TELEVISION

New recruits in the war for ratings

HATHER ROBERTSON October 5 1987
TELEVISION

New recruits in the war for ratings

HATHER ROBERTSON October 5 1987

New recruits in the war for ratings

TELEVISION

In a society where life tends to imitate television, the start of a new fall season provides a revealing portrait of current American obsessions, fears, myths and trends. This season almost all the new shows follow two old formulas: the law-andorder format of Dragnet and the syrupy paternalism of Father Knows Best. A lone exception is Dolly (CTV, Fri., 8 p.m.), which attempts to reincarnate a new, thin Dolly Parton as a clone of down-home 1950s variety hostess Dinah Shore. In fact, in 1987 American television is projecting stereotypes of the 1950s—the good cop, the cute kid, the kindly dad, the lovable buffoon —despite the fact that those characters are now boring and irrelevant. If this year’s new series are an accurate reflection, the American empire, although not about to fall, is entering an end-ofcentury slump characterized by boredom, creative exhaustion and moral uncertainty.

The best of the new series, Private Eye (Global and NBC, Fri., 10 p.m.), succeeds because, according to its executive producer, Anthony Yerkovich (Miami Vice), it is set in the 1950s. Starring a sensual, unshaven Michael Woods as ex-policeman Jack Cleary, Private Eye is a lush, violent and erotic exercise in nostalgia. Sparked by Josh Brolin as Cleary’s wisecracking, street-smart partner, it combines Hollywood decadence and rock ’n’ roll into a seductive fantasy.

This season the small screen is crawling with crime stoppers. There are fat ex-cops (William Conrad in Jake and the Fat Man, CTV, Mon., 9 p.m.), rookie cops (The Oldest Rookie, CBC, Wed., 7 p.m.), tough undercover cops (Wiseguy, Global and CBS, Thurs., 9 p.m.) and female investigators. In spite of its fatuous title, Leg Work (CTV, Sat., 8 p.m.) features an attractive woman with a sense of humor as independent New York private investigator Claire McCarron. Margaret Colin plays her with all the panache—but none of the insufferable perkiness—of the 1970s Mary Tyler Moore. Like most crime shows, Leg Work’s plot is totally unbelievable, but the characters have wit, warmth and credibility.

Another police show, Hooperman (CBC, Tues., 7:30 p.m.), tries so hard to be funny that it succeeds only in being crude. In the opening sequence, police inspector Harry Hooperman

(John Ritter) plunges his shampooed head into a toilet tank because his shower was not working. Later he persuades a man not to jump off a ledge by tossing a watermelon six

storeys to the sidewalk. Hooperman then obtains a search warrant under false pretences, professes innocence when his lie is exposed in court, traps the murderer into a confession and

emerges a hero. Hooperman has the inverted morality of Oliver North: right is what works, wrong is what does not. In fact, most of this season’s crime shows assume that almost any problem can be solved with a gun.

A declining empire celebrates the forbidden. At the end of the British empire, the secret vice was homosexuality; now it appears to be relationships that approach the incestuous. The opening hour of Jake and the Fat Man features a torrid love affair between stepmother and stepson, while My Two Dads (Global, Sat., 7:30 p.m.; NBC, Sun., 8.30 p.m.) exploits the implicit sexual dynamic between two young, single, predatory men and a 12-year-old girl. The pubescent young woman was conceived when both men were having an affair with her mother. When the mother dies, she bequeaths the child to both “fathers.” If that is not perverse enough, the two putative fathers fight for their daughter’s affection as they once fought for her mother’s. Both fathers are angry, selfish and unloving.

It must be the year of the obnoxious male—a slick young professional with too much money, too few brains, an omnivorous ego and a nonstop mouth. He drives a Porsche and has a basketball hoop in his apartment. He lives alone or with a man just like him. And he is almost always single, divorced or widowed. According to the barometer of U.S. TV programming, American women had better be careful—on the small screen, wives are being killed off at an alarming rate. And when women are not dead, many of them this season tend to be castrating bitch-bosses or dragon mothers. Maude, with the formidable Bea Arthur in the title role, started a trend toward the dominant matriarch. Maude’s ghost is everywhere, not to mention back on the tube in The Golden Girls. Maude at least was funny. Rae (Anne Jackson), the mama in Everything’s Relative (CTV, Sun., 7:30 p.m.), is simply a parody of the domineering mother who is as horrible as her two sons.

There are some pleasant exceptions to the hostility toward women. One is The Law and Harry McGraw (CTV, Tues., 10 p.m.), featuring Barbara Babcock as a sensitive, middle-aged lawyer involved with the seedy private detective, Harry McGraw (Jerry

Orbach). Both Babcock and Orbach have a wry, world-weary tenderness that helps make up for the show’s oldfashioned style and thin script. And neither owns a dog, which is a good sign —a dog act is a sure sign of a scriptwriter searching for sentimental charm.

But William Conrad has one in Jake and the Fat Man, and the ugly, slobbering beast just about ruins the series.

An exuberant change is I Married Dora (Global, Wed., 8 p.m.; ABC, Fri., 8.30 p.m.), a show that could make Elizabeth Pena a star.

The show inverts the ethnic formula of the old Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz series, I Love Lucy, with the dark,

Hispanic Pena playing Dora, a refugee from El Salvador who works as a maid for a widowed American architect.

When Dora was threatened with deportation, the architect married her to keep her in the country. With Pena’s sultry, flamboyant style and the story’s political resonance, I Married Dora has originality, but its potential may be ruined by Daniel Hugh-Kelly as her wooden husband, his two bratty kids and a tendency to take refuge in the nearest silly sitcom formula.

One positive trend is that the appeal of cute kids seems to be fading. But they are still around, although older, in A Different World (CTV, Thurs.,

8.30 p.m.), a Cosby Show spinoff featuring Lisa Bonet as Denise Huxtable at college. A roomful of giggly freshman girls in a dorm is a standard recipe for pornography. Take away the sex and it makes for excruciating television: A Different World is sex free—and brain dead. These grinning nitwits have cornered the market on perkiness. Maybe they will all flunk out.

There seems to be little reason, other than subliminal racism, why TV cops are Irish and black actors play patriarchs or lovable goofs. The series’ one-hour première of Frank's Place (CTV, Sat., 7 p.m.) manages to work in almost every black stereo-

type in the American tradition. A Boston college professor, Frank Parrish (Tim Reid), inherits a folksy New Orleans restaurant from a father he has never known. The restaurant is staffed by characters right out of Uncle Remus—the foxy Rever-

end, the wise old mammy—and within hours of falling in with that crowd,

Frank is transformed from an urban sophisticate into a shuffling good ol’ boy who believes in voodoo. This is a program that thinks embalming jokes are funny.

Although most shows try desperately to be contemporary—there

seems to be no current plague not yet treated on TV —some are strange anachronisms. Beauty and the Beast (Global, Tues., 9 p.m.; CBS, Fri., 8 p.m.) is an update of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with overtones of Superman. Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton) is an upscale New Yorker with bad taste in men. After a couple of thugs abduct her and slash her face with a razor, she is rescued by Vincent, a grotesque man-beast who rules a subterranean kingdom beneath the city streets. Beauty and the Beast—with its repressed heroine, dark tunnels and animal rescuer—is pure fantasy with interesting psychological implications.

One alternative is a stale return to aged symbols of masculinity. Buck James (CTV, Fri., 10 p.m.) stars Dennis Weaver of McCloud fame as a cow-punching Texas surgeon who tries to be a combination of Pa Cartwright and Dr. Marcus Welby. Slap Maxwell (CBC, Tues., 7 p.m.) features Dabney Coleman as a wise but washed-up smalltown sports columnist. Maxwell is so out of date that he still wears a fedora indoors, chomps cigars and pecks out his stories on a manual typewriter. Coleman plays Maxwell with wit and curmudgeonly charm, but the satire is blunted by sentimentality, and it is hard to imagine this show appealing to anyone except old newspaper reporters.

The most striking thing about the 1987 TV season is the preponderance of corrupt, unpleasant and repulsive characters. Even the good guys tend to be dishonest and exploitative. A clan composed of a patriarch who is losing his authority, selfish offspring and insolent grandchildren, the family of A Year in the Life (Global and NBC, Wed., W p.m.) is characterized by people drawn together by mutual loathesomeness. With all its efforts to amuse, American television expresses primarily cynicism and despair.

HATHER ROBERTSON