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NOBLE TELEVISION THAT’S AWFULLY HARD TO WATCH

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No Place Like Home (Sunday at 8 p.m., Ch. 5) is to television in 1989 what "Harvest of Shame" was in 1960. It's a brave and unflinching look at a terrible social problem that government agencies don't seem much interested in facing. It is television as a social conscience.

The difference is that "No Place Like Home" is fiction - a made-up, made-for-TV movie about a family that finds itself homeless. "Harvest of Shame" was non-fiction - a real-life, real tough documentary about migrant workers by Edward R. Murrow.Today the networks are more likely to present news re-creations on "Saturday Night with Connie Chung" than news reports like "Harvest of Shame." There is something wrong with a TV news industry that does that. There is, however, something very right about a TV entertainment division that airs a "No Place Like Home," with stars like Christine Lahti and Jeff Daniels under the direction of Lee Grant.

"No Place Like Home" is the dark side of the generally upbeat life in working-class America that "Roseanne" paints every week. Lahti and Daniels are Zan and Mike Cooper, a young couple with two children. Mike is a laid-off steelworker living with his family in a rust belt city. He works as the custodian of the inner-city apartment building his family lives in. He also goes to technical school to learn to be an electrician. Zan works at a doughnut shop.

Their life is not idyllic in the opening, but it seems O.K. The apartment is neat. There is enough room for the family to celebrate birthdays, wrap gifts and have a cat named Jonesy. Grant takes the time to show us a couple of tender moments and private jokes between Zan and Mike that suggest some of the joy of family life. And everything points to an even better tomorrow when Mike gets his electrician's license. It might be a little threadbare, but this generally is working-class America as its supposed to look on prime-time television.

Then, one night when the Coopers are away for a family get-together at the home of Mike's brother, their apartment building burns down. The family stands on the street in the night, and you can see not only the flames reflected in their eyes, but also the anguish as they watch everything they own turn to ashes.

The Coopers' first stop is a motel. They think things are going to be all right. Zan still has her job at the doughnut shop. Mike's tools were destroyed in the fire, so he can't do repair work. But he thinks he can do day labor, and the family can save enough to find another apartment. They have about $700 in savings and checking accounts. But they come to realize pretty quickly that they can't find a place to live for less than about $1,400 (first and last months' rent, plus another month's rent as a security deposit). And the savings are disappearing pretty fast in daily motel rent and fast-food dinners. And the kids are bouncing off the walls of the one room.

Lee Grant's documentary training makes this film doubly powerful. (She won an Academy Award in 1987 for directing the non-fiction documentary on homelessness, "Down and Out in America.") And she is always working on two tracks in "No Place Like Home."

The made-for-TV-movie track involves the drama of the Coopers as a family - a modern-day, urban version of the Joads from "Grapes of Wrath." It deals with emotions, relationships, hopes, heartbreak and terror. A strong script and Emmy-plus performances from both Lahti and Daniels make Grant's work easier here.

Lahti has a motel room scene in which Zan Cooper looks at her grandmother's charred earring and starts sobbing, "Oh Grammy, oh Grammy," as she feels the bottom slipping out of her world. After that scene, it is impossible to see Zan and her family as the Other. She and they are us - only a few less paychecks away from the streets.

Daniels shows what a superb physical actor he is throughout this film. The rage of the working man unable to work because of social forces he does not understand explodes out of Mike Cooper at the touch of his wife's hand on his shoulder, a gesture intended to comfort. He wheels on her with such intensity that some viewers may recoil from their television sets.

The second track Grant works on is that of the documentary filmmaker - or what used to be thought of as the television journalist. The script calculates how much it costs to get an apartment in real dollars. Grant's cameras so chronicle the life in motel rooms, welfare hotels, family shelters and camps for the homeless that some viewers may actually feel as if they are being sucked down with the Coopers in their spiral of despair in an America without a safety net.

There is no phony, upbeat ending of a thousand points of light for the Coopers in "No Place Like Home." This is an honest made-for-TV movie. It's a great made-for-TV movie. It is the kind of made-for-TV movie that redeems prime-time television from many of its sins.

But viewers should know that "No Place Like Home" is not a fun made-for-TV movie. It's unflinching in its look at homelessness. It does not blink. It will leave many viewers feeling deeply troubled - like "Harvest of Shame" and other great documentaries used to do.