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Ratings descend for ''I'll Fly Away''

Ratings descend for ”I’ll Fly Away” — The NBC drama may be TV’s best show, but can it find the audience it deserves?

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Her eyes seem to say that she has worked too hard, walked too far, been called a nigger too many times. But what Lilly Harper says, as she watches her father tune his guitar with long fingers, is how sorry she feels for the white family in whose home she is a housekeeper. Today the family saw tragedy. As Lilly stands on the back porch of the Harpers’ little Southern shanty, her father looks up at her and tells her not to take it to heart. It’s only work.

Lilly’s reply is taut with conviction: ”It’s more than work.”

That scripted line seems to contain the watchword for everyone involved in making NBC’s I’ll Fly Away, a series that has just begun its second daring — but tenuous — season of dramatizing the Civil Rights era, circa 1961, somewhere in the South. As Lilly Harper, actress Regina Taylor has a conviction that runs deeper than the script — and hers is a sentiment shared by everyone from the president of NBC Entertainment to the series’ littlest actor: This is something more than simple television. ”The show has a special resonance now,” says Sam Waterston, who stars as Lilly’s employer. ”Even though the ’60s were a desperately difficult time, there was a sense that there was a way forward, that it was going to come out all right. We could use some of that hope again.”

Hope is the motivating spirit — in more than one sense. The series’ ratings would have doomed a lesser show. Despite phenomenal critical praise, I’ll Fly Away has consistently ranked in the bottom third of the Nielsens. But for the love of NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, I’ll Fly Away wouldn’t have seen this second season. ”It was a given we would keep it,” he says. Littlefield granted the show 13 more episodes (instead of the full season of 22), praying that a big Emmy win would come to the rescue. But though the show picked up 15 nominations, it won only two. It still needs an almighty boost — from its audience. ”It would be nice if we could just break even,” Littlefield says. ”If it’s a big loss, those are hard to carry.” Last season I’ll Fly Away gained ground when it moved from Tuesday to Friday following Matlock. But with this year’s premiere on Sept. 25, it moved opposite ABC’s 20/20 at 10 p.m. Friday, a time slot Waterston calls ”the table next to the kitchen.”

”This kind of show has never been instantaneously popular,” Waterston says. ”People think there’s a conflict between good medicine and entertainment.” Good medicine or no, the series is a creation of the duo most celebrated for injecting spice into TV’s traditional fare: executive producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey of Northern Exposure fame. In I’ll Fly Away, they have fashioned a sepia-washed window on a time 30 years gone, yet still strangely immediate. The series follows the slow-as-Sunday life of small-town district attorney Forrest Bedford (Waterston) as he struggles with ambivalence in a world being changed by blacks carrying candles and voter registration cards, by sheriffs wielding fire hoses, by businessmen bearing hatred under white hoods. That change comes home to Forrest through his housekeeper, Lilly, who watches over his three children while their mother is away, recovering from a nervous breakdown. Lilly speaks softly but, nevertheless, she speaks.

In looking back through time, the series achieves the welcome-home coziness of The Waltons, but it is deepened by the barbed poignance of Driving Miss Daisy: Racial slurs are hurled; crosses are burned. For that, in addition to the critical plaudits and Emmy nominations for Waterston, Taylor, and the writing, Viewers for Quality Television this year rated I’ll Fly Away as the No. 1 drama on television.

Quality is not synonymous with snooze, at least when Brand and Falsey are involved. ”You try to sugarcoat the pill,” Brand says. Anyone who has watched knows this is more than a prescription for social change. The first season was, in part, such stuff as soap operas are made of: With his wife in a mental institution, Forrest embarked on a treasured affair with a woman of rare independence, lawyer Christina LeKatzis (Kathryn Harrold) — only to get caught by his son Nathan (Jeremy London), a teenager who recently lost his virginity. Forrest’s adolescent daughter, Francie (Ashlee Levitch), started having her period, and his younger son, John Morgan (John Aaron Bennett), tried to run electric current through a dead mouse for a Frankensteinian second life. And Lilly had a romance with a sexy horn player (Dorian Harewood).

Now, with so much depending on 13 episodes, shooting is under way in steamy, green Atlanta. If there are qualms about the future, no one shows it as the production ranges from a cavernous warehouse in the city to shanties, big-porched houses, columned mansions, and marble courthouses in outlying Georgia towns. Executive producer Ian Sander is directing what will be the third episode of the new season, airing Oct. 9. ”Directing Sam Waterston is like driving a Rolls-Royce,” he says. ”The whole cast is just unbelievable.” And then, a grin spreading across his face as he sets up the final scene, a heart-wrenching encounter in which Forrest discusses terrible news with his children, Sander says: ”Watch this.”

Sander is gleefully confident of his actors’ power to deliver the scene, but first he has to get them settled in. ”Okay. Where’s John Morgan?” Sander calls. High and low, the search begins for Bennett, the 8-year-old with the face of a Hummel figurine and an energy level that costar London says could qualify him as a poster child for candy. Bennett is contentedly monkeying around on a bannister in the Bedford home, only to be pried loose by 19-year-old London, who looks strikingly like Kyle MacLachlan in his Blue Velvet days.

Meanwhile, Waterston, 51, a man with the carriage and gravity to have successfully played Lincoln in the Gore Vidal miniseries, is off in another room, warming up alone by swinging his arms and burbling in a minor key. Forrest Bedford is Waterston’s kind of character — as were his roles in everything from The Killing Fields to Hamlet — ”an imperfect hero whose own impulses are sometimes in conflict with his better nature.” So when the camera rolls, he brings solemnity and great broken-down pain into the den where the Bedford children sit stunned, barefoot in their pajamas. The kids cry on cue — until Sander cries, ”Cut!” Then Bennett squirms, poking his make-believe sister, played by Levitch, a winsome 15-year-old who started her career as a toy expert in Wal-Mart commercials. Levitch retaliates, tickling Bennett until his mischief melts away in a bout of giggles.

The camera rolls again, and again, capturing the scene from one angle after another as Waterston repeats, ”This family will survive. Because we love each other.” On the final take, everyone notices that little Bennett has tears trickling in earnest down his stricken face. This time when the ”cut” comes, he doesn’t tickle or wriggle; he solemnly embraces Levitch, then London. ”It just hit me,” he tells Waterston. ”I thought about if it really happened.”

Such is that inevitable moment in I’ll Fly Away, that moment when the show evokes tears or shudders or laughter, simply because it is played so naturally: John Morgan plans a birthday party for Lilly, not thinking that she would prefer to celebrate with her own family. White authorities turn punishing torrents of water on little children. ”There is no preacher in the writing,” Waterston says. ”It’s very connected to real things, very honest, and it has a real instinct for tender places.”

And for ticklish places, as Bennett points out: ”In the next episode — it’s pretty gross, but it’ll probably be fun — I get to chase my cousin around with a booger on my hand. And I say, ‘It’s big and green and gross, gross, gross!”’

So much for good medicine.

Harrold says that reading each new script has always been like delving into a novel. And now that the series airs at 10 p.m., things are getting sexier. ”Before this season, I called it my haiku relationship,” Harrold says of her on-screen romance with Waterston. ”I asked if he wanted to come in. He said, ‘Very much.’ That was (the only clue they were having) sex.” Also, the producers will attempt to woo a younger audience, as commercials during the Olympics foreshadowed, by featuring Nathan rebelliously astride his new motorcycle. Rock & roll music will play. ”We’re trying to infuse a little bit more lightness into the show this year with some of the stories we’re telling,” Falsey says. ”It wasn’t all sad and depressing back then. There was life that went on, happy life and enjoyment.”

Which doesn’t mean that I’ll Fly Away will forsake its unique power. The producers will continue weaving in plot lines that resound with stories from today’s headlines: Forrest will undergo an FBI investigation to determine his suitability for a presidential appointment. He will worry about whether his affair with Christina will surface and how it will affect his career and his family. And, mirroring the Rodney King case, he will consider invoking the Civil Rights Act after a jury makes an egregious decision.

In an age when L.A. can burn with urban rage, I’ll Fly Away echoes with an eerie — if foregone — prescience. Much care goes into making that happen — there are no license plates to pinpoint a place, no calendars to set the date. ”We don’t want to let anyone off the hook by having them say, ‘Oh, that was then,”’ Sander says.

And that is why the show has become more than work to its cast and crew. ”We thought (the country) had this conversation before,” Taylor says, citing last spring’s unrest. ”But in light of today’s situation, we should definitely reopen the conversation, look back to those seeds of hope, before optimism became pessimism. There are generations who didn’t live it. And they don’t know where they’re going, if they don’t know where they’ve been.”

Taylor, 30ish, saw the role of Lilly as a chance to give new dimension to a black woman in the South. ”I think of Rosa Parks, of the people in my family, the strong lineage of women who would dare to test the boundaries that confined them,” she says. Raised by a single mother, Taylor learned early the cost of testing boundaries: At age 12, on the day she helped pioneer integration in an Oklahoma school, another child looked at her and said, ”I don’t want to sit next to this nigger.”

Since then Taylor has overcome — sleeping on milk cartons and foam in a crowded New York City apartment during her early days as an actress; plastering promotional posters on construction sites to sustain herself; and, at long last, landing a role in the 1989 film Lean on Me. ”I knew the greatness of what had preceded to open so many doors,” she says. ”For my grandmother, it wasn’t possible to apply for certain jobs, to go to certain bathrooms.”

For Taylor, the satisfactions of playing Lilly have been myriad because people are connecting: ”For me, it’s the young black teen who wants to know, was it really like that? It’s the Wall Street woman who wants to know if Lilly is going to marry that musician. It’s the Puerto Rican woman who came up to me when I was taking mambo lessons at S.O.B.’s (in New York City’s West Village) and said, ‘I love you.’ And it’s the Indian man where I was buying a carpet who asked me out for a date. It’s a diverse group who identify with this woman, because she’s Everywoman, struggling in a human way.”

The human struggle in Atlanta just now is making television with a soul. Whether or not it succeeds beyond these 13 episodes no one can predict. But it has already succeeded in some ways. ”You won’t find many places as truly integrated as this set,” Waterston says, nodding toward the cast and crew milling around.

On this set, there are signs that, maybe, some of those ’60s seeds of hope are bearing fruit. Seven-year-old Raé-Ven Kelly, who plays Lilly’s moon-eyed daughter, Adlaine, learned about the Ku Klux Klan only by working on I’ll Fly Away. When she’s not in front of the camera playing a chastened black child in an older South, she is arm-in-arm with her best friend, John Aaron Bennett. The two children build blanket camps and play with trolls. And they hold hands and sing a sweet little ditty (to the tune of ”This Old Man”), a ditty that sounds as hopeful as ”We Shall Overcome”: ”I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family. With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too?