Idol Chatter

With “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” HBO has already rejuvenated the American television series. Can introducing the f-word, frank sex talk and better production values do the same for the “After School Special?” Set in the downtrodden projects of Brooklyn, “Life Support,” starring Queen Latifah, takes up a serious issue (living with AIDS) through near-stock characters (a reformed cocaine addict, her doe-eyed, but critical teenage daughter, and her tough-love mother). Like ABC’s grittily topical school day TV movies, “Life Support” exists more to instruct than to entertain in a style that is more journalistic than dramatic.

Ana Wilis (Latifah) has put her life back together after drugs gave her HIV and cost her Kelly, her daughter, who now lives with Ana’s mother (a fierce Anna Devere Smith). She has a new husband and child and helps others as an outreach worker. “AIDS,” she says, articulating an irony that recurs throughout the show, “saved my life.” (A fellow sufferer predicts a bright future for himself, proposing that he might have the same strain of the virus as Magic Johnson.)

But she is not satisfied, so Ana tries to redeem herself in Kelly’s eyes by locating Kelly’s gay, HIV-stricken childhood pal who turns to hustling to survive on the streets. The story, sadly, is generic enough to be true. And the bet here is that the truth is, or ought to be, compelling.

If HBO comes close to winning that bet, it’s because Latifah’s smoothly natural acting style, seen in musicals and comedies like “Chicago” or “Taxi,” translates seamlessly to drama. Latifah seems to relax into any role she’s given (or takes for herself–she also produced). With the help of the raw language she’s permitted here and her neck-weaving delivery, she brings the docudrama to life more than once.

Her Ana fights her way to the realization that if AIDS has saved her life, it’s up to her to save her soul by accepting the forgiveness offered from those around her and moving on. For grown-ups, that truth is more compelling then the health ed lesson that surrounds it. It’s a pity HBO didn’t shoot a PG version to show on weekday afternoons.

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