Special fails to get to root of `Roots'

Preview: NBC's `Celebrating 25 Years' will leave you wondering why the 1977 miniseries was considered so important.

January 18, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Roots, the ABC miniseries about slavery that debuted on Jan. 23, 1977, was a landmark cultural event that should have its 25th anniversary commemorated.

But it deserves a far better television celebration than NBC's Roots: Celebrating 25 Years, a one-hour special so superficial and filled with wrongheaded analysis that I question the producers' right to even call it a documentary.

This is the kind of cheese-ball special that uses CNN talk show host Larry King as one of its primary social historians. "What was historic about it was that a network was going to take the risk of putting a show stripped across the week," King says referring to ABC's scheduling strategy of running the 12-hour miniseries eight straight nights.

But instead of that being a brave strategy, the truth is that ABC wanted to get rid of the series before the February "sweeps" ratings period began, and so ran it every night during a period of traditionally low viewing in January. And what Celebrating 25 Years never mentions is that one reason for the huge and unexpected initial tune-in to the miniseries was a massive blizzard in the East and Midwest starting on Jan. 23 that resulted in millions of viewers being snowbound in their homes in front of the TV.

Of such goofy details are pop culture phenomena often made. Providing such facts doesn't cheapen the accomplishments of Roots, it only helps us understand better the way television intersects with our lives.

Totally inexcusable, though, is the repeated use of talking heads identified only by first name and occupation as in "Vicci, business owner." Vicci tells us, "Roots was a phenomenon because it was so real."

We should be very careful about confusing prime-time dramatization, as Roots was, with historic experience - especially one as important as slavery was to the American character. This special is the very definition of that kind of carelessness.

Not that the talking heads who are identified do much better. The first is Leslie Uggams, who played a slave named Kizzy. Uggams tells us: "Roots changed television. It opened a whole new way of putting on dramatic shows."

Not exactly, Leslie. Rich Man, Poor Man, which debuted in 1976 on ABC, was the first hit miniseries and made Roots possible.

As for social history, I counted all of 28 seconds of it. As images of Stevie Wonder and President Jimmy Carter melt into those of roller skaters and disco dancers, host LeVar Burton says, "It was the '70s, and the country was on the move. Everywhere you looked people were roller skating, disco dancing and marching for equal rights."

Now that we have the 1970s covered. ...

ABC, which presented the miniseries, has taken some hits in the press for taking on a pass on this special and letting NBC have it. I think ABC knew exactly what it was doing and did the right thing.

Roots: Celebrating 25 Years

When: 8 tonight

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: The miniseries deserves better than this.

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