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HOWARD ROSENBERG : ABC's 'Our Sons' Handles AIDS With Cliches

May 17, 1991

It's ironic that one of these should be so formulaic, given their rarity on TV. Yet here it is, an AIDS story as a buddy movie.

Except that the bickering buddies in this case are not the two male companions directly touched by AIDS but their mothers, one rich and urbane, the other poor and a little bit country.

These women have nothing in common beyond motherhood. When they talk at all, they clash about everything, especially about the homosexuality of their sons. Yet when it really counts, somehow, some how , they bury their differences and. . . .

Well, you know the rest, which is precisely why ABC's "Our Sons" is a creative failure, so rigidly predictable that its earnest message about the dread of AIDS is minimized.

Airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, "Our Sons" is at its core an upgraded sister of "Jailbirds," Thursday's CBS movie about arguing female jail escapees, one a big-city black executive, the other a white Louisiana seamstress.

But "Our Sons" is infinitely grimmer, pairing Julie Andrews, cool, chic and fashionably liberal as San Diego business executive Audrey Grant, with Ann-Margret, wearing a teased platinum wig as low-brow, frowzy, bigoted Arkansas barmaid Luanne Barnes.

Luanne's AIDS-ravaged son Donald (Zeljko Ivanek) has only a couple of weeks to live when his lover, Audrey's son James (Hugh Grant), coaxes Audrey to fly to Arkansas and urge Luanne to reconcile with the 28-year-old son she now refuses to acknowledge. For the women, it's hatred at first sight.

Calling her son "one of them," Luanne snarls at Audrey: "I hate it, what he is! It turns my stomach!" Yet soon she's San Diego bound with Audrey, as these two adversarial puppets are manipulated by the controlling threads of Hollywood tradition.

Everything has happened since Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook played masculine gay lovers 19 years ago in ABC's groundbreaking movie, "That Certain Summer." Everything and nothing.

Although nearly two decades have passed--with AIDS having become an international scourge in the '80s--TV still fears gay-related themes as a lethal minefield to be tiptoed through only at great fiscal risk.

As Brandon Tartikoff, who is departing as chairman of NBC Entertainment Group to become chairman of Paramount Pictures, noted in a speech this week:

"It is easier these days to put on a movie about a serial killer than it is to put on a social drama that deals with issues such as AIDS, race and all of the issues that are of concern to all responsible citizens."

As always in such cases, advertisers are the exposed soft underbelly of commercial TV, an anatomical reality fully exploited by sophisticated pressure groups seeking to bend the medium to their will.

The classic case was the controversy over a 1989 episode of ABC's "thirtysomething" that showed two gay men talking in bed after having sex. Although prim and almost sterile compared with TV portrayals of heterosexuals actually having sex, the "thirtysomething" scene sparked a sponsor defection that cost ABC dearly. It was for this reason that the network omitted the episode from its summer reruns.

The two gay characters from that episode returned briefly in "thirtysomething" this season, and NBC's "L.A. Law" has fleetingly touched upon bisexuality with two of its female characters. In the main, though, TV is more comfortable with gay stereotypes that are objects of ridicule, such as the prissy prigs (including the man described as coifing his hair "like Ann Miller") who minced their way through ABC's "An Inconvenient Woman" this week.

In the six years since NBC's groundbreaking AIDS movie, "An Early Frost," moreover, only rarely have AIDS themes surfaced in prime time--for example, in episodes of "L.A. Law," "thirtysomething" and NBC's "Lifestories" and "Midnight Caller," plus an occasional sitcom. So much for reality.

Much more typical is the skittishness ABC displayed last season in subverting the original intent of the late-night music special "Red, Hot and Blue" by softening its anti-AIDS theme to make it only a Cole Porter tribute.

No wonder, then, that "Our Sons" plays peekaboo with AIDS, nervously approaching it from around a corner as if not to freak out advertisers or offend conservative media watchdogs that wield economic boycotts like spiked clubs. ABC undoubtedly could have made essentially the same movie where Audrey and Luanne were mothers of a cop and robber killed in the same shootout, or mothers of soldiers on opposing sides of the Persian Gulf War.

Somehow, this is a story without much passion. Of the two actresses, only Ann-Margret is able to free herself from the movie's manacles and perform in a way that touches you. Andrews sort of goes along for the elegant limo ride.

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