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'The Ambassadors' and 'A Rainy Day'; Breaking the 'sitcom' habit with two literate PBS dramas

Have mass-appeal sitcoms driven literate drama from American TV? Next Wednesday night the Public Broadcasting Service spotlights two hours that should be seen by anybody (and there are many) who insist that is the case.

While literate drama is not exactly thriving outside of "Masterpiece theater" and "Great Performances," every now and then television -- especially PBS -- comes up with drama that breaks the sitcom mode and forces viewers to sit up, take notice, and maybe even ponder the seemingly imponderable.

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Henry James's "The Ambassadors" (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9:30 p.m., check local listings) and Beth Brickell's "A Rainy Day" (PBS, Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., check local listings) are two such television dramas. it is ironic that one of the shows is a BBC production and the other a prizewinning theatrical motion picture.

"The Ambassadors" is a story about a 19th-century clash of cultures -- a subtle caricature of Americans abroad and a not- so-subtle idealization of Europeans. A rather sheltered middle-aged New Englander is dispatched to Paris to rescue the son of his fiancee from the clutches of a world-weary Parisienne. This gentleman, played with unbelievable naivete by Paul Scofield, meets a sophisticated American expatriate who helps him appreciate the Old World and learn to enjoy life as he finds it.

Delphine Seyrig and Lee Remick play the parisienne and the expatriate with charm and humor. But the production fails to make this most delicate of James's works understandable for present-day TV or present-day morality. The very literateness that distinguished it as a novel tends to limit it as a TV drama.

Part of the problem is the fact that this BBC production, presented on PBS by the South Carolina ETV Network, needs the sights and sounds and smells of Paris. Because of obvious skimping on production costs, the viewer never quite feels that Paris and its inhabitants are as overwhelmingly enticing as they must be to make the story line valid. The charming and quaint people are not charming and quaint enough. Old paitings of Paris by Renoir and Pissarro are coyly used instead of real locations, so the viewer feels somehow restricted at the very moment he is supposed to feel liberated.

Depite my reservations, this TV adaptation of "The Ambassadors" is superior to most current TV fare. It is a graceful, leisurely paced, slightly claustrophobic drama of conflicting moralities. I suspect it was meant to be oddly contemporary in its rarefied period atmosphere, but it succeeds in merely being amusingly quaint.

"A Rainy Day," on the other hand, was meant to be totally contemporary, yet it manages to be insistently universal.

This poignant tale of a mother-daughter relationship, written, produced, and directed by Ms. Brickell, an independent filmmaker, is an exquisitely fulfilled moment in time.

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It concerns a TV star's visit to her Texas home, where she spends an afternoon alone with her mother reminiscing about the childhood experiences which have seemingly scarred her for life.

What her mother did out of apparent love for her daughter, the effect upon her late father, the impact upon a youngster growing up -- all these matters are delved into with sensitivity and emotional authenticity. It manages to capture the overlapping reality and fantasy in many people's lives.

Acted impeccably by Mariette Hartley as the daughter and Collin Wilcox as the mother, "A Rainy Day" is a small but important triumph for Ms. Brickell. In one delicate half hour, she succeeds in gently baring the innermost motivations of several real human beings. It is a superb half hour, unique in fi lm or TV.

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