Comic actor Damon Wayans (“In Living Color”) takes a look at the darker side of life, creating a gritty but formulaic street drama, focusing on the daily traumas endured by staff and clients at a teen crisis center in New York City. If this fast-paced hour of social consciousness and rehabilitation expects to draw viewers away from ABC’s “Cracker” and CBS’ “Diagnosis Murder” (forget NBC’s tandem of “Seinfeld” and “Veronica’s Closet”), future episodes need to be less predictable and a lot more character-driven.
Writers Wayans, Lorey, Sherman and director Eric Laneuville concentrate so much of their efforts on establishing the well-known fact it is a tough world out there, only superficial attention is given to the personalities who will be recurring week after week. The ensemble is kept so busy throwing themselves into a variety of tough-love and passionate commitment situations, there is little time get to know anyone.
In flashback, we learn that successful African-American businessman Mr. Thomas (Richard Roundtree) created the center on the site where his teenage son was brutally gunned down. It is quickly and relentlessly reinforced that this safe haven is constantly teeming with activity ranging from the tragic to the hilarious.
The opening episode introduces a number of potential ongoing plot situations. Yolanda (Karina Arroyave), a woefully forlorn teenage mother vainly seeks help from counselor Juanita Barnes (Shari Headley) only to be dragged back into prostitution by her crackhead boyfriend, Carlos (Vincent Laresca). When Yolanda is murdered while turning a trick, Juanita takes custody of the girl’s baby, only to have Carlos return to the center, seeking his own personal redemption.
Newlywed staff psychologist Antonio (Jesse Martin) is trying to keep from his new bride, Angelica (Dawn Stern) that he may have become infected while thwarting the bloody suicide attempt of an HIV-positive teen, Quentin (Stephen Barra). The center’s quirky attorney, Sylvia Gold (Kelly Coffield) provides comic relief when she ineptly but earnestly attempts to take over the center’s teen dance class.
Roundtree quite believably exudes the stern persona of an excellent administrator who knows how to get things done. If warmth and humor are also part of his makeup, they are yet to be revealed. Headley’s Juanita is so task-oriented at the center it is never revealed what would motivate her to suddenly want to adopt a baby. And Martin’s Antonio is so enigmatic, he offers no emotional justification for concealing his potential accidental HIV infection from his wife.
The teens do a much better job of revealing themselves. Laresca’s Carlos is a thrashing pile of crack-inflamed nerve endings, yet demonstrates the potential for deep love and heart-breaking sorrow. Berra offers a tour de force of self-pity and self-loathing as the doomed Quentin, but responds with childlike glee when his peers demonstrate their acceptance of him. And Karim Prince is a just a hoot as the flamboyantly gay teen, Melvin, who thrusts himself joyously into the role as the center’s inhouse court jester.