Shows reflect the leaner life Americans are facing in the '90s


November 04, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

They may seem like nothing more than entertaining television programs.

But there is something else also going on this year with several weekly television series and upcoming made-for-TV movies -- whose topics range from life in the public defender's office to death in a private home surrounded by friends.

This is television reflecting what many viewers are feeling, according to Stan Rogow and John Sayles, the co-creators of one of the new television heroes, attorney Jack Shannon of NBC's "Shannon's Deal." It is, in Rogow's words, television "striking chords of reality within viewers" -- connecting with the national psyche.

Entertainment television is starting to reflect the notion that the party is over and that we are now living in a decade of downsized material prospects. Television is also trying to tell us how to live in an America of less, reassure us that there is life after the fall of trickle-down economics and offer a new vision of the good life.

Four new post-'80s heroes have already emerged in weekly television series. The monthlong fall "sweeps" ratings period, which started last week, features several made-for-TV movies dealing with crashes and comebacks, built around the theme of life after the fall.

One of those films, "The Last, Best Year of My Life," with Mary Tyler Moore and Bernadette Peters, airs tonight at 9 on WJZ-TV (Channel 13; see review on page 8). Another film, "On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story," a docudrama about the Olympic skater and her rise, fall and rise again, airs Monday at 9 on WMAR-TV (Channel 2). Another docudrama, "Call Me Anna," based on Patty Duke's roller-coaster autobiography, airs next Sunday at 9 on Channel 13.

The new heroes started arriving last spring with Shannon. This fall, Rosie O'Neill ("The Trials of Rosie O'Neill"), Simon MacHeath Against the Law") and Hank Zaret ("WIOU") signed on. The pilots for each show went out of their way to tell viewers that the heroes had become too caught up in selfish concerns with personal gain and professional advancement during the 1980s. The heroes were now burning off those sins in low-rent walk-up offices and run-down television news stations. The material circumstances are reduced, but the spiritual and personal gains are substantial:

*Rosie O'Neill (Sharon Gless) was a corporate attorney living the good life in California. Now she's a public defender literally being spat on by clients and trying to sell her Mercedes. But she wouldn't consider returning to a Beverly Hills firm.

*Hank Zaret (John Shea) was a news director in the nation's largest market, New York City. He got carried away, lost sight of ethics and paid money for a story. Now he's back in Chicago at a television station doing so badly in ratings and earnings that it is nicknamed "WIOU." But as Shea says of Zaret, "He knows there's got to be more than just ratings . . ."

*Simon MacHeath (Michael O'Keefe) also walked away from the world of corporate law -- in his case, for the freedom of defending those he wants to defend: mainly, the dispossessed. He finds his joy in using the law to empower his clients.

*Jack Shannon (whose "Shannon's Deal" returns at midseason) is also a former corporate attorney now living in greatly reduced circumstances. He, too, is more interested in public service than private gain. He can barely pay the rent, but he feels alive again.

What all this amounts to is a clear break from the TV heroes of the Reagan '80s, when J. R. Ewing ("Dallas") and Joan Collins ("Dynasty") ruled the Nielsen roost. It is all about crash-landing, picking up the pieces and rebuilding a life. It is about comebacks.

Sayles described it this way in talking about Shannon during a press conference earlier this year: "We've gone through a couple of decades of people living on plastic -- emotionally, morally. People said, 'Oh, the hell with all that stuff about worrying about other people. I'm going to make all this money.' . . . Jack Shannon lived that way, and he crashed. And now he's realizing that a lot of those values have proven to be empty or counterproductive. . . . Now he's making a comeback, but it is in vTC ethical rather than monetary terms."

The crashes and comebacks in the made-for-TV movies highlighting this November sweeps period are mainly of the emotional kind. Thesimilarities are striking. Viewers of NBC's "Tai Babilonia: On Thin Ice" tomorrow night and ABC's "Call Me Anna" next Sunday are going to see almost identical scenes of a woman breaking down, crawling under a table and curling up into a fetal position. Like Shannon, though, both Babilonia and Patty Duke start the process of rebuilding their lives and seeking a new fulfillment.

In tonight's "The Last, Best Year of My Life," the young career woman played by Bernadette Peters suffers a similar low when she learns she is terminally ill and her lover abandons her. Her triumph is in the new life of new values she builds with the help of a therapist (Mary Tyler Moore) before her death.

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