ABC is asking for trouble by showing "Roots" on television.
From Jan. 23 through 30, ABC will present a 12-hour adaptation of Alex Hafey's best-selling book, which traces the history of his family back to Africa.
The trouble for ABC will arise from a great many of us asking why we cannot see more television like this, not just on ABC but on CBS and NBS as well.
Ordinarily, I flee in panic from the kind of statement I am about to make, namely that television will never be the same after this nation has seen "Roots." The problem with television is that it usually remains the same, which is the worst indictment that can be made against it.
But as I sat the other night with others at a special screening where ABC presented the first two-hour episode plus scenes from the remaining 10 hours, it occurred to me that something quite revolutionary was about to happen to television with great implications for its future.
On one level, there is the bold programming decision by ABC's Fred Silverman to run it consecutively, night after night. The first episode will run two hours on Sunday, Jan. 23, to be followed by another two hours on Monday. Single-hour episodes will be run on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. These will be followed by a two-hour episode Friday, one hour on Saturday and a two-hour conclusion on Sunday, Jan. 30.
But more revolutionary than the manner in which it is being presented to us, David Wolper's production extends far beyond the boundaries of what has previously been deemed permissible on our television screens.
It is not the sight of women's bare breasts, nor the sight of the ceremonial circumcision knife as the young Haley ancestor, Kunta Kinte, and other young men are about to end their tribal initiation into manhood, or the scene where Thomas Davies, a conscience stricken slave-ship captain, is torn by his Old Testament Christianity and his lust for a young slave girl.
No, there is something more. It is the manner in which this production, on which Haley acted as consultant, has decided to confront a central experience of this nation's development - slavery - and what it has done to blacks and whites alike.
The scenes on the ship, with the slaves chained together, stacked alongside one another, lying in their vomit and excrement, being taken on deck to be doused with salt water which burns into the wounds that have been inflicted by the lashes of a whip, are something we have never seen before. We have read about slavery. But we have never seen it, never in such painstaking detail and never being experienced with such excruciating pain.
Television, when it sets out to portray reality, usually distorts it or just nibbles at it. I am at a loss for the proper word to use to describe what television has done with Alex Haley's imagined reality. "Enhance" will not do, nor is "heightened" sufficient. There is no word that is adequate. All you know is that what you have seen leaves you with a terrible and transcending anguish.
It is very odd. Television, which washes over us each day with the fantasy world of game shows, soap operas, talk shows, the nightly news, sitcoms, and cops and robbers, rarely unites us a sense of silent awe.
Only rarely has that happened in the short history of television - after the assassinations of the '60s and on that Saturday evening in the summer of 1974 when we sat in silent awe, individually and collectively, as the clerk of the House Judiciary Committee polled its members on the first article of impeachment against Richard M. Nixon. "Roots" will be another of those rare occasions when television will leave us with that sense of wonder.