Television is a core element of our democratic society. It is only reasonable, then, to expect our President to keep the remote as handy as that whaddayacallit—the atom bomb launcher his aides carry for him. Consider Ronald Reagan. Before a 1983 economic summit, he confessed to his chief of staff that he'd never opened his briefing book the night before. He and Nancy enjoyed a broadcast of The Sound of Music instead. History will not hold this against him. Reagan kept his priorities straight.
In the 1996 race, Bill Clinton, who grew up in a town called Hope watching shows that are now called Nick at Nite, has the edge. At a recent White House conference on children's programming, he recalled that he used to watch Sesame Street with Chelsea. As classic an American experience as being born in a log cabin! He also confessed that, when he met the leaders of San Marino at the Olympics, he knew their place on the globe, thanks to PBS's geography-oriented kids' show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?
And one can imagine him at home, like any other American, zoning out in front of the television. He sits down on the recliner, not bothering to change out of his jogging shorts. During Seinfeld, he grins at small jokes, guffaws at big ones. The only difference from your viewing experience is that you never have an aide rush in waving the latest Star.
Clinton's Republican challenger is at a terrible disadvantage. Bob Dole is 73 and his daughter, Robin Dole, 41. Even if they once convened in the rec room to watch Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the image won't resonate with most voters. Besides, can anyone picture Dole unwinding with the NBC Thursday night lineup? What would that sardonic mind make of Brooke Shields
's yet-to-start comedy Suddenly Susan? Or, for that matter, the famous-for-being-famous person who is the show's star? How would he laugh? Not from the gut. Surely, given his own idiosyncratic wit, not in sync with the studio audience.
As for Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, his numerous guest shots on Larry King Live seem like his sole acquaintance with the medium. The man is obviously unelectable.
PBS (Sun.-Thurs., Sept. 15-19, 8 p.m. ET; Sun.-Tues., Sept. 22-24, 8 p.m. ET)
Produced by Ken Burns (The Civil War) and directed and coproduced by Stephen Ives, this eight-part, 12½-hour documentary is forced to cover a lot of territory, and it spreads itself annoyingly thin. Lewis and Clark, Brigham Young, Sitting Bull, Custer, the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush, the cowboys, the homesteaders—they're all here, served up as an enormous textbook with lavish illustrations and perhaps too much care toward maintaining balance and avoiding argument. Only in its last third—when both the triumphant whites and the defeated Native Americans are already looking backward and constructing their own drastically different histories of the West—does the series finally achieve emotional power. Worth sticking with, but don't complain if your doggies get tired.
WB (Sundays, 8:30 p.m. ET)
Harvey, who last year was on ABC's Me and the Boys, plays a onetime minor R&B star starting over as a music teacher in a Chicago high school. Not the freshest setup, but the burly Harvey, who in the pilot ambles around in a tomato-colored suit, has a knack for the gentle art of the put-down. And his mood is never especially happy or unhappy. That, by TV standards, makes him resemble an actual human being.
WB (Mondays, 8 p.m. ET)
Producer Aaron Spelling, one of the great creative forces of our time (oh, you think I'm kidding, do you?), tries his hand at family drama. Something combining The Waltons and Dynasty might have been nice. Instead, we have Stephen Collins as a minister with a caring, slightly frayed wife (Catherine Hicks) and five children. In the premiere episode, the youngest boy wants a dog, the middle daughter has her first period, and Hicks's parents show up with some awful news. Bland.
UPN (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. ET)
It's heartening to know there are still sitcoms willing to be as stupid as this parody of Star Trek and Star Wars, starring Darryl M. Bell and Flex as two soldiers of fortune patrolling the cosmos in a junk heap. The show might actually work with the right sort of sloppy impudence, but the writing, acting and production feel merely sloppily indifferent.
ABC (Sun., Sept. 22, 9 p.m. ET)
Valerie Bertinelli and Vanessa Redgrave face off in court in a good, no-frills TV movie based on a famous (and recently settled) Virginia custody case. Bertinelli plays a working-class party girl who has a baby and sets up house with a lesbian lover, in that order. Redgrave, her mother, brings in the law to remove the child from this environment. Redgrave could have played the part as a morally righteous monster, but she creates something more complex: a woman whose faith in maternal instinct causes her to harm her own child.
>Profiler vs. Millennium
ON NBC'S PROFILER (COMMENCING SAT., Sept. 21), you can catch Ally Walker as Sam (short for Samantha) Waters, a retired FBI forensic psychologist who was renowned for tracking serial killers—and who still helps incredulous cops solve grisly homicides with her psychic-like ability to visualize a slaying through the killer's eyes.
Or you can wait for Fox's Millennium (premiering Fri., Oct. 25), in which Lance Henriksen plays Frank Black, a retired FBI agent who was renowned for tracking serial killers—and who still helps incredulous cops solve grisly homicides through his psychic-like ability to visualize a slaying through the killer's eyes.
How to account for these almost identical premises? Producers for both shows are as baffled as those poor un-psychic cops. "I had no idea that this other show was out there," says Profiler executive producer Ian Sander, whose response is similar to one given by Millennium's executive producer, Chris Carter (The X-Files), in July: "I didn't even know there was a show called Profiler until well after [our pilot] was done," Carter said.
Perhaps, but check this out: In Millennium, Henriksen relocates with his wife and young daughter after they're menaced by a stalker. And guess what? Profiler's Walker relocates with her young daughter after being stalked.
At this point, all the rival producers can do is accent their shows' dissimilarities. "The obvious difference is that our hero is a single female and theirs is a married male," says Sander. As for Millennium's male hero, Carter noted that tracking serial killers "is just part of what he does." Just what else he does remains a secret for now. However, Profiler's heroine will also branch out by chasing arsonists and kidnappers. Ultimately, Sander says he believes that each show will find its own audience. After all, he points out, "Chicago Hope and ER came out at the same time. I'm sure that was a coincidence."
STRENGTH. MATURITY. BOLDNESS. COMPASSION. Etcetera. In an election year, such words are invoked in the debate over which candidate comes closest to possessing or (better yet) displaying presidential character. This is the standard gauge, and it is irrelevant. If I could sit down with the candidates, I would ask them: Have you ever watched Touched by an Angel? What do you think was the more likely romance—the Professor and Mary Ann or the Professor and Ginger? Have you ever programmed a VCR, or at least tried to? And, as Barbara Walters would ask in followup, did the frustration make you cry?