You have to hand it to Sidney Sheldon. Why? He holds a gun to your head, for one thing. If you don't hand it to him, he'll just take it. The TV versions of Sheldon's gaseous novels have all had the subtlety of rusty blunderbusses, but they've also tended to be irresistibly dreadful.
Even so, even allowing Sidney his little fun, "Sidney Sheldon's Windmills of the Gods," a grubby-looking CBS two-parter that airs tonight and Tuesday night at 9 on Channel 9, comes across as unconscionably odious idiocy. Picture this: Jaclyn Smith, tawny and yawny, looking as though she should be handing out perfume samples at Bloomingdale's, is named by the president to be the first U.S. ambassador to Romania.
Jaclyn Smith as ambassador to Romania? Maybe they couldn't get Morgan Fairchild for the part. Justine Bateman probably had a prior commitment. Suzanne Somers is tied up with her big succe`s d'estime, "She's the Sheriff."
Women have served with distinction as ambassadors, of course; Smith, however, does nothing to convince you that she could be one of them. While some series glamor girls who were taken for granted in their day -- like Farrah Fawcett and Lindsay Wagner -- went on to prove they really could act, Smith did not. Nothing any writer could conjure is going to mess up this kid's hair.
Of course she isn't supposed to be Ambassador Jaclyn Smith. She's supposed to be Ambassador Mary Ashley, PhD, glamorous college professor, doctor's wife and all-round supermom of Junction City, Kan., who one day gets a call from the president asking her to drop everything and run over to Romania right away.
When she declines because she wants to stay with her husband, her husband gets mysteriously and conveniently killed in one of those 3 a.m. car crashes. Smith is about as believable sniffling over hubby's timely demise as she is telling a classroom full of students, "Don't forget to bring in your essays on the Warsaw Pact" and issuing pronouncements on the Common Market.
One thing the mini-series has in its favor: If you can accept the casting, you can accept anything, and there will be plenty of whoppers to ingest over the film's four hours of air time. The unfortunate thing is that there's not much fun to be had from going along with the joke. Sheldon's dabble in espionage scenarios produces a listlessly ludicrous dud.
Over in Europe, it evolves, there's a craven cartel of calculating conspirators calling themselves the Patriots of Freedom, and these guys mean business. They have dedicated themselves to disrupting whatever progress can be made in East-West relations, especially now that a bleeding-heart liberal (Michael Moriarty) is president.
And why? Well, because they're just mean, that's why. And they don't seem to have much else to do. According to the script, they had a role to play in the assassinations of Anwar Sadat, Indira Gandhi and Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme as well. You begin to wonder if they had something to do with the kidnaping of the Lindbergh baby and the explosion of the Hindenburg.
Their tentacles reach into the highest levels of everything, perhaps even the William Morris agency, but when they want somebody bumped off, they have to dispatch a flunky to Miami to try to make contact with a mysterious Argentine hit-person called Angel who can only be reached through his wackadoody mistress Neusa Munez.
The mistress is played with her usual all-stops-out audaciousness by the unfailingly loony Susan Tyrell. Compared with her, Tammy Faye Bakker scarcely knows the meaning of the word mascara. Neusa's idea of fun is to seduce one of the messenger boys sent in search of Angel and then, on the morning after, toss her electric hair dryer into the bathtub with him and watch him boil. She's funny that way.
Our pretty ambassador, meanwhile, makes contact with Robert Wagner as the rascally and bestubbled Mike Slade, a wily trouble shooter who's named her deputy chief of staff. Wagner's been putting on some pudge but this has the effect of making him more, er, dimensional; a particle of character is creeping into his bland features. The game being played by John Gay, who adapted the Sheldon novel, is that we never know who's legit and who's part of a plot to assassinate the sassy Ms. Ashley.
Frankly, it's very tempting to give the whole thing away right now and save you a great deal of trouble. But that would be naughty. And besides, in one scene a Washington Post reporter gets blown up when he presses a rigged button on his TV set's remote control unit. Were the producers sending out a warning?
There's plenty of violence in the film but little sex. Not even the usual satin-sheet sarabands. The raciest moment involves a hooker and a reporter and we're apparently supposed to read between the lines.
She (seductively): "You got any ice cream? I love ice cream. Sometimes on a plate. Sometimes in a cone. You like ice cream?"
He (pantingly): "I love ice cream."
Maybe this is a trick to get you to read the book so you can find out what the heck they do with all this ice cream.
In Romania, the new ambassador quells a staff revolt, saves the life of the Romanian president's son (by having a botulism antidote zoomed in on a supersonic plane from the States), springs a 19-year-old American girl out of a Bucharest pokey after she's framed on a pot-smoking charge, and very nearly charms the country right smack out of the Communist bloc. She even makes progress on securing exit visas for Jewish dissidents.
Not since Shirley Temple used to delight the bejeebers out of grumpy executives and crabby misers have such miraculous transformations and salubrious conversions been wrought by a stouthearted cutie pie!
The trouble is, none of this good-deed-doing has much to do with Sheldon's story. The script keeps going back to meetings of the Patriots, always held at a different photogenic locale (though the poor guys never get to go outdoors), and someone says the plan to dispatch Ashley is coming along nicely, and so on and so forth. The suspense is flaccid throughout, right up to the moment when the booby-trapped balloons rise to the embassy ceiling.
Earlier, there's mention of bumping off a "Romanian dissident" who sounds like he's patterned after Polish dissident Lech Walesa, but this, like other details, is not followed through. "Windmills" is less a collection of loose ends, however, than one great flapping loose end from start to finish.
Ashley, bopping around Bucharest, meets a continental French doctor. He says he lost a wife and child to terrorists. Slade tells Ashley the man never had a wife and child! But a CIA man at the embassy says yes he did! Is the doctor what he appears, or a nasty terrorist himself? "I believe that every man has to risk something," he says, "so that, in the end, he does not risk everything."
That clears that up.
But Mary goes him one better in the deepthink department. Philosophy must have been her minor in college. Over lunch on a terrace she eponymously whispers in Frenchie's face, "I read that our destinies are decided by a cosmic roll of the dice -- the winds of fortune that blow from the windmills of the gods!"
Right. And wouldn't it be kinda funny if one day the windmills of the gods went and blew Sidney Sheldon's roof off? Of course he could pay to have it fixed in a jiffy. He's made millions by proudly refusing to overestimate the taste of the American people.
No one expects great drama from these things. Instead, one wants pulpy plots, glitzy settings, romantic interludes, and oodles of foreign locations. "Windmills" has only the locations, romping as it does from snowy Finland to leafy Kansas to balmy Antibes to steamy Miami to soggy Washington to spicy Chile to gloomy Romania to sandy Marrakech to, I kid you not, the White Cliffs of Dover.
And this in just the first two hours! You'd better pack extra Dramamine for this show. Truth be told, and you came to the right place for that, almost all the locations are really North Carolina, where most of the movie was filmed.
Sheldon himself was executive producer of "Sidney Sheldon's Windmills of the Gods." Thus there could have been no unauthorized tampering with his work by overimaginative adapters. And he succeeded. Not one truthful moment nor a single iota of worth has been allowed to creep into it.