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TV REVIEWS

Potts Can't Quite Rescue 'Dangerous'

THE NEW TV SEASON * One in a series

September 30, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

What ABC's new "Dangerous Minds" needs is Mr. Rhodes. But he's teaching in another series.

It does have Louanne Johnson, the heroic teacher for all crises whom Annie Potts plays with cloying smugness in this drama series based on the "Dangerous Minds" feature film that starred Michelle Pfeiffer as the real-life Johnson.

Potts is more credible than Pfeiffer, at least, as a gritty ex-Marine whose reentry to teaching comes in a Northern California high school's Academy program, which is tailored to underachieving kids, mostly black and Latino, who are bright but troubled and unable to function in normal curricula.

Among the obstacles she faces are cynicism from the Academy's dean (Stanley Anderson) and skepticism from the school's youth gang services counselor (Michael Jace), who sees her as a fleeting "Mother Teresa" who'll be gone in a year--a reasonable forecast given the classroom of hooting toughs who quickly test her.

Almost immediately, though, she prevails, gaining these students' respect with a commanding presence. Her compassion, wit and leatherneck's strict discipline ultimately win out.

A weekly TV series is better equipped to explore the full breadth of the real-life Johnson's stunning teaching success than is a movie whose shorter length demands that events be capsulized and accelerated to fit its format. Lots of time here to celebrate those achievements.

But TV's Johnson also is on a fast track, her triumphs and rapport with her resistant class coming too swiftly to be believed of someone having so recently parachuted down from an alien universe.

She's the ever-present Super Savior, bearer of wisdom, middle-class redeemer of underclass souls, all the while looking so self-satisfied that at times she's almost unbearable. You admire the caring attitude, but this teacher is way over the top.

To stop a promising student from dropping out because of the pressures of motherhood, Johnson takes her in, helps care for her 2 1/2-year-old daughter and gets her through a custody crisis. When another student is absent because his gardener father needs him as a grass cutter, she locates the boy and mows the lawn herself while leaving him behind with a history book.

Even if the real Johnson also soared like Superman, such spectacular feats play tonight like bad fiction. It doesn't help, either, that the hour's schmaltzy under-lighting and camera work add even more weight to Johnson's deeds.

Potts has some nice moments. Even an actress as able as she, though, ultimately buckles under the tonnage of this character's supremacy, and strong supporting work from Greg Serano, Tamala Jones and Vicellous Reon Shannon as the students she takes under her wing is not enough to shore her up.

But Coolio's Grammy-winning "Gangsta's Paradise" is here as the theme, as haunting as it was in the movie. For more of it, though, skip the series and buy the CD.

* "Dangerous Minds" premieres at 10 tonight on ABC (Channel 7).

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