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TV REVIEW

Road to the 'Promised Land' Proves to Be a Bit Uneven

September 14, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

So glaring has been the omission of religion and old-fashioned patriotism from prime time through the years--except when deployed as butts of jokes--you figure television owes that side more than a few. It's just unfortunate when one of those "few" turns out to be as heavy-handed on the God-and-country front as "Promised Land," an uneven new CBS drama series that premieres Sunday under the cover of "Touched by an Angel."

Fasten your halos for this cross-country ride with the Greenes, a middle-class family of six so fiscally down that they don't have money even for breakfast or more gas when their tank runs dry as they pull into tiny Chicory Creek, USA, where jobless Russell Greene (Gerald McRaney) has been promised a position that he believes will reverse his fortunes.

There's reason for hope, given that Chicory is the hometown of the family matriarch traveling with them, Russell's mother, Hattie (Celeste Holm). But bad luck turns worse when the new job falls through, putting the homeless Greenes in such a desperate position that Russell resorts to boxing groceries at a local food store and borrowing $100 from family friend Erasmus Jones (Ossie Davis) just to squeak by.

Although Russell's wife, Claire (Wendy Phillips), is the formally religious one in the family, saying grace before meals and speaking often of matters spiritual, it's frustrated Russell who addresses God alone in a genuinely moving plea notable for its earnest emotion: "I love my country. I love my family, I love hard work . . . and I follow all the rules, and I did my best, and it all just fell apart anyway." Many Americans may have similar feelings.

Yet it isn't long before "Promised Land" is falling apart, moving from this touching, well-acted, nicely nuanced moment to an assembly line of spiritual and jingoistic peaks that come across as mannered, artificial and ill-chosen. The episode really dives sharply when Russell turns snarly and sanctimonious in lecturing Erasmus' daughter, a highly paid New York plastic surgeon he's just met, on why she should return home to Chicory so that the dying town can have a doctor. She should give him a nose job with her fist.

Russell himself gets lectured by Della Reese about the meaning of America, as she and Roma Downey surface periodically as their "Touched by an Angel" characters to make sure that the Greenes stay focused and that they ultimately depart Chicory in their van en route to additional hopeful endings.

Although brushing on schmaltz galore, "Promised Land" has an appealing gentleness and philosophy about faith, prayer and the positive qualities of religion--an attitude that rarely gets exposure in prime time beyond the new WB series "7th Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel" itself. But it needs to lighten its touch.

* "Promised Land" is introduced on "Touched by an Angel" at 8 p.m. Sunday, then will be seen Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).

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