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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Webster': A Primer On Sex Abuse

January 24, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The remarkable thing about television is that it doesn't have to be good to be good.

A series, for example, has a regular core audience that it can count on week after week. That's what advertisers look at when they buy TV time. They know that a show watched predominantly by elderly viewers is tailor-made for commercials selling denture cream. They know that a football telecast is a good place to sell beer.

The same applies to the programs themselves, when the producers want to deliver a message designed specifically for their primary viewers.

The case in point: Friday's "Webster" on ABC (8:30 p.m., Channels 7, 3, 10, 42). The topic: child sexual abuse.

Good? No. Effective? Very.

"Webster" is a popular weekly comedy from Paramount Television whose primary audience is kids. In a derivation of NBC's "Diff'rent Strokes," a white couple (Alex Karras and Susan Clark) have taken in a wee black orphan (Emmanuel Lewis, 13) in another TV chapter of whites showing blacks the true way.

But enough about that. What "Webster" viewers will see Friday is Webster witnessing a female classmate apparently being fondled by a male teacher. Webster is so traumatized by the incident that he is terrified of returning to school, fearing that he will be next. His parents find out, and the half-hour segment happily concludes with Webster, the victim and other children hearing an expert explain "good touches" versus "bad touches," and what to do about the latter.

The execution of the idea is poor. But in this case, who cares?

The story is typically manipulative, maudlin and incomplete. We never see the teacher, and his offense is not really specified except for a blurry reference to tickling. In fact, what he does is so vague that you fear some young viewers will draw the wrong conclusions from this and wind up thinking that a friendly pat on the behind is criminal.

The problem is also too swiftly and neatly resolved (abetted by classroom dialogue that sounds as if it were lifted verbatim from a 1984 public-TV documentary series on the subject), ending with lots of smiling faces and no indication of the fate of the teacher. In real life, he would not magically disappear. There would be charges, some kind of formal or informal judiciary process and the kind of lingering pain almost unknown to half-hour comedies.

Even with all that, however, Friday's "Webster" is still terrific. Given the national epidemic of child-molestation charges, led by those incredible allegations made about the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, there can be no higher cause for TV than this "Webster" episode.

What better way to reach children and some of their parents with critical information than through the TV they routinely watch? This half-hour is a valuable primer, and the execution is far less important than the potential impact of the message.

Webster will show up in the next episode cleansed of the past, the terror of this week unrealistically erased from his consciousness as if it never happened. On to the next story and the next joke. TV comedies have no memory.

But their viewers do. And that's the point.

Once a TV taboo, sexual abuse of children is now tube-tested. Last season's "Something About Amelia" on ABC was a landmark TV drama about the subject, and coming March 5 on CBS is "Kids Don't Tell," a story about a film maker whose family relations are dramatically altered by a documentary he is making about child sexual abuse.

"Webster" is not even the first comedy to touch on the subject, following by two seasons a two-part "Diff'rent Strokes" episode that covered similar ground. Police in several cities reported making arrests based on charges made by children who had watched the "Diff'rent Strokes" treatment.

And more recently, sexual abuse was the theme of the Saturday morning kids' show, "Pryor's Place" on CBS.

TV comedies continue--although usually not successfully--to be a forum for serious topics, typified by Wednesday's upcoming episode of "The Facts of Life" on NBC that focuses on cocaine addiction.

The debate over whether there is room in TV comedy to be serious--when there is rarely room even for humor--is an ongoing one.

"MASH" was a brilliant, pointed comedy within a larger tragedy, showing humor buffering the horror of war. There also was no more celebrated episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" than one about the demise of Chuckles the Clown, highlighted by a funeral sequence that just put you away.

When it comes to making serious points with TV comedy, however, you start with Norman Lear. "Maude" once did a side-splitting episode about death that outdid even Chuckles, and Archie Bunker was regularly into heavy issues ranging from racism to rape, some more skillfully rendered than others.

And the late, great "Buffalo Bill" on NBC aired an outstanding episode on abortion that was hardly comedy.

Far more often, though, funny and sad clash in TV comedy of the 1980s. The creators and actors are rarely up to the challenge, so you wish they wouldn't even try.

In Lear's TV heyday, his shows were remarkably adept at mixing the serious with the light, soaring to a level of intelligence and creativity seldom matched in recent years. Friday's "Webster" doesn't get there, either. Yet, in its own way, it could be just as important.

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