Apparently the people in public television view life as a conflict of alternatives; should they try to imitate commercial TV, or should they try to imitate British Tv? To put it as gently as possible, they do not seem preoccupied with the goal of originality.
"The Best of Families," one of the big public TV showpieces of the season, offers viewers some of the worst of both worlds - a bit of the slickness and self-type of commercial TV, plus some of the talkiness and photographed theatricality of British TV imports. Could it be that public television is barking up two wrong trees at once? Yes, it could.
"Families," a $6.1 million, nine-hour miniseries, premieres with a two-hour chapter Thursday at 9 p.m. on Channel 26 and other public TV stations; it will be followed for seven more weeks by one-hour installments. Produced by the Children's Television Workshop, which wants to be called "CTW" now, the series traces the fates of three tictitious New York families against a historically accurate recreation of the years 1880 to 1900, a time of economic upheaval and social change in America.
There is much to admire about the program, to judge from the first two hours. It's a fairly lustrous production, the script by Loring Mandel has moments of emotional punch, and a few of the performances are entirely commendable and infused with appropriate passion.
But compared to what it could be, should be and might have been, "The Best of Families" is a gloamourous failure.
With symptomatic schizophrenia, the series starts off on two wrong feet. The producers trot out his eminence John Houseman, the certainly distinguished producer-director who won an Oscar playing an authoritarian college professor in "The Paper Chase," to instruct us in the art of watching the program.
As it turns out, Houseman's function isn't just Lord High Explainer. He is also, in the Hollywood tradition, the Lord High Hyper. A review of "The Best of Families" has been included as part of the program. And it's a rave.
"As you move into the full, rich texture of the series," says Houseman, "you'll find an unusual blend of dramatic action and historical authenticity that sets 'The Best of Families' apart from your ordinary television experience." With this pronouncement, Houseman dismounts the high horse of cultural uplift and climbs right into the Hollywood gutter of self-promotion.
Once the story itself begins, there are a number of glib touches that bring into question the dept of thought that went into the program and the concept. Historical details are dropped like names in the Polo Lounge at cocktail time. One half expects characters to announce what they represent when they appear - be it Tammany Hall, the oppressed poor, and exploited minority group of the moral pride of the deligious underprivileged.
To contrast the cushioned life of the wealthy with the struggles of the poor, writer Mandel and director Glenn Jordan repeatedly cut from one to the other in shamelessly simplistic fashion. For example, Irish immigrant Patrick Rafferty (Milo O'Shea) dies while doing heavy physical labor to earn a few pennies. Shots of mourners weeping at his extended, pathetic wake are intercut with glimpses of a well-to-do family enjoying a sumptuous meal in their glittery dining room.
Indeed, the way we distinguish the poor from the rich in "Families" is that the poor are always sweating and the rich are invariably eating. The ironies are anything but subtle. Jordan cuts from a shot of a wealthy woman feeding table scraps to a pampered dog, to poor old widow Rafferty slaving over a steaming stove.
At midpoint in the two-hour premiere , Houseman reappears to guarantee, among other things, the authenticity of the silverware being used at the dinner parties. Does this perhaps say as much about the mentality of the producers as they have tried to say about the disparities between rich and poor in 19th-century America? It could certainly be a key to the essential wrongheadedness and resultant flacidity of "The Best of Families."
The production is haunted, too, by the spirits of similar works - popular entertainments that didn't necessarily wear their historical veracity, if any, on their sleeves and yet spoke movingly and sometimes eloquently to American roots and to the present as it relates to the past - everything from the ill-fated "Beacon Hill" on CBS to such films as "Hester Street," "America, America," and even "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," plus innumerable motion pictures made by the late and incomparable John Ford.
Though they may have been less ambitious in design and intent, such productions were sometimes able to bring the past more vividly to life, and with less exertion, than "Families" does for all its costly lavishness of detail and its roster of historical experts. In other words, there is serious question whether "The Best of Families." even if it had been done superbly, should have been permitted past the drawing board stage.
It would be a lot more exciting if public television were toying with new non-narrative forms, especially if the alternative is merely to imitate the BBC's successful serials and intimate historical pageants. Recent developments suggest, however, that public television is going to be playing it safe rather than boldly going where no television has gone before.
A delegation of executives from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) just returned from mission to Los Angeles where they solicited contributions from the so-called creative community there. "Our hallmarks are freedom and diversity" board member Donald E. Santarelli told a reporter. Right. And Hollywood is just the place to go for fresh ideas.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Grossman, president of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has lately been bragging that public TV's audiences are growing citing Nielsen figures of an 11 per cent increase in viewers over 1976. Perhaps it's being naive or unrealistic, but one clings to the hope that the ratings game - programming to the lowest common denominator to reach the widest possible audience - was one that public TV would decline to play.
For years public TV has been getting A's for effort. The disappointing aspects of "The Best of Families" suggest that the era of tolerant and allforgiving good will should now be ended. What we don't need as alternative television in this contry is merely a less commercial commercial system or a less British British system."
We need something different, and "The Best of Families" is not nearly different, or good, enough.