"W.E.B." the new NBC series ostensibly about the dark at the top of the tube, has about as much to do with television and American life as the daily soap opera "General Hospital" has to do with the practice of modern medicine. "W.E.B." merely uses a TV network as the background for its recycled "Executive Suite" cliches about the pursuit of happiness and the eternal struggle for a Mercedes benz 450SLC.
The series gets NBC's "sneak preview" treatment with a two-part introductory chapter at 10 tonight and again at 10 Thursday night on Channel 4.
Much of "W.E.B.," written by David Karp and created by former NBC executive Lin Bolen, is just dopey-dreadful in a half-entertaining way - no competition for respectable dramas like "Lou Grant" and "Family" but no real threat to one's bottom line of boredom, either. What's ironic to the point of absurdity about the show, however, is the idea that because a woman produces it and because its central figure is a woman, it somehow represents a bold step forward in the portrayal of women on television.
"I am somebody!" proclaims Ellen Cunningham (Pamela Bellwood) to her lunkheaded lout of a lover-boy. "I am some thing!" Then she walks out on him, weeping. A similar great moment in assertive feminism is sounded when the plain-Jane wife of a mid-echelon TV executive talks herself into going to a party at the boss's house by looking into a mirror and chanting, "I'm attractive, I'm intelligent, I'm a very nice person."
Where is Helen Reddy when we really need her? Where, come to think of it, are Joan Crawford and Bette Davis?
Ellen Cunningham emerges as perhaps the most put-upon and abused heroine since Lillian Gish carried a silent-movie baby across the ice floes with the hound dogs yappin' at her heels. Cunningham's a superior person - she makes Wonder Woman look like a slouch, in fact - primarily because all the men in her life are rotters, thugs or corporate hyenas. She wins by default.
A TV series in which network honchos - male and female - were portrayed as scheming exploiters and ruthless philistines might be sort of fur, in a perverse little way. But then Paddy Chayefsky already went that route with his snapping and crakling picture "Network," which even its detractors must admit had a huge point of view and a nearly berserk sense of social context. Bolen's male broadcasting executives are contemptuous only in stock old cut-out ways; maybe it's something in their hormones or their X chromosomes. Whatever, it has nothing to do with real life and little to do even with television.
The plot of the two-part opener has the valiant, tireless Cunningham salvaging a 30-hour TV special called "Our America" which her boyfriend, the producer, had turned into a hippic's history of the U.S.A. - "30 hours," growls the head of the network, "and not one scratch of virtue." With a team of eager young kids like those who used to help Mickey and Judy put on shows in barns, Cunningham saves the program, the day, and the Trans Atlantic Broadcasting company - TAB, the only TV network ever to be named after a cola.
Karp's dialogue has a certain welcome zinginess: "Sometimes people go crazy because they have nothing better to do," and, of network executives, "They don't watch television; they just live off it." That one at least has a ring of truth. But the real Author's Message of the show is Karp's notion of a statement on sexual equality, voiced by Cunningham in one of her innumerable moments of moral victory: "Most men don't realize how much they need their ladies," she says. It sounds like the beginning of a Joe Tex tune.
For all the yelling, recrimination and hate-hate-hate abounding, the only performances in "W.E.B." that seem affecting - in addition to Bellwood's capable marathon of valor - are Richard Basehart's as a Murrowesque old newsman and Tisch Raye as his wife, Christine. Unfortunately, writer Karp decides to cure Christine's schizophrenic fits with just a word from martyr Cunningham - roughly, "Your husband needs you." That does it. Suddendly she's A NEW WOMAN.
Harvey Hart's direction relies mainly on the old reaction-shot padding of most filmed TV. NBC ordered certain strong language, heavy breathing by the heroine and a suggestive gesture between a man and a woman in the front seat of a car removed from the original show. This process is not called Midasizing; it's Freddie-fying.
"W.E.B." still has a brittle surface some viewers may mistake for realism. Even the number of inside jokes about TV is slim, though near the end of the show there's a beaut. Fourth-running TAB has suddenly zoomed to first place in the ratings. We are shown a chart with TAB at the top and GUESS WHICH NETWORK in second place? NBC! Perhaps this qualifies "W.E.B." as speculative fiction, but is subject remains the stuff of which only the most prosaic dreams are made, and it doesn't even really give us the lowdown on those.