Whoooo -- hot stuff! ABC, which has always had sleaze at the bottom of its heart, unloads an unsold serial pilot Sunday night called "Willow B: Women in Prison" that makes "Dallas" look like "Little House on the Prairie."
A prime-time soap opera somewhat similar to the syndicated import "Cell Block H," "Willow B," at 10 p.m. Sunday on Channel 7, has an unusually impressive cast for a situation travesty: Carol Lynley, Elizabeth Hartman, Sally Kirkland and the terminally frazzled Susan Tyrell as inmates, and dear old Ruth Roman as Sgt. Pritchard, a sadistic guard who, of course, has waltzed in from any of umpteen other prison pictures.
A number of plotlines are hung up and then left dangling, since this is the first episode of a soap opera with no chapter two. Debra Clinger, as squareminded an innocent as ever stumbled into hell, is incarcerated for drunk driving and manslaughter. Once in the slammer she immediately, and I mean immediately, catches the roving eye of the ravenously predatory Chris, played to a voluptuous and huskily panted fare-thee-well by the beautiful Trisha Noble.
Lynley plays a jailed wife whose conjugal visit with her husband takes a downward turn. Hartman is a trusty who somehow has duped her invalid mother into thinking she's really having a high old time in Argentina. Kirkland plays a good-natured junkie who helps show the kid the ropes. And listen, showing the kid the ropes isn't the only cliche rattling around this joint.
"Now everybody inside and strip!" barks a guard in an early scene. "Cut the comedy, ladies, and hit the showers." An inmate consoles Clinger with that original thought, "Don't worry kid; it's not so bad."
It isn't so much Willow B as Movie B that's the subject here, and the odd thing is, there are enough hokey calamities and sexual titillations to keep one vaguely, if pointlessly, interested. Jared Martin as a decent-minded male guard and Norma Donaldson as the ferociously tough and just warden help a lot. The women wear not uniforms but frocks, and manage to stay so attractive, for the most part, that at times it looks as though the Rockettes have gone up the river.
But to Sharon Ernster goes the thankless task of looking genuinely frowzy and dowdy, and as a jilted lover she makes more of an impression than some of the glamourpusses.
Gerry Day wrote the thing and Jeff Bleckner directed it not on film but on tape. More TV shows will be produced on tape and fewer on film in the season ahead partly because tape is much cheaper. Tape also carries less connotation of permanence, and nothing could be more appropriate to a disposable but enjoyable wallow like "Willow."