All the ingredients are there for “Any Day Now” to be a poignant drama. It’s almost tailor-made to open up the tear ducts. And perhaps that’s the problem. It wants so badly to be seen as an important, bold piece of racially themed television that it lays on the heavy vibes a tad too thick. Which is unfortunate, because any show with Annie Potts is worthy of attention.
Designed as a sort of early 1960s female buddy version of the short-lived 1991 NBC drama “I’ll Fly Away” (with a little bit of the 1984-85 ABC series “Call to Glory” thrown in), this hour — the first homegrown original dramatic series for Lifetime — hops back and forth between eras to document the complicated relationship of Mary Elizabeth O’Brian (Potts) and Rene Jackson (Lorraine Toussaint).
Despite their skin color, the white Mary Elizabeth and the black Rene were best pals growing up in segregated Alabama during the early ’60s, in the shadow of the civil rights movement. Mae Middleton portrays the young tomboy Mary, Shari Dyon Perry the pint size Rene. Both young actresses pull off their roles with aplomb under Jeff Bleckner’s direction. Truth be told, their relationship as girls is more interesting than that of their elder versions, though the washed out sepia tone of the flashbacks is a bit cliched.
As the show picks up the relationship between the fortysomething women, they are estranged, having been that way since age 19, when Mary Elizabeth became pregnant by childhood sweetheart Collier Sims (played by Chris Mulkey as an adult) and Rene offered something less than her full support. But now, Rene’s civil-rights lawyer father, James (Courtney B. Vance in the pilot), has died, spurring Mary Elizabeth to show up for the funeral and bury the hatchet.
Both Potts and Toussaint are effective in their portrayals of women who took radically different paths — Potts’ character marrying a beer-guzzling semi-bum and popping out a couple of kids, Toussaint’s becoming a high-powered lawyer and career woman who puts off the family thing, perhaps forever.
But in the pilot script by exec producers Nancy Miller and Deborah Joy LeVine, the childhood editions of their characters prove far more compelling as they traverse the muddy waters of racial injustice in the Deep South. It seems, in hindsight, that a series built around the girls would be more effective than one that hops hyperactively between then and now to paint its portrait of friendship against all odds.
As “Any Day Now” moves forward, its storyline will work to capture the racial divisions of ’50s Alabama — blacks forced to ride in the back of the bus and use separate water fountains, and being treated as thieves in retail establishments — and will use the civil-rights backdrop as a meter to measure progress today.
It’s a terrific concept. But in playing out that hand, the series should perhaps take itself a mite less seriously if it expects to keep viewers coming back week after week.