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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
7 THE INDOMITABLE TEDDY ROOSEVELT --
8 THE COSBY SHOW -- The national Daddy is
still going strong.
9 PERFECT STRANGERS -- Best
10 10. ALEX: THE LIFE OF A CHILD -- The
courage of everyday people.
1 MONTE CARLO -- Joan Collins and George
Hamilton, together at last.
2 LIFE WITH LUCY -- Sad.
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.
8 THE LATE SHOW WITH JOAN RIVERS --
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