Everyday heroism remains one of the most appealing subjects for the TV movie. In "Evil in Clear River," the ABC film at 9 tonight on Channel 7, Lindsay Wagner plays a mother in a small town who fights a lonely but victorious battle against a bigot who is teaching anti-Semitism to his high school history students.
ABC terms the film "a fictionalized drama suggested by real events." It is set in what one character refers to as "a sleepy little farm town" in snowy Alberta. As Kate McKinnon, Wagner wakes the town up to a man who is poisoning the minds of its children with his deranged view of 20th-century history.
Written by William Schmidt and directed by Karen Arthur, "Clear River" is one of those admirable television primitives -- basic, schematic, almost ritualistic, yet in its uncluttered way stirring and satisfying. For standing up to the racist, who is also the town's mayor and immensely popular with the citizenry, Kate is ostracized by neighbors and bitterly resented by her son, who has come to idolize the teacher.
Randy Quaid, so ferociously memorable last year as Lyndon Johnson in the NBC movie "LBJ: The Early Years," gives a much less bombastic but no less effective performance here as Pete Suvak, beneath whose affable grin and folksy demeanor lies a venomous philosophy: "The Jews" are in league with the Devil, they have embarked on a plan for world domination, the Holocaust never really happened, and Hitler was a victim of bad public relations.
Is it credible that a man could be teaching this kind of thing to succeeding classes of high school students with no one, until gallant Kate, raising a protest? Clear River is an isolated town with no minorities visible among its population. And it's made clear that Suvak's personal popularity has made it possible for what are called his "little theories" to be patiently tolerated.
So, yes, the film does offer a convincing case that something like this could occur. God knows there's never a shortage of spiteful lunatics in the world.
Wagner shows new depth and maturity in the role of Kate. She never seems to be stretching; it fits her remarkably well, and she and Quaid make formidable adversaries.
There is one miscalculation. So that she wouldn't seem a saint, the writer gave her a flaw: Kate smokes. Everywhere. Even in a barn full of hay and straw. Couldn't she have, say, cracked her knuckles instead?
Thomas Wilson Brown, as McKinnon's perplexed son Mark, and Michael Flynn as her husband contribute solid support. Ironically, with so many TV shows and movies set in the United States now being shot in Canada, this film set in Canada was shot near Salt Lake City. 'EastEnders'
When a cable network attempted to import the long-running British soap opera "Coronation Street" a year or two ago, American viewers remained adamantly indifferent. Public TV stations may have better luck this year with "EastEnders," another of England's national addictions that begins a daily test run tonight at 11:30 on Channel 26.
Language, perhaps surprisingly, is a real barrier. The working-class characters who inhabit the mythical neighborhood of Albert Square in "EastEnders" speak rapid-fire cockney that is occasionally difficult to grasp. To make matters worse, many scenes are set in a pivotal pub, the Queen Vic, where ambient noise levels can be hard to penetrate.
A young man called Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt) has several speeches in one upcoming episode and this 'umble viewer was hard pressed to comprehend any of them fully.
On the other hand, many viewers will probably be able to grab enough of the dialogue to be soundly hooked, for the East Enders themselves are characters full of vitality and bravado, and the rigors of their environment require them to be assertive and combative, scrambling sometimes valiantly for some measure of dignity and reward. They tend to ignore news from the outside world in favor of daily bulletins of gossip about one another.
The serial is a return to the traditional soap opera once prominent on radio and television here in the States. The lives lived in "EastEnders" are full of genuine pain, and the occasional elation.
These people did not pop blow-dried off a Hollywood assembly line. Some of them have bad complexions. Their words have a naturalism and authenticity unlike any heard in the American counterparts. In other words, "EastEnders" is that seeming anomaly, honorable pulp, better than any of the daytime soaps on American TV, which are all worthless crap.
Unfortunately, neither Lionheart Television, the American merchandising arm of the BBC, nor the public TV stations that have bought "EastEnders" are doing anything to make it sufficiently accessible to domestic audiences. On Saturday, WETA ran a confusing 2 1/2-hour jumble edited down from three months' worth of shows and serving to confound as much as to illuminate.
Tracey Ullman, the talented actress and comic, was brought in to host, but instead of offering background on the various characters and on London's East End, she was handed a script full of insulting and condescending hype, telling us how marvelous and wonderful all this was. It was a big long promo, not an introduction, and thus unseemly.
It would be very helpful if the characters and actors playing them -- their relationships to one another, and information on who lives with whom in these closed quarters -- were offered at the beginnings of the first episodes. But no, that would require a tiny bit of production and imagination. These things are beyond most of the enervated droids who toil in public television.
Even with much of "EastEnders" a blur, at least at first, some characters do stand out. Herewith a pair of personal favorites, both well over 65: Lou Beale and her moderately dotty friend Ethel, two women who have lived long enough so as to know what's what and feel no compunction about imparting this valuable information to others.
Ethel can end a roaring argument with "Why don't we all have a nice cup of tea, and calm down a bit?" Lou can size up a local miscreant with a succinct "He was a nasty little git when he was a nipper, and he's a nasty little git now." Both women are personifications of "There'll always be an England." And even public TV's clumsy first peek indicates why many British viewers hope there'll always be an "EastEnders."