REMEMBER ALL THAT FUSS ABOUT daytime talk shows? Remember the uproar about bogus guests and killings inspired by onscreen confessions? Remember how ratings were sinking, advertisers were defecting, programs were being canceled and, after virtues czar William Bennett started complaining about "perpetrators of cultural rot," the shows were promising to clean up their acts? Well, have they?

A one-day survey gives a mixed answer. At the completely harmless end is Gordon Elliott, with a cheerful, albeit unwatchable, program about women harassed by their in-laws. Equally inoffensive is Maury Povich, with a show about female record holders, ranging from weight lifters to the world's fastest sheet changers. Jenny Jones, once at the epicenter of controversy, now does frothy programs like "Talented Twins," and Mark Wahlberg, Ricki Lake and Carnie Wilson all check in with generic episodes about eating disorders, youthful pregnancies, wacky marriage proposals.

But anyone who thinks that talk show hosts have toned down their shows would be wise to check out Oprah Winfrey (serial rapists), Leeza Gibbons (man tries to kill wife with rat poison) and Geraldo Rivera. While Jerry Springer's jousting with clownish Klansmen dressed up like the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia and Richard Bey's stripper-tells-mom-what-she-really-does-for-a-living-on-live-TV both have a moldy quality, Geraldo keeps finding new, more creative ways to make the viewer squirm.

This time, Rivera's guests include not only a couple whose daughter was murdered by a 12-year-old boy, but the killer's parents—and youthful Jonah himself, direct by satellite feed from prison. As usual, there are tears, accusations, crowd hysteria and pop psychology. The payoff comes when Rivera, who has publicly described some of his new shows as "noble," tells the killer to straighten up and fly right. He finishes by saying, "Jonah, good luck." Jonah, good luck?

Has daytime TV cleaned up its act? A bit. Can anyone touch Geraldo Rivera for pure sleaze? No one's even in the same ballpark.

HBO (Sat, May 18, 9 p.m. ET)

C

It is generally agreed that Marilyn Monroe had a quality that no other star has ever possessed. Mira Sorvino, Academy Award or no, does not have that quality. Neither does Ashley Judd, who plays Marilyn's alter ego, Norma Jean, in a series of weird blackouts. With lots of primping, jiggling, lingerie, bathing suits, swearing, bisexuality and drugs, this grim, leering pseudobiography makes it easier to understand why Joe DiMaggio loathed Hollywood.

CBS (Sun., May 19, 9 p.m. ET)

A-

An expertly crafted docudrama about the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge involving Idaho separatist Randy Weaver and his family, the film spends the first two hours making the Weavers look terrible and the second two making the federal government look worse. Randy Quaid, playing the oddly passive Weaver, does his usual fine work, but Laura Dern is hypnotically unnerving as Vicki Weaver, a survivalist convinced that Judgment Day is at hand.

NBC (Mon., May 20, 8 p.m. ET)

B+

The kids are grown, the house is on the market, the nest is empty, the series is over. In this emotional one-hour special, Will Smith does everything to prevent the house from being sold, having no prospects of his own. With guests including Gary Coleman and a final Tom Jones impression by Alfonso Ribeiro, this is a satisfying send-off to an entertaining series.

>Tony Dow

BROTHER ON ANOTHER PLANET

A MORPHING SNAKELIKE CREATURE, AN exploding coffee cup, a phone booth materializing out of the ether—these are just some of the special effects featured in the two-hour Fox sci-fi TV-movie Doctor Who (May 14, 8 p.m. ET), based on the long-running BBC series. But perhaps the show's biggest eye-opener is offscreen: 51-year-old Tony Dow, Leave It to Beaver's older brother Wally Cleaver, creating the effects in a Vancouver editing room.

That's right—Dow, who played Wally from 1957 to 1963 on the classic sitcom, in the Disney Channel's 1985 series Still the Beaver and in The New Leave It to Beaver, which ran on WTBS from 1986 to 1989—is now a visual-effects producer. But it's only one of many hats he has worn. After the original show ended, Dow acted in soaps, joined the National Guard in 1965 and in the '70s did dinner theater with Beaver Jerry Mathers and worked as a housing contractor. Dow also suffered from clinical depression, which he believes is at least partly inherited. "I still take medication," he says. "It stops the downward spiral."

What he really wanted to do, he says, was direct—"from the time I-was 16 on." He finally got his chance with The New Beaver and in the early '90s directed episodes of Coach, Get a Life and other series. Producing for cable came next (the Sci-Fi Channel's It Came from Outer Space 2), which led to his interest in special effects.

"I've been in the business for 38 years," says Dow, who lives in Los Angeles with his second wife, Lauren (his son Christopher, 23, is a fireman-in-training), and still keeps in touch with costars Mathers, Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver) and Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell). "I'm enjoying myself and not worrying about what I'm doing tomorrow. I'd say I'm very lucky."

  • Contributors:
  • Stanley Young.