A touch less artificial than the average TV movie, NBC's "The Child Saver," at 9 tonight on Channel 4, gets much of its verisimilitude from Alfre Woodard, the consistently impressive and versatile actress cast in the lead role.
Woodard, who often seems possessed of the world's most honest face (and shows great skill at using it dramatically), plays Andrea Crawford, a fast-rising young advertising executive whose comfortable, orderly life -- as comfortable and orderly as a life in New York can be -- is jarred when she encounters a 7-year-old boy named Jackie (Deon Richmond) selling "nickel bags" of marijuana, and worse, on the street.
Unable to have a child of her own, she is haunted by the lad's plight and, with little encouragement from him, tries to liberate him from the unsavory coke freak (Mario van Peebles) who's playing Fagin to the boy's Oliver Twist. She becomes so immersed in the kid and his street life that things begin to fall apart at work, and just as she's been promoted to agency vice president.
Charles Rosin's screenplay, ably directed by Stan Lathan, rises well above TV's standards for this kind of film. Usually, one gets a voyeuristic trip through the dregs that ends on a happy note of escape. Here, there's more going on; subtler modern problems are being explored -- like the young black career woman's embarrassment over her upholstered affluence while youngsters like Jackie struggle for mere survival.
Michael Warren, one of the bright lights who made "Hill Street Blues" worth looking forward to every week, materializes here as a hotshot commercial director who joins our heroine on her big campaign. It's for a product called Pudding Pudding, which may be a semi-sly reference to one of Bill Cosby's many advertising specialties.
In the course of trying to help Jackie, Crawford visits the South Bronx, where he claims his grandmother lives, and the film's views of this particular cranny of hell are distressingly bleak, a bit less scrubbed-up than the normal TV pictorialization.
At times, though, credibility is strained. A sophisticated New Yorker like the one Woodard plays wouldn't repeatedly tempt fate as she does by leaving the door to her apartment open when she races in to answer the phone (and good heavens, it only seems to have one lock). Doing that once too often precipitates a suspenseful, climactic slasher-movie confrontation with the coke dealer that seems out of keeping with the reasoned tone of the film.
But then the filmmakers have second thoughts and back away from it anyway.
Earlier, Crawford declares the child to be exceptionally bright, perhaps a genius. "He tells these little stories," she says, "that are the fierce dreams of a gentle poet." Wow. Too bad we never get to hear any of them.
Despite its flaws, "The Child Saver" remains an unusually positive piece of television, and even when the script lets her down, Woodard prevails. She has a fervor and a magnetism that obliterate doubt. She is, indeed, so very very believable that one hopes she never squanders the gift by stooping to pudding commercials herself.
'Strange Interlude' You say things have been going a little too well for you, my friend? You say the January chill is letting up, your car starts without a wheeze in the mornings, your mother-in-law has decided to go back home to International Falls? Life starting to treat you with something just a tiny bit gentler than utter contempt?
Well, we know what you need, my friend: Four-and-one-half hours of Eugene O'Neill! That'll put the bite back in Old Man Winter! That'll make you wish you'd never been born! Ah, Eugene -- has ever a great playwright dated more quickly, or at least so irretrievably?
For its seventh-season premiere on PBS tonight, "American Playhouse" offers a three-part adaptation of "Strange Interlude," probably O'Neill's most unwieldy and least relenting dirge, the kind of play in which characters regularly emit such chipper picker-uppers as "That's what life is -- a long, drawn-out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end."
It's a long, drawn-out way from Act 1, Scene 1 to that last sniffling sigh. The 1928 play airs, on Channel 26 and other PBS stations, at 9 tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday. It's precisely the opposite of a cure for the blues, except that at times the characters are so immersed in grief and guilt that it all becomes rather funny.
In "Strange Interlude," the characters speak not only their outermost thoughts but their innermost thoughts, too; also their middlemost. They say them aloud, as asides to the audience. Groucho Marx spoofed the technique during the stage and film versions of "Animal Crackers." Maybe the best reason to suffer through "Strange Interlude" is so that one can better appreciate Groucho's spoof.
Glenda Jackson plays the femme fatale of the piece, the headstrong and heartsick Nina, part of a triangle that includes her sappy husband Sam, played with goofy grace by Ken Howard, and her lover, Ned, played by woeful David Dukes.
There are two other men in Nina's life: the idolized Gordon Shaw, whom we never see because he is killed in World War I before the play begins, and her imperious professor father, played by Jose' Ferrer. Ferrer is fine and ferocious but disappears after the first 30 minutes, and with a play like this, 30 minutes is a drop in the bucket.
Jackson seems clearly too old for Nina during the first two nights of "Interlude," when Nina is supposed to be a promiscuous young neurotic seducing (off-camera) the boys at the veterans' hospital right out of their beds. Or into them as the case may be. In Part 3, after years have passed, she says, "I can't believe it, a few more years, I shall be 50." Ahem. Believe it.
Hanging around throughout is Nina's platonic friend Charlie, played by Edward Petherbridge, still memorable for his roles in "Nicholas Nickleby." In "Strange Interlude" he seems to be doing an impression of Vincent Price in "The Fly," except that his dialogue includes such pungent profundities as, "There's something in this room: stench of human life, heavy and rank."
Also on night three, Nina's son Gordon grows into manhood and is then played by none other than Kenneth Branagh, currently on view as the male lead in the just-begun "Masterpiece Theatre" serial "Fortunes of War." Rosemary Harris drops by earlier to spread additional gratuitous doom as Sam's mother, who informs Nina that insanity runs in the family and that she must therefore have an abortion to avoid bringing another loony into the world.
Robert Enders adapted the O'Neill play and Herbert Wise directed. There is a tiny bit of opening-up -- a couple of verdant exteriors -- but mostly the TV version sticks to O'Neill's hermetic vision. The Park Avenue apartment set in Part 3 is a knockout.
A reference to "London casting" in the credits suggests the play was taped in England. That and the presence of so many British actors in the cast underscore yet again that there are a lot of things more American than "American Playhouse." PBS is calling the play a "mini-series" and blatheringly ballyhooing it as "Eugene O'Neill's monumental tale of love, deceit, wealth and desire." Clearly, they have no shame over there.
As a period piece, the play has wayward fascinations; one gets a certain sense of '20s Zeitgeist. But the moaning and whining grow quickly grating, and O'Neill's vision of womanhood seems chauvinistically myopic. "Strange Interlude" probably is more at home in a display case than on a stage, and television is not the kind of display case I mean.