is 1912. And Christy Huddleston (Martin), a 19-year-old college sophomore, has her privileged life changed forever when she hears a missionary (Tyne Daly) speak of her work in Appalachia.

Christy volunteers to teach at the mission school buried deep in the beautiful and cruel Smokey Mountains.

Thus starts her adventure, a hero quest much like the one featuring Dr. Quinn (Jane Seymour) on another part of the American frontier.

"I must seem very young and innocent to you," Christy says to Miss Alice (Daly) when she arrives at the mission school after a harrowing journey through a rainstorm in the mountains. "Yes, but you also strike me as a young woman who is very determined and truthful," Miss Alice replies.

Throw in compassionate and plucky, and that's just about all you need to know about this heroine who comes face to face with death, poverty, blood feuds, moonshiners, ignorance, cruelty and her own vanity in tomorrow night's two-hour pilot.

Watch Martin closely in the centerpiece scene -- her first day in the classroom. This is pretty good material, but she's almost too good for it.

After a co-worker walks out of the classroom and leaves Christy alone with the children for the first time, one little girl says to another, "Look at how nervous she is -- she's shaking."

In many TV series that kind of dialogue is necessary, because the actors are incapable of communicating insecurity or reigned-in fear through body language. But there is no need for it with Martin; you not only know she's afraid, you can almost feel the knot in her stomach. Nobody has to tell you her character's shaking.

And, as good as Martin is, she's only the third best actress in "Christy."

In addition to Daly as Miss Alice, Academy Award-winner Tess Harper has a supporting role as Fairlight Spencer, a most unusual mountain woman.

"Christy" probably won't be everyone's cup of tea.

Women will probably like it a lot more than men -- as is the case with "Dr. Quinn."

But I like it. And I think enough viewers will like it to win "Christy" a regular spot on next fall's schedule.

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