What are the Three Bs of television? In the case of the Sunday night CBS movie "Alone in the Neon Jungle" -- and, indeed, much of what the networks are doling out these days -- they stand for Bad Beyond Belief. "Jungle," at 9 on Channel 9, is a stupefyingly preposterous bungle, but only in its better moments.
Most of the time it is just head-scratchingly dumb. It's sort of a straight dramatic version of the syndicated sitcom "She's the Sheriff," except that it's funnier by accident than "She's the Sheriff" is on purpose.
Picture Suzanne Pleshette, willowy-looking and gravelly-voiced, as a hard-line, bare-knuckled big-city police captain dispatched by the chief to a vice-ridden precinct rife with crime and departmental corruption -- and ordered to clean it up. Suzanne Pleshette? Is this some kind of a joke?
What's she going to do, turn the cops on to new wave jazz and herbal tea? In one scene, she gets a pinky-lock on a miscreant and forces him to the pavement. Yee-ow! Worse than a sesame seed caught in your dentures!
It's not that she's a woman. It's that she's Suzanne Pleshette. But in honor of the quacky casting, writers Mark Rodgers and Steve Downing and director Georg Stanford Brown see to it that nothing else about "Neon Jungle" plays any more credibly than Pleshette does. There isn't even much neon.
Our authors did have their Bartlett's Familiar Quotations at the ready. Danny Aiello, as the chief, asks Pleshette, "Did you ever read Milton?" Perhaps he means Berle. Later, Brown, playing a vice cop in addition to directing, begins his address to a chorus of rounded-up hookers by saying, as he stands before the open paddy wagon, "The poet Edmund Spenser said it best. . ."
The writers should have done more quoting and less writing. At a grubby honky-tonk, a prostitute ridicules a sleazemonger whom Pleshette has fingered (no, no, not the pinky hold, anything but that!). "It looks like your little-league game just ran out of balls," snarls the hooker. Hmmm, Milton or Spenser? Rodgers or Downing? It's hard to tell them apart sometimes.
Brown, who cut his directorial teeth on several episodes of "Hill Street Blues," seems to have forgotten all he ever learned. The scenes here are badly staged, and the streets of Pittsburgh, where "Jungle" was shot, look less real than those of your average Hollywood back lot.
He gets ambitious near the end and crosscuts between shots of approaching cops and progressive close-ups of a dead hooker they are about to discover. A minute or two later and he's crosscutting to an empty hallway; we never do quite learn the significance of that one. A cop is murdered with two shotgun blasts prior to one commercial break and no one pays it a moment's thought until just before the next one.
Robert Halmi produced this incredible bust, a TV movie in a league with such illustrious all-time theatrical stinkers as "Plan 9 From Outer Space." It's impossible to keep a straight face. Even the opening animated credits are tacky. And as if Pleshette hadn't suffered enough, the definitively inert Frank Converse is cast as her mumbling, muttering husband.
"It's like I turned a corner and I ran into a brick wall," she tells him near the fade-out. Precisely.
'Fortunes of War'
Among the good things it is reasonable to expect of television is a sense of time and place, whether the time is now and the place the Persian Gulf, or, as in the case of the latest "Masterpiece Theatre" serial, the time is 1939 and the place Bucharest.
Why should one care how things were in prewar Romania? One is made to care by "Fortunes of War," which begins its seven-part run at 9 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 26 and other PBS stations. And it only starts in Romania, eventually traveling to Athens and Cairo as the war grinds on.
What "Fortunes" can boast in atmospherics and salon charm, though, it lacks in dramatic momentum, at least in the first two episodes previewed. Guy and Harriet Pringle, the central characters, are two British expatriates who do a lot of hanging around, not a great deal of participation in history. Guy is an English professor whose first antifascist brainstorm is to stage a local production of "Troilus and Cressida."
A seemingly shallow pair is given considerable depth, however, by the performances of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the roles. Thompson is particularly attractive; something smolders beneath her proper plainness, which makes it even more distressing that Guy ignores her, even in bed, to peer into a book. Harriet must acquire a kitten for companionship.
But her strength of character is bracing, and Thompson brings it all to the fore. When Guy is asked why he doesn't send his wife off to some safer locale, she snaps, "I don't appreciate being 'sent' anywhere, not being a parcel." She's a Harriet to be reckoned with.
The subsidiary characters are resonant and colorful, especially Ronald Pickup as Prince Yakimov, a weaselly Russian-born Brit who has a habit of sleeping around, but only in the literal sense; people come into their bedrooms and find he's sacked out in them, not being able to afford accommodations of his own.
One can sense the world about to crash down around them and empathize with the characters as they scramble for shelter. "Fortunes of War" persuasively romanticizes impending doom. The first couple hours are like a dry, nonsentimental "Casablanca."
Alan Plater wrote the screenplay, adapted from a collection of novels -- "The Balkan Trilogy" and "The Levant Trilogy" -- by Olivia Manning. The director, James Cellan Jones, also did "The Forsyte Saga" and the home-grown PBS production of "The Adams Chronicles." He has a sure, steady, unhurried hand.
Presumably the dramatic stakes will rise as Europe goes to blazes. But for some viewers, the on-location production details will be inducement enough to stay tuned. The first shot in the film, of a gorgeous old train, is transporting, and the Bucharest hotel lobby where much of the first hour takes place, with its requisite resident chamber group, looks a heavenly place to take cover from the storm clouds of war.