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TV REVIEWS : A WEALTH OF QUALITY DRAMA TONIGHT

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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.

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‘JOHNNY BULL’ ON ABC

Hiding beneath the deceptively macho- sounding title of “Johnny Bull” on ABC at 9 tonight (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) is one of the highlights of the television year: A beautifully written, exquisitely produced, exceptionally well-acted movie that testifies anew to the medium’s capacity to match the best that motion pictures and theater can offer.

Written by Kathleen Betsko Yale under the auspices of the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, “Johnny Bull” is the story of Iris Kovacs, a vivacious, 18-year-old, working-class English girl who moves to the United States in 1959 to join the American soldier she married when he was stationed overseas.

Expecting--at least hoping--to taste a bit of the rich and glamorous Yankee life she has seen in so many Doris Day movies, Iris is in for a major shock. Her young husband, now discharged and unemployed, lives with his worn and weary Old World parents and his retarded sister in a two-bit Pennsylvania coal-mining town where there is little work and no indoor plumbing.

“In England we say you’re only as old as you feel,” the bright-faced Iris chirps to her new mother-in-law.

“In that case, I should have been dead long time ago,” the older woman retorts without a smile.

The premise established, the film simply follows Iris adapting to her new life and her husband and his family adapting to her. Except that it isn’t simple at all, because the Kovacs family members are so richly diverse and possess such conflicting attitudes about life.

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Though the characters can be petty, mean, even physically abusive at times, Yale and director Claudia Weill demonstrate eloquently that they also are capable of great tenderness. Like a Horton Foote film, “Johnny Bull” is laced with compassion for the human condition.

Jason Robards is superb as the Kovacs patriarch, and Colleen Dewhurst, who already turned in an outstanding acting job earlier this season in the ABC movie “Two Women,” tops herself here in a performance of remarkable depth and subtlety as the matriarch.

The power and dignity they bring to their roles is matched by the younger cast members: Suzanna Hamilton as Iris, Peter MacNicol as her husband and Kathy Bates as the sister.

Filmed on location in Beech Cove, Tenn., “Johnny Bull” was produced by Robert Berger and Thomas De Wolfe, with Herbert Brodkin as executive producer.

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