Far from cookie-cutter boob tube material, Dave discovers a fine piece of drama that retains its power more than a quarter of a century after it was first broadcast.
Even only rudimentary knowledge of the feature films that were made for television during the 1990s would flag up the fact that, for the most part, you can rarely draw any kind of thematic or artistic consistency from the key creatives involved. They’re typically just guns for hire, if you will.
A STRANGER IN TOWN is the rare exception to that tendency – and, as such, it stands as one of the most impressive TV movies of the decade. Director Peter Levin and lead actress Jean Smart had previous, coming together just prior to shooting this, where Smart would assume the first on-screen portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Overkill (1992) – an interesting spin on a very troubled woman. Meanwhile, we also have a script that unites the prodigious talents of husband-and-wife team Ara Watson and Sam Blackwell. Watson had started out in television, co-writing the Emmy award-winning Nobody’s Child (1986), the story of Marie Balter, and a work widely regarded as one of the best small screen pictures of the ‘80s. Three years after, Watson penned No Place Like Home (1989). The first teleplay with her spouse, No Place Like Home served as a damningly accurate indictment of homelessness and starred Christine Lahti and Jeff Daniels. A while later, The Danger of Love: The Carolyn Warmus Story (1992) followed for the pair – but it’s this foray into small-town bigotry that remains their finest yet most underappreciated work.
Rose (Jean Smart) hasn’t got it easy. She’s a single mother who spends nearly every waking moment caring for the welfare of her prematurely born baby. Thankfully Rose can rely on her friend Jeanine (Lucinda Jenney) to step in every now and then. Jeanine’s also been charitable enough to provide Rose with accommodation, having let her stay in her late Grandmother’s old farmhouse. A welcoming community certainly quells the stress of parenthood – but when Barnes (Gregory Hines), an enigmatic portrait photographer turns up at her home moments before an impending storm, their temporary union unleashes a multitude of mysteries…
Rose is a curious character whose skittish behaviour hints at a buried past. And Barnes is a man with an undeniable agenda – but he’s caught up dealing with a dose of the endemic discrimination that haunts rural America. It’s not pitchforks and white hoods either: it’s the sneering disdain of an unwelcoming township. “Are you lost?” asks the local deputy (Jeffrey Nordling), with a contemptible glance. The racial angle pervades the entiriety of A Stranger in Town, but you can’t define it as a film about race thanks to the deft ability of Watson and Blackwell to weave together the stories of these fascinating characters.
That considered, it’s no surprise that the leads are crucial to its success, and it has the feel of a two-hander that’s been adapted from the stage. Hines’ dynamism underlines how much of a great actor the celebrated dancer was, and he’s complemented by an assured Smart. Collectively, they craft a deuce with a walk-in wardrobe full of secrets.
A Stranger in Town debuted on CBS in March 1995 and eventually surfaced on U.S. VHS three years later, in June ’98, via the Peachtree Entertainment Group.
USA ● 1995 ● Drama, TVM ● 95mins
Jean Smart, Gregory Hines, Jeffrey Nordling, Richard Riehle ● Dir. Peter Levin ● Wri. Ara Watson & Sam Blackwell, from a story by Rory T. Marcus