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Reviewed by Will Harris
couple of months ago, we spoke of how, in the late 1980s, Burt Reynolds’s floundering film career found him more or less crawling back to television with his detective drama, “B.L. Stryker.” Not that there was anything wrong with the show, but given what a huge movie star Reynolds had been throughout the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, taking to the small screen was a move easily interpreted as the waving of a white flag, signaling his surrender as he officially retreated from the box office. Granted, he tried to make it as seamless a transition as possible, with the character of B.L. Stryker the same basic action hero he’d always played, but it wasn’t until after that series went off the air that Reynolds really found a TV outlet that did him justice.
In “Evening Shade,” Reynolds plays Wood Newton, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who returned to his hometown of Evening Shade, Arkansas, to serve as the football coach of his old high school. The team’s losing streak is so bad that it’s on the verge of getting its own “Sports Illustrated” story, and Wood is forever laughing off anyone’s suggestions that they’re going to fire him over something or other because, frankly, they should fire him with a record like that one! Still, he’s a local legend, and his mere presence at the games brings the crowds, so they’re clearly not going to let him go anytime soon. His wife, Ava (Marilu Henner), is a gorgeous redhead who married Wood when she was only 18, much to the disgruntlement of her father, Evan (Hal Holbrook). Despite Evan’s gruff exterior and caustic wit, it’s clear that he still has a modicum of respect for his son-in-law -- even if he never fails to remind him how Wood stole his little girl away from him far too early. Other family members in the cast are Ava’s loudmouth aunt, Frieda (Elizabeth Ashley), the three Newton kids (two boys and a girl), and, by season’s end, there’s even a fourth child, which makes for plenty of storylines during the course of these 24 episodes.
The reason “Evening Shade” works so well has less to do with Reynolds (although he offers his usual dependable performance) and more to do with the ensemble as a whole. When your supporting players include Henner, Holbrook, Charles Durning, Ossie Davis and Michael Jeter, you barely have to lift a finger to end up with a laugh-filled half-hour. Durning plays the town physician, Dr. Harlan Eldridge, and although he can use a Southern drawl to get big laughs out of the littlest joke, it’s the woman playing his wife, Merleen, who steals every scene she shares with him.
Ann Wedgeworth rose to prominence via a recurring role on “Three’s Company” back in the ‘70s, but as Merleen, she’s brilliantly flighty, offering a performance that appears to have been stolen wholesale by Brittany Murphy for her work as Luanne Platter on “King of the Hill.” Davis is basically just there to serve as straight man as he plays the owner of the local tavern, but Michael Jeter fills the slapstick quotient handily as Herman Stiles, Wood’s unlikely assistant football coach. There are also some great guest stars over the course of the season, including Sally Kirkland as a Hollywood diva who’s in town filming a movie, Charles Nelson Reilly as the film’s beleaguered director, Brian Keith as Herman’s father (no, seriously), and Kenny Rogers and Terry Bradshaw playing themselves.
Although folks like to dismiss Southern-set sitcoms as being silly and lowbrow, “Evening Shade” is a sweet, intelligent show that seems to have been forgotten by most viewers, which makes this DVD release the perfect time to instigate a reinvestigation. (Too bad no-one in the cast seems to have agreed with us.)
Special Features: Not a freaking one. Although CBS/Paramount is pretty hit-or-miss when it comes to the inclusion of bonus material (and that’s kind of an understatement), we’re leaning toward thinking this blame might fall on Mr. Reynolds’ shoulders, given that there also weren’t any special features on the “B.L. Stryker” set. Then again, Ms. Henner could’ve chimed in, and she didn’t. At the very least, you’d think there would’ve been some sort of tribute to Jeter and Davis, who have since passed away.