Each year NBC calls Danielle Steel up to the plate to do battle against the World Series with what the network insultingly considers a "women's" picture. True, there is no World Series this year, but the movie was in the pipeline before the baseball strike began and now, out it plops.
No World Series but a Danielle Steel movie anyway. O Lord, have we not suffered enough?
"Danielle Steel's 'Family Album,' " a four-hour two-parter airing Sunday and Monday at 9 on Channel 4, is somewhat less terrible than many previous Steel traps, yet still emptier than a campaign promise. Steel has discovered family values, or at least a twisted Hollywood version of them, and offers a domestic melodrama centering on a fabulous assertive woman who nevertheless puts up with a louse.
Jaclyn Smith, as beautiful as ever and just as vacuous, stars as Faye Price Thayer, a Hollywood actress turned director whose life of triumphs and tribulations we follow over four ridiculous decades. It's giving nothing away to reveal that eventually, the bell tolls for she. In fact, the film opens at her funeral, with her hapless lug of a husband, Ward Thayer (Michael Ontkean), mooning nostalgically over a scrapbook full of pictures and memories and, of course, flashbacks.
Before we know it -- but not much before -- it's 1950, and Faye the glamorous star encounters young Lt. Thayer during a USO tour of Korea. "I fell in love with you the first time I met you," he recalls in the slurpy narration. Soon -- but not soon enough -- the Korean War is over and they marry and move into his mansion in Beverly Hills. She didn't know it when she met him, but Thayer is one rich dude, heir to a giant shipping fortune.
But then, he loses the fortune.
And then, they move out of the mansion.
For the first hour or so of the miniseries, Steel (and adapter Karol Ann Hoeffner) appear to have perfected a new form of entertainment to rival the seedless watermelon and the fat-free cookie: the drama-less drama. Nothing that happens to the sappy couple has any emotional impact at all, partly because they're just about the blandest, whisperiest pair of lovebirds ever. This is a case where 1 plus 1 equals 0.
The most memorable thing in Hour 1 is an old black-and-white clip of Garry Moore selling gingerbread mix on one of his TV shows.
But then Steel starts tossing catastrophes at the Thayers from her bulging grab bag of stock situations, and the film clunks onward from one showy crisis to another. The Thayers have four children, two boys and two girls, and each grows up to pose a banal problem or two: One son is gay, one son gets killed in Vietnam, one daughter runs off to Haight-Ashbury to become a hippie, and the other daughter dresses like a hooker and appears in cheap horror movies.
The passing of the years is marked by such period details as the Hula-Hoop and the Davy Crockett coonskin cap and by such amusingly unsubtle lines of dialogue as, "We have no business in Vietnam, much less Cambodia." That's the way Mom greets her gay son at breakfast one morning. When Dad finds out about the young man's sexual preference, he hysterically banishes him from the house, only to apologize years later and say what a fool he'd been.
Indeed, he's such a fool as to be decidedly unsympathetic. When Thayer loses his fortune through his own negligence, he mopes around the house feeling sorry for himself, then trots off to the racetrack to strike up an extramarital affair with the daughter of a studio executive. Faye throws him out of the house but then lets him back in. In Part 2 he cheats on her again and this time, he throws himself out.
Faye and Ward are such nonentities as characters, and Smith and Ontkean such airheads as actors, that it all passes by like a cloud. What saves the film are the young actors who play the grown-up kids: Kristin Minter as Valerie, Joe Flanigan as Lionel, Brian Krause as Greg and Leslie Horan quite touching as Anne, the most troubled of the Thayer tots.
Flanigan comes across like a less neurotic version of Tony Perkins, and he has the best haircut in the movie. Horan in her poignant pudginess gets more out of the script than it deserves. Minter sizzles during a confrontation with a hostile lecherous actor in Part 2; she opens her blouse and snaps, "You wanna see 'em? Well, here they are."
Trashy film director John Waters does a cameo as a trashy film director. He's making a horror movie in which the monster bears a striking resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The low point for the dialogue, always hard to calibrate in a clunker such as this, may be when Ontkean says to Smith, "Let's face it: Ozzie and Harriet we ain't." It's not only out of character, it's out of some other movie.
There are, in fact, enough big bowwow moments to make the film at least seem eventful: births, deaths, marriages, a few brief love scenes, several tearful reconciliations. "You did the best you could," Anne tells her mother late in the show, "and that's all any of us can do." That sounds like Danielle Steel's rationalization for perpetrating yet another of her hokey opuses. It's a chilling thought, but maybe "Family Album" is the best she can do too.