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TV Preview: Showtime series about families show more or less promise

Monday, June 26, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

A new schedule debuting this week finally puts the "show" in Showtime.

Beginning tonight and every weeknight at 10, the premium cable network will air original series programming, mounting the first serious competition to market leader HBO.

The new drama "Soul Food" is sumptuous. And despite some reservations, "Resurrection Blvd." is OK.

    "Resurrection Blvd."

When: Tonight at 10 on Showtime.

Starring: Michael DeLorenzo, Tony Plana, Elizabeth Pena

After sporadic programming of original series in recent years, Showtime finally locked in a logical schedule: "Resurrection" on Monday, the TV-biz comedy-drama "Beggars and Choosers" returns on Tuesday, "Soul Food" on Wednesday, the comedy "Rude Awakening" begins its third season on Thursday, and sci-fi drama "Stargate SG-1" jumps into its fourth season on Friday.

Neither "Resurrection Blvd." nor "Soul Food" would make it onto a broadcast network schedule. That's partly because of revved up sexual content and profanity (on both shows it's realistically done and not gratuitous), but mostly because both series feature predominantly ethnic casts. And that's something most networks just don't get.

CBS made a valiant effort with the weak medical drama "City of Angels," featuring an African-American cast. "City of Angels" might improve after a retooling this fall, but both Showtime series are getting off to a better start.

Tonight at 10, the 95-minute "Resurrection Blvd." pilot airs. It's an Hispanic "Dynasty," about a family of boxers living in East Los Angeles. And by "Dynasty" I do mean the soap. The premiere takes several unexpected melodramatic turns, although one is for the best.

Patriarch Roberto Santiago (Tony Plana) trains his middle son, Carlos (Michael DeLorenzo), in boxing, hoping he'll succeed where past Santiagos have failed.

    "Soul Food"

When: Wednesday night at 10 on Showtime.

Starring: Vanessa Williams, Nicole Ari Parker, Malinda Williams

"Every man in this family since your great-grandfather has taken his turn at boxing," Roberto says to Carlos. "We have worked and prayed for a champion and finally it is going to happen."

There's a living reminder of past defeats in Roberto's brain-damaged brother, Reuben (Daniel Zacapa), who lives with the family.

While Roberto concentrates on training Carlos, youngest son Alex (Nicholas Gonzalez) studies pre-med at UCLA; daughter Yolanda (Ruth Livier) works in a Beverly Hills law firm and youngest sibling Victoria (Marisol Nichols) attends high school, but runs with a bad crowd.

Roberto's wife died recently and her sister, Bibi (Elizabeth Pena), moved in across the street to help take care of the Santiago children.

Although Carlos appears to be the central character of "Resurrection Blvd." in the early going, it's younger brother Alex who makes a bigger impression. He's an easier-to-like character, untainted by the over-the-top machismo that characterizes others in the family. Ultimately, Alex rises from the background to take a more commanding role in the series.

There are two twists in tonight's pilot reminiscent of "Dynasty" or "Dallas." The first comes as a complete shock in a good way. It changes the show's momentum and sends "Resurrection Blvd." in a different and more gratifying direction. The latter is a plot contrivance that brings to mind bad soap opera story-telling.

Some will no doubt attack "Resurrection Blvd." for trafficking in Latino stereotypes -- macho men, gang bangers, etc. -- which is the onus of any show that attempts to be first in a genre. That bothered me only a little. I'm more concerned that the show needs to become more engrossing. The pilot is fine, but it didn't leave me with a strong desire to tune in again next week.

"Resurrection Blvd." has untapped potential, particularly when it comes to exploring the characters in this extended family. What happened to oldest son Miguel (Mauricio Mendoza) that he's not a boxer in the family tradition? Will Alex, a gifted student, forsake his studies forever for a turn in the ring? Now that the characters have been introduced, "Resurrection" needs to concentrate on character and plot development.

"Resurrection Blvd." benefits from a strong cast, particularly Plana as the no-nonsense, all-business Roberto. It's also nice to see Nestor Carbonell drop the ridiculously thick accent he employed as Luis on the sitcom "Suddenly Susan." Here he plays a lawyer of Hispanic heritage who works with Yolanda and doesn't speak Spanish.

There's a lot of story bubbling just under the surface of the "Resurrection Blvd." pilot, but "Soul Food" arrives at full boil. It's a cross between "Sisters" and "Providence" and better written than both.

Based on the 1997 film of the same name, "Soul Food" the series picks up where the movie ended, continuing the stories of the Joseph sisters, a middle-class African-American clan living in Chicago.

There's cool-as--ice attorney Teri (Nicole Ari Parker), happily married Maxine (Vanessa Williams) and new mom Bird (Malinda Williams). All three continue to mourn the death of Mama Joe (Irma P. Hall, reprising her role from the film), who makes an occasional appearance in dream sequences. Maxine's son Ahmad (Aaron Meeks) narrates the family's stories.

"ER" star Eriq La Salle directs Wednesday's premiere and brings some of the fluid movement of the "ER" cameras with him, panning through the family home and catching a glimpse of the empty rocking chair that comes to symbolize the late Mama Joe. From there it's onto a bathroom sex scene (alternately crude and funny) that comes to screeching halt when Bird goes into labor.

This scene really sets the tone of the series: Serious when it comes to the turmoil of families, but at the same time acknowledging the humor inherent in every situation.

"Soul Food" contains a fair amount of dialogue about "booty calls," but such slang isn't taken seriously. In the second episode Maxine's husband, Kenny (Rockmond Dunbar), talks to Bird's hip hubby, Lem (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Kenny responds to something Lem says with, "I can dig it."

"What kind of 'Mod Squad' [expletive] is that?" Lem replies.

That willingness to take a light touch makes "Soul Food" easier to swallow than the comparatively scowling "Resurrection Blvd." Although each episode of "Soul Food" ends with a mini-cliffhanger, it's also less soapy and melodramatic than "Resurrection."

Although mostly unknowns, the cast is uniformly good. It's especially pleasing to see Vanessa Williams back in a series. This is "Melrose Place" Vanessa Williams, not former Miss America Vanessa L. Williams, who, to make matters more confusing, starred in the "Soul Food" movie as Teri.

"Soul Food" is by no means a "black show." That's a label we've taken to applying to TV programs based on the color of cast members' skin with the implicit message that if you don't share their pigment, you won't enjoy the show. That's not the case with "Soul Food."

With its focus on universal themes implicit in family life, "Soul Food" cooks.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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