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The Fall Tv Season : Blake Doesn't Have A Prayer In 'Hell Town'

September 11, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

TV has a new cleric--brash, tough and two-fisted, with a right hook like a ton of bricks. If you reject his olive branch, he clobbers you with it. Either that or he moralizes you into submission.

"Hell Town" may become the first network series to be condemned for gratuitous violence to the language.

"It ain't right," street-savvy and street-smart Father Noah (Hardstep) Rivers (Robert Blake) observes about life on the streets. "It ain't even fair. It just is!"

On tonight's premiere of this NBC dramatic series (at 9 on Channels 4, 36 and 39), Hardstep also says about a procurer known as "Da Man":

"A pimp's a pimp, no matter how much money he makes. I tried to make peace wid 'im, and I ain't gonna make dat mistake again."

If I'm not wrong, Blake has said the same thing during appearances on "The Tonight Show." But whatever. . . .

Tonight he also says, "Sometimes you have to do something wrong to stop a bigger wrong."

He also says, "The boss (God) got me workin' double shifts on a gig where I can't see no daylight."

He also says, to Jenny, a prostitute he wants to rescue from the pimp who's a pimp no matter how much money he makes, "Just give me 24 hours to try to get to your heart."

Is he kidding? He's not worth an hour on Wednesday night.

It must be obvious from this that Hardstep is not just weekly TV's first ghetto priest. He is also TV's first priest you'd love to hit in the face with a cream pie--if only to shut him up. You know how it is: Sometimes you have to do something wrong to stop a bigger wrong.

"Hell Town" is not exactly "Going My Way." Here's the scoop on Hardstep:

Orphan. Abandoned at doorstep of impoverished East Los Angeles parish of St. Dominic's in crime-ridden area called Hell Town. Became crook. Went to prison. Released from prison. Became priest. Now fighting to improve lot of St. Dominic's orphans and parishioners. Good with his dukes. Talks a lot. Says "ain't" a lot. Bores a lot.

After only one episode of "Hell Town," I'm ready to include Father Hardstep as one of my Top Five TV Clerics. He replaces Father Guido Sarducci.

The other four on the list are the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Father Ralph of "The Thorn Birds" and Sister Bertrille of "The Flying Nun."

Who's No. 1? I'd have to immediately discount female-wise Father Ralph (Richard Chamberlain), who looked swell in his cassock but disgraced himself with Meggie Clery.

It's much closer among Hardstep, Falwell and Jackson. You have to weigh Hardstep's street wisdom against their media wisdom, his street language against their media glibness, his street bluntness against their media cunning. You also have to weigh the populism of Hardstep and Jackson against Falwell's White House contacts.

When it comes to overacting, they're equal.

It's a tossup. Not that it matters, for soaring above them all is convent-wise Sister Bertrille who, with the San Juan trade winds whipping her headgear, had the advantage of being able to fly.

Sally Field may not have been as funny a comedic figure in "The Flying Nun" as Blake is a dramatic figure in "Hell Town," but the two shows are otherwise comparable.

Sister Bertrille helped the poor; Father Hardstep helps the poor. Sister Bertrille could not control her flight patterns; Father Hardstep cannot control his emotions and flies off the handle. Sister Bertrille's headgear was full of wind; Father Hardstep is full of wind. Sister Bertrille was not believable. Father Hardstep is not believable.

Sister Bertrille wins out because she was airborne, cuter and didn't talk "like dis."

There are undoubtedly real-life ghetto clergy with some of Hardstep's rough-edged qualities, men and women whose stories would make fascinating TV. But "Hell Town"--burdened by a thudding, preachy, trite, overwritten and overacted opening episode--carries the premise to comic extreme.

The premiere centers on Hardstep's efforts to recover the gorgeous hooker Jenny, an orphan who spent her childhood at St. Dominic's. Yes, for starters, yet another abused hooker story. Hardstep enlists the aid of his pals--street people with funny names--summoning them the way Tarzan does animals in the jungle.

They include Crazy Horse (who magically scales a skyscraper), Poco Loco (TV's latest funny drunk) and One Ball (another of those stock characters who always know what's "going down" everywhere). When One Ball (played by elderly Whitman Mayo) beats up a tough thug twice his size and half his age, you know "Hell Town" is in trouble.

Sally Field went on to better things. Maybe Robert Blake will, too. And dat's da name a dat tune!

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