Commercial television, as its viewers know, is tripolar: good trash, bad trash, and the occasional burst of gratifying excellence. Tonight at 10 on Channel 4, "LAX," a new NBC drama series named after the all-too-appropriate abbreviation for Los Angeles International Airport, definitely belongs in the first category.
It's a whale of a show -- no, make that a beached whale of a show. But it sure has its flashy and wacky allure.
Heather Locklear heads the list of allures, playing with no conviction whatsoever (who needs conviction?) the co-director of the airport, with the disturbingly handsome Blair Underwood as her partner -- her partner in running the place and her sparring partner because both of them want to fly solo, so to speak.
That job becomes available in the opening scene, one of the briefest cameos in acting history: Michael Murphy plays the outgoing director of the airport, who outgoes by letting a 747 run over him upon landing. You must admit he's got style. Not mourned and barely mentioned (as in the pilot of "L.A. Law" so many NBC seasons ago), the director leaves a vacancy that two sexy people are very eager to fill, though not together.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo and writer Nick Thiel have to be aware that an airport is a place where few of us feel comfortable, to be as gentle about it as possible. In fact, likely as not you'll encounter something horrible every time you enter one. So it isn't easy to keep the drama watchable and enticing. The scintillating co-stars help immeasurably. And they run the airport by running all over the airport, chasing troublemakers and rushing to the scenes of crises large and small, all the while preparing for a VIP arrival by the governor.
Locklear, ageless and irresistible (she's also one of the producers), has a pip of a scene near the hour's end. A drunken crew from "Serb Air" insists on taking off for Europe even though everyone knows they're more loaded than the plane is. Various methods to stop them having failed, Locklear marches onto the runway and stands right in front of the plane's huge nose, staring it down. Er, up. Well, sort of up and down at the same time.
The imagery of course suggests, in a frivolous yet somehow inoffensive way, the lone rebelling student who faced a commie tank in Tiananmen Square and became an icon. Movie buffs may be reminded of that brave little thrush Jeanette MacDonald standing firmly on the tracks to stop a train in the brilliant old musical "Love Me Tonight." And stop it she did.
Whatever, it's one of many hoots in this audacious hoot of a show. As in the movie "Airport," major subplots are interspersed with minor details; we follow the progress of two bumbling bag handlers as they try to retrieve a runaway pooch and watch as a baby-faced novice in the immigration office falls rapidly in love with a beautiful and seemingly innocent young woman from Manila, a mail-order bride whose husband, it appears, will never show up.
After an hour of racing around and listening to the sometimes bitter banter of Locklear and Underwood, the show ends on a supremely poignant and admittedly manipulative note, a scene showing the arrival of newly adopted orphans from the Far East who meet their new families. Locklear and Underwood forget their differences and melt with emotion.
"LAX" is one of the most lavishly produced pilots in recent memory, and whether the series can maintain that kind of style and scope on a weekly basis is problematical. But then the stars are pretty spectacular all by themselves. The character Locklear plays is anything but a softy. When she learns about the job opening and her chief competitor for the position, she snaps cynically, "Okay, he's black, but I'm a woman with a handicap -- attention-deficit disorder."
The two of them hooked up very briefly, it seems, at some point in the past, fueled by martinis. They're not Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, but watching their tiffs and fits could prove almost as amusing. "LAX" is the last of three trashy shows that occupy NBC's Monday night schedule (first the unspeakable "Fear Factor," then the so-so "Las Vegas") and definitely the brassiest, sassiest and most fun.
Let's see -- how to make the world a more miserable and wretched place than it already is? It's a tough challenge, but ABC meets it with "The Benefactor," a hideous and tedious imitation of NBC's "The Apprentice." The series, premiering at 8 tonight on Channel 7, manages to combine the corrupted values of both the Me Decade and those notorious "go-go '80s" and to celebrate vanity, greed, treachery and stupidity in the process.
The show's answer to Donald Trump, himself no telegenic marvel, is fat-faced Mark Cuban, profiled once on "60 Minutes" for his eccentric but eventually victorious ways of playing high-profile capitalist games. But the word for Cuban is not "eccentric." It is "unpredictable."
Cuban, says the voice-over announcer, is an "unpredictable billionaire" who has devised a game in which contestants should at all times "expect the unexpected" because "my game, like life, is unpredictable," Cuban says, later telling his 16 pathetic contestants to -- hang on to your hats -- "expect the unexpected."
Says Mario, one of the supposedly lucky 16: "I don't know what to expect!"
What viewers can expect is less than nothing. It takes forever to introduce the people picked by means unexplained and lured to Cuban's mansion in Dallas. The opening of the show looks just like one of the those tacky infomercials featuring guys who promise you can make millions buying abandoned old houses or by placing "tiny little classified ads" in hundreds of newspapers.
As on other reality game shows, the contestants were apparently picked mainly by the size of their egos, the bigger the better. Dominic, a slick hipster from Nevada, says his spiky coiffure inspires folks to ask, "How do you do your hair like that? It's the coolest thing I've ever seen." Explains Dominic: "I've been blessed, you know what I mean?" Later, interviewed by Cuban, he repeats, "I'm a cool guy. I've been blessed." Oh brother.
Femia, a young woman who is also from Nevada, declares, "I'm pretty and smart and athletic," but that's nothing compared with the chutzpah of Linda from New Hampshire, who, undoubtedly having watched enough reality TV to know what comments will end up on the air, announces: "If I have to cheat a little bit, I'll cheat a little bit. If I have to lie a little bit, I'll lie a little bit."
If I have to retch a little bit, I'll retch a little bit.
What Cuban's "games" will entail isn't spelled out, but the opening edition isn't very promising. After all kinds of fanfare, Cuban unveils the first competition: a silly old children's game called Jenga in which players try to remove little blocks of wood from a pile. This is network television? (No, it's ABC.)
The rest of the hour consists of filler, blabbing and stalling. Very little happens, none of it intriguing. Cuban keeps saying a person gets only one chance to make a first impression, but the contestants seem to get several. Near the end of the hour, two players are eliminated, one of them an arrogant lug who'd said in his interview, "I don't need a million dollars."
All the hype about "a million dollars" is reminiscent of the tepid threats made by "Dr. Evil" in Mike Myers's hilarious satire "Austin Powers." The villain tries to scare the world's leaders with his demand for "one millllion dollars" and everyone laughs. A million dollars ain't what it used to be, especially in George W. Bush's America, and the prize sounds paltry when one considers all the boring lectures by Cuban that the players apparently will have to sit through.
Viewers are luckier. They don't have to sit through any of this nonsense. "You never know what's going to happen next," Cuban promises before the fade-out. A good guess: the swift if not unexpected cancellation of "The Benefactor."