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"Road Home' blocked by sappiness

Everybody knows the way home.

Right at the light. Up the big hill. Honk the horn loud when you pull into the driveway. Maybe you haven't lived there in 20 years, but home is always there, forever unchanged.

This is the place where memories were born. A strong current of yearning tugs at the soul.

At its best, CBS' new family drama The Road Home taps into that river, evoking the warm feelings of family and tentatively exploring the desire for a family (whether we had a good one or not).

The Matson/Babineoux clan is a pretty perfect family, to be sure. So perfect that Hallmark might reject them. And for that reason, The Road Home wanders away from a most excellent adventure as several generations merge and clash into a sentimental journey.

Karen Allen stars as Alison Matson who returns home to North Carolina every summer with her four children and husband. This trip, however, is different, as Alison learns her father's shrimping business is in trouble and her mother is ill.

While the elements of drama are present, the series seems oddly detached. We watch the Matson and Babineoux familiesinstead of living with them for a television hour.

Too many scenes are contrived and out of place, an emotional moment created as a special effect, not to further the plot or enrich the viewer. The dialogue sounds like it was written by a Northerner who picked up a few Southern phrases. Alison tends to lapse into dreamlike monologues about the quality of life in the South. Especially irritating is a cacophony of Southern accents, none of which sound like they are from North Carolina. (At least no one in my extended Carolina clan sounds like that!)

Dramas about extended Southern families are perhaps the most difficult form of television and film. The characters, emotions, motivations _ and yes, the accents _ have to be perfect or it can seem contrived or, worse, a caricature. Lee Rich succeeded with The Waltons as did James L. Brooks in Terms of Endearment and Herbert Ross in Steel Magnolias. With humor and resolutely real dialogue, the characters came to life. Producer/writer Bruce Paltrow (St. Elsewhere) knows where the road is, he just doesn't seem to know how to get the viewer pointed in the right direction.

CBS deserves credit for trying to develop this difficult format. With its talented ensemble cast of Allen, Frances Sternhagen, Terence Knox and Ed Flanders, plus some exquisite cinematography, the series shows enormous promise.

Paltrow now must plumb the deep currents of emotion if The Road Home is to succeed. Shrimper Walter Babineoux knows you can't catch nothin' in shallow water.

Tonight at 9 on WTVT-Ch. 13. Pilot Grade: B-

SHUT UP: If Karen Allen waxes in The Road Home, at least she has some beautiful dialogue. In Friends and Lovers, NBC tries television verite in this unsold pilot with annoying, cloying results. Perfected in MTV's Real World, this knock-off lets five real couples unburden their deepest feelings on love, marriage, sex and work. Real World was hip, giving us an illicit feeling of eavesdropping. Our new Friends and Lovers aren't as interesting, calling each other names and whining. The only thing jerkier than these couples is the camera which can't stop moving.

Tonight at 10 on WFLA-Ch. 8. Pilot Grade: D

WE HAVE A WINNER! Congratulations to the first winner to crawl over the finish line of the 1993-94 obstacle course called the "Fall Television Season." Freshman series Frasier received television's highest honor this week when NBC announced it was picking up the series for next year. Based on the strength of that series, Mad About You, Wings and Seinfeld, NBC said it will renew the entire "Thursday Night Comedy Block" for the 1995-96 season. While Frasier, an acerbic and totally fresh spin-off of Cheers, was an expected hit, NBC executives were probably surprised that it became a strong anchor for the whole night. Three cheers for Frasier ( Kelsey Grammer), his grouchy pop and the Canine of Year Eddie, the Jack Russell terrier.