This review was corrected on June 22, 2000.
Plenty spicy series “Soul Food” dishes up even more sex and drama than the 1997 hit movie it is based on, while retaining the look and feel that made the saga of the Joseph family so appealing on the bigscreen. A welcome addition to the ethnically challenged TV landscape, “Soul Food” should find a nurturing home on cable’s Showtime network.
Exec producers Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and his wife Tracey, who also produced the film version, have left intact the integrity of the story, keeping the focus tight on the volatile personalities and unique family dynamics of a group still reeling from the death of their matriarch, Big Mama (Irma P. Hall).
Series is set five months after Big Mama’s death, with the youngest daughter Bird (Malinda Williams) ready to deliver her first child. She and her husband Lem (Darrin Dewitt Henson) are thrilled by the birth of Jeremiah but come home from the hospital to find Big Mama’s house flooded and the dining room table that hosted many a Sunday family dinner in ruins. It’s not long before the three sisters Teri (Nicole Ari Parker), Maxine (Vanessa Williams) and Bird are at odds over how handle the disaster.
“ER’s” Eriq La Salle directs the pilot, using a loving hand in orchestrating the many side stories and subplots surrounding the family. Like most pilots, it’s a lot of information to swallow, even in a one-hour format. The only misstep in the premiere is writer Salim Akil introducing far too many booty-call jokes and gratuitous sex scenes.
The real appeal of the movie and the story is the sophisticated emotions and relationships, and of course, the food. A solid source of drama is how the tight bond between the sisters can sometimes come at the exclusion of the men in their lives, or the class issues that Maxine faces now that her son Ahmad (Aaron Meeks) is going to prep school.
For fans of the film version, the series cast, who have some big shoes to fill, takes some getting used to. Parker, as the controlling Teri, has the biggest dramatic burden, but by the end of the pilot proves quite capable of handling the task. Vanessa Williams, not to be confused with Vanessa L. Williams who played Teri in the film, needs to portray the subtler aspects of the hothead Maxine, who for now is far too challenging and confrontational.
Secondary characters in the ensemble are able to make the characters more their own, especially Henson as Lem and Williams as Bird. Their relationship, unstable yet loving, is a linchpin of drama here. Hall, who starred in the movie as Big Mama, appears here in flashbacks and steals the few scenes she’s in. Her presence is a nice touch and it is hoped the writers can retain her character for more episodes.
Tape reviewed was a rough-cut containing unfinished technical credits although artfully wrought lensing by Bill Dill is consistent with the highly stylized look of the film.