The Sacramento Bee
December 28, 1986

   Top Shows, Low Blows, and Who Knows?
By Bob Wisehart

From Vanna White to Corazon Aquino and from Bruce Willis to the Statue of Liberty, 1986 was that kind of year.

Uh, what kind of year, exactly?  It was the best of times it was ... no, that's already been used.  It was a dark and stormy year ... forget it.  In like a lion, out like a lamb?  Now it sounds like a zoo and that won't do at all.

As you probably can tell, 1986 was a tough year to describe.  And now that I've avoided having to do it, let's look at the 10 best and 10 worst moments of the past 12 months.

1. It's a sad irony that when events are at their worst, TV news is at its best and 1986 was an extraordinary year for TV news.

Again and again on tape we saw the Challenger space shuttle burst into a fireball and melt away on a billowing cloud as TV became the altar for a nation's collective grief.

Later, after Ferdinand Marcos responded to a question on "This Week with David Brinkley'' and vowed to hold elections in the Philippines, came one amazing moment after another as Marcos and rival Corazon Aquino seemed to be campaigning on American TV for our votes as much as for the voters at home.  In turn, network coverage was pervasive, as if it were an American, and not a foreign, election.

Governments, it seems, watch our TV and respond to it.  It's unlikely that Moscow would have dispatched a diplomat to testify before Congress about the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant without TV's relentless examination of what happened.  With his blow-dried hair and unaccented English, the youngish Soviet diplomat resembled an out-of-town anchorman.

When U.S. warplanes struck Libya in April, for a moment TV became radio.  CBS' Dan Rather was on the telephone to reporter Jeffrey Fager in the Grand Hotel in downtown Tripoli: "Is there an attack under way . . . and can you hear it out the window?'' asked Rather.   "If so, put your microphone outside the window and let us hear it.''

Now TV news is in hot pursuit of what is a no less noisy story in its way, the Iran arms affair, with echoes of Watergate and cries of "what did the president know and when did he know it?''

We watched the revolution in Manila, listened to bombs fall on Tripoli, saw the satellite photographs of Chernobyl.  Now Manila and Tripoli are watching us.  World events are in thrall to a technology, how an event looks on American TV often determines how it is played out and no one knows where or if it will end.

2. Sometimes fiction re-enforces our real fears.  Shortly after Chernobyl, the nationally syndicated miniseries "Edge of Darkness'' explored nuclear power run amok.

Seen in Sacramento on Channel 31, the brooding British-made broadcast crafted a dark web of murder, terrorism and multinational duplicity that challenged anyone who watched it.  The moody and brilliant "Edge of Darkness'' was a TV show you couldn't put down.

3. Against all odds, the aggressive charm of "Moonlighting'' and its defective detectives refuses to wear thin.  Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd may be on their way to overexposure, but that has nothing to do with the show itself.

In the best regular series episode of the year, "Moonlighting'' even took a whack at Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew,'' with an episode written in iambic pentameter and borrowing bits and pieces from pop culture.

Where else can you see a show set in medieval Italy with lines such as "I must away as I am off to floss,'' or, "You mistaketh me for someone who careth''?

After the marriage of Kate (Shepherd) and Petruchio (Willis), the band played the Young Rascals' "Good Lovin' " and Willis chirped, "I liketh a band that playeth the old ones.''

"Moonlighting'' doesn't break the rules.  It ignores them.

4. Here's something to be encouraged about . . . glitz TV is losing its rhinestones.

Despite a flurry of interest when Bobby Ewing returned from the dead, ''Dallas'' is down this year.  So, mercifully, is "Dynasty,'' where for the umpteenth time producers and cast promised better stories.  If the "Dynasty'' stories were any good, it wouldn't be the same show.

Are viewers tired at last of great stone faces sashaying around in designer clothes, chewing the scenery and weeping until there's enough mascara cascading down their mugs to build a dam?  Linda Evans has not changed expression in four years and Joan Collins wears so much makeup she couldn't if she wanted to.

Designer TV came apart at the seams in miniseries form, too.  Collins' dizzy star turn in "Monte Carlo'' and Jaclyn Smith's brain-dead "Rage of Angels: The Story Continues'' were greeted with yawns and ratings that barely registered.  With any luck, we're at the end of the cycle.

5. Miniseries had a tough year, but there were still good ones to watch.  Unfortunately, the best was one of the most ignored: CBS' "George Washington: The Forging of a Nation.''

One of the sustaining cliches of American TV is that the British do it ever so much better than we do, especially miniseries.  But like the best of the Brits, "The Forging of a Nation'' had dialogue that was true dialogue rather than mere plot summary, skillful story construction and intellectual daring.  It was chatty as British TV almost always is, and dealt with the profound ideas that formed our nation after the revolution.

Yet most critics whined that it was too static and chatty.  Give it British accents and have Alistair Cooke introduce it on "Masterpiece Theatre'' and they'd still be raving.

6. But the British are undeniably good at that sort of thing, and they were never better than in "Paradise Postponed,'' the opening work of this season's ''Masterpiece Theatre.''

On the surface, it was a genteel mystery probing the reason a left-wing Oxfordshire clergyman left his sizable wealth to a vengeful up-from-dirt right-wing cabinet minister.

Metaphorically, it was nothing less than a depiction of what happened to the British class system since World War II, a lament for a debased modern world.

"Paradise Postponed'' was a mighty effort from writer John Mortimer (''Brideshead Revisited'') as he struggled to define changes in a nation's psyche and soul.  Remarkably, he wrote it more or less simultaneously as a screenplay and as a novel.  It works both ways, too.

7. Cable TV brought one of the most interesting shows of the year, "On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald.''

The idea behind the two-part, 5 1/2-hour Showtime presentation was almost breathtaking.  Two prominent trial lawyers, Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Charles Manson, and Gerry Spence, once Karen Silkwood's lawyer, argued the guilt or innocence of John F. Kennedy's assassin in a real courtroom before a real federal judge with real witnesses before a jury of Dallas citizens.

While there was something frivolous, even distasteful, about it, and instead of clarifying history it only muddied it further, "On Trial'' was enthralling TV.

8. Documentaries were few this year, but one, "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt'' almost made up for it singlehandedly.

The networks have a rule of not accepting documentaries from outside sources, but Harrison Engle's four years of work -- including painstaking restoration of old newsreel footage -- made ABC break the rule, and with good reason.

Narrated by George C. Scott and scored with the brassy martial music of John Philip Sousa, the documentary brought Roosevelt's invincible vitality, bulldog spirit and robust self-confidence to life once more.  The only problem with "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt'' is that it made today's high office holders seem so awfully domitable.

9. One of the pleasures -- and one of the pains -- of TV is its way of ricocheting from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Each week, the underrated comedy "Perfect Strangers'' is a merry voyage into chaos.  With "The Cosby Show'' settled into comfortable routine, Bronson Pinchot, as a naive immigrant, and Mark Linn-Baker, as his American cousin, are Gleason and Carney for the '80s.

"Perfect Strangers'' may be just another fish-out-of-water sitcom, but it brought new life to an old idea.

10. Most made-for-TV movies are simple recitations of familiar formulas, but that doesn't mean one can't transcend the formula.

One that did was "Alex: The Life of a Child,'' based on Frank Deford's book about the incandescent life and slow, painful death of his young daughter.  What could have been just another manipulative tearjerker was graceful, honest, dignified, resolute and showed the courage in simply keeping on.


1. The "Psycho'' Fun In the Shower Award goes to the season premiere of ''Dallas,'' which instantly became the dumbest show in the history of TV when Pam Ewing's yearlong bad dream undid the doing-in of husband Bobby, who'd been squashed flat by an onrushing automobile the year before.

Norman Bates, where were you when we needed you?

2. "The Secret of Al Capone's Vault'' was transformed into "The Saga of Geraldo Rivera's Schmaltz'' when Rivera explored deep beneath the gangster's old Chicago hideaway to discover . . . dirt, gobs of it.

Maybe Mike Wallace got there first and left with the good stuff?

Undaunted, Rivera was galvanized into action once again for "American Vice: The Doping of a Nation,'' which showed police drug raids, as he never tired of saying, live, as it happens, except on the West Coast, where it was taped, as it happened.

Thanks to "American Vice,'' two apparently innocent people were arrested on camera, and one was released even before the show was seen on the West Coast.

Looks like the show's real dope was the one and only Geraldo Rivera.

3. Multimedia threats, and I mean that sincerely . . .

Bruce Willis: he's got "Moonlighting,'' he's got Cybill Shepherd (not yet, but sooner or later), he's cutting an album, he's got a movie coming out, he's got an HBO special on the way, he sells wine coolers, he's real short and he's getting bald.

Don Johnson: He's got "Miami Vice,'' he's got Phillip Michael Thomas (we all have problems), he got a raise, he got a new haircut, he got a new car, he had a miniseries, he's got an album, he's got a video, he says "pal'' a lot and he wears funny clothes.

This just in from Mr. Rogers: "Can you say 'Overexposed?'"

Footnote: In this category, Bill Cosby gets a lifetime achievement award.

4. Is Vanna White really necessary?

5. Merv Griffin went away only to be replaced by Oprah Winfrey, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, Dick Cavett (gone already), Jimmy Breslin (gone, too), David Brenner and Max Headroom.  Even twitchy old Jack Paar was briefly resurrected.  Now add Phil Donahue, Johnny Carson and David Letterman, all competing for the same 23 people in the country who have something interesting to say.

Put it together and what do we have?

It sure ain't the sound of silence.

6. The Maxwell Smart Shoe Telephone Award goes to the National Football League for its wonderful new instant replay system.

Oh sure, there are a couple of tiny little problems: Replay officials don't know what they're doing and take too long to do it.

The record so far is seven minutes -- that's how long it took to deliberate over a call during an Los Angeles Raiders-Houston Oilers game.  It would have been faster to have LeRoy Neiman draw a picture of the play so officials could look at it.

In another game, the Raiders got a touchdown when the message "pass incomplete'' was misunderstood as "pass is complete,'' an understandable mistake.  The next time you make a telephone call, invite 75,000 screaming fans into the room and see if the noise effects your ability to hear.

Why not have an operator break in to inform officials, "Your three minutes are up''?

7. July 4th meets the Statue of Liberty.

Thanks to David Wolper, the sultan of schlock and lord of lurid, they went together this year like rhinestones on polyester designed by Frederick's of Hollywood.

The unveiling of the refurbished statue and televised "Liberty Weekend'' celebration proved what we all sometimes forget: In America, anybody, no matter how humble their origin, can grow up to be an Elvis impersonator if they really want to.

Assuming they can acquire enough mousse to give Hulk Hogan a hernia.

8. The Umpteenth Annual Ted Turner Award goes to . . . well, why not just retire the trophy.

Better yet, why not retire Ted Turner?

Terrible Ted danced his way into our hearts by broadcasting movies in living, throbbing color.

So what's the problem?  They're black-and-white movies.

Turner owns the MGM-UA film library and he's colorizing cherished movies such as "Casablanca'' and "The Maltese Falcon,'' which he broadcasts on WTBS, his Atlanta superstation, and sells to other stations.

When his scheme came to light, Turner resembled a man hit by a ton of cow flop from a very great height.  But it only made him more stubborn.  Like he said, ""I'm only colorizing 'Casablanca' for controversy's sake.''

What makes this loathsome idea even worse is that the added color is lousy anyway.

In "Casablanca,'' Ingrid Bergman asks Bogart, "Rick, do you remember Paris?'''  He replies, "Yeah, I remember every detail.  The Germans wore gray.  You wore blue.''

Colorization makes it sort of gray and sort of blue.  I'm not keen on any movie where I can't tell Ingrid Bergman from the SS.

9. Hey, hey, they're the Monkees.

Revisionist pop history went stark raving mad when MTV latched onto "The Monkees'' TV series and somebody decided that primate pop wasn't really as bad as it seemed 20 years ago.  Three out of the four Monkees went on a fantastically lucrative tour, and proved that they didn't get any better with age.  At least Michael Nesmith had sense enough to stay home.

Worse, they're breeding, with a new generation of Monkees appearing soon on a TV set near you.

What's next is anybody's guess, but here's a warning -- remember the Archies and the ever-danceable "Sugar, Sugar''?

Don't count it out.

10. The VCR.

And what, you might be wondering, is wrong with that?

All those exercise tapes, for one thing.

Too, the VCR is one more good reason to make more bad movies.

Movies that turned a nifty $1.35 at the box office and in the past would have disappeared forever now stumble into profitability with VCR rentals as a new income source.  People rent films they were too ashamed to see in public (with good reason, too), thus guaranteeing an unending supply of lousy movies.

The new buzz phrase is that so-and-so is a "good VCR movie,'' meaning that it stinks but the aroma isn't as strong on TV.  Besides, as the familiar renter's refrain goes: "What the hell, it only costs two bucks.''

We'll be sorry.  Trust me.



1 EDGE OF DARKNESS -- Thriller about international skullduggery and nuclear waste that glowed in the dark.

2 MOONLIGHTING -- Sassiest dialogue since Bacall taught Bogart how to whistle.

3 NIGHTLINE -- Ted Koppel; the best.

4 GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE FORGING OF A NATION -- Present at the creation.

5 ON TRIAL: LEE HARVEY OSWALD -- Did he, or didn't he?

6 PARADISE POSTPONED -- For once, ""Masterpiece Theatre'' deserved the name.


8 THE COSBY SHOW -- The national Daddy is still going strong.

9 PERFECT STRANGERS -- Best slapstickers around.

10 10. ALEX: THE LIFE OF A CHILD -- The courage of everyday people.


1 MONTE CARLO -- Joan Collins and George Hamilton, together at last.


3 RAGE OF ANGELS: THE STORY CONTINUES -- Jaclyn Smith . . . enough said.

4 BETTER DAYS -- So racist it made Stepin Fetchit look like Bishop Desmond Tutu.

5 JACK AND MIKE -- He's a restauratuer, she's a newspaper columnist. So let him eat her words.

6 THE SECRET OF AL CAPONE'S VAULT -- Geraldo Rivera goes underground.

7 AMERICAN VICE: THE DOPING OF A NATION -- And should have stayed there.


9 THE LAST FRONTIER -- Linda Evans' trek to the outback belonged in the outhouse.

10 ENCOUNTERS -- Donna "The Raccoon'' Mills and her neurotic-erotic dreams.  Diagnosis: An overdose of eye makeup.