`Providence' alights from TV heavens

Review: NBC brings us a new family drama that's both sweet and smart, with uplifting stories and quirky plot twists.

January 08, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Dr. Sydney Hansen has it all at age 30: a successful Beverly Hills practice in plastic surgery, a breathtaking Malibu beach house and a great-looking guy with whom to share it.

And then one day, she realizes how much she absolutely hates her life.

Welcome to "Providence," as in Rhode Island, the hometown to which Sydney returns on the day when her life in L.A. suddenly feels like it's turning to dust.

Welcome, indeed. This new family drama from NBC is one of the most pleasant surprises of television's midseason.

NBC is calling the drama "quirky yet affecting," and, for once, the network hype isn't that far off the mark. The creative force behind the series is John Masius, who created "Touched By An Angel" and was a key writer/producer on the "St. Elsewhere" team.

Masius has managed -- at least in the first three episodes made available for screening -- to create both the optimism of "Touched" and the dark-night-of-the-soul melancholy of "St. Elsewhere." The result is a show that's both sweet and smart. It lifts your spirits and touches your heart without making you feel like a sap.

The pilot is so well-written, with so many surprising twists, that it is difficult to preview without giving away details that will detract from viewer pleasure.

It goes down as smooth and fast as a prime-time soap opera, but its best moments rattle around in your head for days.

One of those moments comes when Sydney (Melina Kanakaredes of "NYPD Blue") first arrives back in Providence for the wedding of her very pregnant younger sister, Joanie (Paula Cale of "Local Heroes").

Sydney's overbearing mother (Concetta Tomei of "Murphy Brown") marshals the Hansen clan out on the front lawn of its two-story colonial with a white picket fence for a family portrait just before the group departs for the church.

With the arrival of Sydney's younger brother, Robbie (Seth Peterson of "Profiler"), and father, (Mike Farrell of "M*A*S*H"), what you have as the shutter clicks is a perfect Kodak moment of the all-American, middle-class family about to celebrate a special occasion.

In fact, with the three women and two men, it could be "Father Knows Best" 40 years later, in a time when the oldest daughter, instead of being called "Princess," is addressed as "Doctor."

But, again, in the hands of Masius, the sentiment that television ads have taught us to connect with such a moment is only the setup to make the events that follow all the more surprising and deeply felt. The tableau of the perfect family starts to unravel in a hurry.

The pilot is bursting with fine performances. A final scene between feuding daughter and father will delight you with the recognition of what a wonderful new addition to prime time Kanakaredes looks to be, while reminding us of all the fine work Farrell did in "M*A*S*H." Cale, meanwhile, is a scene-stealer of a comedic, supporting actress. And stealing scenes from Tomei is no easy matter.

Finding an audience for a quality drama that is "quirky but affecting" is also no easy matter. But "Providence" has so much talent and so many avenues of potential appeal that it is hard to believe that it won't succeed.

Sydney's dad is a veterinarian, with his practice in the basement of the family home, so there are cute, lovable and needy pets galore.

And did I mention the chain-smoking angel who visits Sydney, usually when Sydney is thinking about s-e-x? Or maybe the angel is only in Sydney's dreams -- and maybe she's not really an angel, at least not the kind in the paintings from the Vatican.

See what I mean about quirky? And, no, I can't be more specific about the angel without giving too much away.

At one point tonight, Joanie asks Sydney, "Do you believe in the afterlife?"

"I barely believe in this life," a world-weary Sydney says.

I believe in "Providence."

New series

What: "Providence"

When 8 to 9 tonight

Where: NBC (Wbal, CHANNEL 11)

Pub Date: 1/08/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.