One of the most consistently absorbing dramas on network TV has had to go to public television for its finale: I’ll Fly Away concludes Oct. 11 (PBS, 8-10 p.m.) with a stirring but curious two-hour episode. NBC, the shortsighted network that sent David Letterman fleeing to CBS, canceled this low-rated 1991-93 series, which is set in the South during the early years of the civil rights movement, rather than try to nurture an audience for its difficult, downbeat material.
To their credit, creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey remain just as uncompromising as ever in the farewell show they’ve written, entitled ”Then and Now.” The episode begins in present-day Atlanta, where an elderly Lilly (Regina Taylor) is taking care of her grandson (Amir Jamal Williams) for the weekend. She begins reminiscing about her younger years, and that flashback returns us to the I’ll Fly Away we know, when Lilly spent the early ’60s working as the housekeeper for lawyer Forrest Bedford (Sam Waterston) and his family.
As always, the show deals with American racism with an unflinching directness and uncommon complexity; the central plot here involves the way Lilly and her family became tragically involved in the grim fate of a black teenager (Brent Lowe) who made a single smart-aleck remark to a white woman. At the end of the show, fans of the series will be fascinated as a white- haired Forrest tells Lilly what happened to the three Bedford children when they grew up: Surprises big and small abound.
A few things mar this episode. Lilly’s lengthy lectures to her grandson about the importance of the civil rights movement are rote, dry, and obvious—all too typical of PBS fare, I’m afraid, and unlike the vivid storytelling of I’ll Fly Away‘s past. Then, too, there’s a clever bit of casting that’s surprisingly annoying. When this show was being filmed, Jeremy London, who so ably played the oldest Bedford son, Nathan, was too busy working on CBS’ Angel Falls to reclaim his role. The producers called in Jeremy’s twin brother, Jason, to play Nathan; Jason is a visual ringer, but he just can’t bring the same combination of adolescent awkwardness and sullen rebelliousness that Jeremy’s Nathan had.
PBS will begin rebroadcasting all 38 episodes of I’ll Fly Away on Mondays at 8 p.m. starting Oct. 18. The series still deserves an A; the final episode, a B.