Staring into a television screen at someone else's eye staring back turns out to be more than a sublime visual experience. "The Body Human: The Magic Sense," latest in a series of Tomorrow Entertainment medical specials, may be the best and most enthralling one yet.
Most CBS stations showed it last night, but in Washington, Channel 9 delayed it until tonight at 8 because of previous scheduling commitments. While applying a word like "magic" to a human organ, even the eye, may come across as excessively show-bizzy, there are enough amazing and eye-popping sights in this hour to justify hyperbole.
The eeriest and yet most moving of these is a 40-day-old fetus in a womb instinctively shielding its eyes from the light of the tiny intruding camera being used to photograph it.
The creators of the program -- who also did NBC's "Lifeline" series last season -- make certain to humanize the report by attaching bodies to the eyes in question. There are nonfiction vignettes about people whose sight was lost or threatened and how surgeons attempted to correct the problem. To the producers' credit, they include one case study -- Patrick, 15, who suffered a torn retina in a hockey game -- in which the operation is not a success.
But with the others, we are there to share moments of triumph.
A diabetic who lost his sight to cataracts has his vision restored after more than a year in the dark. Now he can see his baby boy for the first time -- and does, in a sequence that gives new meaning to the phrase "not a dry eye in the house."
The wonders of vision are demonstrated through various forms of computerized photography and such highly visual acts as hitting a baseball, visiting an amusement park at night, or landing an airplane. And a Staten Island man named Jeremiah, who lost his sight in a mugging six years ago, shows how one can function with no other vision than the memory stored in what he aptly calls "the mind's eye."
Occasionally the director, Alfred R. Kelman, and the writers -- Dr. Robert E. Fuisz and Hank Whittemore -- get carried away with the melodramatic potential of their true-life material. A shot of the blind, diabetic father attempting to feed his son and smearing mush all over the poor kid's face seems both cruel and horribly comic. We know these shots had to be set up in advance and wonder how many takes the toddler had to go through before the photographers got just the mess they wanted.
Glorification of the almighty surgeon is kept to a minimum, though words like "harrowing" and "daring" are still employed to describe one operation.
However, since merely watching footage of the operation may be harrowing and require a degree of daring for some viewers (although it is not overly detailed or gory), perhaps the florid language is appropriate. The narrator, Alexander Scourby, is able to give dignity even to such purple burbles as, "Only an indomitable spirit keeps alive a distant impossible dream."
The overly insistent script is a reminder that there are still relatively few people creating television programs of any kind who truly trust the visual -- not even when the program is about vision itself. The best and most affecting touches in "The Magic Sense" are sights, not sounds -- a 13-month-old baby whose eyes were uncrossed by surgery and who now smiles up at his parents, or a shot of those parents waiting at the hospital as surgery on their son continues.
Despite the occasional fits of excess, "The Magic Sense" really is among the very best kinds of television. It is something to see.