MANY a jaded television viewer has turned dejectedly from the networks, convinced that nothing but pap would ever flow again over their airwaves - especially in a series format. But as the 1991-92 season opened up, low and behold, NBC produced a riveting drama about the civil-rights movement, "I'll Fly Away." And CBS came up with the best, most complex dramatic comedy in years, "Northern Exposure."
Interestingly enough, both shows sprang from the mighty pens of Joshua Brand and John Falsey.
"Northern Exposure" will be back. But as the season draws to a close and a special two-hour season finale of "I'll Fly Away" tomorrow night leaves us dangling over the fate of the principle characters, the fate of the show itself remains in question.
Even "TV Guide" expressed concern over anything as good as "I'll Fly Away" surviving, eventually launching a Save Our Shows (S.O.S.) call-in campaign to save it and several others it found worthy.
"I'll Fly Away" ratings may not be sky-high, but it does have a growing audience. Those who watch it, love it. Word-of-mouth accounts for a number of recent converts to the show. Many people (including the stars of the show) believe that the program, like "Hill Street Blues," will eventually find a broad audience.
It should. The show revolves around a lawyer and his children living in the South during the 1950s with their black housekeeper Lily. Its long-term appeal lies in its broad-brush sweep of a lively historical period and its keenly developed characters.
But more than that, the show casts light upon our own troubled, morally ambivalent times. It puts our current moral dilemmas in perspective, reminds us where we have been in terms of race relations and how difficult our meager progress has been.
It also illustrates how complex and confusing is social change and evolving morality. Good people don't always make the right choices.
"One of the things I like about this character," says Sam Waterston, speaking of Forrest Bedford, the white district attorney he portrays, "concerns people who really aim to be good and do good and remain extraordinarily complex souls. Real people trying to act above themselves because the demands of a crisis require them to live up to their new circumstances to answer to the demands of the time.... And they somewhat succeed."
Both Mr. Waterston and Regina Taylor, who plays the other principal role, Lily, say that what attracted them to the script was the excellent writing, the relevance of the material to today's society, and the depth of characterization.
"I felt it could be very special - that there were a lot of possibilities about where the character of Lily Harper could go," says Ms. Taylor of the first time she read the script. "I've never seen this woman on TV before. She is a neighbor and a friend. In the black community, she is recognizable as a sister, as the church woman, as the daughter. It is a wonderful opportunity to give her a voice in the community....
"She has her own dreams, hopes, agenda. She is very strong, has her own mind. In fact, you get very much into Lily's mind because you have the journals she is writing that open and close the shows, so you see the woman in her complexity."
Television has offered plenty of black servants over the years, but Taylor describes how different Lily is from those maids.
"The role of the black maid has been an appendage to a white family. This character has been taken out of the shadows and given a mind and a voice. You do see her in context within her own family and community.... I think it's very close to me, its part of what makes me up, my background. The people who raised me, my mother, and grandmother, my community - this is where I come from....
"And it is set in a time that is very important to this country. You read about several people in the history books like Rosa Parks, for example. You may not read about [women like Lily] in the history books, but her life is just as meaningful."
The program's sense of "dailiness" appeals to Waterston and Taylor. People don't often think of the time they live in as having great repercussions for the future, Taylor points out, and neither do the characters in "I'll Fly Away." But what happened during the civil-rights movement continues to have impact.
"I see [the show as a] mirror to our society today," says Taylor. "The show is not just draped in nostalgia. There is something that goes deeper. A lot of times, history has been whitewashed. We forget what we had to go through in order to secure certain rights that our youth sometimes take for granted. I think it's important to see what we had to go through so that when those rights are challenged today, we know where we need to go - we can look back on the past and gauge where we are today and where w e will be in the future.
"The show does give you a black voice, a black perspective," she continues. "The laws on the books have changed, but minds are slow to change. The fabric of American culture is flawed. The strings of racism weaken the fabric so it can easily be torn."
For all the social revolution implied in the subject of the show, there is a spirit of love in it, too.
"Definitely," Taylor says. "The 1950s was a time of hope. You had all these problems, but for the first time a huge feeling of hope and optimism that we could open up this conversation and come up with solutions to the history of inequality. That was the spirit of the '50s - we were going into a new era, we were taking things head on."
"The brotherhood of man was not necessarily a wild dream," adds Waterston. "It was a time of enormous hopefulness, that things really could get better by people peacefully and insistently asking for the right thing to be done. And it worked." But to say all this might be to make "I'll Fly Away" sound preachy or somber. It is anything but that.
"The whole civil-rights movement is one of the most exciting stories in American history," says Waterston. "[The show] has the dynamic of a novel - its thrust, direction, and purpose. It is really going somewhere.... It is about the civil-rights movement, but also intensely about family and about relationship.
"There is a wonderful thing drama can do," he says. "It can say, because it's true, that extraordinary times and circumstances can make extraordinary people out of ordinary clay. That's great stuff."