This two-part HBO drama depicts the life of a black American working-class family in St. Paul, Minn., over a long and busy weekend. Interestingly scripted by playwright Michael Henry Brown and directed by Carl Franklin (“One False Move”), densely plotted film probably overreaches; still, it’s a noble attempt at bringing something relatively new to television.
Using lots of hand-held camera and lit to resemble videotape, show — created by Brown and co-exec producer Paul Aaron — more than casually resembles co-exec producer Charles S. Dutton’s Fox series, “Roc.” Except “Laurel Avenue,” billed as a miniseries, ain’t no sitcom: Three members of the extended Arnett family are involved in drugs, and there isn’t a lot of laughter taking place during the weekend depicted.
Central characters are Jake and Maggie Arnett (Mel Winkler, Mary Alice), who live with their son (Scott Lawrence), a high school basketball coach; 16 -year-old daughter Sheila (Malinda Williams); and elderly Uncle Otis (Jay Brooks).
Other members of the family include fraternal twins Yolanda (Juanita Jennings) and Rolanda (Rhonda Stubbins White), a policewoman and recovering drug addict, respectively; Marcus (Monte Russell), who works in a clothing store; and Woody (Dan Martin), an aspiring musician.
Rolanda is the single parent of Rushan (Vonte Sweet), 16, and 5-year-old Shanequa (Ondrea Shalbetter).
Add various husbands, wives and other supporting players and the result is a large and unwieldy cast: while characters are being established, it would have been helpful if each wore a “Hi! My Name Is…” badge, and if TV Guide printed a family tree.
The story is nearly as complicated as the cast of characters, with Rolanda backsliding, Marcus getting involved in a scheme to sell steroids to the Mob, Rushan having his own problem with drugs, Sheila perched precariously on the verge of womanhood, and everybody trying to deal with the assorted problems.
Not surprisingly, virtually none of the story lines is resolved; in fact two (both involving a basketball player played by Ulysses Zachary) disappear at the end of the first episode, and one of the more appealing (if enigmatic) characters, a Jamaican friend of Marcus’s played by Gary Dourdan, all but evaporates toward the end of Episode 2.
Some might call this lack of resolution a cold slice of reality; others would say it’s poor storytelling. In either event, pic might have worked better as a 2 1/2-hour movie than by hoping that viewers will remain interested enough after first episode to tune in next night for part 2.
Strongest aspects are Brown’s naturalistic dialogue, and acting that’s terrific all the way through — athough sound of a less documentary style would have helped: too often, the actors are either speaking too softly to be heard or simply buried by the soundtrack music.
First episode is 90 minutes long; second clocks in at 72.