No longer a wasteland of reruns, summer TV provides sparkling moments

September 07, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

It used to be that saying goodbye to summer on the TV bea was easy. Usually a sentence or two along the lines of, "Thank God summer is over with all those awful reruns."

But in the past few years TV has moved away from the dominance of the three traditional networks toward cable, independents and new configurations, such as the Fox network. And summer viewing has changed with it.

Fox dared to introduce new series in the middle of summer when many of its college-age viewers were more likely to be watching. And they struck gold with such shows as "Melrose Place." Cable went to year-round scheduling and has offered some of its best moments during the dog days.

There were TV moments so pleasurable or important this summer that they deserve one last lingering look back, as we plunge head deep into the Big Muddy of network TV's new fall season Sunday.

At first I thought of it as a guilty pleasure, but by the end of the Republican National Convention, I didn't feel bad any more about stealing away from PBS, CNN, C-SPAN and the traditional networks to try to catch every minute of Comedy Central's "Indecision '92" with Al Franken, Roy Blount Jr. and Calvin Trillin.

It was marvelous. Franken was the anchorman, Blount the media analyst, Trillin the floor reporter in Houston. There was a cast of others ranging from drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs to Joe Queenan of Spy magazine.

Among the best moments were Franken, Blount and the producers reacting to the live speeches of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Dan Quayle. Blount would munch popcorn between comments. Sometimes he'd throw popcorn at the screen when the speaker lied. Ronald Reagan would talk about "the many vital accomplishments" of his administration, and under his image on the screen viewers would see the words: "Reagan once fell asleep while meeting with the pope."

Trillin was brilliant as floor reporter, each night selecting the "most fashionable" Republican woman. "Tonight it's Georgette Mosbacher," he said on the opening of the convention. "We've decided after much analysis and discussion of her makeup that there is not a shred of mascara or eyeliner left between here and Lubbock."

They mocked not only the convention, but also the portentousness of TV and print journalism in covering such pseudo-events. They also managed to serve as a genuine kind of opposition party -- something our system no longer really has.

With regret I admit that I did not get to see all the "Summer of Their Senior Year" episodes of "Beverly Hills, 90210" on Fox, but the ones I did see were terrific. Brenda went to Paris. Dylan got lonely. Dylan and Kelly got it on. Brenda and Dylan got back together in the sand on the beach . . .

This is the greatest teen soap opera in the history of TV, and you don't have to be between the ages of 12 and 19 to care about these people and their fantasy lives.

And Fox gave us another group of people to care about this summer, the twentysomethings from "Melrose Place." The fortysomething critics ripped the show, but it immediately became a ratings hit. And its target audience appears to be connecting with it in powerful ways.

Neil Alperstein, who teaches advertising and pop culture at Loyola College and does ethnographic research on the twentysomething generation, reports that some recent college grads who are unemployed have formed groups that watch the show and talk about it.

PBS had its moments -- three to be exact -- this summer. And, let's be frank about this, PBS is not having a lot of good moments these days.

The moments were the three parts of "Portrait of a Marriage," the "Masterpiece Theatre" production that looked at the marriage of author Vita Sackville-West to diplomat Harold Nicolson and Sackville-West's torrid lesbian love affair with an upper-class Englishwoman. It was the highest rated "Masterpiece Theatre" of the year.

Why was it on in the summer? Because PBS was afraid of offending its audience. So they slipped it on "out of season," so to speak. "Masterpiece" also edited down the English version from four hours to three before letting it loose on the American public. Still, it was the most compelling exploration of love, lust and what it feels like to be totally enamored of someone that I can remember seeing on TV.

One last delight, thankfully, does not end with Labor Day. It has a couple of more weeks to run. The 13-part "House of Elliot" on the Arts & Entertainment cable network, co-written by Jean Marsh of "Upstairs, Downstairs," is pure melodrama. But it's feminist melodrama, as it tells the story of two sisters in England of the 1920s left ignorant and penniless by their father, a man who did not believe girls should have an education.

Evageline and Beatrice Elliot have gotten through the past nine weeks on luck, pluck, guts and smarts and have established the House of Elliot, which they are about to take from a modest dressmaking concern to a major house of fashion. That's what those of us loyal, summer viewers are hoping anyway.

And, no, I don't think the Olympics rank among the great #F moments of summer TV. In fact, my reaction to NBC's coverage of the Olympics is essentially the same as that of Bobby Fischer to the letter from the Treasury Department warning him not to go to Yugoslavia to play Boris Spassky.

The last moment of uncertainty or any kind of excitement came when the Spanish guy shot the arrow into the night and it actually lit the torch during opening ceremonies. It was all downhill from there.

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