Mikhail Baryshnikov is certainly the cutest thing to hit television since Kermit the Frog. One of the best things about his ABC TV special tonight is that he looks like he's having a wonderful time doing it, and it would be all but impossible not to share in this elation.
He's sensational, he's irresistible, he's as much fun as a new toy.
It's easy to forget how effectively televison can transmit the charisma and magnetism of inspired performers' because we see so few of them on the air. Most programs are populated with TV professionals who seem designed by committee to be inoffensive and bland.
But "IBM Presents Baryshnikov on Broadway," at 9 on Channel 7, gives the celebrated Russian-born ballet star a superior, smashing vehicle for reaching and charming an enormous national audience. Millions who might never dream of going to a ballet can still appreciate an extraordinary talent when they see one.
The program recalls the stylishness and tone of the musical specials that Barbara Streistand did in her pre-frizz days for CBS and the four now-legendary specials Fred Astaire did for network TV in the early '60s. As with those progrms, this one has been meticulously and imaginatively designed to show off its star and his fellow performers in the best and the brightest light.
And once the premise has been established in a too-talky and overly instructive prologue, the hour sails by ecstatically.
Baryshnikov is joined for this exhilerating event by Liza Minnelli, who narrates -- with excessive breathiness and mock awe -- the program's casual tribute to the big musicals of Broadway's past. Writer Fred Ebb has given Minnelli some regrettable mush to emit. ("That's what Broadway is -- exciting and unique and special"), but her dance numbers with Baryshnikov are humdingers.
The program was produced by the most gifted Ziegfelds in television, Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion (Hemion directed). This is the team that dished up such feasts as the Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme composer tributes and "Richard Rodgers: The Sound of His Music," which was the best musical special of the '70s.
Their taste is pretty impeccable and they hired the very best supportive talent, from choreographer Ron Field to costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge. Together they preserve Baryshnikovs distinctive essence while at the same time making him presentable on national network television.
There is no attempt to make Baryshnikov something he is not, nor to homogenize or compromise him; he's so effortlessly ingratiating that this would have been difficult anyway. His prowess as a television performer involves more than his dancing. He has a relaxed, accessible quality that makes one comfortable with him and at no time does he act like a highbrow slumming through Video Land.
The musical numbers are inventive and the sentimental references to Broadway don't come off sappy or loo-Chorous Line" and their rousing finale, nily self-congratulatory, the way they do on that annual embarrassment known as the Tony Awards. The love of performance expressed on this program goes well beyond superficial worship of spotlights and applause.
Baryshnikov's versions of more-or-less traditional Broadway dance movement are effective and entertaining homage. Early in the program, he's on the screen alone for such a few seconds doing stylized cowboy dance movements as they might have been done in "Oklahoma!" The joy of this is seeing something indigenously American being filtered through another sensibility and played back for us.
Even Minneli, who sometimes comes on stronger than the Mongol hordes, seems unusually appealing and festive under these circumstances. With Baryshnikov seated at a piano, she sings a beautiful, overlooked torch song from "Funny Girl" called "The Music That Makes Me Dance" that seems especially appropriate under the circumstances.
Their conversations together, through sometines achingly stagey, are enhanced, not impeded, by Baryshnikov's broken or at least bent English, as when he recalls seeing one show "five years ago, when I first time came here."
With Neil Carter of "Ain't Misbehavin," Baryshnikov dances a satrically flirtatious "Honeysuckle Rose": with an essemble he less successfully recreates snippets of "Guys and Dolls"; with Minelli he stomps the dickens out of "Too Darn Hot"; and he closes out the show with the entire cast of "a "One".
Selflessly and boyishly, Baryshnikov all but disappears into the chorus, becoming -- as much as is possible for him -- just one of the gang. It's a winning, subtle alternative to the solo bow-taking one might have dreaded on the basis of hammy show-biz precedent. Actually Minnelli and Baryshnikov spoof the taking of bows earlier in the program, but for "Baryshnikov on Broadway," a million bows would be still too few.
What a pleasure to be knocked for a loop by a wowser like this. 'Six O'Clock Follies'
The more recent the war, the more acrid the situation comedy that's set in it. Apparently. Thus were "McHale's Navy" and "Hogan's Heroes" outright slapstick burlesques set in World War II and thus is "M*A*S*H" a more sober and thoughtful commentary comedy set during Korea.
Now, in answer to zero requests, we have, "The Six O'Clock Follies," an openly but gutlessly cynical comedy about the Vietnam War. It premieres tonight with two episodes back-to-back on NBC (Channel 4) at 9.
Suddenly we are supposed to be able to laugh at Vietnam. It's been deemed a safe zone, and so all three networks have Vietnam sitcoms in the works. NBC's does not leave one anxious for more comedies about Vietnam, however, any more than "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" left one yearning for more tragedies.
The fact is that in most cases, this one included, the sitcom format simply puppies things up to a distancing and manageable cuteness, and it's just too early to get cute about the most debiltating war in the country's history.
"Follies" is really a cross between "M*A*S*H" and "WKRP" in Cincinnati," since it takes place in and around the Armed Forces TV station that broadcasts news of the world and the war to American troops stationed there. The term "Six O'Clock Follies" is applied to the show by the boys in the trenches in a spirit of derision.
Derision is the order of the day here, however, in "M*A*S*H," the positive characters seem determined to survive within a world run by lunatics. In "Follies," the common man is more resigned to a general hopelessness about the war and about life and the unfairness of everything.
And yet, the authors have to head themselves off at the pass with basically happy endings and a synthetically upbeat melodic line. They end up, in the words of one of the characters, "in deep doo-dah."
"Follies" is a gang comedy whose gang is made up of types, from the two likeable anti-hero heroes who anchor the newcast to Candy, the intrepid bombshell of a weather girl on whose derriere the station's cameras are wont to focus. "Midas," a likable small-scale profiteer, hangs around with a Vietnamese compatriot who is also a likeable small-scale profiteer.
"Somebody help me; I don't like it here," the title song pleads, but the characters do not exhibit dramatic signs of dissipation or despair. They do not smoke dope, much less shoot any up, and they certainly don't get off on Russian roulette.
What's interesting, but just barely, is how the parameters of sitcom mythology can be expanded to take in a version of the bitterness that the war engendered in reality. An anchorman on the newscast was fired, we learn early in the first show, because he referred to the Joint Chief of Staff as "a gaggle of fascists."
The laugh track chortling over this sounds just like the laugh track that would reward Robert Reed for falling on his duff in "The Brady Bunch."
The colonel who runs the TV station admits that the U.S. is not by any stretch winning the war. "We're not doing all that well, son," he says. Ha ha ha ha. The two heroes, one black and one white, mention casually that they'd considered going to Canada to escape the draft, something Hawkeye and Trapper John would have stopped far short of, for all their playful cynicism.
The two men assert their virtue by trying to slip unauthorized material -- such as wisecracks about Nixon -- into the newscasts, an effort "to get closer to the truth," one of them says. The guy to admire, it's stated, is the guy who "bends the rules a little," and those who believe rules to be rigid are depicted as prigs and jerks.
To the traditional list of fall-guys and foils the program adds such vulnerable targets as a self-righteous U.S. congressman (called "that idiot," slapped in the face and assaulted on the second show) and an impossibly prissy Southerner who's so dumb he belives in the old values and the authorities in command.
"Th president of the United States never lies," he says at one point, whereupon the two heroes look at each other with sarcastic eye-rolls and the laugh track burbles some more. America may or may not be ready for a genuinely funny comedy set during the Vietnam war, but there's no reason it should be ready for "The Six O'Clock Follies."