What happens when kids who demanded their rights, and what they imagined to be their rights, in the '60s, grow up to be parents themselves in the '80s? It's a question that "Family Ties," the new NBC sitcom premiering tonight at 9:30, half-amusingly evades for a tolerable half hour.
The premise loses a little of its novelty when one considers that TV has a long tradition of depicting parents and children as equals, or, worse, depicting guilt-ridden, permissive parents who cower before their smart-alecky kids' every whim. But this program, at 9:30 tonight on Channel 4, treats the situation with some intelligence and a lack of coarseness that could pass for warmth.
Michael Gross, as the father of the family, sounds and acts too much like Alan Alda, who has become, distressingly enough, the ultimate TV male role model, at least when producers are casting sitcoms (he's so caring, so supportive, such an adenoidal comfort to us all). But Meredith Baxter-Birney is always a wel ome presence, and one would hope future scripts will play up the part of the mother and play down the part of the fuddling pop.
In this, the Keaton household, dad is manager of the local public TV station, and while mom is an architect, she "usually works out of the home," according to NBC, lest this family unit become too unconventional (or trendy). As the first show opens, mom and dad are showing slides from their old war protests. Tina Yothers as little Jennifer says, "Mommy, you look so pretty -- like an Indian princess," and mommy says, "That's your father, dear."
The premiere's plot revolves around 17-year-old son Alex's choice of a girlfriend. The boy is Reaganesque backlash personified and the girl he's picked is a preppie numbskull whose parents belong to a "restricted" country club -- thus the program makes the common error of equating political conservatism with racism. Writer Gary David Goldberg, who also created the series and is the executive producer, should get some credit for trying to bring off something vaguely meaningful within the sitcom format, but at this point, he hasn't done a great deal of succeeding. 'Real People'
It's 6:30 a.m. in Phoenix, Ariz., 92 degrees outside, and yet 4,000 people have turned up at the train station to welcome "The Real People Express," a touring representative of the winningly corny George Schlatter series that begins its fourth season on the NBC television network, tonight at 8 on Channel 4, with the first of two 90-minute specials that resulted from the trip.
As luck would have it, the program, partly a celebration of the idea that America's railroads aren't really so bad after all, airs during the week of a nationwide railway strike. But the optimism behind "Real People" has always been pretty blind, anyway, and the 90-minute journey tonight, which gets the train from Los Angeles to Ft. Worth, Tex. (then onward and upward to Chicago next week), is infectiously good-natured and festive.
At various stops, recorded features are played back for the folks on the train, so that in the course of the trip, we meet still more examples from the show's bottomless pit of Colorful Characters. Like Hub Cap Annie, who roams the highways for cars with absent accouterments ("Now that's a Toyota and he's not missing anything"), collects old hubcabs from the sides of roads and sells them for what she calls a "cuh-mish," which is not a Jewish pastry but Annie's word for "commission."
In Buffalo Gap, Tex., population 320, "Real People" discovers an all-woman volunteer fire department. Just before the train reaches Ft. Worth, the "Real People" regulars look out the windows to see cheerleaders dancing on haystacks by way of greeting. In San Antonio, a team of karate kickers knocks down an old house in 20 minutes without using any machines.
As usual, the scripted portions of the program tend to be groaners, while the imparted folk wisdom of the real-life participants is cheerfully cliche' and authentically upbeat -- like that of Pamela Wingo, who says she set her mind to becoming a woman railroad engineer (and did) because her grandma once told her, "Enjoy what you can do, and do it to the fullest." And Redneck Granny, the CB Queen of predominantly Polish Pawelekville, Tex., who says she serves biscuits to truckers through the night because "Well, why not do the thing up right while you're at it?"
Schlatter and his producers have come up with super-sophisticated electronic dissolves and wipes that enable them to make the "Real People" graphics and transitions look like Slavko Vorkapich montages from movies of the '30s and '40s. Two things can be said of "Real People" that can be said of few prime-time television programs: It looks like it took a tremendous amount of work to make, and its heart is in the right place. Bless that heart and bless this show. 'Tales of the Gold Monkey'
With the colossal failure of "Battlestar Galactica" in 1978, Hollywood and the networks should have learned that the viewing public won't necessarily flock to its TV sets to see warmed-over and scaled-down versions of last year's hit movie. Yet we have two erstwhile "Raiders of the Lost Arks" on the air this season: "Bring 'Em Back Alive" on CBS and, tonight, ABC's "Tales of the Gold Monkey," premiering at 8 on Channel 7.
Both are tiresome in about the same precious way. "Tales" takes place in 1938, "deep in the South Pacific," and uses Nazis and Japanese spies as comic-book villains forever getting gee-whizzed. In an opening scene tonight, two Nazis are surrounded by a tribe of ferocious apes. "Vot de ve do?" one of them asks. "I think vee die," the other one says.
Starting with the next program in the series, Roddy McDowall, for some reason thought of as Mr. Series Insurance in Hollywood, will be added to the cast as plucky "Bon Chance Charlie." Tonight, the strained shenanigans fall on the shaky shoulders of colorless hero Stephen Collins and derivatively spunky heroine Caitlin O'Heaney. There is also a one-eyed dog named Jack with whom Collins has long, facetious chats.
He also has facetious chats with the audience, via cutesy-wutesy voice-over narration ("Magnum, P.I." made TV safe for that) as during a fight sequence, when we hear Collins say, "You may think this is silly, but ever since I can remember, I've had the urge to be a knight. Not in armor or anything like that -- just in spirit. You know, to help the helpless, to find a wrong and right it . . ." To which the only sensible reply is, "Oh, shut up."
What's happened is that all the wrong things about "Raiders" have been copied, because it would take too much wit and effort and time to copy the right things, the things that made the picture and its characters rousingly appealing. The characters in "Gold Monkey" appear to be just floundering around the Universal Studios tour, and not caring a great deal that that's how it looks. The whole show, which was produced by Don Bellisario, is one big wink at the camera, a game of dress-up in which the object is not to pretend to be credible characters, but to pretend to be in a movie.
It's like a fifth-generation copy of a videotape, or a film being watched through fog. It's never really quite there, so it might as well go away altogether. 'Maid in America'
Director Paul Aaron pulls a heap o' fat out of the fire in the second hour of tonight's CBS movie, "Maid in America," at 9 on Channel 9, and thereby partly makes up for the first hour, which is strictly cringe material.
The script is by Peter Feibleman, who uses his own name as the name of a psychiatrist referred to but not seen in the film. It is pronounced "feeble-man," and that proves painfully appropriate. A twist of sorts on "My Man Godfrey," the film stars its executive producers, Susan Clark and Alex Karras, as a rich, too-proper woman lawyer and the good-natured lumbering oaf who applies for the job of her family's maid. Yes, maid--after all, these are the weighty '80s, aren't they?
But Clark and Karras don't get to make any romantic bubbles until well into the second half of the film. The first half introduces a host of self-consciously eccentric characters and dawdles time away on a subplot that thinks it's a plot; a court forces the woman to hire the man as a maid after he reluctantly brings a sex discrimination suit. In addition, the first 20 minutes are downright offensive. To set the thing in motion, Feibleman has the family's original maid undergo a nervous breakdown. She was mugged, it is stated, by "a white man" who made racist remarks to her. Her trauma and hysteria over this is supposed to be funny.
The same kind of mind that would find that situation rib-tickling would also try to wring comedy out of a scene in which Mildred Natwick, as the feisty grandmother in the house, keeps slipping and falling in a bathtub full of water, nearly drowning. Natwick is also saddled with pseudo-snappy dialogue like "Where is my youth? Where is my energy? Where are my teeth?" and, "You're not paranoid, dear; people really are out to get you."
Finally, Clark starts to melt and see the charm in Karras, who is doing his gentle giant routine again. Aaron seems at last to brighten to the story during a simple and attractive scene in which Clark and Karras bury the hatchet and sit down to chat in a park. Feibleman is a lousy plotter, invents stale characters and writes miserable dialogue, but the two costars and a knack for basic romance by Aaron (who made the film "A Different Story") redeem the film in its final 30 or 40 minutes, although it's too bad the only way the Clark character can soften is by getting pie-eyed at a dinner party ("Mom," her young son asks, "are you drunk?").
David Spielberg, as a conniving lawyer who is battling Clark for a post with a civil liberties organization, says early in the film, "The trick is to make something out of nothing -- that's what something is nowadays." With "Maid in America," that trick is just barely brought off.