Although it’s billed as ”all new,” this summer installment of the retro-soap Homefront is really a long-withheld old episode that was intended to follow the show’s premiere last fall. Instead, ABC skipped directly to episode three. The network’s apparent skittishness is understandable — this exceptionally downbeat installment is built around the funeral of young soldier Mike Sloan and the unapologetic bigotry of his mother, Ruth, the town’s money-encrusted shrew (played with superbly genteel condescension by Mimi Kennedy).

But ABC should have bitten the bullet and aired the show, which demonstrates just how effectively Homefront manages to work contemporary issues of race, class, and sex into its small-town, post-World War II setting. As she plans her son’s funeral, Ruth spends most of her time spitting venom at her bereaved daughter-in-law, Gina (Giuliana Santini), an Italian immigrant, and trying to prevent her black housekeeper, Gloria (Hattie Winston), from fulfilling Mike’s wish that she sing at his memorial service. This is fine with Gloria’s embittered son, Robert (Sterling Macer Jr.), who doesn’t understand why his mother would want to be a “colored mammy singing at the rich white boy’s funeral” anyway, but is not so fine with Mike’s old buddy Hank Metcalf, who instead should be worried about the doe-eyed glances passing between his wife and his brother, and whose sister, incidentally, was in love with Mike, and…well, it gets complicated. Homefront is, after all, a soap opera. It also happens to be one of TV’s smartest and most elegantly crafted dramas. B+

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