Television reviews for week of May 25, 1990 -- We take a closer look at this week's TV shows

Television reviews for week of May 25, 1990

PBS, SAT., MAY 26, 8-9 P.M.

The Finding is one of those Wonderworks presentations that transcend their purpose as children’s programming: It’s a family show in the best sense, also engaging for adults.

Based on a story by Nina Bawden, The Finding is a British import about an adopted 11-year-old boy whose cheerful life is disrupted in an unusual way.

A wealthy, elderly neighbor is convinced that young Alex (James Alder) is the son of her daughter, who disappeared mysteriously many years before. When the old woman dies, she leaves Alex a large sum of money in her will.

Alex and his nice middle-class adoptive family become the focus of annoying publicity (”Foundling Inherits Fortune!” screams a literate British tabloid) and begin squabbling over what to do with the money. Alex has mixed feelings: guilt over an inheritance he doesn’t think he deserves, anger that his family is fighting over the money, and elation that this old neighbor might have been right about who his real mother was. He runs away, and I’m not going to give away anything more.

James Alder is grave and complicated as Alex, and Roger Rees, seen occasionally on Cheers as Kirstie Alley’s boyfriend, does a subtle turn as Alex’s adoptive father. In The Finding, no one is a real villain, and everyone makes mistakes. Rough-edged and entirely lacking in neat resolutions, The Finding is the best drama of the week, masquerading as a kids’ show. A-

PBS, MON., MAY 28, JUNE 4,AND JUNE 11, 9-10 P.M.

At a time when America is intensely interested in the changes taking place in the Soviet Union, this three-part documentary offers some history, and a context: an overview of Stalin’s life and work that tries to persuade us of both his importance and his heinousness.

Stalin was written by producers Jonathan Lewis and Phillip Whitehead, based on their new book, Stalin: A Time for Judgement. Lewis and Whitehead find Stalin’s achievements both impressive (”In just 30 years, a backward peasant country became a world power,” the narrator intones) and profoundly disturbing (”Perhaps 20 million died at the hands of their own state”).

Born Josif Djugashvili in 1879, he took the name Stalin, meaning ”man of steel,” around 1913. This self-created Superman was, as one Russian scholar interviewed observes, ”a man of power, not ideas.”

Whether elbowing Leon Trotsky aside to become Lenin’s successor in the 1920s or ordering the notorious ”show trials” of the ’30s that resulted in the execution of many of his political enemies, Stalin is depicted as a ferociously ambitious man with grand, world-altering notions.

Stalin is a model of TV equivocation, full of on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that comparisons, but it’s also absolutely fascinating. Featuring extraordinary film footage of Russian life during the first half of this century, Stalin summons a period of history for a generation of young Americans barely aware of 1917’s October Revolution and its aftermath. B+

PBS, WED., MAY 30, 10:30-11 P.M.

Rarely have I seen a show that started out as annoying as Heroes and Strangers and ended up so moving.

This half-hour documentary profiles the fathers of its codirectors, Lorna Rasmussen and Tony Heriza. The filmmakers look to be in their 30s, and both have long felt estranged from their fathers. Heroes and Strangers is their attempt to make emotional contact with their dads.

The first half of the film is excruciating. Rasmussen and Heriza complain that their fathers weren’t around much when they were growing up and that when they were around they were cold and aloof.

Rasmussen and Heriza are blithely narcissistic; they shoot their whining monologues in tight close-ups, the bitterness evident in their welling eyes. In the background, a drippy folk-music soundtrack moans lyrics like, ”Every journey starts with just one step. . .Open up your heart and you can understand. . .” Eeeeek!

Tony Heriza says he took the occasion of a family reunion to confront his father about all this. With camera rolling, Heriza asks his father questions like ”When you were growing up, did you and your parents touch each other much? Did you show affection to each other?”

Louis Heriza, a weather-beaten old gentleman with big, soft eyes, looks at his son as if the ungrateful whelp had slapped him. ”No,” he croaks. ”We were too busy workin’.”

It emerges that Louis Heriza was a dirt-poor farm boy who married young, had a large family, and worked three jobs to support them. ”According to Hoyle,” he says, ”you’re supposed to take your kids fishing and camping, but I just didn’t have time to do that.”

Rasmussen’s father, William, a plumber, felt similarly overworked and guilty about neglecting parental duties.

It’s obvious that both men had nothing but the best intentions in raising their children, and this finally occurs to the filmmakers about halfway through Heroes. ”I quit asking questions and just started listening to him,” Tony says, and thank heaven for that.

Louis Heriza, in his halting, shy way, proceeds to tell fascinating stories about the hard but satisfying life of a generation ago. And Lorna shows us that her burly father taught himself to become a good landscape artist, and she admits that, as a little girl, she loved sitting next to him drawing with crayons while he painted.

What comes across in Heroes and Strangers is that Lorna and Tony spent so much of their youth nursing grudges against their fathers that they never took enough time to look at and listen to them, to consider what their dads’ lives were all about. Even if you end up thinking their kids are self-absorbed jerks, Louis Heriza and William Rasmussen seem like awfully good guys. B

TBS, SUN., MAY 27, 10-11 P.M.

Meryl Streep narrates this look at Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The state’s northern coastal plain, she explains, is not merely a gorgeous stretch of wilderness. It’s also home to at least 160 bird and animal species, as well as the place where more than 180,000 caribou come annually to rest and procreate. Oil companies — in particular, Arco Alaska — want to drill there; conservationists think this would be an ecological disaster. Guess which side Meryl Streep is on?

The World of Audubon special is a conservationist manifesto barely disguised as a nature special: ”Whatever the amount of oil we find beneath the ground,” Streep says at one point, ”it won’t last very long. But the wilderness and wildlife we lose will be gone forever.”

One minute, Arctic Refuge shows us pastoral scenes of fuzzy-wuzzy caribou babies gamboling in brown Alaska grass; the next, we watch in-his-face interviews with James Weeks, senior vice president of Arco Alaska. There’s no way Weeks can look good, let alone defend himself against the charges in Streep’s narration.

She doesn’t shy away from grand statements: ”This is a battle not only to save one wilderness, but to save our one and only planet.” Even if you’re on her side, you want to turn down the sound to look at the scenery and avoid this sort of overwrought melodrama.

The presence of a big name like Streep will attract more viewers than might have tuned in for just an hour of snow and caribou. But the documentary condescends to its audience by trying to manipulate us so baldly. Just the facts, please, Meryl, just the facts. C