Television reviews for week of June 1, 1990

Television reviews for week of June 1, 1990

ABC, THUR., JUNE 7, 9-10 P.M.

Though it’s not great art and its entertainment value is minimal, The American Red Cross Emergency Test is still highly recommended television, because this is a show that really could save your life.

John Ritter introduces a series of dramatized emergencies — a child touching exposed electrical wires, a diner choking in a restaurant, a family trapped in a burning house. The idea is to test your knowledge of what you should do in such situations; the action is freeze-framed midway through each event so you can pick one of the multiple-choice answers.

The dramatizations are clear and not sensationalized; to keep you watching, TV celebrities like Don Johnson, Joan Lunden, Alan Thicke, and Julia Child read the questions. Ritter proves to be a good teacher as he guides us through a series of emergency procedures.

The American Red Cross Emergency Test is an exemplary use of prime-time. I took the test as I watched, and my middling score fell under the rank of ”Could Be Better Prepared” — hey, story of my life. I’m signing up for a CPR course. A

(ABC, SUN., JUNE 3, 8:30-11 P.M.)

This special was first broadcast in February and now stands as a fitting tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.’s show-business legacy. The show boasts a remarkable guest list that includes Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Bill Cosby, and George Bush. Davis, who had recently undergone an operation for throat cancer, looks fragile but cheerful; for the show’s two and a half hours, he sits in the front row of Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, stroking a wispy salt-and-pepper beard as the stars pay homage.

This sort of show could have been insufferable, of course — an endless parade of fawning and self-congratulation. Goldie Hawn typifies the latter. ”You know, Sammy,” she begins her spiel, ”when I think of you, I think of me.” Davis, to his credit, looks at Hawn as if he’s never seen her before in his life. Then Hawn recites a poem. Nearly as deadly is Tony Danza tap-dancing. How did Tony Danza end up on this special?

But the rest of this celebration is fascinating, offering a relaxed, extremely funny Eddie Murphy as master of ceremonies and a series of heartfelt performances. Ella Fitzgerald’s continuing vocal strength and skill moves Davis — and much of the rest of the audience — to tears. Stevie Wonder previews a new song called ”Truth Is in the Light” that’s a rousing, pop-gospel beauty; Michael Jackson belts out a new song called ”You Were There” that’s slow and maudlin; as a bizarre climax, he grabs his crotch.

In general, this glossy tribute is well paced and, thanks mostly to Murphy, never unduly sentimental. It makes a case for Sammy Davis Jr. as a man who did a little of everything well, and with enormous charm. Then, too, the show provides a good opportunity to watch a number of performers rarely seen on TV these days. It’s as entertaining an epitaph as Davis could have wanted. A-

PBS, MON., JUNE 4, 10-11 P.M.

The first Moscow art auction conducted by Sotheby’s occurred in the summer of 1988. In USSR Art, director Barbara Herbich uses the event to explore the effect of glasnost on the arts in the Soviet Union.Herbich doesn’t spend much time at the auction, where about 100 paintings were sold. Instead, she focuses on the Soviet artists whose work was represented there. The vast majority are painters who, only months before, had been creating art that was considered potentially subversive and therefore illegal. Exhilarated by their new freedom, they are eager to chat, joke, and theorize — to define themselves in the context of art history.

”We have,” painter Yuri Albert notes, ”no connection to any art outside our border,” and looking at the work up for sale at the auction, it’s clear what he means. The paintings by Albert and his colleagues tend to be jumbles of every imaginable style; within a single large canvas, loopy surrealism, grave realism, and mysterious abstraction can coexist. The result is enormously energetic and charmingly naive.

So, too, are the painters themselves, who suddenly find their work, as a narrator observes, ”the latest Russian export to the West, like caviar and vodka.” The artists are goggle-eyed at the amount of money Westerners are willing to spend on art.

Some of them don’t like what they see. ”This enormous, sparkling world turns out to be too much for us,” the artist Svetlana Kopystianskaya says. She finds the invasion of Sotheby’s and its Western audience of buyers distracting and perhaps pernicious in its effect on Soviet art.

But other artists disagree. They revel in their newfound fame and money, and welcome the opportunity to compete in the international art market. In USSR Art, the opinions are as bold and clashing as the painters’ styles. B


Talk about laboring in obscurity: Jay Tarses, an acclaimed comedy writer- producer-director, and Blair Brown, an enormously likable and skilled actress, have consigned themselves to the Lifetime network to pursue their stubbornly idiosyncratic vision of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.

Molly, you may remember, was the highly praised, low-rated dramedy that NBC canceled without remorse in 1988. Feeling that Molly had more to say to her loyal following, Tarses and Brown signed on with Lifetime to make new shows. It’s highly unusual for a network show to shift over to cable to continue its run.

But it has paid off, aesthetically at least: Molly Dodd is now a better show than it was on commercial television. During her NBC run, Molly was introspective to the point of solipsism — or, to put it more bluntly, she talked too much, and to herself as well.

In her role, Blair Brown never seemed to stop analyzing aloud every visit from her mother, every purchase she made, and every meal she ate. Her chatter was quick and clever, but it was also exhausting and, ultimately, depressing. All this time to talk suggested that she didn’t have a life to live.

On Lifetime, however, Molly has been given a life. She has a job (editor at a New York publishing house), boyfriends (a bunch of them, as opposed to the morose ex-husband she had on NBC), and a baby (rapidly growing in her stomach). Indeed, the central drama in the show these days is: Who’s the father? It’s almost certainly not a plot line that Tarses and Brown would have been allowed to explore on commercial TV, but they’ve handled it with finesse and surprising humor on cable.

I’m hoping the dad proves to be Nathaniel Hawthorne, Molly’s black detective boyfriend. Quite aside from the fact that an interracial relationship is unheard-of on series TV, actor Richard Lawson is warm and charming. B

SHOWTIME, SAT., JUNE 2, 10-10:30 P.M.
SHOWTIME, SAT., JUNE 2, 10:30-11 P.M.

Heed well the subtitle of Robert Schimmel’s half-hour. His performance, taped in his native New York, is pretty hard core: lots of four-letter words, lots of raunch about sex, but unhappily not lots of laughs. Actually, Schimmel is pretty dull. He does essentially a filthy version of Woody Allen’s old stand-up routines, presenting himself as a lonely urban neurotic searching for companionship. When he delivers a punch line, Schimmel has a habit of staring at the floor; given the explicitness of his material, such modesty seems only proper.

A Pair of Jokers teams Bill Engvall and Rosie O’Donnell for no apparent reason other than the fact that both have very thick accents — Engvall’s is Texan, O’Donnell’s New York.

During his portion of the half-hour, Engvall trades a bit too much on his twang, spinning aimless yarns and using dumb hicks as the butt of too many jokes. He’s affable but never hilarious.

O’Donnell’s set proves her to be the best performer of the trio. With her wide eyes, round face, and mouth like a cherry Lifesaver, she has a cartoonish innocence that disappears when she starts talking.

O’Donnell, who’s also a VJ on cable’s VH-1, chats about everything from her lower-middle-class, Irish-American upbringing to the comic contradictions inherent in being a Catholic feminist. Unlike Schimmel, she has thoughts on subjects other than sex; unlike Engvall, her stories have a point. After hearing her 15 minutes of prickly observations, you’ll want to hear more Hard Core in the Big Apple: C
A Pair of Jokers: B-