Sweeps month finds networks pulling out the tried and true

Television

November 01, 1991|By Michael Hill

THIS NOVEMBER, the networks seem to be taking their cue from the hero of NBC's four-hour two-parter that starts Sunday night, "The Gambler."

They know when to hold 'em -- hanging on to re-treads and re-makes -- and know when to fold 'em -- closing down the tent of "thirtysomething," "China Beach," "Twin Peaks" and the like was clearly no accident.

It's a sweeps month -- when the Nielsen and Arbitron services measure audiences in every one of the country's TV markets, meaning that these ratings are very important to local affiliates -- and the networks are playing their cards close to the vest, betting only on their version of sure things.

That means two types of programs -- those that come with built-in audiences, and those constructed from formulas that have a track record of proven success.

"The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw," which is on Channel 2 (WMAR) Sunday and Monday nights at 9 o'clock, is in the former category. This is the third production based on the character from that song that stars that vocalmeister himself, Kenny Rogers.

Though the previous "Gambler" movies were devoid of any noticeable plot, both went through the ratings roof. That was for CBS. NBC is counting on Kenny and his character to do the same thing this time.

"The Luck of the Draw" does tamper with the formula a bit as it actually has a few things happen in its four hours. Indeed, this is an amusing send-up of the cowboy genre, a harmless bit of entertainment that pokes as much fun as it does cows.

In addition to Rogers' amiable presence as card man Brady Hawks, it features a leather-clad Reba McIntire -- who sounds more country when she talks than most country crossover stars do when they sing -- as the woman who's staking him to a big poker game in San Francisco.

On their picaresque adventure getting themselves and their money from Mexico to Frisco they run into Chuck Conners as Lucas McCain, better known as "The Rifleman," Hugh O'Brien as Wyatt Earp (still brave, courageous and true), Jack Kelly as the original Bart, Maverick, Clint Walker as Cheyenne Codie, Gene Barry as Bat Masterson, Brian Keith of "The Westerner," James Drury and Doug McClure of "The Virginian" and David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine of "Kung Fu" fame. Usually, they miraculously appear to help our heroes out of some deep doo-doo.

Linda Evans shows up, but not as her character on "The Big Valley," but as the woman of the West she played in 1984's "The Gambler II." Other familiar faces include Jere Burns of "Dear John" as the certified bad guy and Park Overall of "Empty Nest" as the traveling temperance crusader. Mickey Rooney even appears as a director named D.W. making a one-reel horse opera out on the prairie. Its star is Mark McCain, son of Lucas, played by the grown-up Johnny Crawford.

One bit has the Paul Breniger, the cook from "Rawhide," deliver a funny soliloquy that works in every western title the writers could think of. Then he explains to Brady that he left the job with the cattle outfit because it got too rowdy.

"Luck of the Draw" has the same winning appeal as Rogers' himself -- it's relaxed and friendly, knows its limitations and doesn't put on any airs. This is a fun-filled trip to that imaginary land where the six-shooters all get a couple dozen rounds, the bullets always miss the good guys and hit the bad guys and anachronisms are rampant.

In taking advantage of the relatively recent success of "The Gambler" miniseries, and the vintage appeal of its various western stars, "Luck of the Draw" is going for that built-in audience that this sweep month's many nostalgia programs are hoping will be there.

Robert Stack is returning as Eliot Ness on NBC on Nov. 10 and CBS has another of its classic television weekends with specials celebrating Bob Newhart's shows, another compilation from Ed Sullivan and a look back at "M*A*S*H." Those will run Nov. 23-25.

But even more prevalent are the movies and miniseries that follow the tried-and-true formula of getting a recognizable, preferably female, TV star involved in a murder or sex crime, particularly if it involves some sort of perversity within a family. All the better if based on an actual story.

Sunday night, up against "The Gambler," ABC has Donna Mills wrongly convicted of murdering her husband's business partner "False Arrest," while CBS has Jacklyn Smith as a doctor called upon to save the life of the man who raped her in "The Rape of Dr. Willis."

"My Son Johnny" on CBS Nov. 10 has Michele Lee as a Baltimore mother whose son kills his brother. Veronica Hamel and Susan Ruttan star in "Deadly Medicine" on NBC Nov. 11, the story of a pediatrician who comes under suspicion of murdering a young patient.

Susan Lucci has an affair with a murderer in "The Woman who Sinned" on ABC Nov. 17. Meredith Baxter pursues the man who raped her child in "A Mother's Justice" on NBC Nov. 25. Steven Weber of "Wings" learns scary facts about his late wife (Mary Page Keller of "Duet" and "Baby Talk") when he tries to adopt her son after her death in "Deceptions: A Mother's Secret" on NBC Nov. 24.

In another based-on-fact two parter, "In a Child's Name" on CBS Nov. 17 and 19, Michael Ontkean ("Twin Peaks) kills his wife and then tries to keep control of his infant's sons life, fighting his wife's sister, played by Valerie Bertinelli.

November, the month in which we celebrate the bounty of our harvest, brings us a cornucopia of nostalgia and perversity on television.

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