Picks and Pans Review: Laurel Avenue

updated 07/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HBO (Sal. July 10, 10 p.m. ET)

A-

Director Carl Franklin, who made his feature debut last year with the crime drama One False Move, proves again in this three-hour mini that he has an uncommon ability to capture the psychology of ordinary people—here, working-class blacks in St. Paul, Minn.—who find their world twisted out of shape by pressures they haven't anticipated and don't understand.

Laurel Avenue, originally planned as six half-hour shows but now a two-parter that concludes the following night, is about an unusually arduous weekend in the life of the Arnetts. The show, written by Michael Henry Brown, keeps track of three generations in four different households, bringing them all together for a disastrous Sunday afternoon party where one daughter, Rhonda Stubbins White, turns up battered by an ex-lover and high on drugs. Her addiction is not the family's only problem: Her son, Vonte Sweet, has turned dealer (and her twin sister. Juanita Jennings, a cop, knows what he's up to): her brother, Monte Russell, who manages a Mafia-owned clothing store, is planning on getting a cut of the illegal steroid market.

In some patches, Laurel Avenue is merely a soap opera executed with day-to-day, waxed-floor realism. Will son Woodrow join his father-in-law's funeral business? Should teenage daughter Sheila be carrying condoms in her purse? When will Yolanda (Jennings) and her while husband have children? But a flawless cast—especially Mary Alice, as the mother of the troubled yet loving brood—make the Arnetts as real as any characters that have ever appeared on TV. No fingers are pointed, and the word dysfunctional is never even whispered. But there is always the sense that something really is wrong deeply wrong—with the members of this family. What is it though? The show ends quietly on a Monday morning with nothing resolved. But, should HBO be inspired to transport us back to Laurel Avenue on some future weekend, things could well blow sky-high.

(David Hiltbrand is on vacation.)

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