Here's hoping for 'Hope Street' Preview: Fox's new drama, debuting tonight, has a lot of potential and a gene pool that includes Damon Wayans, 'Homicide' and 'St. Elsewhere.'

September 11, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Damon Wayans is the name Fox has been using to promote "413 Hope Street," a gritty new ensemble drama about life at a teen crisis center, and it's a good choice.

Wayans, the wildly talented comedian of "In Living Color" fame, is the creator of the series, and his writing and producing efforts here are impressive.

But let me submit three other names for your consideration that go a long way toward explaining how Fox came up with such a strong pilot: Richard Roundtree, Eric Laneuville and Henry Bromell.

You probably know the first one, maybe the second, and most likely not the third. But you put their talents together with Wayans, and you have a series that could turn out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Roundtree, best known for his work in the "Shaft" films, plays Phil Thomas, a wealthy businessman who founded and runs a teen crisis center at 413 Hope Street in Manhattan in memory of his slain teen-age son. Roundtree is terrific.

He plays Thomas on the surface as a tightly wrapped, no-nonsense boss with all the charisma of George Bush. But he layers the character with glimpses of a submerged passion that Thomas seems afraid to explore. It results in an internal tension that energizes the screen every time Thomas makes an entrance.

Part of this more complex characterization is surely the script by Wayans. In terms of the show itself, Thomas serves the same dramatic purpose and plays the same role as Lt. Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel) on "NYPD Blue" or Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) on "Homicide: Life on the Street." He's the father figure, the representative of the forces of authority who reins in the emotional excess -- good and bad -- around him.

But notice, after just an hour, how much more you know about Thomas, the man, than you do about Giardello and Fancy after several seasons. After just an hour, we have a sense of the private man, his conservative politics and some key parts of his inner life.

Thomas makes the case for the difference African-American writers and producers can make in giving viewers more rounded, richer African-American characters.

Another aspect of "Hope" that says "quality" is its look, and that is mainly the work of Laneuville, the director. Laneuville was an actor for six seasons on "St. Elsewhere," but he also learned to direct while working on that series and, before he left, directed 20 episodes.

He won an Emmy for his directing on "I'll Fly Away." His work on "L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue," "Dream On," "ER" and "Equal Justice" has earned him a reputation as one of television's top directors of drama.

He stamps the pilot with his style from the very first shot. Instead of opening inside the crisis center, the camera shoots down toward the front of it from a rooftop across the street. And, then, the camera swings herky-jerky up the street, quick-cutting first to focus here on someone walking with attitude, there to a car stopped in traffic. Finally, it settles in on a young woman with a baby in her arms walking down the street toward the center. It follows her in the door.

The look and feel is that of an "NYPD Blue" opening, but there's more going on here than visuals and point of view.

Laneuville, without a word of dialogue, gives viewers a real sense of the center as being part of a neighborhood.

The girl walking down the street is a 16-year-old crack addict, we find out once inside the center. She's come to get food for her baby. She, the baby and her addict boyfriend, who pimps for her, are at the sad center of tonight's drama. The other strong story line involves an AIDS therapy group at the center and the work of a counselor (Michael Easton) who tries to save a teen patient from despair.

The hour is not nearly as grim as the simple description of story lines might suggest, and that is where Bromell, the series' third executive producer, comes in. Bromell produced "Homicide" for two seasons. Before that, he was the story editor for "St. Elsewhere."

He knows about ensembles. He also knows how important it is to have supporting players with edges and for the show to have a sense of the absurd. Shari Headley plays a counselor with lots of edges and secrets. Kelly Coffield plays a lawyer who provides the comic relief.

"413 Hope Street" is not a finished product. It this is as good as it gets, it won't last the season. For one thing, it needs more compelling and believable performances from its guest stars than the ones you'll see tonight.

But it has promise, and it has Thomas. Phil Thomas is a character I want to know more about. Here's hoping Thomas and "413 Hope Street" grow in the right direction.

'413 Hope Street'

What: Series premiere

When: Tonight at 9

Where: Fox (WBFF, Channel 45)

Starring: Richard Roundtree

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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