'Monroes' doctrine: greed, power, infidelity in the '80s tradition

September 12, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"This is my Chappaquiddick," moans William Devane as John Monroe, the head of a new television family that is more than a little loosely based on the Kennedys.

The new nighttime soap, which premieres at 10 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2), is in lock step time with the famous Massachusetts family, calling up some of our favorite tabloid headlines of the past, including drug abuse, extramarital affairs and JFK's tango with a woman who turned out to be a spy.

"The Monroes" is the saga of a wealthy and powerful family living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. The family values they celebrate are mainly greed, lust, ambition and ruthless power.

I thought we were through with these kinds of series once the 1980s ended, but here we are again with the Ewings on the Potomac (or, maybe, the Carringtons of Prince George's County).

As such glossy soap operas go, "The Monroes" is well-crafted. It has a double-edge that allows some viewers to watch it as straight melodrama and others to devour it as camp.

Nobody smirks quite like Devane, formerly of "Knot's Landing." When he's advised to come clean with the public after the "spy thing," he says, "If the American public wants the facts, they watch 'Jeopardy.' " The "spy thing," by the way, threatens to put a serious crimp in his plan to run for governor of Maryland -- as if Maryland politics doesn't already have a bad enough reputation.

Nor is John Monroe the only audacious character. Everybody in the show seems to be making the same kind of unvarnished, unapologetic lunge for all that they can get -- the hell with everyone else.

The women have at least as many interesting qualities, if not more, than the men. As the matriarch, Kathryn Monroe (Susan Sullivan) has more grit than her husband and kids put together. When John tries to make nice with her after the spy revelations, she says, "This family is not going to fall apart because of some tart with a microphone in her panties."

As for the kids -- there are two of each gender -- they are either rejecting, rebelling or obsessing about their parents. They all want daddy's attention, whether they know it or not, and this leads to some pretty strange behavior, including two of them having illicit sex at or near practically every tourist attraction in D.C.

The other son and daughter might yet save the family. Stay tuned. But whatever they do, all the Monroes seem to go to extremes -- and you can see where their penchant for rash and excessive behavior comes from. When John is called before a Congressional committee to talk about playing bingo with the Austrian spy, he comes to the Hill armed with files that have dirt on key committee members.

This is a very '80s kind of show. The set dressers are probably the highest paid members of the crew, with the hairstylists not far behind, and a bounty paid for acid exit lines.

Tonight's pilot has a kicker at the end -- something even jaded soap opera fans might not expect.

But "The Monroes" may need a kicker every week -- a Chappaquiddick, Watergate, Iran-Contra or Abscam -- to keep this particular ship of fools afloat. We have seen all this and more before, and not just in the guise of make-believe, prime-time drama. We've been seeing it for years on the nightly news, "Nightline" and "60 Minutes."

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