'Fly Away': Race at a Safe Distance : Television: The new NBC series set in the '50s South relegates racism to a time and region that viewers can confront comfortably.

Ralph Ellison's influential novel "The Invisible Man" traces a black man's search for identity amid a white culture that sees "only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me."

That comes to mind while watching Lilly Harper, the inspirational black housekeeper in NBC's new series "I'll Fly Away," admonish the smug teen-age son of her white employer. "You don't think I'm here," she tells him, sternly. "I'm here!"

Well, you get a lump in your throat, and memories of Martin Luther King Jr. flicker in your brain.

That's right, Lilly, give it to him good. Let all those Southern rednecks--even the nonviolent ones--have it right between the eyes. What animals!

There's no doubt about it: Crafted with intelligence and sensitivity, tonight's two-hour premiere of "I'll Fly Away" (at 9 on Channels 4, 36 and 39) introduces the kind of series that makes Northern white liberals feel real good. Yes, indeed, we can live with this. It allows us to face America's race problems from a secure distance without getting singed by the flames of the present. It lets us condemn identifiable villains--good ol' Southern white bigots pop up on cue--while diverting our attention from today.

The ways of television are not the fault of "I'll Fly Away's" quality producers/writers/creators, Joshua Brand and John Falsey, whose credits also include "Northern Exposure," "A Year in the Life" and "St. Elsewhere." They had a specific story they wanted to tell, and they are telling it, on occasion admirably.

But it is easier to confront the problems of the present through the thick, protective prism of the past. And--in the eyes of a television industry that's especially skittish about offending advertisers in these harsh economic times--it's infinitely safer. No wonder, then, that the industry's decision-makers are most receptive to prime-time series about deep, festering social wounds when they're bandaged in nostalgia or regionalism.

Whereas John Singleton's arresting movie "Boyz N the Hood" makes its story about death and survival amid the minefields of South-Central L.A. a personalizing metaphor for contemporary black blight and urban terrorism, "I'll Fly Away" freezes a familiar time in history when the black civil-rights struggle was starting to sprout.

Set in a small Southern town during the late 1950s, "I'll Fly Away" makes it easy for us, relegating racism to a time and region that we can confront comfortably, steeping ourselves in self-righteousness as the series steeps itself in self-importance.

"I'll Fly Away"--the title is taken from a hymn--returns Tuesday in its regular 8 p.m. time slot preceding "In the Heat of the Night," a series whose own portrayal of racial tensions is set in Mississippi.

The protagonists of "I'll Fly Away" are housekeeper Harper (Regina Taylor) and local prosecutor Forrest Bedford (Sam Waterston), a decent, fundamentally fair-minded man who nevertheless moves comfortably within the kind of Southern white society that for generations has consigned blacks to subservience.

His wife institutionalized with mental problems, Bedford hires Harper to replace the elderly housekeeper who had been caring for his kids, 15-year-old Nathaniel (Jeremy London), 13-year-old Francie (Ashlee Levitch) and 6-year-old John Morgan (John Aaron Bennett).

Meanwhile, Bedford stirs local passions with his prosecution of the reckless white driver of a bus that crashed, killing some of its black passengers.

To the series' credit, initial episodes rarely allow Bedford to outdistance his upbringing and environment. He's obviously educable, but for the time being he embraces racial equality ambivalently and only to a point. There's a telling moment when he hires Lilly without even asking her name, as if her blackness rendered her anonymous. Later, when she "sasses" Nathaniel by arguing with him while serving dinner, Bedford is irked at her for not knowing her place. And, in a subsequent episode, when a colleague unfairly abuses a black employee, Bedford is inwardly bothered but says nothing.

Actually, Harper is the most interesting character on the screen, a relatively young woman trapped as a $40-a-week domestic, her long weekdays spent as a surrogate mother amid the affluence of the Bedford household, her short evenings in the shanty she shares with her father and her own 6-year-old daughter. She, too, is a tenuous rebel, existing for the moment within the rigid rules of white society, although as the two-hour premiere proceeds along its laborious course, it's apparent that changes are in the wind.

And laborious it is under Brand's direction, creeping ever so slowly beyond the realm of thoughtfulness into the thick, heavy-footed domain of sluggishness. Waterston and especially Harper give performances in these early episodes that bode well for whatever future "I'll Fly Away" has in its perilous time slot. But by the time the premiere has ended and Waterston gives his final pensive pause, you'll be the one wanting to fly away.

Christine LeKatzis (Kathryn Harrold), the defense lawyer with whom Bedford will become romantically linked, notes that he's "fair and decent and . . . a good lawyer." He's also more than a little bit dull, unfortunately.

Meanwhile, there's enough teary sentimentality in these two hours to drench a beach towel. But at least you'll feel good knowing that all of this happened in a far off place a long time ago.

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