Television as a high-crime area Glut follows the failure of high-minded stories


November 18, 1991|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

THE BLOOD that has been drenching your television set this month flows directly from one of the most celebrated massacres in American history -- Custer's Last Stand.

In prime time during the last three weeks, mothers have been poisoning daughters, husbands killing wives, brothers beating brothers, nurses doing in babies. A woman was thrown in prison for a murder her husband probably committed. Another woman had to clear her daughter of a murder charge. Coming up, a mother will track down her daughter's rapist.

The brutal beat goes on.

There is a very simple reason that these movies and miniseries are on the air: People watch them. But the reason the networks are so full of them this month, the crucial ratings sweeps month, goes back to a couple of failures last year.

Both were ambitious miniseries on ABC, "Son of the Morning Star," about Custer's ill-fated attack on an Indian village, and "Separate but Equal," the story of the legal battle that led to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregated schools.

These were expensive productions that required costumes and props for their historical settings. The cast of "Son of the Morning Star" was huge, and the salary for Sidney Poitier, star of "Separate but Equal," was undoubtedly of similar proportions.

And despite some serious flaws, both were fine examples of quality television. But the bottom line is, both failed. Oh, they didn't sink out of sight in the ratings, but they didn't do well enough to pay their bills.

So, in this season that has already been noted for a conservative approach to new series, the networks retreated to the tried-and-true for their movies and miniseries, too. And that meant true weirdo crime stories, preferably featuring strange goings-on within an apparently respectable family. Generally, the casts were limited, the settings were contemporary, the costs were relatively low.

Over the years, whether it's Robert Urich as a respected insurance salesman who kills his wife or Peter Coyote as a high school teacher who schemes with his principal to do in his lover and her two kids, these productions have shown sure-fire appeal. If they didn't hit the ratings jackpot, they at least broke even.

And, also over the years, the classy miniseries has shown an up-and-down appeal. Following the huge success of "Roots" in 1977, every network jumped on the miniseries bandwagon and rode it to high ratings. It began to falter in the mid-'80s and seemed to come apart with the big losses ABC suffered with 12 hours of "Amerika" and 30 of "War and Remembrance."

The success of "Lonesome Dove" for CBS revived it for a while and probably led to the making of "Son of the Morning Star" and "Separate but Equal." When those two failed, however, it meant the current end of such risky ventures and the beginning of the deluge of weird crime stories.

Over the years that genre had been perfected, too, in no small part due to the work of Farrah Fawcett. She racked up huge ratings numbers in both "The Burning Bed," in which she played a battered wife who burned her husband to death, and the miniseries "Small Sacrifices," which featured her as a mother who killed her kids.

And so a formula was born. Pick a true story of a weird crime, preferably intra-family, that has an important part for a woman. Pick a recognizable TV series star for that part. Voila! Good numbers.

It works because the crime attracts the men who have always flocked to cop shows, and the female star draws the women viewers. Keep in mind that in its heyday, Fawcett and her fellow "Charlie's Angels" had a bigger female audience than male.

That formula has been in evidence this month. Its problem is that it usually portrays a woman as either crazed killer (Judith Light as a psychopathic poisoner in "Wife, Mother, Murderer," Susan Ruttan as a baby-killing nurse in "Deadly Medicine") or pitiful victim (Michelle Lee's mother of tragically feuding boys in "My Son Johnny"). Rarely is she a strong heroine, though Valerie Bertinelli does play such a character in "In a Child's Name," the CBS two-parter that began last night and continues tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 11 (WBAL).

But beyond the glib demographic analysis of the appeal of these shows is the deeper question of why they resonate within the American viewing public.

One aspect most of these movies have in common is a villain who appears normal, perhaps admirable, on the surface, but harbors hidden demonic impulses.

This is, of course, a classic horror motif-- the suave, charming man who, behind his cloak, is Dracula, the vampire; the esteemed scientist Dr. Frankenstein who is making a monster in his laboratory; Dr. Jekyll who can also be Mr. Hyde.

It is particularly compelling when these stories are true. They have a fearsome attraction to a mobile, estranged society that has destroyed its heritage of close-knit communities where the hidden sins and foibles of the citizenry were common, if unspoken, knowledge.

Instead, we inhabit tract homes in the city where the company has just transferred us, surrounded by acres of neighbors, passing acquaintances judged on brief encounters and surface appearances, with histories that are unknown or perhaps invented.

Television programs such as these can only further distance us. Their success conjures up a vision of a family watching these shows, then staring out at the world, filled with distrust, wondering which of the new neighbors is actually a killer in the disguise of normalcy, then retreating back into their protective cocoon.

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