American Movie Classics (Fri., March 15, 8 P.M. ET)
Shazam! This wonderful cavalcade of clips resurrects Republic, the prolific little studio that spawned such Saturday-matinee superheros as Captain Marvel, Tiger Woman, Crash Corrigan, Zorro and Dick Tracy. Republic did pretty well with features as well, churning out 50 or so a year during its heyday in the late '30s and '40s.
Watching this documentary makes it evident that the filmmakers at Republic, working under severe budget and time constraints (some films were shot in as little as six days), indelibly influenced television's prefabricated storytelling techniques.
Republic owed most of its success to a bunkhouse full of cowboys, including Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Don "Red" Barry, Monte Hale and John Wayne. The Duke made 33 films for the studio, not all of them quickie Westerns. The Quiet Man (see box) was a Republic film.
PBS (Check local listings)
Lampoon lovers will revel in this workman-like tribute to Rocky and His Friends, the animated series that hit the air in 1959 and remains to this day—sorry, Simpsons—the most subversive, quippy cartoon series TV has ever seen.
The gang's all here: Rocket J. Squirrel, Bullwinkle J. Moose, Boris, Natasha, Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody and all. While original narrator William Conrad is on hand to lend a note of continuity to the special, the cartoon series' anarchic masterminds, producer Jay Ward and writer Bill Scott, aren't adequately profiled. The program should, however, whet your appetite for the recently released six-cassette videotape collection of Rocky shows.
The Family Channel (Sat., March 16, 8 P.M. ET)
Sarah Sawatsky, who appears in the Family Channel's Bordertown series, plays a young teen whose brainiac tendencies make her the target of teasing and distrust from her peers. "Miss Alien Nation," they call her. She takes that reputation to a flamboyant extreme, worrying her dad, Edward (Beauty and the Beast) Albert, a politico who is fighting to save their town from developers. Albert's real-life dad, Eddie, of Green Acres fame, plays an idiosyncratic scientist who is the girl's closest companion.
The presentation isn't that clever, but it isn't condescending either. The story is a juvenile fantasy with many facets: gentle humor, a little unconsummated romance and an environmental message.
HBO (Sat., March 16, 8 P.M. ET)
Lynn (HeartBeat) Whitfield portrays Baker (1906-75), the black showgirl and exotic dancer from St. Louis who became the toast of Paris in the '20s.
The movie comes alive sporadically in its production numbers, when a seminude Whitfield performs the Banana Dance and other, then scandalous, routines that made Baker an international sensation.
The rest of her life is presented as a series of bathetic posters: Baker as World War II Resistance heroine, Baker as equal-rights crusader, Baker as adopt-a-tribe philanthropist. That shallow, melodramatic treatment makes her remarkable experiences seem curiously uninteresting and wastes a strong supporting cast, including Kene Holliday, Louis Gossett Jr, Rubén Blades, David Dukes and Craig T. Nelson.
Whitfield brings enormous zest and easy charm to the title role, particularly in the early years. But the movie's more histrionic moments—such as one where she finds out she'll never bear children—are beyond her. That scene occurs as Baker lies in a hospital bed in Casablanca in 1942 in what her doctor diagnoses as "a deep malaise." The condition must be contagious. The film suffers from it too.
TNT (Sun., March 17, 8 P.M. ET)
It's 1492 in the city states of Italy, and life for young Michelangelo isn't exactly a stroll through the piazza.
Starring in this soporific portrait of an artist as a young man is Mark (Young Catherine) Frankel, who looks like Ken Wahl and is about as expressive—no agony, no ecstasy, just glowering. First he loses his patron (Ian Holm as Lorenzo di Medici), then he's poleaxed with passion for the beauteous Onoria (Ornella Muti) and beset with guilt because of a stern father (John Hallam). He's forced to compete with Leonardo da Vinci (John Glover) and Raphael (Andrea Prodan) and to battle with Pope Julius II (F. Murray Abraham).
The canvas of his life is entirely too busy. The resulting mini, which concludes the following night at the same time, is choppy, sloppy (you can hear a car's reverse gear whining during one scene in a chapel), hard to follow and dull enough to be about almost any old ceiling painter.
CBS (Sun., March 17, 9 P.M. ET)
In a vivid if vacuous Western, Rick (Lonesome Dove) Schroder is a cowboy running from a bloodthirsty posse after a morally defensible murder. He's helped by a wily trapper, Wilford Brimley.
Though Brimley brings his usual folksy charm to the role of the cagey old coot, his grandfatherly familiarity—he doesn't even alter his usual eyeglasses—and his age (56) make him a mite implausible as a tough river rat. Nobody else in the cast registers too high on the buckaroo believability scale either, including Adrienne Barbeau as the madam of a backwoods bordello.
Somehow the casting and lack of verisimilitude don't destroy the movie's ability to entertain. Elements of burlesque humor and a twist ending set this apart from a standard horse opera.
ABC (Tuesdays, 10 P.M. ET)
We're looking at the Robert Urich syndrome here. Treat Williams, like Urich, isn't a commanding presence on the big screen, but put him on the tube—last season's mini, Drug Wars, for instance—and his magnetism grows appreciably.
In his first series, inspired by the film True Believer, Williams plays a former student activist who is now a firebrand lawyer fighting for lost causes.
Corey Parker, who played Melissa's younger lover on thirtysomething—the show this trial series replaces until late April—plays Williams's junior associate, Annabelle (Not Necessarily the News) Gurwitch his harried secretary, and Sydney (Hooperman) Walsh his rather too-gorgeous investigator. It's an attractive cast, yet it lacks chemistry.
The show is a male version of The Trials of Rosie O'Neill: predictable courtroom TV partial to last-minute surprise witnesses. Its principal asset is its star.
>CLASSIC FILMS Faith and begorra, The Quiet Man is back. Director John Ford's emerald masterpiece (TBS, Sun., March 17, 10:35 A.M. ET) is traditionally shown on St. Patrick's Day. Another hearty perennial, The Wizard of Oz, airs oh CBS (Tues., March 19, 8 P.M. ET).
>Bravo's arts series The South Bank Show offers a special, Shamrock and Roll (Thurs., March 14, 8 P.M. ET). Fitting contemporary Irish music to Ireland's cultural heritage, it features interviews with and performances by Van Morrison, Sinéad O'Connor, U2 and others. Elsewhere, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy, bluesmen of disparate vintage (ages 37 and 54), each turn in sweaty sets on an excellent Austin City Limits (PBS, check local listings), which also contains a fiery filmed remembrance of guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. On Sunday (March 17, 9 P.M. ET) the Disney Channel presents Billy Joel in Concert at Yankee Stadium, a special that is lively both visually and aurally.
Television is the most boundlessly nostalgic of mediums, perhaps because it has such a short memory. So when Andy Griffith brought back his old Mayberry sidekick, Don Knotts, to appear on his new show, Matlock, it set off this season's avalanche of minireunions. Barbara (I Dream of Jeannie) Eden joined Larry Hagman on Dallas. Cagney and Lacey were together again when Tyne Daly showed up in a guest spot on Sharon Gless's Trials of Rosie O'Neill. This week (March 18, 8:30 P.M. ET), Simon & Simon reincorporate when Jameson Parker turns up on Gerald McRaney's solid CBS sitcom, Major Dad, as Polly's old flame. If this trend continues, you can expect to see Tony Kubek elbowing aside Bryant Gumbel to join his old baseball-announcing partner, Joe Garagiola, on the Today show couch.