AS IT WINDS UP ITS FIRST SEASON ON Tuesday (May 21 at 8 p.m. ET), UPN's Moesha has developed into a show that's as fresh and unusual as its name. In 17-year-old actress-singer Brandy, who combines little-girl sweetness and teenage ebullience in playing high school student Moesha Mitchell, it has an enchanting young star. The show also takes a lighthearted approach to black style and has a distinctive sound both in its catchy theme music and in its playful teenspeak. (When Moesha snipes cattily at a girlfriend, her little brother mutters, "Braids too tight!") I'm not surprised that rapper Busta Rhymes calls Moesha "the phattest show out there" and that MTV recently aired a two-hour special with the cast.

But Moesha's audience ought to be much wider than the MTV crowd (the ratings are high for UPN, low overall). The show gives an affectionate but honest view of African-American life in the '90s. The Mitchell family is loving, but they're not as perfect as the Waltons or the Huxtables. Dad (William Allen Young) tries to be protective, but he can also can be insensitive and narrow-minded. "Watch out, Father Knows Less," stepmother Dee (Sheryl Lee Ralph) scolds him. Moesha's bright and independent but can overdo it. "Would Madame Curie have waved pompoms?" she grandly tells a cheerleader.

An aspiring writer, Moesha most admires the Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who celebrated 1930s black culture and pioneered the serious literary use of black speech. "I've always loved Hurston," says Sara V. Finney, co-creator of the show with Vida Spears. "Moesha, like the heroine, Janie, in Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, does things her own way." Spears sees the show's setting, the black community of Leimert Park in southern Los Angeles, as a mixture of Hurston's tight-knit Florida hometown and the Harlem literary world of her adult life. In an episode next season, Moesha will meet a neighbor who lived through the Harlem Renaissance and even knew Hurston.

But the show doesn't limit itself to a single culture or neighborhood. "Moesha is adventurous," says Finney. "She wants to discover the world." She also calls herself a "new millennium woman"—and now should be her moment. Check her out.

NBC (Mon., May 27, 9 p.m. ET)

B-

Heather Locklear, gamely trying to look drab in droopy brown dresses, is timid Suzy who hears voices and often forgets where she has been. Surprise, surprise: It turns out that she has several personalities, including Ginger, a tough prostitute; Bonnie, a little girl; and Victoria, a math whiz. You'll figure it out way ahead of the family doctor, let alone patient husband Sean (Brett Cullen), who doesn't catch on even when Suzy is smashing the furniture, finger-painting her arms or coolly typing on the computer. Meanwhile, Suzy's kids have taken it all in stride and just hope Bonnie will show up at playtime. The story is a sensationalized, fictional account of a multiple personality, but Locklear manages to effectively underplay and bring some dignity to all of Suzy's faces.

AMC (Tues., May 28, 8 p.m. ET)

A+

As part of AMC's daylong Brando Film Festival on May 28, writer-producer Paul Joyce has assembled a documentary from film clips, home movies and interviews with an all-star team of actors and directors, including Anthony Hopkins, Martin Sheen, Kevin McCarthy, Shelley Winters, Dennis Hopper and Francis Ford Coppola. Together they remember, analyze and hilariously imitate the magnificent mumbler who revolutionized American acting. Candidly describing Brando's eccentricities and weaknesses, they also pay eloquent tribute to his great performances, from the beautiful young rebels of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront to the enigmatic old men of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Coppola's shrewd and amusing anecdotes of Brando on the set and Hopkins's penetrating observations about his acting style make this tele-biography an event as intelligent as it is entertaining.

PBS (Tues., May 28, 10 p.m. ET)

A

In 1994, 27-year-old Democrat Patrick Kennedy, the younger son of Sen. Ted Kennedy, beat Republican political novice Kevin Vigilante in the Rhode Island race for a seat in the House of Representatives. Vigilante, an idealistic doctor who ran an inner-city clinic for HIV-positive women, hoped to fight a clean campaign. But, as filmmaker Josh Seftel shows in this provocative documentary, after the Kennedy camp ran a negative TV ad, Vigilante's aides persuaded him to retaliate in kind. This is not a simple fable about the noble underdog vs. the evil dynasty. Seftel makes us think hard about the issues and ethics on both sides.

>Emeril Lagasse

BAM! POW! PASS THE CRAWFISH

What makes The Essence of Emeril, the how-to cooking show hosted by Emeril Lagasse, the highest-rated program on the Food Network? The answer is simple: "Great food!" the 38-year-old chef enthuses. But in fact, it's not just the food, it's Lagasse's unique instructional style. Three times a day, five times a week on his half-hour program, he merrily leans forward and back, sways from side to side, spikes his ingredients with fresh parsley and peppers and punches up his delivery with intermittent shouts of "Whoo! Bam! Kick it up a notch!"

Lagasse grew up in Fall River, Mass., the son of Emeril Jr., a textile worker, and Hilda, a homemaker. His interest in cooking began when, at age 7, he helped his mom whip up a vegetable soup. "I was kind of viewed as a weird kid because I liked food," Lagasse says. "I used to play around with dough." He graduated from Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, with a culinary arts degree and, after a succession of restaurant jobs, ended up in New Orleans, where in 1981 he took over for Paul Prudhomme at the Commander's Palace. In 1990, Lagasse opened his own restaurant in the Big Easy, Emeril's, where he still cooks (he goes to New York City to shoot Essence once a month). He also owns NOLA, in the French Quarter, and Emeril's New Orleans Fishhouse, in Las Vegas's MGM Grand Hotel.

Lagasse says the secret of his success is making everything from scratch: "That's the only way I know how to do it." At Emeril's, he even raises hogs so he can make his own andouille, ham and bacon. "We make our own cheese, Worcestershire sauce, ice creams," he says. "But, hey, wake up! This is how you do it. We're not building a rocket ship here. We're making chicken stock!"

Lagasse never tires of concocting such culinary delights as crawfish-stuffed filet mignon and foie gras bread pudding. "This is art!" he says. But since his show started in '94, he has discovered the joy of cooking with couch potatoes. "It's amazing how many people TV touches," he says. "I have children cults! I have firemen, 30 at once, watching in firehouses around the country. Now I walk down a street in New York, and a taxi driver will say, 'Hey, Essence!' "

  • Contributors:
  • Ron Ridenhour.