'Soul' is show with lots of heart


"Soul Food" is all about family and keeping it together and struggling to get along with one another - themes that anyone who's ever had close relatives can relate to.

Here, the family is black, and there are moments in tonight's premiere episode that will resonate most strongly with black viewers. But "Soul Food" aims for an audience more disparate than that and usually succeeds.

Expounding on the 1997 film that first introduced Chicago's Joseph family to audiences, "Soul Food" the series watches as the three sisters (Teri, Maxine and Bird) attempt to carry on following the death of their mother, who's shown occasionally in flashback. That's not easy: the Josephs may not be dysfunctional, but they're trying.

Successful lawyer Teri (Nicole Ari Parker) has no room for people less ambitious than she is, which puts her at odds with roughly three-quarters of the planet. She and younger sister Maxine (Vanessa Williams, no relation to the Vanessa L. Williams who played Teri in the original film) snipe at each other constantly, a residue of the time Maxine stole and married Teri's boyfriend. And youngest sister Bird (Malinda Williams) opens the series pregnant and with an ex-con husband who, though well-meaning, can't find a job.

Each sister has a distinct personality, and tonight's show, like the film that inspired it, emphasizes that point.

Teri, although seemingly the most independent, is actually the most vulnerable, as we're rather heavy-handedly reminded when her mother's old dining room table breaks, and her sisters are ready to trash it. In one of the episode's clunkier bits of dialogue, she complains: "Mama's only been dead five months, and you're ready to discard a table like it's firewood."

Fortunately, most of the writing from series co-producer Felecia D. Henderson, is far lighter and more natural. And Parker emerges as an early contender for breakout performer among the uniformly strong cast.

Maxine has children of her own, including 14 year-old Ahmad, who doubles as the series' narrator. She's a bit of a spitfire: when Ahmad is suspended from the private school his parents insist he attend, it's his mother's wrath he fears incurring.

And Bird seems pre-occupied with proving herself to her sisters. Her biggest challenge is showing that her husband, Lem (Darrin Dewitt Henson), can stay out of trouble, get a job and provide for his family.

"Soul Food" has its share of soap-opera moments and predictable story threads. When a hunky delivery man makes goo-goo eyes at overachiever Teri, it doesn't take a genius to figure out they'll soon be pawing at each other. (And since this is pay cable, there are obligatory nude scenes).

The Josephs also have an amazing capacity for finding themselves in the middle of tumult, whether that means flooded homes, sick babies or drug-dealing cousins who'd be happy to employ family members.

But the moments in "Soul Food" that bode best for the series' future are the ones that don't try so hard, that show the Josephs struggling to remain a family despite the forces pulling them apart.

It's moments like those that give their story strength and should keep viewers anxious to find out what happens next.

'Soul Food'

When: 10-11 tonight

Where: Showtime

In brief: Viewers may get hooked on three Chicago sisters struggling to keep their family ties strong.

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