When slaveowner and slave become allies

A Special Friendship CBS, tonight, 9-11 p.m. Starring Tracy Pollan, Akosua Busia. The story of a friendship - an inspiring friendship that leaps across the vast gulf of slavery and wartime animosities - is the heart of this largely rewarding special that plunges readers into the antebellum and Civil War South.

Elizabeth Van Lew (Tracy Pollan), daughter of a wealthy plantation-owning family, begins befriending Mary Bowser (Akosua Busia) - bought as a slave by the Van Lews - while they were both children in the 1840s. By the time they are young adults, their alliance has survived the prevailing racial attitudes, linking the two in a campaign of pro-Union intrigue and spying whose brazenness would strain the viewer's imagination if the story didn't happen to be true.

Just how true in its detail is hard to say, but ``A Special Friendship'' clearly purports to be authentic. Although more a period piece than a docudrama in feel, the show goes to colorful lengths to establish a convincing framework for its ideological currents, drawing constantly on regional sights and sounds and people. Figures like Jefferson Davis appear importantly in the story. Authentic architectural exteriors and interiors are used. Feelings and social atmosphere are established with convincing, if occasionally flat-footed, care.

Elizabeth likes Mary from the first moment, when she asks Mary - who has just been bought by the Van Lews - to ride inside the carriage. Eight years later, we see Mary's mother fiercely telling her not to be familiar with ``Miss Elizabeth'' - a familar, tragic duty for slave mothers whose kids na"ively think their childhood attachments with white friends will continue as adults.

What makes Elizabeth and Mary's friendship ``special,'' of course, is that it does continue. Elizabeth bootlegs French lessons to Mary - against the rule that slaves aren't supposed to be educated - and as she later packs to leave for college in Philadelphia, tells Mary, who is sadly hanging around, ``Mary, you are my very best friend. We have a bargain, right? No matter where we are or what we're doing, if one of us needs the other, all we have to do is give a sign. Now I mean that.''

It may sound like a pledge of the moment, but it proves literally true and sets the all-important tone through their respective marriages, through social pressures and their espionage work. Elizabeth's ideological credentials as a future spy are noted throughout the drama. With surprising audacity, she airs sentiments that go against the grain of Southern culture. Meeting Jefferson Davis himself and his wife at a dinner party, Elizabeth says, ``I am against secession'' - this in a society where merely freeing their slaves has won the Van Lew's the outspoken hatred of Southerners (``Nobody's that rich,'' says one older Southern society lady).

Mary's reasons for being bitterly anti-Southern are obvious, of course. Even after she is freed, she goes north and returns. Yet the roots of Elizabeth's bitter rejection of her Southern heritage are not deeply explored. There is some ambivalence on her part, as when a man first approaches her to spy for the Yankees and she shows him the door, saying, ``I love the South ... I love the people ... I'll find some other way to do my duty.'' That's as close to moral soul-searching as we come.

And it's as close as we have to, in a drama whose often suspenseful action leans on a dashing image of history and sharp human crises. Elizabeth's spying involves a fateful clash with her fianc'e, a Union officer who ends up being ordered to investigate her for treason.

No military operations are depicted, but the enormity of the odds involved in Mary and Elizabeth's spying - army units endangered, friends at risk of being hanged - are made ringingly clear in a tale whose broad strokes are quite effectively made.

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