'Final Appeal': Will it appeal? You be the judge

September 18, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Just when you thought the trend in "reality" programs had exhausted itself, along comes "Final Appeal: From the Files of Unsolved Mysteries."

It's a spinoff of that hit (Top 20 last season) show, "Unsolved Mysteries," right down to Robert Stack as the host and looking like he's wearing more bad TV makeup to hide wrinkles than Bob Hope and has had more cosmetic surgery than Richard Chamberlain. How old is this guy, anyway? I'm thinking now that maybe he was so good in "The Untouchables" because he actually lived through the 1920s.

The surprising thing is that as entertainment, "Final Appeal" is not a bad show. It looks at cases in which the producers think someone might have been wrongfully convicted and re-examines them for the sake of the TV audience. Yes, it uses re-creations, bloody ones, in the pilot.

That's because the pilot revisits (for only the 10,000th time) the 1970 case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of killing his pregnant wife and daughters in the case that became the book and miniseries "Fatal Vision." The producers also look at a 1944 case in which 50 African-American members of the U.S. Navy were convicted of conspiracy to commit mutiny.

In the Navy case, the producers catch the appropriate us-against-them edge that can make a show like this click -- "us" being the wrongfully convicted and righteous viewers, "them" being bureaucrats, crooks and inept law enforcement officials. It's a formula that has served "60 Minutes" pretty well over the years.

Will "Final Appeal" fly? Being a reality show, it doesn't have to fly as high as most other series. An hour of a show like "Final Appeal" costs about $400,000 to make, while an hour or drama or comedy costs a minimum $1 million.

For area viewers, though, the most important thing to know about "Final Appeal" might be that the premiere will not be seen at 8 tonight as it will be in the rest of the country. WMAR-TV Channel 2 is airing an Orioles' game tonight. It will air the show at 1 p.m. Saturday.

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