It isn't every preview tape submitted for screening that arrives in a beat-up Giant Food sack. Not only that, but shy the usual $250 screening fee (heh-heh, only a joke, but what a great idea, I wonder if I could get away with it, I sure could use the money, what with all those Christmas bills to pay, and now that stamps are going up to 22 cents, and -- more on this later).
"Watch Out, Arlington!" is the kind of tape that should arrive in a Giant Food sack. This merrily mixed bag of small potatoes, produced on a shoestring at Arlington Metrocable's public access channel, gets its first over-the-air exposure tonight at 11:30 on Virginia's ragtag Channel 56, a station so beset by technical inadequacies that its signal is occasionally indecipherable. And sometimes mercifully so. But not tonight, one hopes.
The sometimes satirical, sometimes just silly show, known as "WOA" for short, and soon to be known as "WOW" when it becomes "Watch Out, Washington," is the work of four obviously dedicated amateurs who put it together last fall while holding down full-time jobs. They aspire to do for Arlington roughly what John Waters has done for Baltimore, or what the Langley Punks have done for Langley Park, Md., but within the more orderly strictures of mainstream TV. They endeavor to give Arlington an identity, which can't be easy for a county known mainly for its cemetery.
On the first show, the quartet romps through a series of sketches and routines that range from hey! to blyech! Clearly the standouts among the troupe are Nancy Barnett, a 28-year-old management specialist at the U.S. Information Agency, and Jeff Sacks, a 28-year-old lawyer for the Veterans Administration. As the Wrong-Way Corrigan of TV correspondents, Barnett runs out of gas en route to cover a cultural story and so reports from "Arlington's only pornographic movie theater" instead. None of the theatergoers will comment on the movie as they leave the place except for one man who is radiating erudite analysis. "I'm a professor of film at a major local Jesuit university," he explains.
Barnett also appears as Ms. Jane Fonda, former "apolitical bubblehead" turned activist and exerciser. Reciting her autobiography while dashing off a few quick calisthentics, she recalls, "I married two of the ugliest men in the world."
Sacks, possessed of an instinct for connecting with the camera, or at least not letting it inhibit him, delivers an "editorial" that is a funny mishmash of mixed metaphors and groaner puns ("the MX mistletoe," "the patience of a St. Bernard") but is stranded all too literally during a misconceived sketch titled "Henry Applebaum, the hip psychologist," the sensibility of which is about 50 years out of date where the spoofing of shrinks is concerned.
Producer-director Rob Huberman, by day a media consultant who runs a firm called Communication Techniques, appears briefly as well, once as a reporter who reveals that the Arlington Board has voted to outlaw breakdancing on county bike paths. Dennis Dickerson, 30, gets the most exposure, offering up a passable Jimmy Carter impersonation during a talk show sketch in which the former president plugs his new book, "Plains Cooking: 1001 Ways to Eat a Peanut."
On the second "WOA" in the series, which Channel 56 will air Jan. 25, Dickerson turns up again as Carter, this time having become a fashion designer whose specialty is overalls and who, the hostess notes, "is wearing his entire collection." A French designer who is also a guest declares, "I design clothes for the man who is not sure whether he is a man or a woman and does not care."
The second program is more technically polished than the first. Huberman even got to play with a chroma-key machine to produce multiple images of Dickerson. The program emanates, blusters an announcer, "from alongside the airplane warning beacon high atop the USA Today building in beautiful downtown Rosslyn." Unfortunately, little of the humor on either of the first two shows seems very indigenously Arlingtonian. Of course, the phrase "Arlington-style" would be a contradiction in terms.
Also, Huberman and his fellow writer-actors have been a touch too obedient to the formats and approaches of "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV Comedy Network." On the second show, Dickerson even borrows the old Chevy Chase bit of holding his nose and pretending to be a foreign correspondent phoning in from a distant shore.
But there's something more palatable about amateurish bad comedy than slickly professional bad comedy. The primitive production values of this program are endearing, and help force it into helpless unpretentiousness. Huberman said yesterday that the show is only in its formative stages and that "we do have some pretty high aspirations" about eventually making it a commercially profitable venture, perhaps on a cable network looking for programming (and all of them are).
The first edition of "WOA" has already been seen on Metrocable's public access channel and the second, in fact, will premiere on Channel 33 tonight at 8:30 (Channel 56 pops up on Metrocable as Channel 15 -- confusing, isn't it?). It might seem that anything would be a step up from a cable access channel, but Huberman says that Arlington's video workshop, which supplied the production facilities for this program, is "a wonderful place to get something started."
Unfortunately, as with most systems, the Arlington access channels are strikingly underutilized by the video citizens of its viewing area. Metrocable recently won permission to take back, at least temporarily, one of the two government access channels operated by the county, but for a good cause. Beginning Jan. 1, Metrocable subscribers will be able to receive the ambitious programming of the Arts & Entertainment Network on Channel 35.
"WOA" is ambitious programming, too, of its kind. The assembled funsters haven't exactly found their own voice, and their technique tends to be spotty at best, but the folks-next-door quality is moderately charming. A show like this can attract more users to access cable, and may be indicative of the kinds of programs that will grow out of access and the nascent low-power TV movement: true neighborhood television. It's too bad the people behind "WOA" are dreaming of bigger things; we may need more people in television who are willing to dream small.