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TV REVIEW : A Promising Anthology of Urban Life

March 23, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

One series doesn't make a renaissance. Thus, it's foolhardy to view "Tribeca" as leading a revival of dramatic-anthology series in prime time.

Yet television does move in cycles, and initial episodes of Fox's very appealing "Tribeca" anthology--premiering at 9 tonight on KTTV-TV Channel 11 and XETV-TV Channel 6--do give you at least a whiff of the late 1950s, when a confluence of talented actors, producers, directors and writers made the young, rudimentary medium an exciting laboratory for drama. So dust off the red carpet.

The executive producers of this highly promising hourlong series are David J. Burke, Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro. Yes, that Robert De Niro. The setting is the TriBeCa area of downtown New York City. And although there are two recurring characters--a mounted policeman named Carleton (Joe Morton) and a kindly cafe owner named Harry (Philip Bosco)--they are generally supporting players in each of these tales of urban life.

Written by Burke and Hans Tobeason and directed by Michael Dinner, the premiere is about healing, as a carefree, 34-year-old police detective (Larry Fishburne) tries to fill a family void left by the murder of his stolid older brother (Carl Lumbly), a successful banker with a wife and two children. Ultimately putting behind his own rage, the detective must deal with the unresolved anger of his brother's young son (Sharif Rashed) and his own sexual feelings for his brother's widow (Victoria Dillard). It's an interesting, uplifting, sweetly told, well-acted story of mingling, complex emotions.

Much as Alfred Hitchcock granted himself a few seconds in each of his films, the protagonists for two future "Tribeca" episodes are glimpsed fleetingly in the premiere. One, a woman named Maggy, played by Melanie Mayron, briefly shows up as one of Harry's customers. The other, played by Stephen Lang, is a homeless man named Lou, a mere blip at the site where the jogging banker was shot down by a robber.

In next week's intriguing second episode titled "Honor," Lou is a filthy, smelly, bearded, stocking-capped street philosopher who lives in a park where he spends his days cleaning monuments and statues. When he and other homeless are temporarily evicted from their grassy ghetto because of a photo-opportunity visit by the President, Lou is enraged. He's also traumatized by indifference to the death of a homeless buddy, an ex-Marine. Confronted by a city that's as angry at him as he is at the city, he challenges liberal do-gooders to substitute action for lip service.

We can only guess at the highly articulate Lou's back story. A disillusioned former attorney? Professor? Entrepreneur? His furious eloquence is a language that only Carleton ultimately seems to understand, though.

Both Carleton and Harry are a bit saccharine in these episodes. And the merging of certain characters at just the right times requires some awkward script conveniences. Yet "Tribeca" has enormous potential on many levels.

In one scene from "Honor," a man passing by in a camel coat tells Lou to get a job. "Create one!" he fires back. And demonstrating a flair for comedy, scriptwriters Burke and Tobeason at one point have Lou and another homeless man spoof "Deliverance" with a rousing rendition of dueling gargles.

"I am New York City," Lou declares. He's also a sign that at least some of the fare in television's soup kitchen may be improving. Brother, can you spare a few ratings points?

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