PBS (Mon.-Tues., Feb. 23-24, 9 p.m. ET)

B

When scandal broke out in Ronald Reagan's second White House term, then-Vice President George Bush denied involvement in the Iran-Contra scheme of the mid-'80s, explaining he was "out of the loop." One might even say he was out of the picture, going by this 4½-hour Reagan biography on The American Experience. Bush rates only a couple of passing references in the film, which neglects to point out that he served eight years as Vice President, or that he ran against Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. And the omissions don't stop there. Nancy Reagan talks on-camera about her husband's love for his California ranch and his brave humor after John Hinckley's assassination attempt. But when the narration asserts that Mrs. Reagan led the move to oust Chief of Staff Donald Regan and unsuccessfully pushed her husband to fire Secretary of State George Shultz, we hear nothing from the former First Lady. If she refused to comment on controversial matters, tell us so.

Fortunately there's much of value in Reagan, from candid observations by his son Ron to the summit memories of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The documentary closes with a poignant but discreet handling of Reagan's affliction with Alzheimer's disease. Reagan is worthwhile, though frustratingly incomplete.

NBC (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

B

NBC has been criticized for shifting this sitcom from Sunday, where it prospered last season, to a Wednesday battle zone opposite ABC's The Drew Carey Show. In partial atonement the network aired a heavily promoted, hour-long episode after the Super Bowl ended on Jan. 25. Packed with supermodel guest stars, the special program was not first-rate 3rd Rock, but it drew a level of attention that the third-year show still largely deserves.

High-pitched farce is 3rd Rock's stock-in-trade, and sometimes it just wears us out. But we marvel at how skillfully the writers and directors keep the balls in the air as they juggle as many as three situations per episode. When they have an exceptional idea—like jury duty for Dick (John Lithgow), the alien explorer disguised as a fussy, self-centered Ohio physics professor—we find ourselves wishing they would stick to it for a full half hour. Usually, though, three rings are necessary to maintain the circus atmosphere. Lithgow vaults gleefully over the top, and Kristen Johnston is consistently funny as Sally, Dick's alien lieutenant posing as his sexy (but not exactly sweet) human sister. The rest of the extraterrestrial unit—squinty oddball Harry (French Stewart) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the alien adult stuck in a human teen's body—don't do as much for us. But may the expedition continue.

Showtime (Sat., Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m. ET)

B-

Set in rural Florida, this family drama retains warmth even when it loses credibility. A poor white woman (Helen Shaver), working seven days a week to support her three kids, grows concerned when they start spending most of their time with a better-off black farm family, whose matriarch (Diahann Carroll) appears more suited for the country club than the country. The film takes a didactic tone on racial matters, but the growing friendship between Carroll's restless adult daughter (Tisha Campbell) and Shaver's adolescent girl (Kristin Fairlie) gives The Sweetest Gift something pleasing to offer.

HBO (Sat, Feb. 28, 8 p.m. ET)

B+

Defense Department overspending on an armored personnel carrier seems like an unpromising subject for any TV movie that aspires to entertain. But The Pentagon Wars, based on retired Col. James G. Burton's non-fiction book about a rogue white elephant called the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (the project's estimated cost to taxpayers: $14 billion over 17 years), is tons more fun than a General Accounting Office investigation. Frasier star Kelsey Grammer is a hilarious combination of pomposity and crudity as Army General Partridge, a composite character who will pull any string, fudge any fact to keep the Bradley on-track over the reasonable objections of Burton (Cary Elwes), an Air Force officer with a mandate to monitor weapons testing. The film would deserve a medal for satire if it didn't turn too serious in saluting Burton for his lonely heroism under bureaucratic fire. The point could be made without making this into Mr. Smith Goes to the Pentagon.

>Halle Berry

PORTRAIT IN BLACK & WHITE

IN OPRAH WINFREY PRESENTS: The Wedding (a two-part ABC mini-series airing Feb. 22 and 23 at 9 p.m. ET), Halle Berry plays a well-to-do black woman who's ready to tie the knot with a down-and-out white jazz musician (Eric Thal), when a wealthy black rival (Carl Lumbly) tries to woo her away. But in real life, Berry, 31, divorced since last June from Cleveland Indians outfielder David Justice, is hardly eager to walk down the aisle again anytime soon. "I haven't soured on marriage. I just picked the wrong one," says Berry, who lives alone in a three-bedroom home in the Hollywood Hills. These days she is "just dating around."

Still, she feels she can identify with The Wedding's interracial theme. Born in Cleveland to a white mother, Judith Ann Hawkins, and a black father, Jerome Berry, who left the family when Halle was 4, she remembers how she and her older sister Heidi were taunted as "zebras" by schoolmates of both races. "People say to me, 'You're just as much black as white,' " Berry relates. "I say, 'Look at me. When I walk out into the world, I'm seen as a black woman.' That's the group of people I relate to."

But it's not the only one. Berry, who just wrapped Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, a big-screen rock and roll drama due this fall, is also, she admits, "a part of Hollywood." Having been accepted by her showbiz peers, she says, "I feel like sometimes I'm not as much a victim of [prejudice] as black people in America who are maybe not celebrities." Making The Wedding, she says, "sort of brought it all back to me."

  • Contributors:
  • Johnny Dodd.