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TV REVIEWS : A WEALTH OF QUALITY DRAMA TONIGHT

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, even with a videocassette recorder, one cannot harvest all the riches that television spews forth in a given evening. Tonight is such an occasion.

There are first-rate dramas on ABC and PBS, “Johnny Bull” and “Painting Churches,” the conclusion of the sometimes exciting miniseries “On Wings of Eagles” on NBC, and an uncut presentation of the Academy Award-winning film “On Golden Pond” on KTLA Channel 5. There is also a new TV movie on CBS, “Samaritan,” about the plight of the homeless.

The problem: All of them overlap at one time or another between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Good luck.

‘SAMARITAN’ ON CBS

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“Samaritan” (8:30 tonight on Channels 2 and 8) must have looked good on paper. It’s the real-life story of Mitch Snyder, who was a Madison Avenue business executive and spent two years in prison before becoming an activist for the poor.

Unfortunately, though, “Samaritan” is an unevenly plotted and spottily performed CBS drama that is easy to walk out on.

As Snyder, Martin Sheen plays a determined and shrewd man who knows how to work Washington, D.C., officials and the media to gain advantages for the homeless. He crusades for a permanent shelter. It’s noble work for a noble cause.

Yet there’s little in Richard T. Heffron’s direction and Clifford Campion’s flawed script that hints at Snyder’s motivations for selfless activism to the point of going on prolonged, health-endangering hunger strikes. Nor are viewers told how the indigent Snyder can support himself. If he can do it, why can’t the street people he is trying to help?

Like “Stone Pillow,” a 1985 TV movie about street people starring Lucille Ball, “Samaritan” meanders aimlessly before attempting to adequately define the homeless, and it never does make us care deeply about their fate. It’s well-intentioned, but excruciatingly slow, repetitive and maudlin.

Sheen has some effective moments as Snyder, but ultimately sinks into the story’s oozing swamp of sentiment and manipulation. Cicely Tyson is cast as a toothless West Indies bag lady who, like much of “Samaritan,” cannot be understood.


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