'WIOU' is intelligent, hilarious TV

October 24, 1990|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

THEY'VE SAVED ONE of the best for last. "WIOU" -- which premieres on CBS tonight after being endlessly promoted during the World Series -- is an intelligent, artfully crafted drama that is at once hilarious and touching.

Indeed, its opening scene is one of the great moments in black comedy, an area usually avoided in prime time because it's too dangerous and risky and difficult to do well.

"WIOU," which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) at 10 o'clock, displays its legacy in its title. The series is set in the news operation of WNDY, which broadcasts over Channel 12 in some unnamed big city. The station has fallen on such hard times that it's referred to as WIOU.

That sounds an awful lot like the way a hospital named St. Eligius came to be called St. Elsewhere. Scott Brazil, who is this show's executive producer along with former TV-news types John Eisendrath and Kathryn Pratt, is an alumnus of the production staff of "St. Elsewhere's" spiritual father, "Hill Street Blues."

And "WIOU" is being produced by the nearly defunct GTG Entertainment, the company run by Grant Tinker, who headed MTM Enterprises when it produced both "Hill Street" and "St. Elsewhere."

Like "Hill Street," each episode of "WIOU" will follow several stories, some professional, some personal, some that will conclude, some that will continue. And, like "St. Elsewhere," this show is not afraid to walk the line between the real and the surreal, which, if you've spent any time at all in a television newsroom, is not at all unreal.

"WIOU" will revolve around the station's news director, Hank Zaret, played by John Shea with the aplomb of ''Hill Street''s Frank Furillo. One of the many gypsies who travel the circuit in the TV news business, he arrives new on the job tonight, a trick taken from the pilot of "WKRP in Cincinnati" that allows all the characters to be introduced. Moments later, one of the co-anchors keels over on the set during a commercial break.

In the ensuing maelstrom, the ambitious black reporter, superbly played by Phil Morris, literally prys the copy out of the dying man's hands so that he can take his place on air, which he does, as heads bounce in the background to the rhythm of CPR.

The rest of the hour is taken up with two main stories. There's the ethical dilemma of one of the station's top reporters, Kelby Robinson, played by Helen Shaver, who has gotten too close to someone she covers and now has trouble handling a revelation about his past. And there are the young go-getters making their careers at a fatal five-alarm fire.

The stories aren't the best, but all the chinks in between are filled in with the carefully drawn details that separate a great series from a merely good one. The juxtaposition of comedy and drama has rarely been better handled.

The cast -- from Mariette Hartley's picture-of-competence executive producer to Dick Van Patten's beautifully buffoonish weatherman -- is solid top to bottom, but nobody tops the work of Harris Yulin as the ex-network anchor whose career has crumbled but whose arrogance hasn't. Somewhere beneath his many lecherous, greedy exteriors lies the core of a good newsman, but you have to hold your nose to get to it.

"WIOU" risks stereotypes with some of its characters, but any series that would have the pallbearers at a funeral negotiating billing for the new anchor team is one that is taking the kind of risks needed on TV these days. This is an adult show in the best sense of that word -- mature, sophisticated television for grown-ups of all ages.

"WIOU"

*** A struggling TV news operation populated by overpaid, arrogant anchormen, hard-working producers and hopeful young wannabes, welcomes a news director who has landed here after being canned in New York.

CAST: John Shea, Harris Yulin, Mariette Hartley, Helen Shaver

TIME: Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)

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