"A Year in the Life" is superior--at times exceptional--television, a six-hour miniseries that NBC is also eyeing as a possible weekly series. So cross your fingers.
Airing at 9 tonight through Wednesday (on Channels 4, 36 and 39), the opening is routine on paper: A big, eclectic, upper-middle-class family in Seattle gathers at Christmas. 'Tis the season to be jolly. WARMTH, SENTIMENT and VIRTUE in capital letters. Perfect people in a perfect setting.
Beneath the surface, though: TROUBLE.
Soap opera elements, yes. But elevated to a higher level, and very, very intelligent and appealing. The ensemble cast, script by Stu Krieger and executive producers John Falsey and Joshua Brand and direction by Thomas Carter are all first-rate.
Richard Kiley is strong-willed family patriarch Joe Gardner and Eva Marie Saint is his peace-making wife, Ruth. Wendy Phillips is their eldest daughter, Anne, whose second marriage is crumbling. Jane Atkinson is their pregnant daughter, Lindley, whose Jewish husband, Jim, played by Adam Arkin, wants her to convert. Morgan Stevens is the Gardners' black sheep son, Jack, and David Oliver is Sam, the youngest and naivest of the Gardners, who's having second thoughts about his upcoming marriage to Debbie, played by Jennifer Cooke. Sarah Jessica Parker is Kay, the new woman in Sam's life, and Trey Ames is David, the Gardners' grandson.
This is the kind of family that plays touch football together and gathers around the piano and sings songs, but some of the homogeneity is superficial. Almost immediately, cracks appear as the three episodes trace a year of joys and jolts starting with an enormous tragedy.
These are real people with real problems in a story that has a wonderfully nubby texture and offers fewer endings than beginnings. The drama is rich and diverse. It can be charming, as when the about-to-deliver Lindley is rushed to the hospital in a motorcycle sidecar. And it can be sad, as when Jack, the bluest of the Gardners, acts out his faded sports-hero dreams alone on a baseball field at night.
"A Year in the Life" merits more life than six hours.
"Candle in the Wind" is the real world, an hour PBS documentary about religion in the Soviet Union airing at 9 p.m. on KCET Channel 28.
Eugene B. Shirley Jr. is executive producer and Arthur Barron writer/director of this fascinating glimpse at religious groups "cruelly positioned between communism and God" in a land whose modern church history is captured here in rare old footage. It's a significant, unusual program.