TV Reviews : Jones Ignites Intriguing 'Gabriel's Fire'

"Gabriel's Fire" has a fine street look and interesting characters. What it has most of all, though, is James Earl Jones.

He resonates through the premiere of this ABC series like a bellowing baritone horn, portraying a steely convict and former Chicago cop released into an alien environment he doesn't quite understand after 20 years in prison.

Created for Jones and in some ways the most intriguing drama series of the new season, "Gabriel's Fire" arrives at 10 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42. The same episode will be rerun in the series' regular time slot at 9 p.m. Thursday.

It turns out that Gabriel was given a life sentence for killing his partner to stop him from shooting an innocent mother and child. We meet Gabriel when he is still in prison, a bookish loner bitterly glowering at his cold, insular world through rimless glasses, resigned to living out his days behind bars.

The murder of a fellow con becomes a catalyst, introducing Gabriel to the victim's fast-talking, hotshot attorney, Victoria Heller (Laila Robins), who finds a way (a little too neatly) to get Gabriel released from prison to help her solve the murder. Although initially hostile and recalcitrant ("You couldn't talk straight if a steel rod was jammed up your spine!" he roars at her), Gabriel reluctantly becomes the lawyer's investigator. Hmmmm. . . . Sounds like a premise for a series.

There is one particularly grand scene here showing Gabriel joyously buying two hot dogs from a street vendor immediately after being released from prison. Laughing (Jones' laughter registers on the Richter scale), he looks toward the heavens and exclaims: "It's so wonderful!"

The moment is wonderful. Moreover, Jones and Robins make an appealing team and the characters they play in this beautifully shot drama are so attractively flawed that you want to learn more about them.

Yet unfortunately, tonight's story begins to buckle half way through the hour and finally collapses, with Gabriel going through a quickie personality change and, in rather incredible fashion, managing to pull his murder investigation together to accommodate the length of the time slot. After 20 years in jail, he can accomplish this?

Script problems aside, it's James Earl Jones who has the fire, and he is the best reason to tune in.

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