Dolly Parton is allowed to be herself on the new ABC variety hour "Dolly," and that may not be enough. Even though the show, premiering at 9 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 7, is not very good, it is awfully pleasant. There's not a laugh in it, yet it leaves you smiling.
Bouncy Dolly, the famous semi-diminutive country music star, is just about the sweetest little ol' thing ever to shimmy across a stage. But even as the host of a variety program, she needs to have a character to play. Sometimes she comes across like a combination of Carol Channing and Tammy Bakker -- not for nothing is her first song "Bubbling Over" -- but she doesn't have a defined persona. Just a defined profile.
Dolly wishes the world well, and it returns the sentiment, but that's going to get tiresome quickly. Maybe she could be a sort of busty Gracie Allen, playing dumb while being smart.
The premiere is heavily mined with gimmicks. "Special Deliveries to Dolly" are short taped greetings from persons on the street that bear an unfortunate resemblance to the yoo-hoos from yahoos seen at the start of each day's "Good Morning America."
Guest stars are whisked on and off: Dudley Moore, steadfastly smirky; wrestler Hulk Hogan, helping to illustrate a foolish tune called "Headlock on My Heart"; Pee-wee Herman, and his playhouse, oddly sanitized and defused; and Oprah Winfrey, telegenic and regal, stopping by to chat about bras and girdles and to join in a gospel rouser finale.
At the opening, Dolly is apologetic about reviving the variety format. "I'm just out here trying to be myself and I'll let you fellas decide whether that's good or bad," she says. "I am going to bust my bubbles to try to please you." There's something defeatist and defensive about the star's and the show's awareness that, commercially speaking, odds are against it.
This is something you shouldn't dwell on during a program. It asks the audience to be charitable and merciful as if this were an evangelist crusade. And while it's gratifying that producer-director Don Mischer hasn't gone the hackneyed route of surrounding Dolly with a platoon of chorus boys, the lack of dancing, of physical movement by humans, makes the show seem stiff.
Dolly wears dresses so tight that she cannot walk in them. If she dropped her microphone, aides would have to rush out from the wings and pick it up. She sings the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me" in a stranglehold gown that keeps her as rigid as a piece of calendar art. "Dolly" needs to be more of a show and less of a poster.
'Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge' "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge," a CBS movie at 8 tonight on Channel 9, is not only tremendously entertaining, it's also a richly nostalgic occasion, like dragging a trunkful of faded old photographs down from the attic and having oneself a wallow.
James Arness as Matt Dillon and Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty, an item for 20 years on CBS in the good old days when westerns in the dooryard bloom'd, reunite for a lavishly handsome adventure shot amid the spectacular scenery of Alberta, Canada.
"Welcome back, cowboy," Miss Kitty says to Matt (in a Lucyesque growl) when he returns to consciousness in a Dodge hotel room after a stabbing. The old "Gunsmoke" theme sneaks in to accompany this tender reunion. Later Miss Kitty tells a confidant, "No woman ever loved a man more than I loved Matt Dillon."
Writer Jim Byrnes unleashes a dozen or so troublesome characters whom he weaves skillfully into an eventful, and heavily gunsmoked, narrative. The characters include ill-fated mountain man Jake Flagg (Earl Holliman), who busts out of prison to warn Dillon that ill-tempered Mannon (Steve Forrest) is a-gunnin' for him.
Jake's Indian wife Bright Water (Patrice Martinez) and daughter Little Doe (Tantoo Cardinal) also become involved, as does a tribe of bounty hunters after the $1,000 reward on Jake's head. Little Doe takes a shine to a "blue belly" (Army man) played by Ken Olandt, who mistakenly wounds her before they've even met.
"You no be afraid. Me no hurt," he says in condescending Indianese.
" 'No hurt? You shot me!' " she replies from the ground.
Arness hulks through this John Fordish film with John Waynish authority. But truth be told, he hasn't aged too attractively. Gravity has assaulted his face, particularly his jaw and chin. He looks a little like Beulah Witch.
One of the film's drawbacks is an overreliance on flashbacks from a previous "Gunsmoke" episode, but that does give one a chance to see the late Milburn Stone, who played Doc, once more. The movie is dedicated to Stone and other actors who appeared in the series but are no longer around.
"I'm gettin' too damn old for this!" gripes Arness as Dillon during a gunfight. Maybe so, but the movie, directed by "Gunsmoke" veteran Vincent McEveety, never seems sad or quaint. Just refreshingly out of date. Like "Dolly," in a way.
As Dillon floats down a river in a canoe after being knifed, one of the bushwhackers complains, "Them tough old bulls have a way of comin' back on ya." The film does make that point. It looks back longingly, and lovingly. Deciding to face a foe squarely instead of cowering behind cover, a cowboy says to his partner as they prepare to charge forth, "The shinin' times is long gone; let's give it a go!"
This "Gunsmoke" movie brings the shinin' times back.
'The Law and Harry McGraw' Cellular phones are big this year. Most of the TV crimefighters have them. But fiber optics and satellite transmissions couldn't do much to modernize "The Law and Harry McGraw," a by-the-numbers spinoff of "Murder, She Wrote" premiering with a two-hour episode at 9 Sunday night on Channel 9.
Jerry Orbach, a seasoned veteran of the movie underworld (in films like "F/X"), plays McGraw, frazzled and grizzled Boston gumshoe who sleeps in his office, has a photo of Abbott and Costello on the wall (I like that in a man) and enjoys a good all-American breakfast of cheeseburger and chocolate shake. From the look of Harry's trenchcoat, he has owned it since birth.
He's thrown together with the proverbial unlikely ally: Barbara Babcock, breezy and funny, as Ellie Maginnis, rich socialite daughter of a dead lawyer who blithely endeavors to carry on in his footsteps, even if it means an uneasy partnership with Harry. Ellie likes croquet; Harry prefers the fights. And so on.
The only possible excuse for another odd-couple crime show is the chemistry generated by Babcock and Orbach. This isn't precisely spectacular, but it has its amusing moments, most of them Babcock's doing. Peter S. Fischer, the executive producer, wrote the premiere, which was directed by Peter Crane; they eschew fistfights for snappy banter, but it doesn't snap quite enough.
'Buck James' A busy day for crack trauma surgeon and Texas rancher Buck James!
He boards a chopper to rescue an injured construction worker from the beam of a skyscraper, presides over open-heart surgery in the operating room, argues with the hospital administrator about who the new chief resident should be, commiserates with a son whose hound dawg is suddenly into calf-killing, and hears from his unmarried daughter that she's pregnant.
"You just don't get it, do you, dad?" sobs the misunderstood lass. Good grief, Dad's practically a deity and she's complaining. Dennis Weaver, prattle-scarred veteran of many a silly TV series, and some good ones, too, does what he can to eke some credibility out of it, but "Buck James" still comes off as combination cliche' and crock.
The new ABC drama series premieres at 10 tomorrow night on Channel 7.
Buck says "I don't give a damn about politics" when quibbling with the administrator (John Cullum); he wants the new resident to be the son of a wealthy hospital patron, whereas Buck wants that bright Jewish girl from the East Coast. Oh, Buck, you old boat-rocker you. "I got regulations up the ying-yang already," he sputters at the bureaucrat when harassed about paper work.
A character as contrived to soothe and stroke the audience as Buck James makes one appreciate all the more a cantankerous, trouble-making malcontent like "Slap" Maxwell, hero of another and far superior ABC series. Buck's wizardly turns as the range-riding superdoc don't have a shred of authenticity to them, even though a real doctor, Robert E. Fuisz, is executive producer.
The operating-room scenes are more graphic than usual, but that isn't enough of a novelty to make "Buck James" much more easily tolerated than a megadose of ipecac.
'J.J. Starbuck' "I think a man should only be unhappy when his regrets start replacing his dreams," quoth J.J. Starbuck.
"If you ever let success turn your head, you're gonna be starin' failure right in the eye," J.J. Starbuck quoth.
"In the most difficult situation," declares J.J. Starbuck, "usually the simplest solution -- " Oh good grief, does the man ever shut up? He's got a homily or an epigram for every occasion. He's also the biggest windbag to blow across the TV screen in ages.
"J.J. Starbuck," as played by a thick-crusted Dale Robertson in the lamebrained NBC crime series of the same name premiering at 9:30 tonight on Channel 4, wears out his welcome soon after the opening credits. He's a Texas billionaire, see, who gets his kicks by driving off in his '64 Lincoln convertible (the one with the steer horns on the hood) to solve murders in other parts of the country.
On the premiere, J.J. (for "Jerome Jeremiah") goes to Los Angeles to trick a wife-snuffing husband into revealing himself. "You are a refreshing change," guest star Patty Duke tells him. From what -- mononucleosis? J.J. likes to give folks what he calls a "how-dee-doo." This show, from the enormously overburdened mind of Stephen J. Cannell, how-dee-don't.
'Tracey Ullman' Fox Television's saving grace, its happiest discovery, its plume de ma tante, is Tracey Ullman, who returns for a new season of antic comic variety tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 5, with guest star Steve Martin proving himself the usual hilarious asset.
In "Skin the Duck," the second sketch on the show, Martin plays a demanding choreographer who puts dancer Denise (Ullman) through a series of ludicrous dance steps -- skin the duck, jing-jang, boot the moon with a banana and so on. She's funny, he's funny, and the funniness geometrically multiplies each moment they're together.
The first sketch, "Meg's Lucky Night," has Ullman in her postal-worker-Tina mode, jealous of the fact that her friend Meg (Julie Kavner) seems to have met this simply marvelous guy (Joseph Malone), a clothing salesman at Barney's who kissed her on the eye. The episode is inconclusive; perhaps it will continue later.
Sam Simon and Bonita Carlisle wrote the two sketches, which are as interested in delineating character as in wreaking yocks, but that happens too. A lonely outpost of wit and ebullience in the Fox lineup, "The Tracey Ullman Show" is that horse of a different color you've heard so much about.
Meanwhile, a new wretched Fox sitcom, "Second Chance," about a man who returns from the dead to watch himself relive his adolescence, premieres at 9 tonight on Channel 5. Merely to murmur the title of this "It's A Wonderful Life" ripoff -- even in one's sleep -- would be to give it more attention than it deserves.