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TV REVIEW : 'Family Pictures': There's Still Hope for Networks

March 20, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Blessed are the TV stories that don't exploitatively strip-mine tragedy and violent crime but instead challenge viewers with meaningful, intensely moving dramas about contemporary society.

Yes, they do exist. One is ABC's "Family Pictures," a two-part odyssey of the sweet and bitter airing at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42. Drawn from a novel by Sue Miller, this honest, memorably good, achingly performed work chronicles the troubled evolution of the Eberlins, a large, bustling, often-dysfunctional upper-middle-class Seattle family, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s.

Co-producer Jennifer Miller's sensitive script springs essentially from the perspective of one of the daughters, Nina (Kyra Sedgwick). Her account is an accordion of constantly fluctuating emotions, as she and some of her siblings and their ill-matched, ever-antagonistic parents undergo cataclysmic change, both in their personal lives and in the way they relate to each other.

The parents' personalities dominate much of the story, which is ably and unpretentiously directed by Philip Saville. Volatile, moody and intense, Lainey (Anjelica Huston) calls her reserved, detached psychiatrist husband, David (Sam Neill), her "master of the silver lining." He dubs her his "mistress of the dark cloud."

There is joy and healing here, but it's the dark cloud that hovers over much of "Family Pictures" as it spans traditional family landmarks, with the lives of the Eberlins at times spinning as out of control as the Vietnam War that backdrops a section of their story.

As a budding photographer, an adult Nina at one point outrages her parents with a public exhibit of photos showing the shoes of men with whom she's slept. Her even more rebellious brother, Mack (Dermot Mulroney), is another pivotal character, seemingly squandering his life as a beer-guzzling pot belly, his estrangement from the flawed Lainey and David roughly paralleling the disintegration of their marriage. However, it's Lainey's obsession with their severely autistic son, Randall (Jamie Harold), that touchingly threads Part 1 and becomes the catalyst for marital rupture.

Driven by the fresh, striking work of Huston, Neil, Sedgwick and Mulroney, "Family Pictures" reaps the benefits of inspired casting. And Harold is astonishingly real as Randall.

There are some glitches. Neither Nina nor Mack seems to age over 20 years. And the eldest Eberlin sister inexplicably disappears and virtually goes unmentioned during the last three hours, resurfacing as a barely discernible blip only at the end of the story.

Small quibbles. Otherwise, "Family Pictures" is exactly the kind of sharply focused snapshot that television needs more of.

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