NBC's 'Witness to the Execution' has well-executed promotion, but nothing else for viewers to die for

February 12, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

You're going to be disappointed.

In fact, if you're planning your Sunday night viewing around "Witness to the Execution" and expect to see something you've never seen on TV, you're going to be more than disappointed. You're probably going to feel suckered or hustled -- in the way only TV can make you feel used when its promotional machine gets you hyped for a big event, and then the event fails to deliver.

"Witness to the Execution," which airs at 9 Sunday night on WMAR (Channel 2), is being billed by NBC as "the most controversial TV event of the year." Whether NBC means the most controversial event of the first 43 days of 1994, or of anything that's coming in the next 10 1/2 months, is not clear. On the shifting sands of such imprecise hyperbole are hype campaigns built.

The controversy centers on the final scene of the film, which shows the fictional execution in the electric chair of a murderer (Tim Daly). Everything that goes before builds to that moment.

The film, which is set in "the near future," is about a cable TV executive who comes up with the idea of televising executions live on pay-per-view, the way heavyweight boxing matches are cablecast today. Sean Young plays the executive. Think of her as a '90s version of Faye Dunaway in "Network."

Actually, NBC would like you to think of "Witness to the Execution" as a '90s version of "Network." Not quite.

It's not that it's an awful film. As a drama, it's not bad. And Young is very, very good. If you expect to only see a seductively compelling performance from a fine actress, the film won't disappoint.

But that's not the expectation that's out there, is it? The buzz is about the sensation of seeing a guy fried in prime time, and what that says about TV violence.

In that respect, "Witness to the Execution" is all blue smoke and mirrors.

First of all, there have been lots of fictional executions on TV in regular series, such as "Hill Street Blues," and mini-series, such as "The Executioner's Song." Feature films, such as "In Cold Blood," which have featured gut-wrenching executions, have also played on TV.

And, while the script of "Witness" talks about seeing "smoke coming out of his ears" when the juice is turned on, the actual final shot of the execution shows no such thing. In fact, the final scene has virtually no emotional impact.

There are two reasons for that -- one good, one bad -- and they are connected.

The good one is that the producers seem to have taken the high road in terms of graphic depiction.

The execution of Daly's character takes place in a chair on a big stage in an arena. We see the electrodes being hooked to his temples.

But instead of showing Daly directly, they show his face in close-up on a big screen behind the electric chair. Once the juice hits, they freeze the frame on the screen, and have it change colors the way a storm does when shown on a Doppler weather radar screen on TV. The effect is that the execution is depersonalized.

You could argue that the producers are making a statement about TV and depersonalized violence, but that's something you would be reading into it on your own.

The other reason -- the bad one -- the execution has no real impact is Daly is such an awful actor. He might be the worst TV actor this side of Robert Conrad. He's definitely not in a league with Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore in "The Executioner's Song."

In the end, I think the producers cut to the scrambled big-screen image not out of any sense of restraint, but because Daly was incapable of using his face to make us feel what was happening to his character.

Anyway, that's what you're left with at the end of the film: a freeze-frame of that empty, Doppler image of dots on a big screen showing the outline of what looks to be a face. Or, maybe, it's another ice storm headed our way.

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