Tube Stake: Programming reviews by Seth Arenstein
• Friday, May 25
Attack of the Show: Star Wars at 30, 7pm, G4. If you desire a light (and live) celebration of Star Wars, catch G4’s Attack of the Show special tonight, which features on-site coverage of Celebration IV, the huge, 5-day Star Wars party and convention in L.A. The History Channel’s Monday night celebration of George Lucas’ epic is more cerebral (see below).
• Saturday, May 26
Pandemic, 9pm, Hallmark Channel. Although this film about a deadly, raging flu-like virus is far from what you might expect on Hallmark Channel, it’s not half bad, filled with plenty of plot lines and good production values. And there’s Eric Roberts, Tiffani Thiessen, French Smith and Faye Dunaway in the cast.
Where Pandemic fails is that it asks us to regard it as more than a piece of entertainment. This is how a virus could spread, it argues. This is how a major city would react. Yes, elements of the plot are accurate and compelling, but overall there are far too many unlikely occurrences for Pandemic to be “an issue film.” We won’t even mention that a senior government official would be unlikely to show up to work sporting the kind of low-cut top that hugs Tiffani Thiessen’s torso in this film. Oops.
At three hours, this “Hallmark event” is a film to be recorded, archived and resurrected on a slow evening. Maybe.
• Sunday, May 27
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 9pm, HBO. Remember how Time Warner chief Dick Parsons mentioned Custer and the Sioux during The Cable Show in Las Vegas? Our guess is that he’d just watched this epic from HBO Films.
This is a serious piece of work about a subject that’s often ignored, namely the shoddy treatment of American Indians during the late 19th century. It should be shown in every high school history class in throughout this country, and would be a good opportunity for cable operators to partner with HBO on a community affairs push. The film’s that good and only a few scholars would have more than a quibble with its historical accuracy. An added bonus is that it shows how American Indians made their way to Canada, an historical fact not often taught in American schools.
But this is the Web, which allows us to lighten things up a bit. So, my problem, minor though it is, is with Aidan Quinn, who plays a U.S. senator in this film. The actor, bearded and gray, just looks like my vision of what a senator in the 1870s would look like. It’s too bad that when he speaks his lines I just can’t help but think of him as Alfred Ludlow, the well-meaning but corruptible politician he played in Legends of the Fall (1994). He plays a similar character in Wounded Knee, although this Senator is far more well meaning than Ludlow.
[Speaking of Legends of the Fall, Gordon Tootoosis, who played the wise and friendly Indian, One Stab, in that film fortunately also is in Wounded Knee, as Chief Red Cloud.]
But back to Quinn. Can we whack Quinn for sounding like Quinn? Perhaps not, but a good actor shouldn’t necessarily sound the same every time out. A great example is J.K. Simmons, who’ll always be nasty Aryan extremist Vern Schillinger from HBO’s Oz, right? No, particularly when he’s nasty American government employee McLaughlin in Wounded Knee. His demeanor, tone, diction and mannerisms are completely different here. There’s not a trace of Schillinger, although the fact that Oz alum Lee Tergesen, who played Tobias Beecher in that series, also has a brief stint in Wounded Knee makes this whole line of thought even more creepy, don’t you think?
• Memorial Day, Monday May 28
Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed, 9pm, The History Channel. If you want humor from The History Channel, you should tune in Sunday for How William Shatner Saved the World (5pm) and Star Trek: Beyond The Final Frontier (10pm). The latter is re-run of a fabulous special that doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, interweaving many of the series’ tongue in cheek moments with the more serious (?) business of an auction of Star Trek memorabilia (heck, it even runs the legendary Saturday Night Live clip of William Shatner telling Trekkies to get a life).
Tonight’s special on The History Channel is far more serious. While most of us saw Star Wars as pure entertainment, History has assembled a panel of erudite professors who dig somewhat deeper, analyzing the mythic values of Luke Skywalker. One pundit likens C-3PO and R2D2 to a Greek chorus.
That’s not to say this special isn’t entertaining, but it’s not done for yuks, which are well-hidden between the intellectual treatises, whose most interesting moments come early, when the topic is the writing about mythology and heroes by professor Joseph Campbell. George Lucas leaned heavily on Campbell as a guide for Star Wars.
But just as Lucas mixed his films with serious and lighter themes, History, at times, dilutes this special with a supposedly prestigious lineup of talking heads who comment, mundanely mostly, on the Star Wars mystique. This crew includes Newt Gingrich (well, he was a professor), Nancy Pelosi, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and the noted cultural observer Stephen Colbert.
But besides the professors, it’s Linda Ellerbee who has many of the wisest words (well, that’s why she’s on television, right?). She summarizes the underlying lessons of Yoda’s mentorship with the following: “When someone stretches out a helping hand, don’t look to see if the hand’s green, just reach out and grab it.” Very Yoda-esque, indeed.
• Tuesday, May 29
Secret Lives of Women, 8pm, WE tv. We expected tonight’s installment about phone sex operators to be relatively light, a fun tease. And we get some of that, especially when one of the women tells us she has an 80-year-old caller, whose idea of sexual fantasy is to hear a woman sneeze.
Overall, though, we feel the show’s title is wrong—it should be examining the secret lives of the men who call these phone sex services. They seem more interesting, and troubling.
The women who answer the calls, at least the five profiled tonight by WE tv, appear to be relatively average sort of people: mothers, students, homemakers and career-minded ladies. True, one of the ladies works as a professional dominatrix, but she’s also a mother, and we said the five were relatively average.
While some of the women started in the business to earn extra money, all of them now say they enjoy participating in fantasies with men and relish the power they feel they have over men.
The reason this show is so troubling, however, is that the women relate that they receive a plethora of calls asking them to participate, vocally only, of course, in fantasies and scenarios that involve incest and sex with young girls. Men call about having sex with their daughters and stepdaughters, we’re told. Fortunately, some of the women say they draw the line at these fantasies, and one reports that she phoned the police after realizing that one of her clients was approaching his daughter’s bedroom during one of his phone calls. More of a worry is when one of the women dismisses these older man-teen-age girl fantasies as “it’s none of my business” and even says “it’s my job.”
A further problem is left open by this special. Do these federally regulated phone sex operations relieve men of dangerous fantasies or fuel them?
• Wednesday, May 30
The Show, 10pm, Mojo. A good premise—follow six Triple AAA baseball players as they attempt to overcome overwhelming odds to make it to the major leagues. Just 3% of minor league players are promoted to the majors. Of course, the journey is not over once a player is called up to “the show.” Remaining on a major league roster isn’t easy either.
While the first two episodes lack a tight structure—maybe six players is too many to follow—and the script for narrator Joe Mantenga does little more than reiterate the pressure these players are under and does so with a load of sports clichés, this is an interesting series. Most fans have never seen a minor league game, much less gotten a look at the daily lives of minor league players.
If nothing else, this series demonstrates the former INHD’s ascension in the HD nonfiction genre and reiterates a theme baseball fans often forget, particularly when their hometown 9 can’t seem to do anything right: every player on a major league roster has a dozen minor leaguers dying to take his place.
• Thursday, May 31
The Starter Wife, 9pm, USA. You can’t lose with a cast that includes Debra Messing, Judy Davis and Joe Mantegna (busy guy with his Mojo duties, above) but The Starter Wife tries pretty hard to lose, which in this case means devolving into the well-worn, bland type of relationship film that’s more often associated with Lifetime originals.
To be fair, it’s not easy to bring a novel to television that depends heavily on the hilarious commentary of its narrator. And Gigi Levangie Grazer’s best seller, while not great literature, is a darned good read. So why did USA have to deviate so much from a book its creative team obviously liked? If you’ve read the novel, you’ll be watching the film, envisioning network execs sitting around a table, re-working parts of the novel for television. Some things I can understand. Getting a star like Messing seems to insure good ratings, but she’s radiant and gorgeous here (see above), which only is a problem when one is supposed to play a character in her early 40s who is taking desperate measures to maintain a youthful appearance. As Messing’s character says in Grazer’s novel, “Maintenance was a mother(bleep)er.”
I’ll be an optimist and hope that the final few episodes, which are only now being distributed to TV critics, will be better than the initial three hours.
All times ET/PT unless otherwise noted.