NBC's reality series asks 'What Happened?' but you may decide you don't want to know

September 25, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

When an executive from NBC first told me last year they were working on a new reality series that would "revisit and re-create ,, great accidents and disasters," I thought he was kidding.

A few months later, when he told me the premiere episode would be about the plane crash that killed Rick Nelson on New Year's Eve in 1985 as the singer was flying to a concert in Texas, I was sure the executive was trying to make a joke and started to laugh.

The joke is on us. NBC was serious, and it is unleashing (or, maybe, "dumping" is a more apt description) "What Happened?" on us tonight at 8:30 on WMAR (Channel 2).

The really sleazy thing about shows like this and "I Witness Video" is the way producers and networks try to justify the misery and death they are slicing, dicing and selling for as much as $100,000 per 30 seconds of commercial time.

In tonight's re-creation of the plane crash, we watch people suffocating in an airplane cabin as it fills with smoke. We hear their screams. Then, we cut to pictures from the real crash which show the charred wreckage and are told how the occupants of the plane were burned to death. If that's not grisly enough,

special bells and whistles of the grotesque are added, like the real pilot telling an interviewer, "I remember thinking, please, don't let me hear their screams."

So, why is "What Happened?" trafficking in all this misery? Host Ken ("White Shadow") Howard says it is to clear Nelson's name and put to rest any rumors he was freebasing cocaine, which caused the fire. Right.

They bring in a team of "high-tech detectives" from an outfit called Failure Analysis Inc., who do an "investigation" and say it doesn't think Nelson was freebasing. It's not all that convincing despite the talk by Howard about the investigators as "scientists and engineers." But he seems totally righteous announcing "the reputation of one of America's favorite heroes" has been restored.

Failure Analysis Inc. is going investigate every accident and disaster in the series -- until it's canceled. In the second half tonight, they look at the case of a motorcyclist and a guy in a dune buggy both going up the same dirt hill at the same time from opposite sides and colliding in midair at the top. We get to see a re-creation of the guy in the buggy getting his neck snapped like a taco chip.

"What Happened?" may not be the lowest moment of the new season. There are a number of contenders for that honor. But it's hard to think of less socially redeeming programs than those that sell broken necks and people trapped in burning airplanes as entertainment.

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