Circuses are never as exciting on television as they are in real life: When you’re really under the Big Top, the animals seem absolutely huge, and they smell an awful lot more than they do when you watch them on TV. Also, let’s be honest: Part of the thrill of watching circus performers such as the trapeze artists and the lion tamer is that there really is a chance that someone will fall aaaaaalll the way down into that net or get his head bitten off. Gazing at the circus on TV, you know that sort of film footage would be edited out — or sold to A Current Affair.

All of which is to say, The 120th Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is amusing and exciting within the limits of proscribed tube viewing.

Animal trainer Luis Palacio cracks his whip not only at lions and tigers but at a wolf and a hyena as well, and the hyena looks really mean. Sisters Marguerite, Michelle, and Andrea Ayala do a juggling act while hanging from the high wire by their hair. (Note to parents: This segment offers an excellent opportunity to stress the importance of good hair-brushing habits to your children. ”Look at that — you see? You think Marguerite there whines when her mother braids her hair?”)

There’s one major drawback to this show: host Nell Carter, who talks way too much and makes far too many corny jokes. ”Oh, no,” the 5-year-old in my house groaned when Carter loomed into view after a particularly exciting circus act. ”Here comes the Chatterbox Lady again.”

The circus does not need the Chatterbox Lady. B-


The stand-up comedy acts on cable have become drearily predictable: There’s lots of yelling, obscenity as a substitute for punch lines, race-baiting, misogyny, and sentences that begin, ”Don’t you hate it when. . .”

Will Durst is a little different. He’s angry, but not at women; his subject is politics. Fancy that, in 1990 — a throwback to the Mort Sahl style of commentary about current events.

Durst is smart, and he helps give the lie to the notion that this is a conservative era. Operating a little left of center, he gets his audience laughing about Reagan, Bush, Quayle, and the National Rifle Association. He makes fun of Dukakis and the impotence of the Democratic Party, but he never quite emerges as the truly leftist comic his positions imply. He never goes far enough; perhaps as a consequence he’s never funny enough.

At one point, he does something that sums up his stylistic contradictions: He takes a big slug from a bottle of Evian water. . .and then lights up a cigarette. It’s the rebellious gesture of a guy who wants to annoy everyone and no one. B-

(PBS, SUN., APRIL 15, 8-9 P.M.)

TV critics are supposed to have a soft spot in their heads for nature shows; I’m bored by them.

But snakes are a different story. Snakes give me the willies, but they’re also fascinating — so powerful, so alien, so (anthropomorphically speaking) sinister. If you feel the same way, slither up to Serpents. The photography is amazing, and some of the scenes already haunt my dreams: a two-foot-long brown snake lashing out and chomping down on a soccer ball that has just slipped away from a kid in a park; an embarrassed-looking tiger snake being milked for its venom; a bull snake swallowing a mouse in one long, convulsive gulp.

In fact, you’ll get so hooked on the visuals that George Page’s murmured, lulling narration may pass you by. ”Snakes have existed for more than 120 million years. . . .In Cambodia, it is thought that a lunar eclipse is a cosmic serpent devouring the moon. . . .

When the male California Mountain King snake finds a female mate, he excites her by nuzzling his chin along her body. . . .All male snakes have two penises. . . .”

Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute, just a durn minute, there! What kind of snake did he say that was? A California Mickey Rourke snake? Rewind that tape a bit, honey. . . . A-


Carly Simon makes her entrance onto a stage set meant to remind you of a ’40s Manhattan nightclub. She’s dressed as an idealized version of a New York club chanteuse: black silk gloves that extend past her elbows, black high heels, and a black sequined gown slit up to Grant’s Tomb. (In the background, saxophonist Michael Brecker looks as if he’s gnawing on his reed.) Then Simon breaks into Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s ”By Myself,” and the spell is broken.

My colleague Greg Sandow already reviewed My Romance, the new album of pop standards that Simon is plugging on this HBO special. The words ”wretched,” ”flat,” and ”blank” were used in his review — all good, sturdy, appropriate words to describe Simon’s performance here as well. The album is pointless: Why on earth would you purchase My Romance when you can buy recordings by such singers as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughan singing these great pop songs?

Carly in Concert, however, is much more interesting than her album; this hour is yet another glimpse into the elaborate rich girl’s fantasy world Simon has built around herself. Like her previous HBO outing, 1987’s Coming Around Again, this one features an audience of Simon’s close friends, no common rabble who might apply some aesthetic judgment, who might not wildly applaud her every warble.

Adulation thus guaranteed in advance, Simon relaxes enough to put on a show that’s the live-action equivalent of those steamy album covers she used to favor; no red-blooded American should miss the one-woman lambada Simon does to the tune of her own ”We Have No Secrets.”

Carly-as-crooner is self-indulgently silly; Carly making a spectacle of herself is pretty spectacular: This, my friends, is why God invented cable. I’ll bet that somewhere in America on the night of April 15, James Taylor will be biting the end of a sofa and cursing his luck. C


Television has really gotten behind the impending Earth Day, and why not? It’s a safe way to appear socially responsible — who’s not in favor of clean air and water and lots of juicy green grass for bunnies to chew on?

On commercial television, this is going to lead to ABC’s Earth Day Special on April 22, featuring such noted conservationists as Kevin Costner and Michael Keaton; on April 20, CBS will offer Save the Planet: A CBS/Hard Rock Cafe Special. Who knows? Maybe as a gesture of ecological goodwill, Ozzy Osbourne will sew a head back onto a live bat.

But nothing the commercial networks do is going to exceed PBS, which is airing a slew of specials as part of a project called ”Operation Earth.”

Of these, Profit the Earth stands out as a typically careful, occasionally weaselly, affair. The hour is a series of disguised commercials for various American businesses that decided to become ecologically responsible once they figured out that money was to be made from it.

Thus there’s a profile of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Dan Dudek, a principal architect of the concept of setting industry standards for ”allowable pollution” and the selling of ”pollution rights.”

Narrator Liane Hansen says it’s a ”controversial” idea, but where is the air time for the objections of environmentalists not obsessed with the constantly invoked ”profit motive” and with making every teeny little environmental gesture ”economically sound”?

As I watched I thought, Why must everything be economically sound?

Call me naive, call me a commie, but whatever happened to self-sacrifice and generosity, to all that volunteerism that was supposed to blossom in the Reagan Era? Somehow I don’t think this was the sort of reaction this feel-good documentary was supposed to elicit in its viewers.

Why should we applaud a scene in which a manufacturer of solar energy panels in Colorado says he and his partner are committed to their fledgling business ”because maybe if we become rich doing this, other people will become rich, and we’ll all save the world together”? This is a hero? Phooey.

For Earth’s Sake is a portrait of David Brower. Now 77, Brower is by all accounts a wholly admirable man who helped pioneer the American environmentalist movement. Brower, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, led fights against various nuclear power plants and the Alaskan pipeline.

But how does PBS honor him? With floridly written narration and treacly soundtrack music that suggest a corniness entirely absent in what we see and hear of Brower.

There are also many overstated encomiums from colleagues that, though heartfelt, get in the way of explaining the work Brower has accomplished.

I remember quite vividly what a self-righteous drag the first Earth Day, in 1970, was. On TV, at least, this one is shaping up the same way.
Profit the Earth: D For Earth’s Sake: C-


Another dud made-for-TNT movie: vaguely fact-based, romance-novel swill set against the turbulence of the Civil War, as the dashing Allan Pinkerton (Christopher Reeve in a Scottish accent and a beard that looks like an upside-down Afro) falls in love with the beautiful Southern belle Rose O’Neal Greenhow (Madolyn Smith Osborne). They fight, they kiss, they’re separated by massive historical events.

He (remember, heavy Scottish accent): ”I rrrrregret bein’ forrrrward with yuh at the hospital t’otherrrrr day.”

She (remember, Southern belle): ”Wah, Ah doan regret it at awllll!”

And I’d still rather watch this than an Earth Day special. D

(PBS, TUE., APRIL 17, 9-10 P.M.)

Frontline producer Hector Galan and correspondent Dave Marash had the idea to update one of television’s most famous programs, Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame, about the terrible conditions under which migrant farm workers labored. Like a lot of Murrow’s work seen today, Harvest of Shame — bits of which are shown here to illustrate how little things have changed — seems both dry and sentimental: a noble-minded sermon.

New Harvest, Old Shame is free of sentimentality, and it’s so low-key that the true horror of what’s being shown may take a while to get to you.

But it will as you watch a seemingly endless procession of poor black, Mexican, Salvadoran, and, lately, Guatemalan people seeking backbreaking work. These laborers follow the warm weather and the latest fruit or vegetable harvest across the United States, and we see the inhuman saniiation and housing conditions in which they’re forced to live.

Marash, an independent journalist who has always had his head and his heart in the right place, makes a clear-eyed guide. He asks tough questions of the workers, farm owners, and government bureaucrats. The latter seem almost determined never to help these very needy workers.

New Harvest, Old Shame is a little repetitive and meandering, but it’s also startling, dismaying stuff. A-


One presumes Robert Mitchum is dozing through this sitcom for the dough; only such profound cynicism on Mitchum’s part could possibly allow me to maintain my immense admiration for this great marble slab of a movie actor.

A Family for Joe, which began life as a TV movie before shrinking to a half-hour, stars a gray-haired Mitchum as Joe. He’s a regular old homeless joe who meets a family of four standard-issue wiseacre kids who just happen to be orphans.

The kids strike a bargain: Move in with us and act as our grandfather; you’ll have a roof over your head, and we’ll stay out of the orphanage.

This would, in a way, be a dandy little sitcom premise — jokes about an odd family unit, plus prime-time consciousness-raising about the homeless — except that the kids are leering little creeps, the jokes are moronic, and Joe’s homelessness is already absent from the show’s current scripts.

Mitchum does a heavy-lidded variation on William Frawley’s Bub from My Three Sons — he’s crusty and cranky but lovable, and he has to deliver lines like ”Kids specialize in problems — they take up a lot of your time.”

I’m waiting for the ratings-grabbing episode that salutes Mitchum’s classic 1955 thriller The Night of the Hunter: Joe, his knuckles tattooed with the words LOVE and HATE, takes those kids out in the middle of a lake in a rowboat and plops them all overboard. D