NBC's 'Grass Roots' is trashy but it's fun

February 24, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

IT'S PROBABLY unreasonable to expect the guys who brought us "Dynasty" to make a miniseries about politics and the New South that isn't lots and lots of sex and soap opera exaggeration.

The only thing missing in "Grass Roots," which will begin at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), is Joan Collins as a direct descendant of Scarlett O'Hara now running for president.

Aaron Spelling and E. Duke Vincent -- who have worked together on such glitz-o-ramas as "Hotel" and "Vega$" -- are the executive producers of "Grass Roots." Their sudsy world view washes over virtually every frame of the four hours.

That's bad.

But just like politics, TV has an "expectations game," too. If you sit down tonight to watch "Grass Roots" with the right expectations, there is a good chance you'll be back tomorrow night for the conclusion. There is also a good chance you'll enjoy the experience. "Grass Roots" is stylish, fast-paced, skillfully produced trash. That can make for good TV viewing, if you don't take it seriously.

"Grass Roots" is the kind of old-fashioned, cast-of-thousands miniseries that used to mean blockbuster ratings for the networks. In the new TV universe of 50 or more channel options, such expensive strategies are questionable. But this is NBC's attempt to grab a big chunk of the prime-time audience that has spent most of the last two weeks with CBS and the Olympics.

The cast does not, of course, actually number in the thousands. But it is big-name by TV standards: Corbin Bernsen ("L.A. Law") plays Will Lee, an Atlanta lawyer and staff director for a U.S. senator, who suddenly finds himself running for the Senate and defending a murder suspect in a racially charged trial. Lee is a liberal -- that's important to the plot.

It's also important to the plot that's he's romantically involved with Kate Rule, played by Mel Harris ("thirtysomething"), who has risen higher in the CIA than any other woman. The CIA business is important, too, because it means they can't be seen together. Why they can't be seen together is never fully explained, but we are led to believe that her security clearance is so high that she is constantly being watched by other CIA people lest she give away some big secret.

Other TV stars in equally exaggerated roles include: Raymond Burr ("Perry Mason") as the judge in the red-hot trial, Reginald VelJohnson ("Family Matters") as an Atlanta police detective turned private eye, and Katherine Helmond ("Who's the Boss?") as a stereotype-of-stereotypes retired school marm. Did I mention Claude Akins (as a redneck sheriff) or Rod Taylor (as the leader of a white supremacist organization)? You get the idea that this is not a movie of nuance or subtle shadings.

Which is maybe why Harold Perkerson, an assassin for the white supremacist organization and a character with few lines of dialogue, turns out being the most interesting presence on screen for two nights. Perkerson is played by Towson State University graduate John Glover, who manages to make the assassin much more than a cardboard villain. Currents of sex, hurt, obedience and domination have all met in this character, short-circuited each other and resulted in a living-dead monster assassin who stalks Lee.

That's pretty much the plot here. Will the liberal lawyer-candidate triumph, or will the white supremacists kill him? Will the evil Old South kill the goodly New South before the Will Lees can come to power? And everywhere, there are conspiracies upon conspiracies. The only thing there is more of than conspiracy in a miniseries like this is sex. There are even multiple bedroom scenes for Perkerson with his girlfriend-as-sex-slave.

"Grass Roots" is a paranoid and crackpot vision of the South and American politics. But it's an entertaining paranoid and crackpot vision . . . from beginning to end.

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