Big-Ticket TV

From Daddy Warbucks to Regis 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' Philbin, the networks are sparing no expense for November sweeps.

November 06, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Leprechauns, orphans and a couple of rock 'n' rollers from the heartland are the stars of network television this weekend in an orgy of big-budget programming.

If you throw in Regis Philbin and the return tomorrow night of ABC's hit game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", the overriding theme of the shows and, indeed, the weekend itself is money.

NBC and CBS are spending big money on "The Magic Legend of the Leprechauns" and "Shake, Rattle & Roll" miniseries, respectively, while ABC does its Disney-lavish best with "Annie," because this is the first weekend of the first sweeps ratings period of the new television season. Because the size of the audiences for these shows will be used to determine future advertising rates, the big money spent today can result in even bigger money made tomorrow for the networks.

It is easy to deride sweeps programming for its excess, but get underneath the glitz and gloss just a little, and you will often find narratives, archetypes and patterns that speak to us in powerful ways.

As Whoopi Goldberg, who plays the Grand Banshee in "Leprechauns," put it in talking about her miniseries, "The folk tales this story is based on have been around a long time. And there's a reason they've been around a long time: People try to absorb these tales so they'll have them in their mind and can turn to them in tough times. The truth is, they make us feel better."

Rock and roll romance

"Shake, Rattle & Roll" is CBS trying to capture the ratings and soundtrack magic of NBC's "The Temptations" last November.

That saga of the Motown singing group not only became one of the highest-rated films of the television season, it sold more than 250,000 CDs -- second only to the 400,000 soundtrack CDs that NBC's other big musical miniseries, "The 60's," sold later in the TV season.

CBS put "Shake, Rattle & Roll" into production exactly a year ago, when it saw the numbers on "The Temptations." Then, as the ratings and CD sales for the "60's" started to register in the spring, CBS scheduled "Shake, Rattle & Roll" as its big event for the fall.

The four-hour film starts in 1955 and tells the story of a fictional band that grows out of the love affair between a Missouri farm boy with a guitar (Brad Hawkins) and a girl singer (Bonnie Somerville) whose father is stationed on a nearby Air Force base. The two come together through their mutual love for the sounds of early rock and roll. Their journey takes them from the rural heartland to the urban Promised Land of New York City, where the story explores in its own soap-opera way such big American themes as innocence lost and "money-can't-buy-me-love."

Like Forrest Gump, they meet several of the leading figures and participate in some of the most widely remembered moments of the era. One of the best musical moments is a stop at a blues club where B.B. King is in a late-night jam session playing a song called "Fur Slippers." The little-known song was written by Bob Dylan.

Other strong musical stops along the way include a concert with Dicky Barrett (of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones) as Bill Haley doing the title tune, and Terence Trent D'Arby as Jackie Wilson.

The leads, Hawkins as hip-shaking Tyler Hart and Somerville as the sweet and super-talented Lynn Danner, seem to have been cast more for looks than anything else. He's got a vague Elvis sideburn sense about him, while she's blond-on-blond enough to suggest Grace Kelly, except this young lady likes Fender Stratocaster guitars.

At its worst, "Shake, Rattle & Roll" looks and feels as frothy as "Grease," with its emphasis on a saddle-shoe and poodle-skirt wardrobe. But that's mainly in the early going. Once it settles into the odyssey of Tyler, Lynn and their band, the HartAches, it starts mining a richer cultural ore.

For all its let's-just-feel-the-music sensibility, the film has a lot to say about race. It oversimplifies the case in some regards, suggesting at a Little Richard concert (played by Billy Porter of "Smokey Joe's Cafe") that once the music started, racial differences magically disappeared. And it pulls punches by raising the issue but not showing how ugly and devastating racism can be to its victims. Still, it does explore the matter with some sensitivity through the relationship between Lynn and her best friend, Marsha Stokes (Samaria Graham), a fellow Air Force brat who is African-American.

"Shake, Rattle & Roll" also is quite surprising in terms of what it tries to say about gender and the role of women in the music industry in the 1950s and '60s. Dana Delaney, as Hart's New York manager, turns in a nicely nuanced performance that offers viewers a take on femininity at distinct odds with the one provided by Lynn.

In the end, "Shake, Rattle & Roll" is more soap opera than Great American saga. But, if nothing else, "The Temptations" proved a little bit of sociology and a lot of CD sales can make for a winning prime-time recipe.

Eire's `little people'

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.