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On the Tube: CBS series 'Kate Brasher' pits a tough mom against all odds

Friday, February 23, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

I saw "Erin Brockovich." I liked "Erin Brockovich." You, "Kate Brasher," are no "Erin Brockovich."

But that's clearly what CBS is going for, albeit a heroine who is better dressed than Brockovich was in the Oscar-nominated film.

Mary Stuart Masterson stars as the title character in "Kate Brasher," a sappy new CBS drama, premiering tomorrow at 9 p.m. on KDKA. ("Walker, Texas Ranger" rests his aged self until April.)

Don't get me wrong, some viewers will no doubt enjoy being manipulated by this utterly predictable and strangely hollow series.

It's predictable because the moment spunky single mom Kate meets a mute woman at a community center, you instinctively know before the hour is done Kate will miraculously find a way to communicate with the frustrated woman.

It's hollow because "Kate Brasher" doesn't have the courage of its lead character's supposed convictions. She values some sort of spirituality, peering heavenward seeking solace, but when she essentially tells her kids to have faith she tells them to "ask the book." Writer Stephen Tolkin won't even allow his heroine to utter the word "Bible."

Tomorrow's premiere finds Kate scraping to make ends meet, working in a diner by day and cleaning a bowling alley at night while her teen-age sons fend for themselves at home.

A crisis erupts when the bowling alley owner, who is no Ed Stevens of "Ed," refuses to pay Kate and other cleaning women their due. She has no money to hire a lawyer but a friendly cop suggests she seek help at Brother's Keepers, a community advocacy center that helps those in need.

She goes into full Erin Brockovich mode with the assistance of Rhea Perlman, who plays the same rude, shrewish character she always plays, only this time she's also an attorney for the center. Hector Elizondo essentially reprises his boss man role from "Chicago Hope" as the center's tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside director.

By the end of the hour Kate's been offered a job at Brother's Keeper because she's just so gosh darn good with people. Truthfully, she is. How can she not be when played by winningly winsome Mary Stuart Masterson?

There's nothing wrong with Masterson's typically strong performance. She's entirely credible as a caring mom who tries hard, but simply can't cover all the bases without child support, which the boys' father doesn't pay. The young actors who play Kate's sons are good in their roles too, particularly Mason Gamble, who starred in the big-screen version of "Dennis the Menace" a few years back.

These fine performances alone can't make "Kate Brasher" worthwhile. The show needs stronger writing, less predictable plots and the courage to allow Kate to express her faith the way real people do, not the squeamish, half-hearted way TV writers do.

(8 p.m. tomorrow, HBO)

Clark Johnson is an excellent student.

As a cast member of "Homicide: Life on the Street," Johnson learned firsthand from veteran directors who used stylistic flourishes to give the cop drama a look all its own.

In directing HBO's "Boycott," Johnson tells the story of the 1955-56 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in a highly stylized way that owes some debt to the rhythm and look of "Homicide." But mostly Johnson creates his own palette.

As in "Homicide," Johnson uses upbeat music as underscore during downer events. But he takes that show's quick cuts a step further, especially in early scenes that are more stylish than plot-driven. Ghostly voices whisper "she's the one" after Rosa Parks is forcibly removed from sitting in the "whites only" section of a city bus.

Though the look of "Boycott" is attention-getting, so is the cast.

Jeffrey Wright stars as Martin Luther King Jr. and turns in a commanding performance that perfectly captures King's vocal inflections and cadence. Wright also shows the toll the boycott took on King as he found himself in a leadership role he didn't set out to create.

Once King is elected leader of the boycott, the film becomes more concerned with plot and characters, but maintains its unique look throughout.

"Boycott" depicts the insidious nature of the city fathers who react to the boycott by hiking cab fares and instructing cops to give speeding tickets without cause to black motorists. The film also depicts the meeting between King and labor activist Bayard Rustin (Erik Todd Dellums, who played Luther Mahoney on "Homicide"), who clearly influenced King's views on nonviolent forms of protest.

"Boycott" isn't an epic story, nor should it be. The film is a successful snapshot of the struggles of blacks in Montgomery at the birth of the civil rights movement.

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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