Serials' latest installment is prime-time TV rescue

January 29, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Show business history is littered with the skeletons of dead genres, like minstrel shows, singing-cowboy movies, South Sea island sarong sagas and cliffhanger serials.

Can we back up to that last one? Though the last movie serial was made nearly 40 years ago, the cliffhanger serial is slowly rising from the dead as a form of entertainment -- thanks largely to television, which most experts blame for burying it in the first place.

The movie studios stopped making serials in the mid-1950s when it became clear kids would rather stay home on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and kiddie shows on the new medium called TV.

But now TV is helping resurrect the serial, both on the air and through the re-marketing of the original serials on videocassette.

Incorporating elements of the soap opera, another rudimentary form of the serial, the serial nouveau is emerging as a programming hybrid, aimed mainly at grown-ups who'll see it in prime time, not at Saturday matinees. Ironically, the kid-oriented old serials being released on video are sold almost exclusively to adults.

NBC announced this month it will start showing first-run, six-chapter serials every Friday night, starting in August, under the umbrella title "Great Escapes." Though kids are welcome to watch, NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield is counting on the serials to lure the whole family back to his network, now running third in the prime-time ratings.

Mr. Littlefield has put Executive Vice President Perry Simon in charge of the effort. Mr. Simon says the serials will have both romance and adventure in common, and the goal will be programs designed to help viewers "escape" at the end of the work week.

Already ordered are "Lake Success," in which a 24-year-old heiress takes over a family pharmaceutical company that dominates the economy of a small town; "Trade Winds," involving a hunt for sunken treasure and two feuding families on the Caribbean island of St. Martin; "Pretenders," about an ambitious young woman from the Bayou country of Louisiana who wants to reclaim her family's aristocratic heritage in Paris, and "La Famiglia," about the women in a Mafia family.

Former Paramount Pictures production chief Brandon Tartikoff had announced earlier that his studio would start making movies that would be released to video stores one chapter at a time, then sold to TV networks as miniseries. Though Mr. Tartikoff no longer runs the studio, the plan to make "serials" for video is still on track.

In the meantime, the original movie serials of the sound era -- there were about 225 of them made between 1929 and 1956 -- are becoming a reliable item on the video market, catering to movie buffs who'll pay around $30 each for the better titles, and bargain-bin shoppers who can pick up some of the best, like the original 1937 "Dick Tracy," for under $10.

Some durable serials have remained in almost constant circulation on small TV stations ever since the movie cliffhanger era officially ended with the release of Columbia's "Perils of the Wilderness" in 1956.

One reason the cliffhanger concept has hung on so long may be that audiences love to be teased and can't resist tuning in to see how the hero gets out of that jam.

The TV networks knew this a long time ago. They've been borrowing the traditional "cliffhanger" ending from the movie serials and the radio soap operas of the past and putting them to use in all kinds of TV shows, from "Dallas" to "Cheers." Audiences sometimes have to wait between TV seasons to learn how a plot crisis turns out.

Also borrowing from the serials are such contemporary movie-makers as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Sam Raimi, who all have made big-budget films (Mr. Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and its sequels, Mr. Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy, Mr. Raimi's "Darkman") with the flavor of the old cliffhangers.

Over the past 20 years, the movies have returned repeatedly to )) the same story sources that supplied some of the most popular movie serials, mostly comic strips such as "Superman," "Batman," "Flash Gordon" and "Dick Tracy" and other icons of 20th century pop culture such as Tarzan and Commander Cody.

Though sophisticated moderns may find the vintage serials unbearably primitive and silly, it's still possible to enjoy them for their reckless sense of fun and their sheer chutzpah. They're also great places to find some of the most popular stars of movies and TV in their salad days, learning their craft on a low budget.

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