PBS magazine show must sharpen its 'Edge'

TV premiere

October 01, 1991|By Michael Hill

"Edge," a new PBS monthly cultural magazine, tries to be different. Which is fine. Programs shouldn't be on PBS unless they are different. There are plenty of other channels that will carry the same old stuff.

But sometimes "Edge" tries a little too hard. In tomorrow night's premiere hour, which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 10 o'clock, there's plenty of good stuff, but sometimes the show -- oh, go ahead and say it -- goes over the edge.

Take the first piece, for example. It's a fine job of reporting by Elvis Mitchell on the controversy around Spike Lee's planned movie about Malcolm X. First Lee wrested the project from Norman Jewison, claiming that this was no movie for a white man to make, and now some members of the black community RTC are saying that Malcolm X's story should not be told by an approved-by-Hollywood director like Lee.

Among the many who tried to tackle a Malcolm X screenplay over the years was James Baldwin. He wrote about it in his memoirs, some real interesting stuff. But why did "Edge" have to hire an actor to read Baldwin's commentary, complete with overwrought emotion while sitting in a darkened hotel room, guzzling booze, no less?

You have to figure it is supposed to be an attempt to show that "Edge" would take chances. It comes off like a cheap reality re-creation, of the type that you would see on a tabloid TV show, or on something hosted by Connie Chung, not Robert Krulwich, the clever newsman/commentator who hosts "Edge."

Or then there's James Woolcott's review of Norman Mailer's new novel, "Harlot's Ghost." It's an interesting contribution by this Vanity Fair writer, full of insight as Woolcott does a Mailer on Mailer, throwing away any pretense of objective analysis, appraising the novel from his egocentric viewpoint which, it turns out, has been greatly affected by Mailer's prose and presence over the years.

For the last decade or so, Woolcott has been let down by the hero of his book-reading boyhood and he doesn't know if he can handle it. Woolcott sees this novel, which happens to be about the CIA, as both another blow to his ego's image of Mailer and an examination of the psychological devastation of not knowing who you are.

All that's fine and dandy, but the review is filmed as a dramatic bit, much of it in a bar, with actors playing various parts. One

scene, in which Woolcott divides up his persona on a park bench to show his schizophrenic view of Mailer, could have come from Fox's new inner-workings-of-the-brain sitcom "Herman's Head." The ref should throw the flag on Woolcott. Fifteen yard penalty for unnecessary edginess.

Similarly, a piece in which comedian Buck Henry is sent to report on the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead's increasingly popular concerts is highly amusing as the straight-laced Henry gets swept away in the tide of tie-dye.

But, though there was a bit of information here about the Dead and a number of funny interviews with their fans, the piece cried out for some sophisticated reporting about the Dead's endurance, about the legacy of the '60s that the aging fans are keeping alive, that the young fans yearn for with envy. This segment is too busy being entertaining for that.

Krulwich handles the most straightforward piece, which is on Court TV, the new all-trials, all-the-time cable network that has yet to make it to any local systems. There are some insightful interviews in this about the appeal of what is perceived as reality in a television marketplace saturated with artifice.

Another segment that explores the world of monuments as the country contemplates ways to memorialize the Gulf war has a similarly welcome no-gimmicks approach to its subject.

"Edge," a co-production of New York's WNET and the BBC, which is running these shows in England, can be forgiven some of its faults. At least it stumbles because it goes too far, not because it fails to try.

If it's going to work, first of all "Edge" needs the budget to be a weekly show because in these hectic times, a cultural edge can get pretty dull in a month. And, secondly, the producers of this show need to learn that their edge should come from their subject matter, not from their production tricks.

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