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TV REVIEWS : Black Family Improves ‘Laurel Avenue’

There goes the neighborhood . . . fortunately.

HBO’s “Laurel Avenue” is changed dramatically for the better in a two-part story about the ups and downs of a large, fascinatingly diverse middle-class family that is television’s classiest, most-fully-developed, most-nuanced, layered and textured treatment of contemporary African-Americans to date. Airing at 10 tonight and Sunday night, this is irresistibly smart, tender, raw, wrenching television to applaud.

One reason is an ensemble cast whose performances are strikingly fresh, honest and subtle. Others are fine direction by Carl Franklin and a rich teleplay by Paul Aaron and Michael Henry Brown that avoids not only false sentiment and push-button fixes but also the cliches and generic ethnic slotting that have marred past TV depictions of blacks in comedy and in the occasional drama. Drugs and crime are prominent in the four-day period spanned by “Laurel Avenue,” but only as fibers in a broader, densely woven urban tapestry.

The extended Arnett brood of Minneapolis-St. Paul is an eclectic mix of complex characters whose opposite poles are represented by fraternal twins Rolanda (Rhonda Stubbins White) and Yolanda (Juanita Jennings), the former a struggling single mother sliding back into drugs, the latter a career police officer who has just earned a promotion to sergeant.

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This is essentially a big, loving, supportive African-American family whose matriarch and patriarch, Maggie and Jake (Mary Alice and Mel Winkler), are solid citizens who live in a large, dignified corner house with their high school basketball coach son, Keith (Scott Lawrence), 16-year-old daughter, Sheila (Malinda Williams), and a crotchety old uncle (Jay Brooks). But the Arnetts are also a flawed family with deep fissures.

Another son, Marcus (Monte Russell), makes good money managing a clothing store, but is being talked into a crime by an old friend named Anthony (Gary Dourdan). Rhonda’s teen-age son (Vonte Sweet) is dealing drugs on the street. Racial tensions threaten to disrupt Keith’s team, and his troubled star player, Fletcher (Ulysses Zachary), is dating his little sister, Sheila.

In Part 1, the lives of some of the characters seem at times to intersect artificially. Yet writers Aaron and Brown never underestimate or talk down to their audience.

The boiling point in Part 2 is an incredible piece of television, a family party celebrating Yolanda’s promotion that begins with all the feel-good warmth and rosiness of something from Charles Kuralt, only to make a screeching turn in another direction.

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Yet smaller moments are sometimes as impressive. The writers use throwaway phrases in casual conversation to X-ray inner feelings. And for no apparent reason, they make Fletcher, the basketball star, a stutterer, and have the suave Anthony ridicule him. Like much in “Laurel Avenue,” the moment passes, but the memory lingers for a long time.


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