Two unfortunate messages that impressionable young viewers may take away from "The Wave," ABC's "Theater for Young Americans" offering tomorrow at 7 p.m. on Channel 7, are that all discipline leads to fascism and that every social outcast is a latent Nazi.
The strident central theme of the program is clear enough. Based on the experience of a Palo Alto high school teacher, "Wave" depicts a classroom full of students being swept into a conformist youth movement that within two weeks has progressed to the stage of armbands, rallies and attempted suppression of dissent and freedom of speech.
Bruce Davison, an actor who has repeatedly proved himself capable of penetrating insight into difficult characters, plays the teacher who starts the group called "The Wave," after a student asks him how the German people could have sat by while Nazis committed atrocities. The experiment turns into a nightmare and even the teacher is briefly caught up in this Frankenstein's fervor. But in fact the experiment, even at its innocuous inception, never does seem relevant to the question asked and indeed never answers it.
More unhappily, the first step taken along the road to fascism is the establishment of stricter discipline in the classroom, which up to that point had been a hotbed, or a waterbed, of do-your-own-thing anarchy. Surely a little discipline is not a dangerous thing.
In addition, the student who proves most susceptible to The Wave's lure is a shy, withdrawn loner called "The Class Creep" by one student and touchingly well-played by Johnny Doran. Moving though it is, the portrayal seems less a comment on the roots of fascism than a further slur on those who strike the majority as remote and "different."
Still, as drama, and as directed with deliberate speed by Alex Grashoff, "The Wave" does surge frighteningly on. The best performance may be that of feisty Lori Lethin as a girl who opposes the group, in the process loses her boyfriend (played by earnest John Putch, son of Jean Stapleton) and returns to her locker one day to find the word "enemy" scrawled across it. This cautionary fable is alarmist in proper proportion to the incendiary and always pertinent nature of its subject but occasionally the good intentions disappear down gaping holes in the script.