DENVER — TWO years ago, NBC ventured into the arena of art with a unique serial drama, the critically acclaimed ``I'll Fly Away,'' starring Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor. It was great, but NBC canceled it after two seasons, leaving fans hanging over the fate of the characters. Then the unexpected happened - PBS stepped in and commissioned a brand-new two-hour film of ``I'll Fly Away'' (Oct. 11, 8-10 p.m. - check local listings), tying up all the loose ends and telling a loyal audience what becomes of Forrest, Lilly, and the others. PBS will then rerun the entire series.
Beautifully written, complex, and deeply involving, the ``I'll Fly Away'' series boasted terrific acting, strong production values, and a remarkable concept. It told the story of two Southern families, one black and one white, whose lives intertwine during the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Without degenerating into political correctness, it recreated that era, revealing the cruelty and the humanity of one of the most important periods in recent United States history. But though it acquired a loyal following, awards, and critical praise, it did not gather a large audience. It was in danger of cancellation after its first season. Television critics and fans leaped to its defense, securing at least one more season.
``When we read the trade press rumors about `I'll Fly Away' not being renewed after its second season ... we were struck with the possibility of bringing it to PBS,'' John Grant, vice president of national programming for PBS, told the Monitor. ``Our initial thought was maybe we could keep it going.... Even in the genre of quality drama, this one stood head-and-shoulders above most because it is so well written ad produced.''
But PBS executives soon discovered that individual episodes of the show were beyond their means - no way could they produce 10 or 12 new episodes a year. So they approached NBC with the proposal to rerun the series, asking Joshua Brand and John Falsey to make the completion film.
Commissioning the film was a first, says Grant, and saving even a great network dramatic series from oblivion will not become a regular event on PBS.
``What we want is to have our own serial drama with continuing characters,'' Grant says. ``If you look at most other public broadcasting around the world, they are known for their fine dramas.'' PBS is interested in developing BBC-quality dramas. ``I'll Fly Away,'' he says, may be a transition for them to producing their own serial dramas.
And what a transition! The final episode finds Lilly 30 years later, telling her grandson about the struggles of his family. The whole film, the entire series, in fact, is really about the heroism of thousands like Lilly who resisted oppression.
The final episode explains the odd title of the series, the events that led to Lilly's family leaving their home town, and the part her white employer, Forrest Bedford, played in aiding Lilly and the black community.
What is most heartening is the affection expressed between black and white in this final episode, the hope of reconciliation between races. Forrest's gratitude for all the care Lilly had given his children, his little son John Morgan's love for Lilly and hers for him, and Lilly's own appreciation for Forrest's heroism (however reluctant at the time) balance the grim terrors of the story.
The film was shot quickly and frugally, Grant points out, so a lot of exposition had to fit into a relatively short time frame. The result is occasionally a tad preachy, but it doesn't matter. It is sublimely moving and true to the best interest of mankind. Take note: Very violent things occur, but we never see them. Hearing about them is enough. The viewer is not desensitized by the necessary horror of the narrative. On the contrary, we are moved to empathy, compassion, contrition, and finally the yearning for reconciliation. Not bad, for TV.