'Soul Food' quite tasty
Showtime series starts where
movie ended: in style
By Eric Mink
New York Daily News
The Show: "Soul Food."
What: New series based on the 1997 movie.
The stars: Nicole Ari Parker, Isaiah Washington, Boris Kodjo,
Darren Dewitt Henson, Vanessa Williams and Rockmond Dunbar.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesdays
Our rating: *** ½
Soul Food" hits the ground running. The first episode of this new series, about a contemporary African-American family of three grown sisters in Chicago, begins with characters and plot points that hit viewers at breakneck speed.
A romantic lovemaking session between pregnant Bird and husband Lem is interrupted when Bird goes into labor. Lem then phones people from the hospital to tell them to get over there. As they gather, the only thing that's immediately apparent is that these people are bound together by a powerful force. Who are they? What's the nature of their relationships? What are their histories?
To its credit, "Soul Food" doesn't stop to explain everything to us. The decision to let viewers pick things up as the show proceeds keeps it from getting bogged down in obvious, clumsy, drama-killing exposition.
The result is truer and more natural dialogue, better pacing, events that unfold slowly to engage viewers more completely, and characters whose personalities are revealed by what they do and say in the context of their immediate situations.
"Soul Food," premiering tomorrow night on Showtime, is adapted from the 1997 feature film of the same name, and some of the senior production staff is the same: executive producers Tracey Edmonds, Kenneth (Baby Face) Edmonds, Robert Teitel and George Tillman Jr. (who directed and co-wrote the movie).
But TV-savvy veterans like Kevin Arkadie, Felicia Henderson (who wrote tomorrow's pilot episode) and Patricia Green have been added, and "ER's" Eriq La Salle directed the pilot.
Virtually none of the actors from the movie made the shift to television, but the new bunch seems every bit as deft as the impressive cast of the original film. (Irma P. Hall re-creates her role as family matriarch Mama Joe, who died at the end of the movie. Her TV appearances are confined to occasional daydream/flashback sequences.)
Indeed, without the forced crisis of Mama Joe's illness and death to deal with, the TV show explores more fully and more satisfyingly the widely varied individual lives of the three sisters and the sometimes conflicted but fundamentally loving relationships among them.
Teri Joseph (Nicole Ari Parker) is a driven, obsessive, highly paid associate anxious to make partner in a highpowered law firm. Divorced from Miles (Isaiah Washington), a lawyer-turned-jazz musician, Teri has serious problems with personal relationships. One of the TV show's most intriguing storylines involves a clash of class and status involving Teri and a deliveryman named Damon (Boris Kodjoe).
Malinda Williams plays Bird, the baby of the family, whose inexperience and youth make her inclined to act from her heart rather than her head. Husband Lem (played by Darrin Dewitt Henson) is an ex-convict with good intentions, but mounting frustrations at his inability to find honest work to support his family.
Maxine (Vanessa Williams), in a solid marriage with working-class businessman Kenny (Rockmond Dunbar), seems the most likely to succeed Mama Joe as matriarch of the family. A mom who uses love, fear and sly manipulation to rule her family, Maxine sometimes lets her temper get the best of her.
All this is duly noted by Maxine and Kenny's son Ahmad (Aaron Meeks), a funny and clever kid who serves as the show's occasional narrator while trying to survive as one of the few AfricanAmericans in a private school.
This is terrific stuff.