Sawyer shows us more than enough of Manson and madness

March 09, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

If this is another up-close and personal look at a psycho killer, we must be talking about yet another prime-time TV magazine show.

Diane Sawyer stars in the premiere of ABC's "Turning Point" at 10 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13). I say stars because these shows are more about entertainment than news, and Sawyer does all the anchoring and reporting tonight.

But, for once, Sawyer is upstaged by the people she interviews -- in this case, members of the Manson family, including Charlie himself. It's a frightening, irresistible, stunning hour of television.

There are moments when the camera shows Sawyer and Manson sitting in chairs facing each other, and you wonder how Sawyer stays there. The man behind the 1969 Tate-LaBianca killings still has the power to mesmerize, stun, appall and, for more than a few viewers, terrify.

The interviews with him and two of the "Manson women," Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, are brilliantly edited. Near the end of the hour, when Manson answers one of Sawyer's questions by quoting a Johnny Cash song, you realize that this is more than you ever wanted to know about madness. At 59, Manson is still evil; the swastika tattooed on the bridge of his nose is as clear as ever.

On the other hand, the women -- Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme -- look like officers in a local chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Krenwinkel looks like she was the model for Mary in the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show." Then you realize she's been locked up since 1969; life outside for her stopped before Mary Richards was born.

The story these women tell of their ordinary, middle-class backgrounds -- the extraordinary blandness of their lives before they become Manson followers -- is baffling.

Their recounting of the two nights of savage murders, which were dubbed "Helter Skelter" by the media, is detailed, frank and horrific. It is as if your favorite aunt sat down and calmly told you how she drowned babies on two hazy, crazy nights in the past. It is very strong stuff. In fact, it probably needs a warning: Tonight's "Turning Point" might not be the way to introduce your children to the prime-time world of TV magazines.

Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Peter Jennings will anchor the weekly show in turns. It is slated to be a single-topic hour each time out.

The title, "Turning Point," means the program will focus on a moment or action that signaled a change in our lives, according to Sawyer. The Manson family murders signaled that the counterculture of the 1960s could be something more than harmless and peace-loving, says Sawyer.

Such sociology and culture-talk is not what these magazines are really about, though. They are about ratings and show business.

Tonight, ABC's "Turning Point" has Manson. CBS' "48 Hours" has a killer in Oregon named Russell Obremski. Last night, NBC's "Dateline" had Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial cannibalist.

"Dateline" was expected to beat "The People's Choice Awards" in ratings, while costing less than half to produce. "Turning Point" and "48 Hours" will likewise beat NBC's "Law & Order" tonight, and each will also cost less than half what NBC is paying for the police drama.

All of which explains why Diane Sawyer gets $7 million a year, and we get a prime-time landscape filled with psycho killers.

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