Ken Tucker
April 01, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

There’s a kind of innocence and sincerity about Christy that is rare on television these days. This new series, based on Catherine Marshall’s 1967 best-selling novel, stars Life Goes On’s Kellie Martin as 19-year-old Christy Huddleston. It is 1912, and Christy has been inspired by her Quaker mentor, Alice Henderson (Cagney & Lacey’s Tyne Daly), to leave a comfortable middle-class life in Asheville, N.C., and journey to become a schoolteacher in the dirt-poor mountain community of Cutter Gap, Tenn.

In the two-hour premiere, Christy makes the long, exhausting trip only to find that the school is a primitive, one-room affair doubling as the town church, which is headed by the hubba-hubba Rev. David Grantland (Randall Batinkoff, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Or, as Christy puts it in a more demurely romantic voice-over, ”Through a haze of fatigue, I saw a young man with a beautiful smile.”

Christy is earnest and naive. ”They’re not wearing shoes!” she gasps when her poverty-stricken students pad in for their first day of lessons; she also puts a hankie to her pug nose when the odor of her more unwashed students overwhelms her delicate sensibilities. Her young charges range from tiny tykes to suspender-busting teenagers, and Christy’s workload is most impressive: She teaches 6 classes a day to 12 grades; as she moans in a voice-over, ”How was I going to manage 72 lessons?”

Through the eyes of Christy, we are supposed to learn about the virtues of hard work, the nobility of pennilessness, and the grammar of rural folk (”Them young-uns gotta have their learnin’!” says a mountain mama played by Tess Harper). This sort of obviousness, when combined with the pastel-pretty, misty-mountain backgrounds against which director Michael Rhodes (Ned Blessing) contrasts the poverty, threatens to get insufferable pretty quickly. It helps enormously that there are solid, no-nonsense performances by the stars.

As she proved on Life Goes On, Martin is a quietly excellent actor who can embody serious spunkiness without making you think-like Lou Grant-”I hate spunk!” As Christy, she’s found an ideal transitional role, as a girl growing into a woman with a minimum of the cliches TV usually imposes upon that process. By contrast, it’s not really clear in this debut edition exactly what Daly’s Miss Alice does in Cutter Gap other than stride around imperiously, making oracular pronouncements. But Daly does this sort of thing so charmingly that you don’t mind that her character is something of a windbag. And while Harper’s colorfully named Fairlight Spencer is hobbled with cornpone dialogue straight out of Li’l Abner, the calm gravity she brings to the part lends Fairlight some grace and dignity.

While Martin, Daly, and Harper all represent strong, varied female images, the male characters tend to be either violent brutes or sensitive pretty-boys. Christy is obviously designed by producer Barney Rosenzweig (Cagney & Lacey, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill) to cash in on the popularity of CBS’ other frontierswoman series, the Jane Seymour vehicle Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but it’s not a cynical piece of work. Like Dr. Quinn, the show suggests that it is women who are the harder-working and more civilizing inhabitants of this backwoods environment.

The people who accused Rosenzweig of using Rosie O’Neill as a platform for godless left-wing propaganda will find little to complain about with Christy. There are more casual mentions of God in Christy than in any other piece of network entertainment I can recall. ”Thank God and seek faith,” Miss Alice intones at one point; a bit earlier, she had informed us that ”Quakers believe in seeking the light within. The light is that of God.” There’s also a carefully worded scene in which Miss Alice states the Quaker principle of nonviolence quite bluntly, but it’s not pat pacifism: She has just aimed a rifle in the direction of a rude moonshiner and pulled the trigger.

This suggests that Christy may prove a bit more unpredictable, more rough around the edges, than Dr. Quinn, while retaining that show’s family appeal. At the end of the premiere episode, Miss Alice gazes beatifically upon Christy and bestows her Quaker benediction: ”I think thee will do.” Methinks so, too. B

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