How good a TV year has it been?
Fortunately, there was far more to 1985 than "OceanQuest," "America," "Inday," "I Challenge You," "Hollywood Wives," "Lady Blue," "West 57th," "The Borgias," "All-Star Salute to Dutch Reagan" and "Lace II." They would make any Bottom-10 list.
The hardest part about compiling a Top-10 list is narrowing the choices to 10. This may not have been a vintage time for programs introduced, but 1985 was no slouch, either.
The "almost" category includes HBO's "Finnegan Begin Again," highlighted by the delightful pairing of Robert Preston and Mary Tyler Moore, and the cerebral and somber British production of "Man From Moscow" that aired on PBS.
You could also make a case for Showtime's highly credible rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night." And the powerful "El Norte" didn't make the first 10 only because its theatrical release preceded its debut on "American Playhouse."
Other near misses include "The Skin Horse," a British documentary about disabilities that aired on PBS, and "Main Street," NBC's topical and intelligent afternoon series for kids that displays Bryant Gumbel at his best.
And now, a little traveling music, please, as we move on to 1985's swellest of the swell. On-a-scale-of-1-to-10-with-10-being-besssssssst, here are the 10s. Read!
--"The Jewel in the Crown," PBS. All right, I'm cheating. British Granada TV's adaptation of Paul Scott's "The Raj Quartet"--perhaps the most magnificent and challenging drama ever produced for TV--made its "Masterpiece Theater" debut at the end of 1984. Yet 12 of its 14 episodes aired in 1985, which is good enough for me.
Glittering scripts, exquisite staging and heroic performances--led by Tim Pigott-Smith as the racist Ronald Merrick--were fused into a storytelling masterwork that captured the writhing finale of British imperialism in India.
There was an undertone of foreboding and unpredictability in "The Jewel in the Crown" that kept you on edge, and the plotting and characters were so layered and complex that missing just one episode put you too far behind in the story to ever catch up. For once, the reviewer's overused superlative truly applies.
--"Love Is Never Silent," NBC. Mare Winningham, Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet excelled in a bittersweet and illuminating story about the shifting tides and tones connecting a deaf couple and their hearing daughter. Joseph Sargent boldly directed a production that exploded myths and spoke with piercing clarity while redefining communication.
--"The Execution of Raymond Graham," ABC. The network's first live drama in 25 years (but beamed to the West Coast via videotape, of course) turned out to be a suspenseful, eloquent and evocative story that found value even in the life of a convicted murderer who had killed his victim as casually as one brushes off lint. Rare TV from producer David W. Rintels, director Daniel Petrie, writer Mel Frohman and a fine, fine cast.
--"Death of a Salesman," CBS. Dustin Hoffman soared as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's tragedy about a man whose ordinary life falls far short of his grand dreams. This three-hour TV version of a Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" was directed by Volker Schlondorff and also featured fine supporting performances by Kate Reid and John Malkovich. A knockout.
--"The Fire Unleashed," ABC. If three-hour documentaries become a permanent part of the TV landscape, the thanks go to a series of ABC News "Closeup" programs like this extraordinary one on nuclear power. Reported and compellingly written by Marshall Frady, it may have left you in a partial daze at times. Through the creative blending of pictures and words, however, it defined a seemingly unfathomable subject in descriptive lay language. It demonstrated, finally, that there are few more powerful and positive forces on TV than the documentary unleashed.
--"Nightline," ABC. Ho hum, right? Year after year, "Nightline" is among TV's best and brightest, right? Usually a good half-hour, right? Last March 20, though, it was more than merely good. It was remarkable.
The occasion was the first night in a week of Ted Koppel-anchored "Nightlinecasts" from South Africa. "Nightline" arranged a historic electronic meeting between South Africa Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha in Capetown and Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel laureate and outspoken black Anglican opponent of the white South African government's apartheid policies, in Johannesburg.
They had never met. Yet here were these two men from different universes--the franchised and the disenfranchised, the have and the have-not--debating South Africa's oppressive racial policy on American TV, sometimes via a split screen as if they were side by side.