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Tv Review : Warts-and-all View Of The Medical Profession

February 11, 1986|LEE MARGULIES | Times Staff Writer

Like father, like son. Well, almost. In "Vital Signs," a new TV movie on CBS tonight at 9 (Channels 2 and 8), both are proud, self-centered doctors, but while the father is an alcoholic, the son is a drug addict. "Everything I am is because of him," the son remarks naively.

"Vital Signs" has its heart in the right place, showing that respectable, highly regarded professionals can have the same problems with alcohol and drug abuse that any other socio-economic group does, and it is competently made. But it's hard to get very involved in the film.

For one thing, it comes just five weeks after "Shattered Spirits," an ABC movie that was much more intense and much more realistic in its depiction of the effects of alcoholism on a family. The same pattern of lies, denial and covering-up is explored here.

For another, the characters in "Vital Signs" are a rather unlikable lot. The father (Ed Asner) is a stubborn, domineering man who is not above using his only son's drug addiction (to morphine and amphetamines) to his own advantage. His wife (Barbara Barrie) is meek and unwilling to confront his drinking problem. Their son (Gary Cole) arrogantly believes he can coax his father off the bottle even as he repeats the same mistakes in his own life.

The one character who is supposed to engage our sympathies is the son's wife (Kate McNeil), who boldly challenges the other three to stop pretending problems don't exist. But Lee Hutson has written her more as an anchor of support and wisdom than a real person; she bravely faces up to the crisis of her husband's drug addiction but not to the fact that their marriage is steeped in deception.

Producer-director Stuart Millar gets solid performances from his cast, but he undermines his own cause by staging the movie's most compelling scene--when the father and son finally confront one another about their respective addictions--in a row boat, so that Asner and Cole bob up and down on the screen as they have it out.

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