REVIEW / Twenty-two hours and six minutes, precisely

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The Independent Culture
'SATURDAY 10.06am.' No, that's not the time now. You've just been exposed to an exact reproduction of a caption from one of those exact dramas that wants to get things exactly right. Hence it's '10.06am' rather than '10am' or '10.10 am' or 'not long after breakfast of coffee, crunchy nut cornflakes and half a pink grapefruit'. The subtext of the caption guarantees that not only do the makers of this programme know how people talk, how people dress, how people behave towards one another in real life; they know so much we even know what the time was when they did all these things.

In any other mini-series in which this happened it would be fair to assume that the scriptwriter had seen one of those spoof space movies which start by telling you what galaxy we're in, what century, what year and, just to really put you in the picture, whether it's lunchtime or teatime. But Laurel Avenue (BBC 2), a hugs'n'drugs portrait of a sprawling black family in Minneapolis, has a valid excuse for overcompensating on the specifics. For years, the two totems of black American drama were, in the black corner, Roots, and in the off-white corner, The Cosby Show. Laurel Avenue's ecstatic reception is founded on two things: one, that it's much better than either of the above; two, that it tells it how it is, right down to the number of minutes past the hour.

A drama that also purports to be a documentary is astute to confine the action to the passage of a few days, but it lays itself open to the suggestion that surely not quite this much happens in one weekend with even the most accident-prone families, however sprawling. Such is art, which can organise the issues thrown up by reality to look immaculately untidy.

In part one of three, the Arnett family made it through from Friday 4.27pm to Saturday 2.33pm relatively unscathed. Two of Rushan's pals were busted for pushing by a bunch of cops that included his aunt Yolanda who, not realising who they were, nearly took a pop at her fleeing nephew. Back home, Rushan's ex-addict momma (and Yolanda's twin sister) Rolanda receives a visit from Derek, the father of her little girl Shanequa; she pulls a kitchen knife on him and he smacks her, thus scuppering tomorrow's job interview. Yolanda gets out of her white husband's bed to comfort her twin sister, but Rushan, who has the wherewithal stashed in his bedroom, wants to shoot the muther who hit his mother. Keith is dealing with racial tension in the basketball team he coaches, while Marcus is delving deeper in organised crime. All in 22 hours and six minutes. And just think, they're all the issue of God-fearing loins.

Usually, a drama's reckless pace would indicate discomfort with the more complex demands of creating character and dialogue, but generally speaking Laurel Avenue is as good to listen to as to watch. The script is guilty of some real collector's- item shorthand ('Hey, Pops, how's the plant?' 'They're laying people off every day down there'), but in between the signposts marked 'Social Problem On Your Left' there is a full complement of verisimilitude. This is not just down to much mention of 'dissing' and more F-words in an hour than an England manager uses in 18 months. When Derek and Rolanda are having their argument, the dialogue sounds awful but then it occurs to you that real, inarticulate people don't have perfectly scripted tiffs. And when real, articulate people like Rolanda and Keith have them, they still argue splutteringly about what the argument's about.

The best drama is more than about things, and so was this, so respect to director Carl Franklin and a uniformly excellent cast. It's not quite clear who to congratulate for the words themselves, as three separate credits advise that the series was created by Paul Aaron and Michael Henry Brown, the teleplay was by Michael Henry Brown, and the story was by Paul Aaron and Michael Henry Brown. The only thing that's omitted, apart from who actually wrote it, is what time they finished it.