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TV reviews for the week of April 27

TV reviews for the week of April 27 — We review this week’s best television programs

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CZESLAW MILOSZ: THE POET REMEMBERS
PBS, FRI., APRIL 27, 9-10 P.M.

The critic Helen Vendler has written that once the poet Czeslaw Milosz received the Nobel Prize in 1980, his poems suddenly were ”reviewed less as poems than as the work of a thinker and a political figure.”

This is a mistake, Vendler believes, one she is on hand to remind us of in The Poet Remembers, but to little avail. This well-meaning documentary about the Lithuanian-born, Polish-language poet tends to view him as a spokesman for artistic freedom first and as an artist second.

This is the tendency of television, anyway — if you talk about a poet’s poetry, the show turns into a poetry reading, and that’s dull, right? But talk about a poet as a crusader for human rights and you can show all kinds of neat documentary footage about people fighting for human rights, and that’s good TV, right?

Well, no. The Poet Remembers is most interesting when Milosz discusses his work and when his work is dissected by such people as Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, and two of Milosz’s English-language translators, Robert Haas and Renata Gorczynski. They make you want to read Milosz’ long, conversational lines and the way he turns his politics into art:

”Since I opened my eyes I have seen only the glow of fires, massacres/Only injustice, humiliation, and the laughable shame of braggarts. . .”

And to think, when he wrote that, Milosz hadn’t even seen this week’s Jim and Tammy Bakker TV movie. B-

THE STORY OF THE BEACH BOYS: SUMMER DREAMS
ABC, SUN., APRIL 29, 9-11 P.M.

Maybe it was too much to ask: There already has been one first-rate TV movie about the surf music sound — 1978’s Deadman’s Curve, about surf jokers Jan and Dean — so the odds were against The Story of the Beach Boys: Summer Dreams.

Still, it didn’t have to be this bad. I’ve read Heroes and Villains, the Steven Gaines book on which this TV movie ostensibly is based; it stands as a model for exploitation books — well-written, mean-spirited, and salacious, everything you want in a trash book. But whether out of prime-time prissiness or sheer laziness, The Story of the Beach Boys isn’t nearly as nasty-or as detailed, or as clearly written.

Perhaps because corpses don’t file lawsuits, The Story of the Beach Boys is really The Story of Dennis Wilson, the only dead Beach Boy. Wilson, the act’s drummer and a notorious screw-up who drowned in 1983, is used here as the fall guy; even Brian, Dennis’ troubled-genius brother, gets off easy. The script by Charles Rosin leads you to think that, if only Dennis (played by Bruce Greenwood) hadn’t drunk so much, if only he hadn’t done drugs, if only he’d listened to his father and really learned how to play those drums, the surf always would have been up for the Boys.

It’s an article of Beach Boy faith that the real villain in this group’s story was the Wilsons’ father, Murry — even David Leaf, who wrote the one serious, scholarly book on the group, The Beach Boys and the California Myth, agrees with that. And in all of Beach Boy lore, there’s no more famous legend than the story saying that Brian, who wrote and produced the group’s greatest music, suffered severe hearing loss as a teen when Murry punched him in the ear. The Story of the Beach Boys is so inept, however, that it has Brian (Greg Kean) alluding to his hearing loss two or three times early in the movie but doesn’t mention Murry’s cuffing until the show is almost over.

If you’re a fan of the Beach Boys, you’ll be livid about the omissions: The vocals are done by feeble impersonators, and the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to the group’s later work, so there’s no mention of such albums as Wild Honey and Smiley Smile. But why no mention of the group’s heavy involvement with transcendental meditation? Why does the actor playing Mike Love have so much hair?

If you’re not a Beach Boys fan, you’ll be utterly confused. Years are condensed or expanded at random, Brian’s guru-analyst, Eugene Landy, seems to be introduced about a decade too early, and you’ll never figure out that the reason Charles Manson hung around with Dennis was that Manson, before he went helter-skelter, wrote songs and collaborated with Dennis.

All that said, the acting is terrific. Greenwood (St. Elsewhere) makes a fine, goofily macho Dennis, and Greg Kean is eerily right as Brian in every period of the latter’s life-boy genius, fat man, slimmed-down survivor.

Looking for a good movie about this sort of music? Deadman’s Curve is on videocassette. D

HALLMARK HALL OF FAME: CAROLINE?
CBS, SUN., APRIL 29, 9-11 P.M.

CBS takes the high road against the pop-scandal sweeps-busters that ABC and NBC have scheduled, and this Hallmark Hall of Fame entry is certainly the class act of the night. The trouble is, classiness isn’t always the most interesting quality for a TV movie to possess.

Stephanie Zimbalist is Caroline Carmichael — or, at least, that’s who she claims she is. Set in the ’50s, Caroline? is all about a wealthy man (George Grizzard) whose eldest daughter disappeared 15 years earlier; it was assumed she died in a plane crash.

When Zimbalist pops up claiming to be Caroline, it overturns the life Grizzard had created for himself. Caroline’s mother committed suicide, and he has remarried and has two young children by his new wife, played by Pamela Reed.

But Grizzard can’t be sure this grown woman is really his Caroline, and Reed doesn’t want her to be Caroline, because that would mean Zimbalist would inherit money Reed had hoped to get herself.

So Reed sets about trying to discredit this Caroline, hoping to trick her into revealing that she’s an impostor. Meanwhile, Caroline has befriended Reed’s children, a sweet, lonely boy (Shawn Phelan) and an imperious brat who has cerebral palsy (Jenny Jacobs).

Caroline? begins as a mystery story and ends as a melodrama. For its first half, it’s possible to suspend disbelief and accept the idea that Grizzard wouldn’t recognize Caroline — this despite the fact that his daughter didn’t disappear until she was in college, and Stephanie Zimbalist could still pass for a grad student.

In the second half, the mystery is abruptly cleared up (I won’t give it away), and we spend the rest of our time watching Caroline turn the family’s bratty child into a nice girl.

Ultimately, the cast is so good, you’ll forgive them anything. Zimbalist is chilly but efficient, it’s great to see Grizzard in top form again, and Pamela Reed — well, watching the way she turns a cliche mean-stepmother character into a complex human will remind you how much she has been wasted on the turgid NBC sitcom Grand.

The children are excellent as well, with Jenny Jacobs, the 1982 Cerebral Palsy Poster Child, giving an especially subtle and bravely unsympathetic performance. Add effective cameos by Patricia Neal and Dorothy McGuire and you have an ideal actors’ showcase. I just wish the story had enhanced all that talent. B

CHILD IN THE NIGHT
CBS, TUE., MAY 1, 9-11 P.M.

Tom Skerritt plays a police detective and JoBeth Williams a psychologist in this intriguing but pokey murder mystery.

Skerritt and Williams are thrown together when 8-year-old Luke (Elijah Wood) witnesses the killing of his father, but can’t bring himself to talk about it. Williams probes the child’s psyche while Skerritt grills adult suspects, including the boy’s mother (Season Hubley) and his grandfather (Darren McGavin, and it’s good to see his craggy face again).

The relationship between Skerritt and Williams is drearily predictable: At first they hate each other, then they come to respect each other as professionals, and then they realize, hey, we’re both attractive people roughly the same age, so why not drink champagne, eat brie, and kiss?

When they have a spat, Skerritt gets to utter one of the great howlers of the month: ”What kind of girl,” he scolds Williams, ”pulls down her bedcovers for a guy and won’t uncover her soul?” Sounds like an idea for a new series: Tom Skerritt, Soul Seducer.

But Williams has some nice scenes with the boy, analyzing his drawings and extracting key information by talking to him quietly, uncondescendingly. Child in the Night is ultimately a slightly better mystery story than your average Murder, She Wrote. C

MYSTERY! INSPECTOR MORSE: THE SETTLING OF THE SUN
PBS, THUR., MAY 3, 9-10 P.M.

John Thaw is back for a second bunch of Inspector Morse investigations, in what is proving to be one of Mystery!‘s better series.

The chilly Thaw’s Morse is an agreeably grumpy British police officer. Unlike most of the other hoity-toity Mystery! sleuths, Morse is working-class and frankly quite peeved about his station in life. This has put him in a permanent funk: He stalks criminals — this week’s is the murderer of a Japanese student at Oxford — with a sour expression, as if he’d just bitten into a piece of maggoty fruit.

Morse barks orders, is terribly rude to his puppy-dog-ish assistant Sgt. Lewis (Kevin Whately), and gets his clues from persistent questioning. In other words, he’s no armchair detective, and it’s following Morse on his dogged rounds that provides the pleasure in these stories.

The Settling of the Sun is a particularly well-written Morse, and the contrast between the stolid policeman and the tweedy professors at Oxford makes for a quietly humorous adventure. The story concludes next week, with two more two-part Morse morsels to follow. B