To watch "1986," the new, umpty-umpth attempt at a magazine show from NBC News, is almost to be run over by "1986." You sort of feel yourself going splat on its windshield.
The program, premiering at 10 tonight on Channel 4, has come a long way from its previous incarnation, the quaint and dowdy "American Almanac." Maybe too long a way. The new version with the flashing lights and the rama lama ding dong almost makes one long for the funereal peace and quiet of "Meet the Press."
Certainly anchor Roger Mudd, on whose career the word "distinguished" can justifiably be lavished, is out of place in the new stark, vacant studio set and amid the trappings of hype assembled to put "1986's" mixed bag of curiously remote stories across. He and coanchor Connie Chung look like wary wallflowers in a cavernous electronic ballroom.
The only energy the program has is nervous energy. It doesn't seem concerned; it just seems worried.
An opening tease full of hot words ("beat," "raped," "violence," "dangerous," "hottest"), action news pix, stylized star-and-stripe computer graphics and the thumpety-thump of Rush's "Mystic Rhythms" seems a variation of the CBS "West 57th" opening, albeit without the shots of correspondents leaping into the world's sundry frays. "West 57th" took hard knocks for its snappy fashion details, but at least they are endemic to the program, part of an overall concept. "1986" appears to have had the glitz sprayed on later, and it's clearly one of those $39.95 paint jobs.
The first of the premiere's four pieces, "Sell or Else," with correspondent Ed Rabel, tells of sadistic treatment of teen-age salespeople by companies that recruit them -- a story, Mudd says, "of ambition, cruelly exploited." Youngsters are brutalized if they fail to make sales quotas, Rabel reports.
An 18-year-old girl with a sweet, surprised face says she was not only beaten but raped. Twice. Later, an executive of one such company is asked to respond. He's a classic case of being one's own worst defense. "Rape?" he asks. "Who can rape someone this day and age and get away with it? . . . 'Assault'? What is 'assault'?"
The elements may be there for a riveting expose', but the story never takes on a national dimension, and it remains unmoving. Rabel, whose voice on the sound track sounds a great deal like Mudd's, says "an astonishing number" of youths are involved, but we never hear what that astonishing number is.
Chung reports "Safety Lost," which maintains that pickup trucks and mini-vans, "the automotive phenomenon of the '80s," do not have basic structural safety features standard on ordinary cars, and victims of accidents involving such vehicles complain accordingly.
Lee A. Iacocca, the Chrysler chairman, scoffs when Chung presents her evidence, dismissing the alleged importance of "a lousy little beam in a car" that his and other manufacturers' fun trucks lack. Chung stands outside the Department of Transportation building to announce that Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole "refused our repeated requests for an interview." And so on.
Mudd interviews Mary Martin for the third segment, which is at least nice, if humdrum, and which includes clips of Martin in her array of celebrated roles. But when she and Mudd stand near a wall covered in Al Hirschfeld caricatures of her, we are deprived of close-ups of the cartoons, and nothing is made of the 1982 auto accident in which Martin was seriously injured and lost her manager, Ben Washer. Her close friend Janet Gaynor died two years later of injuries suffered in the crash.
This would seem to be dramatic material worth discussing, easily more arresting than repeated shots of Martin on stage with Carol Channing in a new play. Mudd looks more comfortable interviewing Martin than one might expect. She is coy and tight-lipped and at one point Mudd chides her, refreshingly, "Now come on, Mary, that's a real easy question."
For the last piece, the show returns to its theme of dire straits, with Peter Kent reporting on the ease with which terrorists could enter the country through Florida. This is supposedly demonstrated in a ridiculous film sequence showing a speedboat blithely zooming into Miami with nary a cop to stop it. It's held up as an example of lax enforcement. But surely it was obvious to all authorities that this boat was part of an NBC News filming expedition.
"Perhaps with our camera boat and helicopter, we weren't suspicious enough," Kent concedes. No kidding! Up until this point, "1986" seems only hapless. But this last segment is practically a taunt to terrorists. "It hasn't happened yet," Kent intones, but it's "virtually inevitable."
Producers even stoop to including clips from "Black Sunday," a flimsy 1977 thriller about terrorists attacking the Orange Bowl in a hijacked Goodyear blimp.
Perhaps "1986" should consider stories like this as a continuing segment: "The horrible thing that could very well happen." If so, it would be better to start with nuclear war than with terrorists tippy-toeing into Tallahassee.
Alas, NBC News appears to be conducting a televised seminar on how not to produce a magazine show, with "1986" the latest illustration. It's not just a matter of saying "Almanac" was too soft and "1986" is too hard. It's that "1986" never jells; it doesn't hold together. It's bereft of fresh approaches, and decorating old approaches with day-glo stickers doesn't work.
Perhaps there are better pieces in the hopper, to be shown on future weeks. But even four good pieces don't necessarily cinch it; there has to be a palpable purposefulness holding them together. Viewers of "1986" may find the program basically unobjectionable yet feel a terrific lack of urgency to it. Even in a summer sea of reruns, it doesn't stand out enough.
"We call this broadcast '1986,' " Chung says up top, "because that is our interest -- the events and people that give each year its own flavor and feel." If 1986 is to be judged by the first installment of "1986," the flavor is flat and the feel fuzzy. A weary, guinea-pig viewer is compelled to wonder: "How many more of these NBC News magazines will we have to sit through?"