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Next Up on Montel: Host Turns Actor

January 03, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Viewers of his mid-season prime-time series are about to discover what viewers of his syndicated talk show already know: Montel Williams is an actor.

In fact, the new CBS hour "Matt Waters" is in some ways an extension of "The Montel Williams Show," the latter being part soapbox from which the Great Bald Hope aims didactic darts at the subculture wretches he exploits while serving them up to daytime audiences.

A Navy Seal-turned-high-school-teacher, Matt Waters also cannot resist contorting every life experience into smug sanctimony. His facile solutions to complex problems surface as bumper-sticker bromides, whether he's informing his unruly underclass students that "education pays"--try dropping that pearl on dropouts making big wads from selling drugs--or lecturing a wayward teen about "what you coulda been."

The intent is noble, but the truisms and pontification are so relentless and merciless that Williams, a former motivational speaker, may motivate viewers to gag. Just why Matt's teaching colleagues don't is a mystery. As is just how he was able to sail from pensioned Seal to know-it-all, spit-and-polish science teacher at his alma mater without any apparent educational training.

Yet credit "Matt Waters" for being television that's about something--a good-looking, generally well-acted hour whose realistic arena of teeming urban grunge and human graffiti has the potential to give pertinent contemporary issues, from violence to teen promiscuity to condom handouts at schools, meaningful dramatic voice.

Better than the premiere, moreover, is a coming episode that is both tender and funny, with Matt and some of his students gaining brief stewardship of an abandoned infant while making the point, with their stumbling awkwardness, that premature parenthood can blunt a teen's life. In fact, wasn't that a recent topic on "The Montel Williams Show"?

* "Matt Waters" premieres tonight at 9 on KCBS-TV Channel 2.

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