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TV reviews for the week of April 20

TV reviews for the week of April 20 — We review this week’s best television programs

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TV reviews for the week of April 20

HAVEL’S AUDIENCE WITH HISTORY
PBS, FRI., APRIL 20, 10:30-11:30 P.M.

It sounds more complicated than it is: This documentary offers excerpts from both Czechoslovakian and English-language productions of Vaclav Havel’s one-act play Audience, intercut with film of Havel’s recent inauguration as the president of Czechoslovakia, plus testimony by friends and colleagues ranging from Milos Forman to Paul Newman.

The result is choppy, necessarily uneven, but charmingly engaging — you know it’s a big puff piece, but you don’t mind.

In film clips and the reminiscences of various interviewees, Havel emerges as a studiously unpretentious fellow whose sensibility was formed by the Western pop culture of the ’60s — at one point, director Jiri Menzel’s camera homes in on little sign in Havel’s apartment reading, ”All You Need Is Love,” as the appropriate Beatles song swells on the soundtrack.

The bits of Audience we’re shown suggest sitcom Samuel Beckett: Two characters — a rough, aging workingman and an earnest, young playwright — chat, drink massive quantities of beer (the play is set in a brewery), and question each other about their philosophies of life. It’s an ideological screed — Audience, written 15 years ago, idealizes the working class while criticizing middle-class intellectuals — but it’s a ribald, funny screed.

George Bush probably would eat broccoli for the sort of gushingly uncritical attention Havel receives here, but Havel’s Audience is interesting for its glimpses into the state of theater and politics in the Czechoslovakia that Havel’s election as president has now inevitably altered. B

CAROL & COMPANY
NBC, SAT., APRIL 21, 10-10:30 P.M.

I realize this is a dangerous admission, but it must be made: Although it’s one of the best-loved shows in TV history, I never was a big fan of The Carol Burnett Show during its 12-year run — I, ah, just didn’t find it funny. I didn’t come to the new Carol & Company, then, with misty-eyed nostalgia and high hopes, which may be why I find its modest pleasures so likable.

The company in Carol & Company is a new group of supporting players — no Harvey Korman or Vicki Lawrence in sight. Burnett and her five new friends give us a single half-hour sketch each week, and there are no regular characters — Burnett is someene different with each edition of the show.

Burnett’s rep company — Terry Kiser, Meagan Fay, Richard Kind, Jeremy Piven, and Anita Barone — already has proven top-notch, with Kiser the standout. Kiser, perhaps best known as the corpse-hero of last year’s movie Weekend at Bernie’s, doesn’t have a trace of mannerism or sitcom shtick; everything he brings to television — every gesture, every line reading — is fresh.

Burnett’s millions of admirers cherish her rubber face and slapstick skills, but I was relieved to see that she’s not mugging quite so relentlessly, and that the sketches give her detailed characters to play, not babbling cartoons.

NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff’s legendary programming skills, recently not much in evidence, have come through for Burnett: Following The Golden Girls and Empty Nest on Saturday nights, Carol & Company is in the perfect position to establish itself as a new tradition for a middle-age audience that remembers Burnett fondly, and for new admirers as well. B

SHOWTIME COAST TO COAST: ALL-STAR EDITION
SHOWTIME, SAT., APRIL 21, 10-11:30 P.M

The most heartening developments in recent popular culture were Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy awards sweep followed by the rise of her excellent album Nick of Time to No. 1 on the pop charts. After two decades of peerless work that seemed appreciated only by her peers, Raitt finally has been rewarded with a mass audience that, if it’s smart, will go out and buy her back catalog.

This Coast to Coast special was taped in Los Angeles the night after Raitt’s Grammy triumph, and, surrounded by bigger names and without ever singing a lead vocal, she is its unassuming focal point.

Early on, Raitt backs B.B. King on the bluesman’s ”Every Day I Have the Blues,” and in the middle of it, Raitt tears off a witty, concise bottleneck- guitar solo that earns a hoot of approval from King as well as from the celebrity-packed audience.

Raitt also accompanies most of the other performers, who include Bruce Hornsby, Lou Reed, Rickie Lee Jones, and Michael Bolton; they’re all pretty good. Oh yes, there’s also the insufferable Sting, complete with hip chin- stubble and smug demeanor, there to introduce a drummer he has discovered named Vinx. ”He blew me away,” the great man says, ”and I am not one easily blown away.” Aw, go blow it out your ear, Sting.

Don’t miss the show’s finale, a genially sloppy version of ”Let the Good Times Roll” featuring all the musicians plus a lot of would-be musicians such as Michael J. Fox (they let him take a guitar solo!), Michael Keaton (harmless-he hits two drumsticks together), and Cheers‘ Woody Harrelson (dangerous — tries to sing). Plus another fine Raitt guitar solo.

She gets an A; everyone else, a B-. Average it out: B+

MASTERPIECE THEATRE TRAFFIK
PBS, SUN., APRIL 22, 9-11 P.M.

How un-Masterpiece-y: a five-part thriller about drug addiction and the heroin trade, featuring shoot-’em-ups involving both guns and hypodermic needles. In Traffik, John LeCarré meets Elmore Leonard.

Traffik — German for, um, ”traffic” — sets up three plots and keeps them spinning. One is about the efforts of British politician Jack Lithgow (Bill Paterson) to reduce the flow of heroin into England. A second plot follows the tribulations of a farmer in Pakistan (Jamal Shah) whose primary crop is the poppies from which the heroin is made.

A third plot focuses on the middleman: a German drug importer (George Kukura) who ships the Pakistani crop to England. When he’s arrested early on, his English-born wife (Lindsay Duncan) takes over the family business.

Screenwriter Simon Moore set himself a tricky, potentially ruinous, formal challenge: The principal players in each subplot never meet one another, yet we are shown how their worlds connect. It’s a measure of his skill that you’re likely to watch all of Traffik without even realizing that the show’s three stars never speak to one another — you’ll be too absorbed in what they’re up to individually.

American moviegoers may remember how good — how interestingly normal — Bill Paterson was in the Bill Forsyth film Comfort and Joy; here, his pleasing average-fellow demeanor is used to portray a character unraveling.

Paterson’s Lithgow is a Scotsman whose political career is on the rise in England when he suffers a cruel irony: Even as he’s meeting with heads of state and police officials about his drug embargo policies, he discovers that his teenage daughter, a twee Cambridge student, is hooked on smack. Lithgow carries his pain like an extra briefcase: It weighs him down and over the course of the miniseries turns this chipper, ambitious man into a hollow-eyed drudge.

The least interesting section of Traffik is the plight of farmer Fazal. Director Alastair Reid shoots Pakistan and the government burning of Fazal’s poppy fields with a drama and sweep unusual for television, but the story of this brave, put-upon farmer always verges on triteness.

On the other hand, the story of the drug baron’s wife is fabulous — a female Godfather saga. Lindsay Duncan’s Helen had been content to lead the life of a pampered woman of leisure, but when she realizes that that life will be ruined if her husband’s illegal business collapses, she springs into action.

Helen proves to be a steely administrator of her hubby’s heroin trade, snarling into the phone to intimidate rivals and backing up her threats with violence when the hoods snicker that she’s ”just a woman.”

The politics of Traffik are murky-to-nonexistent, which I presume was done on purpose. It is set in a vague present day, and it’s hard to tell whether Jack Lithgow is Conservative or Labour, or indeed where he stands on any issue besides drugs.

Nonetheless, Traffik has an absorbing, realistic sheen, and it’s just the sort of respite from costume drama that Masterpiece Theatre needs right now. A-

DOWN HOME
NBC, SAT., APRIL 21, 10:30-11 P.M.

If there’s any trend in TV’s midseason replacements, it’s a dismaying one: first-rate actors interred in second-rate sitcoms. Jean Stapleton in Bagdad Cafe, Timothy Daly in Wings, and now Judith Ivey in Down Home.

In Down Home, Ivey plays Kate McCrorey, a management consultant for a design firm in New York City who, in the great tradition of sitcoms, decides to chuck it all and return to the simple life of her hometown of Hadley Cove, a little fishing village on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Life isn’t so simple in Hadley Cove, of course: Kate’s dad (Dakin Matthews) runs McCrorey’s Landing, a combination bait-and-tackle/coffee shop that’s not doing well.

Ivey radiates a calm intelligence that she has used in the theater and in movies (Compromising Positions) to great comic effect; in theory, she should be a terrific performer around whom to construct a sitcom. And while the supporting cast of oddballs is a cut above the usual, something’s missing: laughs. They’ve left out the laughs in Down Home, and if the series doesn’t watch out, it’s going to turn into a dramedy and go the way of Frank’s Place and Hooperman. C

BUZZ
MTV, SUN., APRIL 22, 9-9:30 P.M.

Buzz is MTV’s admirable attempt to turn its admirable between-video graphics into a half-hour show with something to say about sexual and world politics. The result doesn’t really work and may even give you a headache, but that’s more use for your head than most TV shows provide.

Produced in England, Buzz is the creation of Mark Pellington and Jon Klein, who edit together clips from TV shows, movies, rock videos, and commercials from all over the world.

This material whizzes past your eye at a furious pace, and it’s grouped into loose themes; the Buzz premiere, for example, begins by tackling prejudice with everything from an Anti-Defamation League commercial to a five-second interview with Eric Bogosian, who thinks we should all be more tolerant of one another.

Another segment addresses the images of women in popular culture, and — guess what? — American advertising and rock videos are sexist! Buzz‘s conclusion may seem obvious, but then, this is the channel that seems to run Whitesnake videos with Tawny Kitaen writhing at the feet of David Coverdale every 15 minutes or so, so perhaps this is a message that bears introducing to dedicated MTV-heads.

The best segment of Buzz is about Elvis Presley-related material. Don Henley pleads for Elvis to ”die with dignity. . .just leave him alone.” But then we see Dirk Guttner, identified only as ”Freelance Singer, Germany”; Guttner is a German Elvis impersonator whom we see singing ”Don’t Be Cruel,” and he’s really good. If the spirit of Elvis can continue to inspire stuff like this, perhaps he shouldn’t be left alone. C

CENTRAL PARK
PBS, MON., APRIL 23, 8-11 P.M.

This is Frederick Wiseman in a pastoral mood: The director of such moving, often harrowing documentaries as Near Death, Hospital, High School, and Titicut Follies now turns his silent attention to New York’s Central Park.

Roaming all over the park’s 840 acres, Wiseman and his film crew recorded what went on over the course of five weeks in May and June of 1988: people variously clipping hedges, getting married, sleeping on park benches, conducting an acting class in Shakespeare, kissing on blankets, teasing zoo animals, painting landscapes, running in races, judging a chicken-frying contest, defecating in the shrubbery, and making dinosaur-shaped balloons. And that’s just the first two hours.

As always, Wiseman provides no narration and no soundtrack music, and tries to avoid imposing a point of view on his film. Because of this style, his earlier films were often a challenge — you had to figure out what was going on by watching closely and listening to his subjects’ conversations.

In Central Park, the park is Wiseman’s subject. Like Mount Everest, it’s just there; that’s it. The result is a far more lulling film than any Wiseman has made, but it certainly isn’t boring. Like any good filmmaker, Wiseman imposes the rhythm of his film on you. Watching Central Park, you slow down the pace of normal television viewing, and pretty soon you’re examining the screen closely, picking up details and pondering overheard conversations.

To viewers outside of Manhattan, Central Park probably will seem like a tough, teeming place, no haven from the rough cynicism of the big city yet an irresistible lure — you’ll want to visit the park the next time you’re in New York, but you’ll probably carry your wallet under your hat, taped to your skull.

Even when he’s in a pastoral mood, Wiseman makes hardheaded, unsentimental movies. A-