"Danielle Steel's Palomino" is smart stuff.
That's right. Tonight's made-for-TV movie, about a New York photographer who goes out west on assignment and falls in love with a modern-day cowboy, is S-M-A-R-T.
I know that might be a little hard to accept at first. Newspaper reviews generally have dealt with TV versions of Ms. Steel's work in only a couple of ways.
The popular novelist's works have been mocked as cliche-ridden, formulaic froth. They also have been discussed as counterprogramming against sports -- Ms. Steel for female viewers, football and baseball for men.
The counterprogramming angle deserves attention. That's how Ms. Steel is being used this week. Tonight, "Palomino" airs at 9 on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), while "Monday Night Football" plays on ABC. Wednesday, NBC puts more TV-Steel into its schedule, pitting "Daddy" against the World Series on CBS. Last year, TV-Steel hit baseball hard. Each of three films was watched in about 20 million TV homes.
But to dismiss TV-Steel as empty-headed or talk about it only as counterprogramming is a mistake. Ms. Steel's work connects with the popular imagination and often resonates with shared symbols and fantasies in important ways. NBC's "Palomino" is no exception.
The film opens with photographer Samantha Taylor (Lindsay Frost) being divorced by her husband, a network anchorman. She's wiped out emotionally by the divorce.
To get away, she accepts a job photographing cowboys. She arranges to shoot the photos on a California ranch owned by the mother of a friend. While at the ranch, Ms. Taylor falls in love with a ranch hand (Lee Horsley).
Although Eva Marie Saint is very good as the owner of the ranch, and Ms. Frost is better than you might expect, the juice here is not in the acting. It's in the world Ms. Steel created. The world of the ranch -- with all its symbolism of the frontier -- is what's so smart.
One of the more interesting aspects of the ranch is that it's run by a woman -- a woman who takes her foreman (Rod Taylor) as her lover. It's interesting because it is the kind of fact in "Palomino" that refuses to fit the popular notion that such romances are simple-minded sexist tracts urging subservience for woman.
As Janice A. Radway, a University of Pennsylvania professor, explains in "Reading the Romance," it's often more complicated than that. And worlds, like the one in "Palomino," can serve as escapes from a sexist culture for some women.
"Palomino" takes the male hero quest -- with its theme of westward movement in the American version -- and recasts it, with a woman in the lead. It also casts another woman as the mentor figure who tells the heroine that her life doesn't end just because a man divorced her.
Does that make "Palomino" great TV? No. But it makes it culturally significant TV that no one should feel embarrassed about watching.