Ken Tucker weighs in on ''The Beach Boys'' and those Backstreet Boys wannabes

By Ken Tucker
February 22, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Here’s what’s wrong with rock music on TV

Because they both appeal to young, pop-culture-craving audiences, TV and rock & roll have always been forced to cohabit with each other by the czars of commerce. On the one hand, this has resulted in some electrifying moments, such as the Beatles’ first appearance on ”The Ed Sullivan Show” and Elvis Presley’s awe-inspiring 1968 special. On the other hand: ”The Monkees.” Most rock videos. Last year’s miniseries ”The ’60s.”

This past weekend, NBC’s ”Little Richard” turned the great flaming youth of rock & roll into a prime-time straight arrow with a pompadour. Next weekend, ABC’s ”The Beach Boys: An American Family” turns the acid-damaged genius Brian Wilson into a prime-time neurotic who would have been just fine if only his daddy had let him make the music he wanted.

By turning the emotional and physical brutality that Mr. Wilson visited upon his boys into the stuff of after-school-special moralizing about how kids will rebel when a parent is too strict, all the complicated glory of Brian’s ambitions (he wanted to write tunes to attract beach bunnies AND be artier than the Beatles) is lost. The only redeeming quality of ”The Beach Boys” is the performance by Matt Letscher as Mike Love. He’s got Love’s stage demeanor — his smarmy hip wiggling, his smarmy smile, his smarmy patter — down cold.

Southern California beach music has been examined better on TV once before. In 1978, the TV movie ”Dead Man’s Curve” actually managed to make intriguing the lives of Jan and Dean, the duo whose 1963 No. 1 hit ”Surf City” was cowritten by Brian Wilson.

What TV does best is what it excels at in other areas, which is parody and irony. Thus the best example of rock & roll television isn’t these two network films, but Monday night’s boy-band epic, ”2Gether.” It chronicles the rise of some fictitious Backstreet Boys wannabes, but it conveys the pure pleasure of harmonizing and synchronized dancing while making us giggle at star-making excesses. In ”The Beach Boys,” Mike Love says of the screaming crowds, ”This must be what it was like when Elvis started!” No, it was probably more like the bewildering yet purposeful chaos that the non-group ”2gether” inspires.