Astiff, Texas wind has mercifully swept the landscape clean in HBO's "Baja Oklahoma" -- clean of designer fashions, precocious kids, business suits, BMWs and the other residue of prime-time network television.
Instead, "Baja Oklahoma" gives us:
-- Juanita (Lesley Ann Warren), a gaunt-faced heroine whose stomach rounds out of the skinny miniskirts she wears to work at Herb's Bar and Grill.
-- Candy (Julia Roberts), Juanita's 18-year-old daughter who runs away with a drug dealer.
-- Doris (Swoosie Kurtz), Juanita's man-hungry best friend.
-- Slick (Peter Coyote), Juanita's high school sweetheart, who returns to their small Texas town wearing baggy pants and aspiring to be nothing more than a good auto mechanic.
"Baja Oklahoma" makes these folks so real that you'll feel as if you've been dropped into the overstuffed chair in Juanita's living room to sip a beer while her old black-and-white TV drones away in the background.
Their talk is coarse (this definitely isn't a family show). Their aspirations are generally humble. Their feelings run close to the skin. Once you start watching them, you won't be able to resist sticking with them until the end. And then you'll probably want more.
HBO describes "Baja Oklahoma" as a Texas-style "Cheers," but the movie doesn't need or deserve that kind of me-too identification. It's original enough to get my vote as one of the season's best made-for-TV movies. Best of all, it ends on such an upbeat note that you'll be able to kick away the Kleenex box that has become de rigueur with most network TV movies.
The central plot is a basic one, about Juanita's search for love and fulfillment. On the love end of the scale, she's a certified loser. Slick dumped her for another girl while she was still in high school. Her early marriage ended in divorce. Her boyfriends since then have been losers, with the last one raiding her refrigerator before walking out in the middle of the night.
"All they ever leave you with are fingerprints and the beginning of a baby," she says, vowing to swear off men.
Slick helps change her mind, of course, just as he helps turn her lifelong dream of becoming a country-and-western songwriter into reality. Like so many of us, Juanita has allowed herself to be sucked into the routine of daily life, where she now relaxes in safety. At Slick's urging, she takes some risks and winds up a thoroughly appealing winner.
Warren, whose sexy legs could surely give a boost to the miniskirt industry, is magnificent as Juanita, and Kurtz absolutely shines as Doris. Coyote plays Slick with the delicacy of a musician, making this quiet man into a thoroughly appealing hero.
Dan Jenkins co-wrote the teleplay (with Bobby Roth) based on Jenkins' novel of the same title. "Baja Oklahoma" is filled with original country music that will leave you smiling even if you don't usually care much for guitars or banjos. Jenkins wrote the lyrics to the title song.
Willie Nelson composed the title song's music and makes a brief appearance at the end. Watch for Emmylou Harris, too, as well as British blues artist John Mayall, singer-songwriter Billy Vera and Bob Wills Jr., who plays his father, the late western-swing bandleader.
Each of these performances slides into the story line as neatly as "Baja Oklahoma's" breathtaking photography of the Texas landscape. But it's the people who count in the end. People with tangled hair and tawdry pink pants and a zest for life that may make some buttoned-down TV viewers feel an uncomfortable twinge of envy.
"Baja Oklahoma" had its debut at Saturday on HBO. It will be repeated Feb. 24 and 29 and March 3, 6 and 8.