Picks and Pans Review: Herman Melville, Damned in Paradise

updated 05/20/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/20/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Wednesday, May 15, 9 p.m. ET)

The start of this documentary about one of America's greatest literary talents is so stirring it will make you want to go out and buy Moby Dick and Typee and sit by the fireplace (no matter how hot it is outside) reading and reading. John Huston narrates and F. Murray (Amadeus) Abraham reads Melville's wonderful words as you see the scenes he wrote about in majestic, mysterious Polynesia. Melville sailed on whalers himself; he jumped ship and was held captive by man-eating natives; he witnessed mutinies. His life was as dramatic as his books, and the show gets that across beautifully. The scenery is sigh inspiring. At first even the talking heads—experts pontificating for the camera—are entertaining. An anthropologist practically licks his lips as he gleefully describes how cannibals didn't boil their man-size meals, but baked them in earth ovens, "a delicious way of doing it." After an hour or so, though, Melville runs out of scenes to shoot; you've seen a few too many static shots of sailing-ship masts and heard too many talking heads. That's the chronic problem with TV: It has to show you something every minute. Turn on Melville anyway. You can always change the channel. But don't miss the first half, at least—it's downright inspiring.

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