Not since the Man from Glad has there been a male moonbeam to match the title character of "The Phoenix," a 90-minute pilot for an ABC series airing Sunday at 8:00 p.m. on Channel 7. "It seems that I have something to do with the balance of nature," says the "ancient astronaut" who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of the normal blond bombshell.
E. G. Marshall unearths the critter, played by the zombie-eyed Judson Scott, as he dies dormant in a puddly tomb. Brought back to the lab in California, he soon wanders off ("Dr. Davis, he's gone! Gone!") and runs into the even prettier Shelley Smith, who sees him hitchhiking along the road.
"Just the way I like 'em," she says to herself, "big, blond and barefoot!" It evolves his name is Bennu -- not Jack Bennu, just Bennu -- and neither he nor the screenplay quite know what to do about his resuscitation. For starters he goes to the seashore and establishes a psychic link with an 11-year-old boy who hasn't spoken a world since his father died in Vietnam; will he be miraculously cured by Bennu's juju? It's only a matter of time -- about 75 minutes.
Actually, the film has a genial, dipsy-doodle quality that only grows irritating when it succumbs to the sort of mystical mush passed off for deepthink on "Kung Fu." Smith gives the premises a fetching breeziness and helps dispel pretentiousness; also, Bennu differs from other super heros in that he isn't above a little oogley-googley. After winning half a million smackers by fooling a Las Vegas computer (don't ask why), he tells Smith, "You'd be surprised what I could teach you" and she leers, "Yeah, I'll just bet."
Unfortunately, the farthest this intraterrestrial romance goes in Bennu's rubbing of the lady's aching feet. "Oh God, that feels so good," she says. Meanwhile, though, a villainous Peruvian scientist thinks Ben really is heaven-sent ("the closest thing man has found to a god since creation"), so he hops in his Mercedes and one thing leads idiotically to another.
"Phoenix" may be, as a series, too brooding for kids and too silly even for silly adults, but the 90-minute teaser has its coy charms.
It will be followed, at 9:30 on Channel 7, by another ABC pilot, "American Dream," about a middle-class family that flees suburbia to buy a big old house in the inner city of Chicago. The film, directed by Mel Damski and written by Ronald M. Cohen, Barbara Corday and Ken Hecht, suffers from an excess of contrivance and a shortage of appealing or even tolerable characters.
The father, played by the ineffectual Stephen Macht, stalks around reciting cliches and says "gimme a break" four times within the first 10 minutes. Karen Carlson, as his wife, is more dimensional, and suggests a young Lauren Bacall, but she is saddled with gronable lines, as when one of her two sons makes a reference to her "time of month" and she recites, as if a guest on the Phil Donahue show, "I don't want to hear that phrase again. It's cheap and sexist and it's a gross misstatement of fact."
The script has all the zip and humanity of a deposition. Worse, suburbia is somehow held accountable for the fact that the family's two sons are a pair of whimpering, self-pitying nags. It's the whine Olympics every time they walk into a scene. Surely the parents would be slightly responsible for raising two such dolts, but the film depicts them as ideal and enlightened.
Macht's sappy, whiter-thou dialogue is especially grating. "I was conned," he says. "It was the dream, the American Dream! . . . It has become a nightmare." That's because he can't find a five-bedroom house for under $100,000. To his wife, he says, "You're still a good-lookin' "fox" and, later, "Honey, I understand where you're comin' from."
The film reportedly ran into script troubles with the network over its treatment of ethnic minorities in the urban neighborhood. One son is roughed up by a tough Hispanic at school, but there is a nice Hispanic lady, right out of "Sesame Street," to counter this depiction. Except for veteran Scott Brady's gratifying, blustery turn as a tough teacher, the film remains on such wishy-washy middle ground that is amounts to a droopy case of Avoiding the Issue.