Since mere mention of the term is ratings poison, CBS avoids calling "The Body Human: The Vital Connection" a "documentary" at all. Instead the network labels this "a dramatic informal special," and the information is processed along the lines of an entertainment show, its script filled with melodramatic hyperbole, pre-commercial cliffhanging and superheroes who do not err.
Nevertheless, the "vital connection" of the title - the human brain - is such a fascinating subject, and much of the medical footage so striking, that the program, at 8 0'clock tonight on Channel 9, survives attempts by the producers to make the material not just palatable but tasty, the way baby food is manufactured to be tasty to parents and not to infants.
Dr. Thomas E. Fuisz, who writes these specials, may lack faith in the material, because he often hypes it up gratuitiously. He is big, for instance, on the word "miracle," which is not a very scientific term. A little girl's body is "in need of a medical miracle," we are told; another patient was in a coma "until by some miracle, here brain slowly awoke;" and still another didn't survive an operation so much as he "lived through a miracle."
Some of the visuals engender a sense of amazement, but few viewers will need verbal cues. When we see an X-ray film of someone swallowing a swig of coffee, and realize the complex mechanism that makes this simple act possible, we are properly astonished without nudges in the ribs.
As on previous "Body Human" specials, the program follows three patients through delicate surgery to happy endings. A young woman's arm tremor is cured through liquid nitrogen surgery that requires her to remain awake during the operation and direct the surgeon's hands herself.
Midway through the operation, the doctor has to decide whether to stop at a partial cure of "take an added risk" through further surgical exploration. And it is at this point that the program is interrupted for a commercial break, and we are teased with the fate of the young woman on the operating table. This happens with the other two patients as well, and it seems a pretty cheap trick even for network TV.
In addition to the footage of operations (none of it unnervingly gruesome) and microscopic fetal photography, there are candid scenes of the patients and their families. Their stories may play like tidy little dramas, at least as arranged by Fuisz and director Robert Elfstrom, but the element of truthfulness gets through especially when a 10-year-old girl breaks into tears as a doctor calmly explains to her the brain surgery she is about to undergo.
The producers cut quickly to the doctor and his words of reassurance; TV tells us, again, that everything will be okay - right after this message.