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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'World' Offers Little Sense Of Way We Were

September 25, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Good luck," Bill Cosby said. "I'll be watching."

It was Tuesday night and Cosby--TV's hottest performer and star of TV's hottest series, "The Cosby Show" on NBC--had just said goodby to Linda Ellerbee, co-host/writer of "Our World," an ABC News series arriving at 8 tonight on Channels 3, 7 and 10.

Opposite "The Cosby Show."

Cosby is guest-hosting "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" this week, and in an incredibly brash move reflecting the enormous confidence of a winner, the competing Ellerbee was booked as a guest on his first night.

Ellerbee and Cosby kidded each other, and she gave him an "Our World" baseball cap that she urged him to wear on his show. "The nice thing about being opposite you," Ellerbee said about her series, "is that people will know when it's on."

But will they watch?

Based on tonight's disappointing "Our World" debut, perhaps NBC was not being so brash in booking Ellerbee after all.

Not that anyone expects the hourlong "Our World" to dent NBC's hour combo of "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties" or to outdraw "Simon & Simon" on CBS. This is a news series, don't forget, and one that's in a suicide time slot. Considering the talents of Ellerbee and her co-host/writer Ray Gandolf, though, there were hopes for something punchier than tonight's rather bland program.

This is ABC's light history lesson, a low-cost news division-produced series that weekly relives a period of our past through news footage and interviews. Plans were reportedly dropped to re-create some events with actors.

"You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant," Arlo Guthrie sings in a clip from 1969, whose summer is recalled on tonight's premiere.

"Walk right in, it's around the back. Just a half a mile from the railroad track. You can get anything. . . ."

"Our World" is sort of like Alice's Restaurant. Big spread. Anything you want. A broad menu. Tonight's topics range from Hurricane Camille to Chappaquiddick, Vietnam to Judy Garland, moon walkers to Woodstockers.

This is an appealing concept, at once feeding America's happy times nostalgia lust while remaining true to the bitter spells. No head in the sand or pain pushed under the carpet. It's a far better way of recalling the road behind than through the softened images and blurred rear-view mirrors of revived sitcoms and old reruns.

Just seeing Ellerbee and gray-bearded Gandolf on the screen and hearing them is refreshing, moreover. Both are off-center, running against the TV mainstream, making words, not whoopee.

In the main, however, the summer of 1969 is regurgitated tonight rather than presented in meaningful, contextual, interesting form. Events are dealt like cards at a blackjack table. They seem almostunrelated, loosely flapping umbilical cords.

"Our World" offers no sense of who we really were in 1969 because, typical of TV, it renders everything equal. Neil Armstrong's "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" moves on tiptoe. The amazing moon landing seems no more significant than the amazing Mets. "More than moon landings and metaphors," says Gandolf, "it was Tom Seaver and the rest of the New York Mets who were responsible for the awakening of that long-dormant franchise."

Yes, there is Woodstock, too, in its emotional burst of exuberance and camaraderie. But what did it mean? What did it accomplish beyond the moment's euphoria?

Ironically, the summer of 1969's most compelling event here has nothing to do with the moon or Vietnam. Overshadowing everything else, in terms of TV pizazz and impact, are the Manson murders; blood somehow always manages to become TV's brightest color.

Maybe this series is too dependent on pictures. Maybe the TV screen is too compact to capture epic events and times. Maybe "Our World" will be better next time. Like Cosby, some of us will still be watching and wishing it good luck.

NBC's Emmy-honored hospital series "St. Elsewhere" is an ensemble production with a revolving wheel of regular characters. On its best nights, it's very good.

CBS' "Kay O'Brien," though, is a throwback to "Ben Casey" and "Dr. Kildare," focusing on a young female resident (Patricia Kalember) who wears her idealism on her surgical gown while fighting bureaucracy and male supremacy at a large New York hospital.

"Kay O'Brien" premieres at 10 tonight on Channels 2 and 8 with an episode that has a promising beginning and a lousy ending. In between, well, you have the feeling you've been there before.

On a positive note, "Kay O'Brien" marks the continued escalation of leading roles for women in dramatic series. On a negative note, though, much of the premiere is a flat note.

It's a traumatic hour for Kayo (that's what her friends call her). Her career costs her a live-in boyfriend and she is unfairly humiliated by Dr. Mark Doyle (Brian Benben), who is biased against female surgeons. Kayo later has an opportunity to give Doyle (his friends call him Mark) his comeuppance. Any normal vengeful person would gladly suture this creep to the wall, but not Kayo, who is Super Surgeon and above it all. Kalember does nicely as Kayo within the limits of this rather mundane script, Lane Smith has infinite wisdom as Kayo's mentor, Dr. Robert Moffitt (his friends call him Robert), and Jan Rubes is appropriately stern (do I hear a heart of gold beating beneath his lab coat?) as surgery head Dr. Josef Wallach (his friends call him Dr. Wallach).

Call "Kay O'Brien" flat and predictable.

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