The Russell Girl



9-11 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27

The dependably sensitive and moralistic "Hallmark Hall of Fame" franchise again successfully navigates the potholed landscape of family-friendly melodrama in this, the 232nd presentation in the much-honored film series that steadfastly refuses to travel down any road that your grandmother in Akron couldn't appreciate.

As is the "Hallmark" bent, CBS' "The Russell Girl" piles high the crises and dysfunction but never loses sight of its dogged sense of realism, harrowing and painful though it might be. Simply put, nobody but these guys makes television like this anymore that celebrates the towering grandeur of the human spirit. It's one of the few throwbacks to the 1950s mentality that's welcome, not to mention boldly out of step with its contemporaries. It's a tough job, but thankfully these folks are still doing it.

The original telefilm stars Amber Tamblyn of "Joan of Arcadia" fame as Sarah Russell, a young department store buyer from Chicago who is pummeled by a devastating smack to the gut as "Russell Girl" opens. She's diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of leukemia. Going home to tell her relentlessly sunny parents Gayle (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Phil (Tim DeKay), Sarah can't bring herself to fill them in on her horrible little secret, despite having just been accepted to medical school at Northwestern.

But that isn't even the worst of it. Blood cancer is merely a subplot to the real emotional zapper: Sarah remains guilt-riddled and a pariah to a grieving couple (Jennifer Ehle and Henry Czerny) who live across the street from her folks and still blame her for a tragic loss six years before. The event forced her to break off a relationship with boyfriend Evan (Paul Wesley), mired as she was in shame. It just totally sucks to be Sarah.

Yet, this being a Hallmark Hall of Famer, the mature-beyond-her-years woman handles it with a grace few of us could muster, ultimately leading to a certain heroic triumph over almost unfathomable adversity. She feels that the cancer is her karmic prize for the misdeeds of the past, and that alone is a topic worthy of emotional assessment.

Tamblyn turns in a measured and dynamic performance under the sure hand of award-winning director Jeff Bleckner. Scribe Jill Blotevogel's teleplay strikes all of the proper melodramatic notes, her dialogue infusing the characters with a stark authenticity. All of the players turn in fine work in a project that deftly shines a light on the humanity of scarred souls without going too far overboard on the bathos.

"Russell Girl" is smart storytelling that aspires to a higher purpose. While we can poke fun at its occasional maudlin tone, we shouldn't denigrate its mostly realized earnest intentions.

Hallmark Hall of Fame Prods.
Executive producer: Brent Shields
Co-executive producer: Stefanie Epstein
Producer: Andy Gottlieb
Director: Jeff Bleckner
Teleplay: Jill Blotevogel
Director of photography: Charles Minsky
Production designer: Karen Bromley
Editor: Geoffrey Rowland
Music: Jeff Beal
Casting: Molly Lopata, Susan Forrest, Sharon Forrest
Sarah Russell: Amber Tamblyn
Gayle Russell: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Lorraine Morrissey: Jennifer Ehle
Howard Morrissey: Henry Czerny
Evan: Paul Wesley
Phil Russell: Tim DeKay