Picks and Pans Review: Always Outnumbered

updated 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

HBO (Sat, March 21, 9 p.m. ET)


HBO calls this superlative episodic drama a modern urban fable. Appropriately, Laurence Fishburne gives a fabulous performance as Socrates Fortlow, an unemployed ex-convict with murder and rape in his past, who tries—heroically if imperfectly—to construct a moral, meaningful life on the streets of Los Angeles's depressed Watts area. In adapting his book Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned for television, Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress) has changed the protagonist's age from "close to 60" to late 40s, a better fit for the 36-year-old star. Fishburne's Socrates seems to carry the burden of long, hard-gained experience on his brawny shoulders, and his face mirrors a constant, tiring struggle to control his rage and understand his role in a harsh world. As he evolves into a sort of latter-day knight errant, Socrates takes on a rough-edged nobility without losing a capacity for violence that disturbs us even when he unleashes it for a good cause, like protecting an 11-year-old boy from bullies seeking to shut his mouth about a murder he witnessed. The fine supporting cast includes Natalie Cole as Iula, a sensible diner owner who offers Socrates sustenance, and Bill Cobbs as Right Burke, a dying friend who leaves him with a bit of wisdom and a blessing.

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