'Barbarians': No grieving for greedmeisters

March 20, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

If you don't have HBO, you better ask a friend who does to set the VCR tonight for "Barbarians at the Gate." This is a film people are going to be talking about.

In fact, there are three TV movies this weekend that are likely to get people thinking and talking about them. Each is better in its own way than the true-crime, ripped-from-the-headlines trash the networks have been drowning in since the tremendous ratings success of the Amy Fisher trilogy.

Two of the films are on cable. Besides HBO's "Barbarians," the Arts and Entertainment channel premieres the first installment of "A Year in Provence," a TV adaptation of Peter Mayle's best-selling account of how he and his wife turned in their pin stripes and moved to the south of France.

The third film, "Family Pictures" with Anjelica Huston, is on ABC. But it's the kind of film the networks hardly ever make any more.

Why all this good TV when it's not a "sweeps" ratings month of February or May?

In the case of "Family Pictures," ABC didn't think it was commercial enough to run during sweeps, which is reason enough to make an effort to see it.

As for the others, cable lives in a different economic universe. Sweeps audience measurements are not used to set future advertising rates in cable as they are on broadcast TV. HBO, in fact, has no ad rates to set. So, to avoid getting lost in the clutter, cable tends to offer its best programs in months other than those of network sweeps.

"Barbarians," at 8 tonight, is TV's first major attempt to tap into our guilt about the excess of the 1980s.

Not everybody, of course, is feeling guilty about the 1980s. Some who saw the folly of worshiping money, corporations and Wall Street are angry about the wrong turn America took during the Reagan years.

"Barbarians," a docudrama about the $25-billion corporate takeover of RJR Nabisco, speaks to that anger, too.

The film begins in 1988 with Nabisco stock valued at $50 a share and CEO F. Ross Johnson (James Garner) trying to figure out a way to drive it higher and higher.

After the failure of a $500-million project to develop Premier as a ,, PTC smokeless cigarette, Johnson decides the only way to drive the price up is to put the corporation in "play," start a buyout campaign with the help of American Express. The drama is in the duel between Johnson's money-gang and another headed by Henry Kravitz (Jonathan Pryce), king of the leveraged buyout.

Larry Gelbart, creator of "M*A*S*H," wrote the script based on the book by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. It's the screenplay of the year. Gelbart takes a complicated story and streamlines it into an express train of tension with frequent stops for laughter in the unlikeliest places. They range from a celebrity square dance for the rich that will remind you of Versailles at its worst to a research lab where Johnson finds out how awful Premiers really taste.

"Barbarians" is a very good story but, in the end, not quite a great one. The problem is that, while there are no heroes in the real story, Gelbart desperately feels the need for one. As a dramatist, he knows if he can't have a hero, he at least needs to have someone as a focus for our interest or sympathy if we are going to get involved in the story.

So, he tries to make Johnson into a somewhat likable con man, which perhaps explains the casting of Garner, who has played that type since his "Maverick" days. To try to pull it off, Gelbart takes the poetic license of docudrama and makes up scenes and dialog. It rings a little hollow.

Still, "Barbarians" is must-see, must-talk-about TV, as we try to come to terms with what happened to us in the '80s.

"Family Pictures," at 9 Sunday on WJZ (Channel 13), is four hours of heaven for fans of Huston, who creates a traditional homemaker and mother of the 1950s and '60s never imagined in Beaver Cleaver-land.

Huston plays Lainey Eberlin, mother to six in a wealthy Seattle family. Her husband (Sam Neill) is a psychiatrist who ranks right up there with Richard Nixon on the list of great anal retentives.

The film takes its time sprawling across two nights of ABC's schedule, showing us the family growing up in the '50s and '60s tonight and, then, leaving home and growing up some more in the '70s and 80's on Monday night starting at 9.

It's a touching story, especially when it deals with Randall, the autistic son, and the emotional journeys of the other family members that begin and end with him. Jamie Harrold is terrific as Randall. But this is Huston's vehicle and she makes it soar.

"A Year in Provence" might be the most diverting and refreshing TV movie of the year. It's eight hours in all, with the first two airing at 8 Sunday on A & E.

John Thaw ("Inspector Morse") plays the real-life English advertising executive who gave up his salary and high-stress lifestyle to move to France with his wife (Lindsay Duncan).

This week, the Mayles move into their farmhouse and start to learn French. They also start to learn about the ways of the French and French country living, which is at least as hilarious as it is wonderful.

"A Year in Provence" will live forever in VCR heaven. Vive la Provence.

And, if all of that's enough weekend viewing, at 8 Sunday night on WMAR (Channel 2), there's the return of Ross Perot in "The First National Referendum -- Government Reform Presented by H. Ross Perot." Perot paid NBC $500,000 for the half hour and he promises lots of cardboard charts and graphs.

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