"Tenspeed and Brown Shoe" breaks at least the 55-mph speed limit and perhaps the sound barrier as it bursts out of the starting gate with a two-hour breakneck premiere tomorrow night on ABC. Whether considered suspenseful hilarity or hilarious suspense, it is hard to recall an action series that made a more impressive and riotous debut.
Ben Vereen plays Early Leroy Turner, a con man, or "tenspeed" in some arcane street-level argot, and Jeff Goldblum plays stockbroker Lionel Whitney, a real "brown shoe," a pin-stripe, a Brooks Brother whose heart is not in the market. In the premiere, at 8 on Channel 7, the tenspeed and the brown shoe both end up as gumshoes under the unlikeliest but most entertaining circumstances.
As the film begins, Tenspeed is trying to finagle a brazen financial swindle and has yet to meet Brown Shoe, who is also in San Francisco at the moment and planning to leave for L.A. and life behind a desk. Before the picture is over, the two paths have collided helter-skelter and herky-jerky and the new teammates find themselves in front of a church, ducking crossfire between Nazis and Mafiosi over a missing $1 million in cash.
"In every story there's a plausibility factor" Vereen says at one point, "and believe me, this one has no plausibility." He might be talking about the plot of the show. But plausibility is not much of a factor here; on a mixture of wit and energy, "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe" levels all resistance and obliterates disbelief.
Even the car chases are kind of witty on this show. The first begins with one car literally flying out into the frame and ends in a garbage truck parked in front of San Francisco International Airport.
The show's wizardly combination of crackling character comedy and relatively erudite mayhems was engineered by Stephen J. Cannell, who created not only this series but the great and soon-to-be-late "Rockford Files."
Cannell's characters come across as believable, charming coconuts, not the usual computer-generated TV composites. With his eager, open, man-in-the-moon face, Vereen makes Tenspeed a welcome, roguish, smalltime scoundrel, slipping in the first hour through such disguises as a tough flight inspector, an obsequious Jamaican clergyman and a garrulous, Tommish chauffeur.
It's graceful chicanery, stylish and funny, and when Vereen, hotly pursued by gangsters, runs through a pool hall, one is reminded again of this acclaimed actor-dancer's astonishing physical command.
The contrast with Goldblum's bewildered lankiness couldn't be better. Goldblum is one of those finds who keep getting found and then lost again; after watching him monopolize the camera in small films like "Between the Lines," many expected him to go through one roof after another, but he tended to be wasted in minor roles in minor films like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
Here his delivery, full of surprises and not-so-veiled threats to pounce, serve him very well; he looks like someone being held hostage by his own suit. As Brown Shoe, he is a closet detective who likes to play the board game Clue and read cheaply lurid "Mark Savage" novels written by some galoot named "Stephen J. Cannell."
No, Cannell has never written "Mark Savage" novels, but that is his picture seen on the back jacket of the book.
Cannell and director E.W. Swackhamer ("The Dain Curse") keep this lark on that delicate line between spoof and shoot-em-up, and the balancing act is in itself amusing. They also fill the film with quick, ripe character sketches, the best of these being Jayne Meadows as Brown Shoe's prospective mother-in-law and Simone Griffith as Brown Shoe's prospective wife.
Whenever the poor guy returns to her from anywhere, the bride-to-be bubbles, "Did you miss me? And when he leaves she says, "Are you going to miss me?"
Meadows may not be up to the great ladies of history she has to play of husband Steve Allen's "Meeting of the Minds," but here for comic snap has real crackle. Insinuating herself into the back seat of a cab, she huffs, "Oooo! This cab smells awful! What makes taxis smell so bad?" The driver turns around and tells her, "Drunks throw up in them."
A certain savory seediness was always a part of "Rockford's charm, and this Cannell predilection also gives "Tenspeed" a flavor, atmosphere and attitude that truly distinguish it from the usual bland TV prefab. Cannell appreciates social fringes and humanity's loopers, and he gives them an appropriately lunatic stature.
Near the end of the film, when Goldblum, trapped on a bus full of a Paraguayan athletes and escaped Nazis, cries out, "Things are not what they seem!", "Tenspeed" echoes Hitchcock's favorite theme, the ordinary man catapulted into incredible straits. As breaths of fresh air go, "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe" blows up a storm. '$5.20 an Hour Dream'
While the women of America mull over the prospects of sailing off to World War III, they can also contemplate life on the assembly line in "The $5.20 an Hour Dream," an awfully trend-conscious but fundamentally thoughtful prob-drama CBS movie at 9 tonight on Channel 9.
Linda Lavin plays, with unquestionable grit and tenacity, a divorced Southern mother whose only route to financial independence is to graduate from the ladies' jobs at an engine factory and on to the higher-paying assembly line, heretofore the exclusive domain of men.
The problems she encounters are entirely but not ruinously predictable -- resentment from the guys and from their wives, the delicate task of liberating the men's room, a touch of sexual harassment. Writer Robert E. Thompson and director Russ Mayberry keep the topicality subservient to the story and the film from becoming a sob-sister heart-bleeder about a little-miss-martyr.
In fact, in the effort to give the heroine some blemishes, they may have gone too far. In an early scene at a bar, she comes off as a slobbery drunk, selfish and abrasive. But the filmmakers have at least managed to portray working people mostly in a sensitive and straightforward way; "Dream" deals with a social stratum TV usually ignores or trivializes into jokes.
The factory scenes are not as riveting as in "Skag," and some may see the film as a watered-down "Norma Rae," But Lavin and, very notably, the undercelebrated Nicholas Pryor as her sadly hapless ex-husband give "Dream" a tangible semblance of reality. Martian Chronicles'
Yech -- those earthlings! They're not on Mars for two minutes and what do they do? They throw their bottles in the river and pollute it. Just what you'd expect. No -- just what you'd dread: a futuristic morality tale about how inferior humans must be to whatever other life, if any, exists in the universe.
Perhaps the second and third chapters offer more flash and less rant (most of the spectacular scenes in NBC's promos are from those episodes), but part one of "The Martian Chronicles," NBC's six-hour adaptation of the Ray Bradbury science fiction book, is a feeble, preachy and nearly interminable waltz whose vu is wearily deja.
The film, at 8 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 4 (with subsequent chapters Monday and Tuesday at 9), moves lavoriously through a series of expeditions to the Red Planet, where it seems they've had magnetic tape for 50,000 years but still live in caves, have developed their sixth sense to the n th degree but have yet to grow any ears.
Their way of life is at one with nature, we are told, but -- undoubtedly in an exalted karmic state of heightened awareness -- they choose to murder all visitors to their planet on the assumption that the intruders are determined to set up Levittowns and shopping malls as far as the Martians' neon eyes can see.
Bradbury did not write the script, and has apparently disowned the adaptation, but the man who did write it, Richard Matheson, is a veteran of outstanding movie science-fiction and fantasy ("The Incredible Shrinking Man") and was a frequent contributor to "The Twilight Zone." One expedition, in fact, meets a "Twilight Zone" sort of fate; the Martians extract a crew member's memories of his home town and recreate it on Mars, so it's there waiting for him when he arrives.
The sequence, however, goes from moving to ludicrous when the Martians unmask themselves and one of them sneers at the dying crewman that his chocolate pudding -- "or what you thought was chocolate pudding," heh heh heh -- was drugged. Oh, brother! They might as well have taken out a blackjack and clobbered him on the noggin.
The director, Michael Anderson, is known for his lethargic touch in lead-footed movies like "Shoes of the Fisherman." Rock Hudson, who heads one expedition, seems duller even than usual, and though some of the Marscapes are pretty, the planet's so-called glorious civilization left ruins that look like remains of the 1939 New York World's Fair. Voyage of Charles Darwin'
I first encountered "The Voyage of Charles Darwin" on a television set in my office. The year was 1980, although on the screen Darwin was but a young man and the time was 1825. While Darwin studied theology at Cambridge the HMS Beagle, under able Captain FitzRoy, was just returning from Tierra del Fuego with three captured natives on board.
The voice of Charles Darwin, or rather an actor impersonating him, narrates this highly acclaimed BBC factual drama series, which premieres tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 26 and other PBS stations, and will continue for six more weeks.
Young Darwin is played by Malcolm Stoddard. As a theology student visiting a botany class, he hears a professor say of "the natural sciences" and theology that "the two are not incompatible, as you see," I took careful note of the line of dialogue as I was certain it held an important clue to the evolution of Darwin's entire life.
I also remarked to myself upon the general and indeed almost tedious excellence of the program, and of Andrew Burt's portrayal of the stalwart, efficient and yet quick-tempered Capt. FitzRoy. When the Beagle returns to England, of course, Darwin will board her, with his friend Prof. Henslow, for a three-year voyage that will, I dare say, result in new challenges to much of what human beings thought they knew about their origins and their creator.
I vowed to encounter "The Voyage of Charles Darwin" again the next time it appeared on my television set, and to make special mention of the studious script by Robert Reid and the crisp direction of Martyn Friend, I decided not to mention again, however, how scandalous and pitiful it is that American public TV always seems to import such programs and never to produce them. 'Donna Summer'
Gather round, ye anthropologists, for "The Donna Summer Special," the latest indication of erreparable cultural and moral decay in the 20th century. ABC's hour with Donna is tomorrow night at 10 on Channel 7.
"Once upon a time in the land of never-never," coos the disco queen, "I dreamed of being a big entertainer." The dream did not precisely come true, so she became a pop singer instread -- one so casually inept that she needs cue cards for the lyrics to some of her own hits.
Mind you, these are hard-to-remember lyrics like "Dim all the lights, dim all the lights, come on dim all the lights, dim all the lights," and, "on the radio, whoa ah oh ah oh, on the radio, whoa ah oh ah oh . . . ."
Bad girl. Bad girl. In a sequence with her tiny daughter Mimi, she lullabyes the child with thoughts of a "fairy-tale high," and the tot, who apparently gets off on drug imagery, promptly dreams her big dream of being a sex symbol at a disco just like mom.
The repeatedly chanted theology is get-it-while-you-can and try-to-make-it-last, and symptomatically, Summer changes the lyrics of "The Man I Love" from "he'll be big and strong" to "he'll be rich and strong." She purrs, she struts, she orders audience to put their hands together (and applaud her) and she makes one pine not only for the great make-out music of past generations (Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis) but also for the days when "decadent" was a pejorative.