It may be that it’s no longer possible for a large number of TV viewers to grasp what the makers of I’ll Fly Away are trying to do. This beautifully crafted, tough-minded hour, about a small-town Southern lawyer (Sam Waterston) in the late 1950s, is an anomaly on the current TV landscape. The networks have pretty much given up on programming that has any sense of narrative or emotional complexity, with any sense of history. In recent years, when television has offered us a long, leisurely story, it’s almost invariably been a trashed-up version of a real-life crime, or a bloated, incoherent monstrosity like War and Remembrance.

In their quest for instant ratings and immediate audience loyalty, the networks routinely yank shows off or all around their prime-time schedules and cancel series that need time for their ideal audience to find them. A good, knotty drama will always have the hardest time establishing itself in viewers’ minds, and so they’ve always been the most obvious victims of the networks’ fidgety, fast-buck moves.

And good ‘n’ knotty is what I’ll Fly Away is. Waterston is Forrest Bedford, a prosecuting attorney in the fictional town of Bryland. Forrest’s wife (Deborah Hedwall) had a nervous breakdown not long ago and is recovering in a sanatorium. This leaves Forrest to care for his three children (Jeremy London, Ashlee Levitch, and the grave, sweet, 7-year-old John Aaron Bennett), helped only by a housekeeper he has recently hired, Lilly Harper (Lean on Me‘s Regina Taylor). Also, Forrest finds himself increasingly attracted to a local defense lawyer, played by Kathryn Harrold.

These elements are presented against the backdrop of something much bigger: a South that’s being permanently altered by a growing civil rights movement. Taylor’s Lilly is the single mother of a 6-year-old girl (Raeven Kelly), but she’s young enough to feel a part of a new generation of blacks who will demand equality. It is Lilly’s dilemma as a progressive-thinking woman employed by a liberal-but-tradition-bound family that gives I’ll Fly Away a tense undercurrent, no matter what charming family scene may be on the screen at any moment. ”I want things to change, and I want things to stay the same,” Forrest says at one point. This series suggests that the ’60s feminist slogan ”The personal is political” had its real origin in the ’50s.

But this is also very much a show for the ’90s. Looking at the clear-eyed, intelligent, yet purposefully blank expression that Lilly Harper always maintains as a housekeeper, I realized that this was the same sort of gaze that both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill used at the recent Senate hearings: It is the face that African-Americans have always had to present to whites they cannot be sure they can trust.

Still, even critics don’t seem to have the patience for any show that doesn’t make its motives clear at the outset. I’ll Fly Away is probably the most highly praised new series of the fall, yet many of its most glowing reviews said that the show is too slowly paced, that it isn’t going to grab viewers in its crucial opening weeks with such pokiness.

But I think when reviewers say I’ll Fly Away is slow, they mean something else, something far more unusual in prime time: It’s quiet. One of the merciful blessings of I’ll Fly Away is that producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey (Northern Exposure) allow their characters to express more than TV’s usual narrow range of hyped-up emotions. People hesitate and consider things in I’ll Fly Away — they acknowledge ambivalence and doubt. They — and when was the last time you saw this on TV? — think.

In this, it helps to have two actors as subtle as Taylor and Waterston in the lead roles. When she’s working in the Bedford home, Taylor manages to convey both amusement and frustration through her masked expression. When she goes back home at night, her face lights up, and the scenes with her daughter are often tenderly happy. As for Waterston, this is the best work he’s done, in movies or TV, since his magnificent job in the title role of PBS’ 1982 Oppenheimer; he’s especially good at making tentativeness seem like the virtue of a strong man, not the flaw of a wimp.

I’ll Fly Away has done reasonably well in the ratings, placing among the top 40 shows in its first two weeks (it dropped to 55th place in its third broadcast). Some have criticized NBC for scheduling the show at 8 p.m. — common wisdom holds that a thoughtful drama like this should air later at night. But if a majority of viewers didn’t watch serious shows like thirtysomething and China Beach, maybe it’s time to scrap that common wisdom anyway.

If I’ll Fly Away has a major weakness, it’s not in Kathryn Harrold’s performance but in the conception of her role, a stumper on a couple of levels. For one thing, her character seems far too much of a modern feminist to have ingratiated herself with this deeply conservative town. Then too, her receptiveness to Forrest’s advances renders both of these people more than a bit weaselly: Forrest isn’t just a married man — he’s a married man whose wife has recently been institutionalized. Don’t the producers think we’re going to find a dalliance between Forrest and Harrold’s Christina LeKatzis a cruel betrayal? This is a very odd way to establish these two characters as heroes to root for every week.

I’ll Fly Away has already lived up to its hype as the season’s strongest new drama; the question remaining is whether NBC is going to evince its own strength and stand by an unusual show that seems likely to get even better — more complicated and more interesting — with each passing week. A

I'll Fly Away
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