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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Moe's World' Deserves a Network Shot

May 03, 1991|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Y o! On a playground deep in the inner city, a small black boy with a basketball is watching an even smaller black boy shoot baskets and miss. Finally, the older boy can tolerate this klutz no longer.

Moving to the other end of the cement court, he begins swishing jump shots. Then he dribbles between his legs like flashy point guards do. Then he soars inhumanly high for a thundering power dunk. Then he does it again, only this time turning seemingly impossible somersaults high in the air before slamming the ball through the chain mesh net.

Michael Jordan, eat your heart out.

Is it the shoes or what? Just how is it possible for a little kid to do such incredible things? The monster dunker faces the camera and explains.

"Dyin' really helped my game," Moe says. "I was good before, but now . . . I'm unstoppable."

Yes, just an ordinary 12-year-old . . . except that he's dead. That's the opening for "Moe's World," an hourlong pilot for a half-hour series that is one of many competing for a place on ABC's 1991-92 schedule.

This is the nervous time of year when networks evaluate pilots like "Moe's World" and make programming choices for the coming season. Although ABC ordered this pilot and four scripts for "Moe's World," it has few openings for half-hour series, meaning this one from Kevin Rodney Sullivan and New World Television may be a long shot.

If ever something merited room in prime time, however, this little beauty is it.

First, "Moe's World" is that television rarity, a dramatic series about a black family or extended family. The only previous ones were NBC's "Harris and Company," which lasted a month in 1979, and last year's fleeting "Brewster's Place" on ABC. Is more than one of these every decade or so too much to ask from the near-monolithic white television industry?

Second, "Moe's World" is special, very special. Scenarists have had friendly spirits haunting or reacting to the living from "Topper" to "Ghost." But never a spirit like Moe--played by an enormously likable young actor named Deon Richmond, who had a recurring role as a neighbor on "The Cosby Show"--and never in a place like this or in this way.

This is not "Diff'rent Strokes" or "Webster." Although Moe is a real upper, he comes from a rough place and sometimes has a rough mouth.

The premise has him back in his old working-class neighborhood on Avenue B five months after being killed by a car when he chased a ball into the street. Although he's the show's storyteller whom we can hear and see, no one else can, except in dreams. It's in these fantasies that Moe, in effect, becomes their guidance counselor.

He's concerned about his little brother, Jerome (the other kid in the opening), a sweet-singing choirboy who tries to match Moe's athletic prowess but can't play a lick. He's concerned about an unmarried teen-age friend named Jiwanda who is about to give birth to a child whose ball-playing young father wants no part of the situation. And he's concerned about his hard-working, single mother's relationship with a new boyfriend: "A bus driver! A Jamaican bus driver! Oh, man!"

Written and directed by executive producer Sullivan, "Moe's World" is irresistible. It's funny, it's charming, it's tender, it's musical, it's creative and it's real, surging with street energy and dramatic vitality. Sullivan fills some of his dream sequences with knockout animation and digital effects. And he puts in a wonderful bit of business about Jiwanda going into excruciating labor while Moe tries to assist her from his temporary perch in a sort of spiritual holding area high in the clouds.

"I really wanted to tell family stories about the Afro-American community that I grew up in and not avoid the drama of the situation as some of the situation comedies do," said Sullivan, a talented black man and former executive producer of ABC's "Knightwatch" whose lengthy TV writing and directing credits belie his relative youth. He's 32.

Sullivan spent his youth on the playgrounds of San Francisco's working-class Fillmore district, where his dad was a bus driver and blacks in his neighborhood were the sort of extended family depicted in "Moe's World."

"This (series) is a part of the American fabric we don't see," Sullivan said. "We don't see people who don't always have a job or are having teen-age pregnancies. Some of the realities in our community are lost on television."

Some of the realities? The TV industry's notion of black reality is almost always expressed through punch lines and laugh tracks. In addition to "Brewster's Place," the most recent exceptions have included the late, great "Frank's Place" on CBS and "Gabriel's Fire," the current ABC series starring James Earl Jones as a private investigator who works for an attorney. With Laila Robins and Madge Sinclair giving fine support, it's frequently scintillating.

Although ratings for "Gabriel's Fire" are dismal by network standards, its cancellation after a single season would be tragic--witness last Wednesday's rich episode about the reunion of Gabriel and his long-lost daughter (Irene Cara).

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