Networks escape reality with a focus on the past


September 15, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Picture Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in black tie and gossamer gown gliding across the silver screen at the height of the Depression.

Or think back to 1968. American cities were engulfed in race riots, and the only depiction of black life on TV was the middle-class predictability of "Julia." Body bags were arriving from Vietnam, and "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." was TV's prime-time picture of military life.

Escapism. Sugar-coated versions of reality. Old, familiar faces and old, familiar formulas. It all adds up to friendly, predictable and -- above all -- non-threatening entertainment.

And that's what's in store for the fall television season, which unofficially begins this week. Take a look at the 26 new shows from the broadcast networks and the retreat from reality, and programming innovation, is unmistakable. From such nostalgia-drenched series as "Homefront" and "Brooklyn Bridge" to the resurrection of viewer-friendly stars like James Garner and Richard Crenna, the shift is so intense you have to go back to watershed times, like 1968 or the Depression, to find precedents.

Two developments have reshaped the network landscape: the failure of last year's innovation and programmers' belief that viewers don't want to be reminded of a recession that won't go away. The result is a new season reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns: artificially sweetened re-creations of the past served up as our new present. It's TV as smile button.

The retreat is happening on several levels. First, old stars have been brought back to reprise updated versions of formerly successful TV personas in a number of shows.

Garner returns tonight in "Man of the People" as Jim Doyle, a small-time confidence man who becomes a city councilman. This is Maverick in late middle age. Robert Guillaume resurfaces tonight as a policeman in the sitcom "Pacific Station." There's more than a bit of "Benson" -- only this time with a badge.

Other old faces in familiar roles this fall include Dabney Coleman, Redd Foxx, Richard Crenna, Twiggy Lawson and Marion Ross.

Shows reverting to old formulas make for a deeper level of retreat. "P.S.I. Luv U," which premieres tonight, features Connie Sellecca as a glamorous con artist forced to live in a witness

protection program in Palm Springs with a police officer played by Greg Evigan. It's "To Catch a Thief" meets "Hart to Hart," with the emphasis on glamour and escape. "Palace Guard," debuting next month on CBS, is more of the same.

There is no older or more outmoded formula than the sexist fairy tale at the core of "Princesses," which co-stars Twiggy. The premise has three single women in New York sharing -- through a series of accidents and misunderstandings -- a penthouse in New York. The show's theme song tells us these three are "waiting for their princes to come."

But the deepest escapism is found in shows set in former times. There are three important ones: ABC's "Homefront," a serial about life in the late 1940s as a generation of Americans returned triumphant from World War II; CBS' "Brooklyn Bridge," about a Jewish family in Brooklyn, circa 1956; and NBC's "I'll Fly Away," about civil rights in a southern town in the late 1950s.

In "I'll Fly Away" and "Homefront" (the two available for preview) the escapism involves more than transporting viewers from their daily troubles to another time. They also offer a reinterpretation -- an arguably false feel-good sense -- of our past and present. Some viewers in 1991 may watch the re-creation of a sit-in at the close of "I'll Fly Away" and feel as if the battle for civil rights has been fought, the good guys have won and that we have all done the right thing. Many others, though, will look at the reality of civil rights today and come to considerably different conclusions.

It is that false sense of history that makes these two shows different from, say, "Happy Days" -- itself spawned by the recessionary worries of the mid-'70s and a growing anxiety that developments in the Middle East were taking control of our destiny. But "Happy Days" took viewers back to an earlier, simpler time without rewriting civil rights history, or its equivalent, in the process.

David Jacobs, the executive producer of "Homefront" (and a Baltimore native), acknowledges the escapism trend, but defends it as a healthy process of "looking back because we don't want to leave anything good behind as we move into the next century."

Jacobs is right to a certain extent, and it's also true that TV has always offered escape. But rarely has the concept so dominated prime time. Even quality, established dramas have been told by the programmers to a get a little warmer and fuzzier this year.

Patricia Green, co-executive producer of "L.A. Law," said her show will "lighten up" this year in reaction to viewer complaints. Producers for "Law & Order" and "Pros and Cons" (formerly "Gabriel's Fire") said their series will do the same. Call it the year of Prime-Time Lite.

How does such wholesale change in TV programming happen? Jeff Sagansky, president of CBS Entertainment, said it's simply the networks giving us what they think we want.

"I don't think that the public is looking for, you know, social drama and the kind of heavier television," he said. "That's why we've put on [shows like] 'P.S.I. Luv U.'..."

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