"Skag" represents about three giant steps in the right direction for TV. If here and there it also takes a baby step or two in a wrong direction, that is only superficially injurious. Writer Abby Mann's anthem to The Working Man is so impassioned that even when it loses its head, you can still hear its heart beat.
The new NBC series premieres as an overpowering three-hour movie Sunday night at 8 on Channel 4. For 56-year-old Pittsburgh steelworker Peter Skagza, played with ferocious bravado by Karl Malden, life's highway is awfully cluttered with signs of the times; a simple dinner table conversation at the Skagza house gets into everything from Watergate to rising medical costs to declining standards in higher education.
In addition, this tumultuous first episode is a virtual Grapes of Angst; Skag's 15-year-old daughter turns out to be a nymphomaniac, one son is a lush, another is a self-obsessed materialist, and Skag himself suffers a stroke, temporary impotence afterward, and nearly loses the foreman's job he has held for 18 years.
But even if the skies are unduly crowded with storm clouds -- and it is a veritable traffic jam up there -- Mann's script, and the direction by Frank Perry, still show an ability, unusual in television, to cut through the cliches and kick a few cold truths around. If nothing else could be said for it, "Skag" is a high point in television because it gets one thinking about matters of life and death. So little on television does.
If considered along with Stephen J. Cannell's forthcoming and diamond-bright "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe" on ABC, and Larry Gelbart's upcoming and groundbreaking "United States" (just screened to considerable acclaim on the coast) on NBC, it is clear that already this year's "Second Season" is beginning far more auspiciously than the first did.
And if "Skag" and "United States" are combined with NBC's "Live from Studio 8H," a prime-time classical music program to be aired next Wednesday night, it also begins to look as if Fred Silverman may not have been bluffing when he promised to do something for television as well as with it.
"Skag" amounts to a sizeable risk because it not only hits home but occasionally shakes the foundations. Who is Hollywood liberal Abby Mann that he is entitled to speak for the working man? Maybe it's noblesse oblige, but the problems, concerns and grievances he gives Skag have an undeniable authenticity, even if occasionally they are dealt with either too grandly or too glibly.
In the '50s and '60s, the blue collar worker was represented on television by Chester A. Riley and Ralph Kramden, the latter certainly more credible than the former, but both clowns. In the '70s, the depiction took an incalculable leap forward with the arrival of Archie Bunker, tragic hero of the loading dock.
In "Skag" Mann not only moves the portrayal closer to veracity than it has ever been in a television series, but he also shows a keener ear for the real rhythms of middle-class family life than previous TV dramatizers. It's on the mind-boggling side that homesteads as patently plastic and tidy as on "Eight Is Enough" and "Family" are offered up as "realistic" on TV. They're only realistic if you live in a house where no one ever takes their shoes off and all the dialogue is written by a hot-tub consortium of flaked-out shrinks.
In the interaction of family members on "Skag," we see traces of the darker currents that may run in any home, from simple sibing rivalry to the blind spots that blemish even those of whom we think the world-and-all. Mann's dialogue is too super-charged and often too archly philosophical, but he has captured some of the nitty-gritty of living room politics.
"Skag" is to some extent an epic lament for lost times and for the way we have failed our fathers.
When Malden voices Skag's complaints -- "A man's word doesn't mean a thing any more" or "what happened to all the things you and I were raised to believe in? Don't they mean anything?" -- no one could doubt the depth of his feeling. This may be Malden's finest opportunity since "On the Waterfront," and he makes the character believably indomitable.
It's anything but a mere dramatic exercise when he bellows, "They talk about women's lib. All right, well how about some kind of 'lib' for guys like me?" The stroke sequence is as harrowing as one would ever want a TV drama to get.
As his wife of 27 years, Piper Laurie is a bit too svelte and ethereal, yet perhaps just for auld acquaintance, she is an asset to the program. Some of those playing the Skagza offspring are overwrought in a icky, actor's-school way, and they contribute to the general overly meaningful aura established by Mann. The program isn't just suffused with meaning but almost suffocating on it and yet, in a medium in which the meaningless as well as the mindless is monarch, Mann's exhibitionism is as bracing as crisply chilled air.
Director Perry used a rampage approach entirely appropriate to the emotionalism of the story, and the opening steel mill sequence, with Bill Goldenberg's daringly emphatic musical theme, is a sensational grabber. Viewers who go from "60 Minutes" on Sunday night to "Skag" will have the chance to get four hearty and satisfying hours of television under their belts, and in large measure, "Skag" is less of an escapist entertainment than "60 Minutes" is.