Valentine's lineup has wide appeal

TV: Between `Charlie Brown' and `Vagina Monologues,' there really is something for everyone.

February 13, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One of television's stranger cultural aspects involves the way it has come to be used to help us celebrate holidays.

Just look at the lineup of programming tomorrow night in connection with Valentine's Day. The two biggest events: A Charlie Brown Valentine on ABC and The Vagina Monologues on HBO. Could they be more different or further apart? One is an animated network special aimed at kids, while the other offers an hour and 20 minutes on a premium cable channel dissecting a word that could not even be said on television five years ago.

But that's just the point, isn't it? In this case, strange is good, and possibly even profound.

In its own right, neither show is an absolute triumph, though each certainly is worthy of notice. But taken together, they offer a representative snapshot of how, on almost any given day or night, television is speaking to an incredibly diverse audience in ways capable of stirring our deepest shared memories or inspiring us to grow in new and challenging ways.

There actually are two audiences for A Charlie Brown Valentine, the first Peanuts TV special since 1993. One is children, and I'm not being facetious when I say: Isn't it nice that a network is offering - even if only one night a year - something fitting the notion of what used to be called "The Family Viewing Hour"?

The other audience is that of baby boomers whose lives were blessed by growing up with the original Charlie Brown television specials starting with the Peabody-Award-winning A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. The second you hear the opening notes of Vince Gauraldi's piano score tomorrow night, you will be transported straight back to a time when television sets were in the living room, and mom and dad were watching with you.

The bad news is that A Charlie Brown Valentine offers nothing close the wisdom of Linus' lecture on "the true meaning of Christmas" in the 1965 original. Even though this is the same production team using Charles Schulz's comic strips in much the same way that they did before his death, the story line feels a little ragged and ultimately fails to ring as sweet and true as some of its predecessors.

Still, I sat down to watch feeling stressed, depressed and angry, but 10 seconds into it, I was already smiling. Snoopy was sitting on Charlie's bed typing away, with Charlie griping, "I hate it when he gets an idea in the middle of the night." The idea that got Snoopy out of bed? A Valentine's card that says, "Roses are red. Chocolate is brown." Good grief, indeed, Charlie Brown.

Actually, Snoopy winds up having a pretty good Valentine's Day with a wheelbarrow full of cards and the last dance at the big Valentine's Day Dance with "that little red-headed girl" whom Charlie's been pining after.

As for Charlie, I don't want to give anything away, but there is a trip to Lucy's five-cent psychiatric center with Chuck asking the doctor if she can cure "deep-down, black-bottom-of-well, no-hope, end-of-the-world, what's-the-use loneliness."

The nice thing for children is that this special puts Valentine's Day in the context of friendship and emotional support. That's increasingly rare in this culture that seeks to sexualize our kids at younger and younger ages.

A Charlie Brown Valentine will air at 8 tomorrow night, followed by a repeat of Winnie the Pooh, a Valentine for You at 8:30.

Risky `Monologues'

HBO's Vagina Monologues, which airs at 9:30 tomorrow night, also transcends the culture's best efforts to have us think of its subject matter only in sexual terms. No one needs me to tell them what a wise and moving experience Eve Ensler's 1996 off-off-Broadway play, The Vagina Monologues is. It won an Obie award, and it deserves a Pulitzer Prize for the kind of change it has wrought in relationships and lives by recontextualizing a word used to describe part of the female anatomy.

For those not familiar with the play, it is a one-woman show by Enlser, a series of monologues based on interviews she did with hundreds of women about themselves and their bodies. But each monologue is at one level or another also about power, and for me, that is where the artistic thunder of the play comes from.

HBO didn't do a great job of translating the play, but I'm not sure anyone could take the energy and communal vibe that comes from a live performance in a small theater and make it work on TV.

One specific criticism: There's too much camera movement during the soliloquies. By constantly shifting perspective, the camera denies viewers the fixed gaze we would have in the theater - the kind of constant look at Ensler's face that would allow her to hypnotize me into believing in the characters she is trying to create.

Still, this is HBO doing what HBO does so well - taking the risk of bringing sociologically important, artistically inspired, adult programming into American homes.

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