As pay TV and video cassettes lure viewers away from mainstream broadcasts, the American networks have countered with the most brazen display of guns and glamor in the history of the medium. With a fall roster of 24 new series—21 of which will appear on Canadian channels—the networks have remoulded television’s most familiar clichés, injected them with higher-voltage violence than ever and sweetened them with the latest designs in high fashion and rock video.
Nine of the new U.S. imports are crime shows, most of them violent, five are situation comedies, the rest are candy-floss fantasies featuring models, musicians, journalists, angels, cupids and extraterrestrials. At the same time, many of the old stars are back with fresh cars, careers—and clothes.
Aside from escalated violence, the most striking component of the new shows is glitter. Indeed, one has even called itself Glitter (ABC/CTV) —a flaccid drama about a People-type magazine where the reporters pair off before heading out on assignment. Cover Up (CBS), which appears on eight independent channels across Canada, cunningly combines high fashion and violent espionage by teaming a female photographer with a male model to chase terrorists through tropical climes. In both shows quality is only skin deep.
The most immaculately groomed new series is Paper Dolls (ABC and 10 Canadian independents), an evening soap that streamlines the Dallas/Dynasty formula to an insidious degree. Once again empires clash within a web of family intrigue, but in Paper Dolls the commodity at stake is beauty itself, as rival cosmetic firms compete to control a stable of fashion models. Lloyd Bridges plays a cosmetics tycoon with blue-chip integrity, and Morgan Fairchild pro-
vides the malice as Racine, a ruthless agent who promotes pretty faces. While hair-flicking models pose to the rhythm of pop hits, their photo sessions turn into mock rock videos.
Even the crime shows are style conscious this fall. Partners in Crime (NBC/ Global) stars Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter as a pair of high-heeled private detectives. It lacks excitement and humor, but it does have fancy fashions.
More sophisticated is Miami Vice, a rare stab at realism for a medium awash with fantasy. A black New York police officer (Philip Michael Thomas) teams up with a white Miami counterpart (Don Johnson) to scour the shadows for drug dealers. The gritty, violent show creates emotional tension with a cinematic look and a commanding musical score.
By contrast, Hunter, another product from the NBC arsenal, is a celebration of violence without taste. A deliberate clone of the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry
movie, the program stars former football player Fred Dryer as a triggerhappy policeman with a street-walking partner nicknamed the Brass Cupcake (Stepfanie Kramer). Jessie (ABC), a more genteel approach to the same format, stars Lindsay Wagner as a police psychiatrist who lends her brains and beauty to a car-chasing brute from the San Francisco force.
Amid the din of gunfire and squealing tires, several of the new sitcoms offer short-term relief, notably The Bill Cosby Show (NBC), which topped last week’s U.S. Neilsen ratings. In a funny and endearing comedy about the exasperation of fatherhood, Cosby plays an obstetrician married to a lawyer with four children. The dilemma of child care also provides the premise for Charles in Charge (CBS/ CBC), a passable comedy about a college student (Scott Baio) who works as a live-in nanny. The U.S. networks have a habit of duplicating trends: ABC also has a sitcom about a male domestic, called - Who’s the Boss? (ABC/Global), in which a single mother (Judith Light) hires an ex-jock (Tony Danza) to help with the housework. But the broad sexual innuendo between them is all situation and no comedy.
One of the more offbeat diversions in the new schedule is a nonviolent crime show, Murder She Wrote (CBS/CBC), a humorous whodunit starring a charming and frumpy Angela Lansbury as a Cape Cod mystery writer who cracks cases in her spare time.
The Canadian networks, especially the CBC, are balking at some of the more vulgar imports. The CBC, CTV and Global have bought few of the violent crime shows—they have gone to independent stations, including CFCF in Montreal, CHCH in Hamilton and CFAC in Calgary. As well, the CBC is reducing U.S. content by one hour a week, leaving a Canadian-content level of 75 per cent,
and aims to remove all U.S. programming from its schedule within five years.
The CBC has expanded homegrown drama with television movies, specials and 13 episodes of a new half-hour series called Danger Bay. Coproduced with the Disney Channel, an American pay TV service, Danger Bay is an action-adventure show that breaks the cardinal rules of the form: its stories are nonviolent, educational and based on scrupulous research rather than wild fantasy. Its hero (Donnelly Rhodes) is a widowed veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium who joins a vivacious pilot (Deborah Wakeman) in rescue missions up and down the coast and Interior of British Columbia. In the first episode a rabid dog aboard a sailboat bites one of the vet’s children, and the doctor, brimming with stern advice about rabies, mobilizes a speedboat, a hovercraft and a seaplane to search for the animal. Whether or not Canadians will warm to such fare when they are addicted to The A-Team’s violence is questionable.
In the late-afternoon slot the CBC will expand its children’s programming with several new series, including The Elephant Show, starring the remarkable musical trio of Sharon, Lois and Bram. They play tunes that do not cloy in adult ears, demonstrate barnyard craft techniques—including making a fiddle from a cornstalk—and make jokes based on such wordplay as “How Jack and the beans talk.” With a stuffed elephant as host and a child cast consisting of 30 amateurs, the show is a delight.
For its part, the Global network has beaten the CBC at its own game with at least one laudable foray into drama. Coproduced with the National Film Board and Telefilm Canada, it commissioned Oscar-winning Atlantis Films to produce eight half-hour dramas adapted from Canadian short stories by authors including Mordecai Richler, Sinclair Ross and Morley Callaghan. Well acted, sharply directed and evocatively shot, they are, for the most part, unhappy stories with cruel endings. Capes, based on a tale by Guy Vanderhaeghe about a miner and his two sons, presents a gutwrenching vision of working-class life. A stark contrast to Global’s regular schedule, the stories make splendid television.
U.S. networks, unlike their Canadian counterparts, can afford the luxury of creating failures and then cancelling them. Of the 23 new shows introduced last fall, only six survive in the new season’s lineup. Media Buying Services, a Toronto-based agent for TV advertisers, predicts at least 10 of the 24 new U.S. imports will die before the season is over. No matter how tough the style, it seems, the fall fashions in guns and glamor are as disposable as ever.«^
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