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PBS' "Shift" is a subtle story of a sad telephone love affair. 

Life Goes On

Don't watch "Shift" if you're looking for a driving, slickly packaged drama with a brick-wall-falling-on-you point. You'll only be disappointed.

Think of "Shift" as a tone poem, and you'll be better prepared for what you'll see.

"Shift" is about crushing, grinding boredom in a marriage that's thrown away anything it once had in the way of interest, much less excitement. Think of it as an underscoring of what life is like in the faceless, sprawling suburbs where working-class people think of ambition as a waste of time and find their solace in the bottom of a long-neck beer bottle.

Think of it as a life wherein a telemarketing call can spark a romance. But don't call it serendipity. Call it nothing more than happenstance.

"Shift" is set in North Carolina, but it's not particularly place-specific. Melanie (Alethea Allen) is a waitress at an airport lounge, and her husband is unemployed. She's worn down from being on her feet all day, from enduring a loveless marriage, and from living in a starter home that might one day have been in better shape but isn't now. Her husband wasn't born mean, but he's not going to win any congeniality awards either. Chronic unemployment leads nowhere, and living off your wife's earnings leads to low self-esteem. Eddie's self-esteem wasn't all that high starting out.

Then comes that chance telemarketing call from Louis (Christopher Meloni). He's working in a cubicle for Telegen, and something clicks while he's asking her the usual dumb telemarketing questions — this time about dishwashing liquid, travel preferences and plans for the future. Both, however, hear something special in the other's voice. Louis gets her number so he can call her back, and he does. He laughs at her stupid jokes, and he listens to her dreams. She flirts back and, surprisingly, a semblance of a romance blossoms over the phone.

What Melanie doesn't know is that Louis is in prison. He makes less than $20 a week at his job, which is part of a pilot partnership between a private corporation and the state's correctional division.

Melanie does find out eventually and wants to know why he's there. "Possession," he says. Eddie finds out too, when the $200 telephone bill comes. And Louis' bosses at the prison find out he's been making unauthorized calls, so they pull him off the job and transfer him across the state as punishment.

There's more. But there's no resolution to this hour-long drama. It merely proves to the Melanies and the Louises of the world once again that life is to be endured, not savored.

What saves "Shift" from total bleakness is a taut script by Kelly Anderson and Tal McThenia, and luminous performances by stage actress Allen and Meloni ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"), who draw a pair of alienated characters that are believable and who manage to make the audience care, if only a little, about a pair of society's rejects.

But don't look for the finality of an ending, really. In "Shift," life just goes endlessly on, and on, and
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