The road to China and the tenth month have at least one thing in common: they are both too long. Partly as a result, the first big Sunday night of the new TV season belongs to ABC, which will follow a one-hour season premiere of "Mork and Mindy" with the network debut of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall." Oh, boy.
NBC'S mucho-ballyhooed three-hour special, "Bob Hope on the Road to China," at 8 p.m. on Channel 4, is the season's first huge disappointment. Poorly organized, sloppily performed and stingy with views of Chinese life, this marathon jaunt turns quickly into a plod. NBC is counting heavily on Hope specials for ratings this season, but if Hope's producers can blow a sure thing like this China show, it's likely Hope's best roads are behind him.
CBS is not going to enthrall a nation, either, with its 2 1/2-hour drama, "The Tenth Month," at 8 p.m. on Channel 9, Carol Burnett stars in this annoyingly mopey and hesitant story of a middle-aged woman who, though no longer married, becomes pregnant in the course of a casual affair and decides to raise the child and remain a single parent.
Joan ("Nashville") Tewkesbury wrote and directed the film, and while the script is respectable and scrupulous enough, Tewkesbury's direction is distractingly timid and awkward. She often plants the camera great distances from the characters in a scene and refuses to move it; we rarely feel a sense of physical or spiritual empathy with Burnett and her woes.
Burnett continues to show new facets as an actress; the film, perhaps unwisely, requires of her to simulate explicitly the ordeal of giving birth near the drama's end. Burnett gives the character a stamina and pride not unlike the embittered mother she played -- and should have won an Emmy for -- in last season's "Friendly Fire" on ABC.
The most stirring scene occurs at an abortion clinic where a teenage girl wants to end her unwanted pregnancy. The clinic is suddenly invaded by thugs who have grouped ironically under the banner of "Right to Life." This is such volatile material that one feels the whole movie should have been more concerned with it, but then, that would only engulf the network in tons of mail.
Meanwhile, over in China, the sight of Bob Hope strolling along the Great Wall with putter in hand is an undeniably chipper way to open "Bob Hope on the Road to China," but this sequence, along with the show's close, are about its only striking or gratifying interludes. The program is curiously random and off-the-cuff for such an ostensibly momentous undertaking, and it is also something of a cheat.
One expects to see a great deal of Peking and other parts of China, but the show keeps cutting back to Shanghai for routine acts at a raggle-taggle circus. This is no treat and no thrill.
The idea of Hope going to China is very attractive, because he is such a terribly American symbol, both for better and for worse. It's like Mickey Mouse going -- a kind of pop diplomacy that validates the new era of good feeling (if that's really what it is) more convincingly than a hundred official visits could.
But the entourage chosen to support Hope was too obviously picked for its demographic appeal on TV, rather than for its potential interest to the Chinese. True, Big Bird may have caught their fancy (though the great fowl again proves incompetent at ad libbing), but country star Crystal Gayle and disco pistols Peaches & Herb are strictly deadweight.
Hope opens the show scoffing at how America and China misunderstood each other in the past; the Chinese accused the U.S. of "decadence," Hope says. Har har. Then he trots out Peaches & Herb for their mindless vocal gyrations and nearly proves the Chinese were right all along.
Ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov brightens the show by appearing to enjoy himself, and when he is applauded by students at the Peking Ballet School, he scolds them, "Come on, stop it!" The man is all charm. But Hope practicing Tai Chi with a group of Chinese to the inexplicable accompaniment of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" is pure ham, and Hope referring to a Chinese landmark as "this gorgeous hunk of real estate" seems clumsily inappropriate, as do jokes about rice paddies, Chinese laundries, and "column A and column B.
But there are, inserted here and there, beguiling galleries of beautiful faces, the people of China who have come out to see this strange American in the golf togs and, it appears, a girdle. And in the last five minutes of the program, Hope sings the obligatory "Thanks for the Memories" over a moving montage of scenes from the China trip, including the look of delight on kids' faces as he snaps them with one of America's great gifts to the world, the SX-70 camera. Unfortunately, though, there are not enough memories to be thankful for along Bob Hope's road to China.
For the record, Channel 4 premieres a new syndicated comedy show, "The Madhouse Brigade," at 1 tonight, acting on the supposition that audiences who have just sat through "Saturday Night Live" are surely in the mood for a crude and crummy imitation of "Saturday Night Live." They won't be.
"Madhouse" is a string of blackouts marked by self-conscious naughtiness (a Jerry Lewis" telethon or "Claudine Longet" offering records of songs like "You Can't Get A Man with a Gun") that is rarely amusing.