The Atlanta-based Bounce TV, which bills itself as “the fastest-growing African American network on television,” leaps toward the future Sunday with the premiere of “Saints & Sinners,” a multithread, soapy mystery set against the background of a big Baptist church in a small-ish Georgia town. (In Los Angeles, Bounce is available through Verizon FIOS and over the air via a subchannel of the Univision-owned KMEX, at Channel 34.3.)
The success of Fox's “Empire,” with its African Americanization of “Dynasty,” might have something to do with this particular series appearing in this particular place at this particular time; but the path is a typical one for growing networks, which tend to progress from airing reruns, to producing their own reality shows, three-camera sitcoms and finally single-dramas as they come to maturity, each being more of an investment than the last.
And Bounce already has three original sitcoms: “Family Time,” about a newly suburban household; “Mann & Wife,” about a blended family, like “The Brady Bunch”; and “In the Cut,” about haircutting ex-spouses.
The network also has proudly announced that the median age of its viewership has been rapidly falling; its sights are on market leader BET and the demographic of the desirable young.
There are desirable people in “Saints & Sinners,” though they are not as young as all that — the series begins in 1998, to introduce or mention a few major characters, but then jumps ahead to the present day, when they are all in their 30s. And there is an older generation above them, although age does not necessarily confer maturity — in fact, you can strike that “necessarily.” But most everyone is pretty desirable; the camera sometimes makes a point of telling you.
Everyone has a secret. The pastor (Richard Lawson) has a secret, involving the town villain (Clifton Powell); his wife (Vanessa Bell Calloway) a local politician, has one involving the mayor (Gloria Reuben); their daughter (Jasmine Burke), has a secret involving the choir director (Keith Robinson); the pastor's right-hand man (Christian Keyes), a former Wall Street something — he's the figurative prodigal son to the choir master's figurative non-prodigal son — has a secret that everyone seems to know.
The pilot, the only episode of eight available to see, is a little corny and a little predictable. (Even when you're surprised, you think, “Well, I should have seen that coming.”) But like “Empire,” it owes much to the prime-time soaps of old, and so, to the extent that it plays like self-parody, it is firmly in that melodramatic tradition.
Villain: “You and I are a lot more alike than you like to believe. Power — power is our religion.”
Pastor: “You could have walked in the light with me, but you chose to walk in the shadow.”
Where it's stiff, it can seem charming; where it's overripe, it is also flavorful. Where the exposition is too obviously expository (as when Lawson's pastor introduces “my partner in life and in Christ, my beautiful wife, Lady Ella, and my gorgeous daughter, Dr. Christie Johnson”), it just feels cute.
I am not damning with faint praise here, so much as praising with faint damns. An engaging cast compensates for a multitude of dramatic or technical sins, and where it doesn't, it usually makes them entertaining.