When we first meet Socrates Fortlow (Laurence Fishburne), he’s pushing a shopping cart through South Central Los Angeles, which looks something like Beirut after the latest holy war, collecting bottles and cans to redeem at the local supermarket, where he’d really rather box groceries. Socrates is an ex-con who did hard time for murder and rape. Violence is the very air he breathes, and he’s choking. At the local diner, he won’t ask Natalie Cole out on a date because he doesn’t have a job. He is too unsavory to be welcome at Cicely Tyson’s boarding house, where his best friend, Bill Cobbs, is dying of cancer. “Hungry, horny, and how come? – they all my friends, my best friends,” Socrates tells a little boy who witnessed a murder and is hiding out with him. Meanwhile, he is gluing new legs on an old table to help repair a broken marriage. Socrates is a fixer.
He is also, in Always Outnumbered (Saturday, March 21; 9 to 11 p.m.; HBO), a nineties incarnation of Easy Rawlins, the fifties fixer who solves cases, saves children, and buys buildings in Walter Mosley’s series of mysteries about Watts. In the collection of related short stories that Mosley himself has adapted for this cable-television movie, Socrates will likewise save a child, and that marriage, and maybe even a broken neighborhood, besides easing the exit of Cobbs with morphine and fixing himself like a table. Between flashbacks to his days of rage, Socrates will become a hero.
Fishburne stands up well under the weight of all this symbolism. He is abetted in his dialogue with corrupted Platonic ideals by a crafty Cobbs, an exasperated Cole, a super-respectable Tyson, and Bill Nunn and Laurie Metcalf.
South Central, which is what has become of Watts, is seen by director Michael Apted as if it’s what these people are stuck with instead of a guided tour through an alien hell. If Always Outnumbered veers sometimes alarmingly between Porgy Touched by an Angel and Superfly Meets the Equalizer, Fishburne is always there to fix that, too. And so what we are watching is community.
Damon (March 22; 8:30 to 9 p.m.; Fox) stars the very gifted Damon Wayans in a preview of a new Fox sitcom that combines the worst of such old Fox entries as In Living Color and Married …With Children. The talent can’t seem to find anything better to do than make anatomy jokes. Wayans plays an undercover cop, David Alan Grier plays his needy brother Bernard, Andrea Martin’s an over-the-top precinct boss, and they all busy themselves in the first two episodes ridiculing sexual-harassment laws and dressing up as jive-talking pimps. Not since the late, unlamented Bochco debacle Public Morals have so many talented people wasted so much of their – and our – time.