Talking heads, supposedly anathema to all that is lively in television, turn out to be the only redeeming qualities of "Do I Look Like I Want to Die?," the PBS special about nuclear energy airing at 9 tonight on Channel 26.
This is a deplorable program, recklessly and amateurishly overproduced at KCTS in Seattle, but viewers who make it through the needlessly fancy packaging will find highlights of an engrossing debate between Ralph Nader, the consumer crusader and foe of nuclear energy, and Ralph E. Lapp, the nuclear physicist and defender of nuclear energy.
When reporter-producer-writer and general all-around blight Mike Kirk steps out of the way, which he does only with enormous reluctance, Nader and Lapp can be glimpsed in electric and entertaining combat on an issue that is in every conceivable way explosive. The debate was taped before a proudly partisan, mostly anti-Nader audience of workers at the Hanford nuclear project near Richland, Wash.
It is hard to determine who is the more adept performer. Lapp with his friendly white whiskers looks like a member of the Dublin Players, and he isn't too stuffy to exclaim to Nader at one point, "Oh boy, have you taken off into the wild blue yonder!" Nader confronts, teases and practices self-martyrdom before the crowd, becoming most convincing when passionately deploring energy waste in the United States.
"It's become a tourist attraction, for people from around the world to come and see how we waste energy," Nader says.
Unfortunately, Kirk took this tape and mutilated it into cookies. Everything is made bite-sized and digestible for the home audience - someone having assumed, of course, that the home audience couldn't simply follow a debate from beginning to end - and Kirk added a lengthy filmed introduction that is edited according to the rhythms of commercial TV. The visual changes every few seconds for fear we will tire of whatever is on the screen.
Kirk's voice-over claptrap is as injurious as his itchy trigger finger at the editing console. The debate will be "a Christians vs. lions situation," he says. Is that supposed to mean the brave Nader risks being eaten alive by the angry villagers? Afterwards he declares, "This event hasn't changed anyone's mind here," a patently unfair generalization, and then he launches into an editorial sermon to us, the dummies at home, the poor slobs who must be sold on concern about our environment the way we are sold Coppertone and Turtlewax.
The final nuttiness, and a coup de grace for the increasingly show-bizzy nature of public television, finds the "publicist" for the program getting a solo on-screen credit at the hour's conclusion. It would have been more reasonable to list the janitors who cleaned up the auditorium after the debate.
There really should be no place in public TV for meddlesome, sanctinonious and manipulative producers like Kirk, but the system is all too eager for his brand of melodramatic shmaltz. "Do I Look Like I Want to Die?" looks like the television of the living dead.