Get out the broom for a sweeps' trio

Preview: In race for ratings, TV season goes from bad to worse.

April 29, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It has been a dreadful network television season, and the malaise only deepens as we head into its final days, with the start of big-ticket May "sweeps" programming this weekend.

Three very expensive productions from what were once known as the Big Three start tomorrow, and the toughest call for this critic is deciding which is worst: NBC's vapid miniseries "The '70s," CBS' weepy bio-pic on the life of John Denver, or another miniseries from the dreaded Robert Halmi Sr., who has gotten rich turning the Great Books into prime-time mush. This month, he and his son, Robert Halmi Jr., take on "Arabian Nights" for ABC.

As much as I hate what Halmi and his network co-conspirators have done to literature, I have to be fair: "Arabian Nights" is not the worst of the three. That honor goes to NBC and "The '70s." If you thought last May's "The '60s" was awful -- and I did -- wait until you see this.

Start with the premise of the series. As stated in NBC press materials:

"More then simply re-defining our fashion sense or musical taste, the '70s had a profound impact on our attitudes toward the big issues; sex, race, government and the environment. Thirty years after four students were killed at Kent State, 25 years after the fall of Saigon and 30 years after the first earth day celebration, NBC is proud to present "The '70s."

Kent State, Saigon and Earth Day all grew out of movements begun in the 1960s and have far more to do with the sociology of that decade -- if you want to play this crackpot game of trying to divide history into decades in the first place. But who cares about sociology and history when you are trying to get extra ratings points and advertising dollars in May?

The drama, such as it is, involves four friends: brother and sister Byron (Brad Rowe) and Christie (Amy Smart) Shales, Eileen Wells (Vinessa Shaw) and Dexter Johnson (Guy Torry). Eileen is Byron's girlfriend.

Remarkably, the four are affected by virtually every headline and trend -- mainly trend -- of the decade. The series opens with three of them standing over one of the bodies of a dead student at Kent State, while the fourth friend, Dexter, is one of the National Guardsmen doing the shooting.

Along the way we get: disco (lots of very bad disco dancing especially by Eileen); drugs (mostly cocaine for Christie); fashion modeling (mainly to show off Christie's body); more disco dancing (this time Christie in a cage); the women's movement (Eileen reluctantly joining the chorus on "I am woman hear me roar"); the Black Panther movement (Dexter discovers Black Pride); Watergate (Byron goes to work for Nixon); the Alaska Pipeline (Byron's time in the wilderness after Watergate); a religious cult (Smart can't even play blissed-out credibly); and yada, yada, yada.

And then there's the story of The Country Boy, CBS's "Take Me Home: The John Denver Story" tomorrow night. It opens with the song "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," which will surely make some Baltimore viewers want to jump to their feet for the seventh-inning stretch.

But it's all downhill from there, except for the scene where Denver gets real mad at his wife, Annie (of "Annie's Song"), and takes a chain saw to their bed. Gee, Dr. Freud, you think John was trying to tell her that there might be a problem with their relationship?

This is after Annie has all his favorite trees cut down in their Rocky Mountain retreat because he's been leavin' on a jet plane and she don't know when he'll be back again one too many times.

Chad Lowe (not to be confused with Brad Rowe on NBC), plays Denver, relying on thick horn rim glasses and a geek's squint instead of any real sense of character.

If you're a Denver fan, though, don't let me steer you off. There is lots of Denver's music, and if you can ignore the fact that Lowe can't even manage the lip-sync part of the role, you will probably love the film and be weeping buckets by the end.

As for "Arabian Nights," the most important thing to know is, that despite an advertising campaign selling it as family entertainment, many parents will not find it suitable for young children. While the Scheherazade (Mili Avital) portion of the narrative is cleverly crafted and lavishly photographed, Halmi opens with sex and the kind of violence (bodies impaled on poles) guaranteed to give little kids nightmares. Parents, be warned.

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