Picks and Pans Review: Good for You

updated 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Full disclosure: I have the world's most sedentary job, watching TV all day. My only sport is sitting; I hate sweat. I love fast food—deep-fat fry it and I'll eat it. But I won't eat yogurt because it's still alive. I start each day with cola in the can (and a cigarette). Health-minded I'm not. So here I am watching Lifetime, the cable network devoted to self-improvement, slim-ness and sanity. Disgusting virtues.

You turn on Lifetime and immediately feel as if you've been transported to California, not the fun state with freeways and fast food, but the one where psychobabble is the native tongue. The first thing I hear when I turn on the network is Dr. Henry Grayson, a shrink on The Weight Watchers Magazine Show, droning: "Sometimes it's hard to stay clear because we don't breath." Yes, it is hard to stay clear when you turn purple and pass out. This, a quick mind could see, is an advice show. Next comes Lynn Redgrave, a fine actress who stoops (and stretches and bends and jogs) to become the show's hostess. She humiliates herself introducing sketches that grate on every human sense; she nags you about what you should—and more often shouldn't—eat; she hawks products. This all seems to be proof that health is not entertaining.

But then comes the good news: Weight Watchers Magazine is not continuing past the fall. Also going off is A Whole New You, a show so sweet you want to chug vinegar as hostesses with surgically implanted smiles tell you about the ideal boot wardrobe. Useless as tonsils. And Working Mother, with alleged comedy routines from a poor woman's Joan Rivers, is soon to be unemployed.

Three bad shows get the axe. So the message is clear: Here is a network with taste! Stop the presses and cue the trumpets. That's news.

Like other nets, Lifetime is in reruns until September. So the new, live, call-in shows aren't currently live. And the doomed shows above are still on the air. But by looking at Lifetime now and again come fall, you get to see how a new (year-and-a-half old), specialized cable network improves itself. The network does some things right—and it's smart enough to keep doing them that way.

Don't turn the page or the channel when you hear that the best thing on Lifetime is probably The Richard Simmons Show. Lifetime is filled with nice people, so nice you want to slap them and then slap yourself for thinking such a thing. Simmons is the nicest. He genuinely cares for his viewers. Unlike other exercise shows, the folks on his need exercise—they're fat. But he encourages them; he congratulates folks who've lost 50 pounds even if they're still fat. Simmons opens the show with awful skits, but otherwise he's less hyper and easier to take these days.

Regis Philbin is almost as nice. You can tell because he doesn't roll his eyes when his guests make boors of themselves. Lola Falana says: "I'm a student of higher knowledge. I'll buy 12, 13 books on spiritualism in a twinkle." And Regis says: "Good for you." His Lifestyles is a lightweight Merv Griffin Show that tries to impart information about new foot surgery, for instance, or "nutritional dentistry." The world never runs out of medical trends.

Comic Richard Belzer runs a lightweight David Letterman Show on Hot Properties with guests (B.B. King, Michael York) and phone calls. He's one slice of wry amid Lifetime's white bread.

On America Talks Back, Stanley Siegel treats his callers nicely. He calls them "sweetheart." He talks to women about their lives. "So it's kinda dull down there in Georgia," he says to one caller. "Yes," she says. And Stanley replies: "Isn't that interesting?" That's the problem with talk TV: The camera's staring at you, waiting for you to say something, and sometimes you say stupid things.

Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a show like no other. It takes calls like no other. Dr. Ruth sits sits next to a Milquetoasty guy named Larry Angelo who looks like the Mister Rogers of sex therapy: Can you say o-r-g-a-s-m? They go to the phones. One guy is worried that his...well, his you-know is crooked. "Zome people lean to ze left, zome people lean to ze rrright," Dr. Ruth says, advising him to stand in front of a mirror, naked and tell himself that Dr. Ruth says it's okay to be crooked. Then she cackles. She chats with stars like Burt Reynolds and Ben Vereen about sex. Cyndi Lauper told the good doctor about chasing a guy named Freddie at age 16, hoping he'd do you-know-what with her—"He didn' wanna do it." So Cyndi couldn't lose her...she can't bring herself to say the word "virginity." Dr. Ruth can say that and much more; she says words that would make this piece of paper blush. Good Sex! is the strangest show on television. But you have to say one thing for it: It's a kick to watch.

Those are the sorts of shows Lifetime runs at night: call-in talk shows with nice hosts. During the day, it runs informational shows. Turn Onto Food is a good cooking show. Charlene Prickett's It Figures, one of the network's most popular shows, is your basic exercise number with thin people trying to get thinner. If you really want some fun, record this one on your VCR and then play it at fast-forward for a festival of adrenalin. Mother's Day with Joan (Good Morning America) Lunden gives you useful tips about raising babies and slick interviews with celeb parents like Richard (John-Boy) Thomas with his triplets. What Every Baby Knows features case studies about families and their kids.

Lifetime has the look of a woman's magazine transformed onto video with recipes, romance, diets and advice, advice, advice. In a week I learned how to warm up before I exercise, how to eat at a salad bar, why I shouldn't eat on the run, why I should run, how I could get rid of bunions and walk the same day, how I could have my saliva analyzed to change my diet for happier teeth, why it's okay not to clean my plate, how to exhale, how to polish copper and everything I never wanted to ask about sex. An overdose, perhaps. But Lifetime is filled with useful information. It's entertaining. And the people are all so sweet. So maybe it's not my kind of network. But maybe it should be.

Lifetime is the network of the '80s. It's good medicine. But there's a side effect: Everything on it is so self-centered it makes self-improvement look like a full-time job. It's the nice narcissist's network.

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