This 'Noah' pairs kids and animals TV preview: OK, so it has its gloppy moments, but sometimes you just want to have your heartstrings tugged.

February 05, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Second Noah" is the show for all those viewers who have been complaining about the lack of family drama on network television in recent years.

The ABC series, which premieres at 8 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2), has two parents, eight kids, a housekeeper and 3,330 animals. It's been called " 'The Waltons' with animals," but it's more like "Eight Is Enough" meets Joan Embry and the entire San Diego Zoo.

The premise -- which was created by Brandon Tartikoff, the former NBC programming whiz who gave us such hits as "Miami Vice" and "The Cosby Show" -- is founded on the rock of husband and wife, Noah (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and Jesse (Betsy Brantley) Beckett.

Noah is a former college basketball coach turned best-selling author. Jesse is a veterinarian -- chief veterinarian, actually, at a wild animal park in Tampa. (It's Busch Gardens, just in case anyone misses the not-so-subtle "promotional considerations" for the park during the opening and closing credits.)

The African plain theme park is where many -- but, by no means, all -- of the animals in "Second Noah" come from.

Noah and Jesse own a gorgeous, 15-room, Victorian house on a couple of acres adjacent to the park and have their own ever-expanding menagerie of abandoned animals to which Jesse just couldn't say no. There's a llama, alligators, sheep, goats, lizards, ferrets, a pig, a snake, a monkey or two. You get the picture: a regular little Noah's Ark.

As for the kids, most of them were abandoned in one way or another, too, by their birth parents before being adopted by Noah and Jesse. When tonight's pilot opens, there are six Beckett kids. By the final credits, there are eight. Next week, candidate No. 9 moves in.

The kids range in age from 17 to 2. The 17-year-old, Ricky (James Marsden), is the father of the 2-year-old Ben (Gemini). Ricky plays guitar, wants to drop out of high school and seems very, um, involved with his girlfriend. He also seems to have lots of emotional problems.

Two of the most interesting Beckett kids are a pair of 10-year-old girls -- Bethany (RuDee Lipscomb) and Hannah (Ashley Gorrell). The producers wisely use the engaging Bethany in voiceover to introduce us to what she calls "the unbelievable Beckett family from Tampa, Fla."

One of tonight's more effective storylines involves Bethany's not getting invited to a birthday party because she is black. What hurts Bethany most is that her white sister, Hannah, has decided to attend the party without her.

I like Bethany and the rest of the Becketts. I say that warily, because this is not the kind of series a critic is supposed to like.

Constantly pulling at those kids-and-animals heartstrings, it's sweet and sentimental enough in some ways to warrant the label "sugary" if not "saccharine." It's also kind of obvious in its attempt at political correctness with just about every minority represented in the Beckett clan. (The two newcomers tonight are Hispanic.)

It's also such a calculated fantasy -- the great house bought with the earnings of Jesse's book, the African plain right outside your door, the endless abundance of Noah, the provider, and Jesse, the earth mother.

But I don't care, I still kind of like it. I liked it from the opening of Stephen Stills' theme song to the goopy, hug-hug scene between Ricky and Ben at the end of tonight's episode. In fact, I liked all three of the episodes ABC sent for preview. The third, which features Jesse giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a chimp, is best of all.

Who could hate a show with a character who gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a chimp? Not me.

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