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Focus : Escape Routes : NBC LATHERS UP PRIME TIME WITH TWO SOAPY MINISERIES

August 22, 1993|BETH KLEID | Beth Kleid is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

For years, your love affair blossomed. The tempestuous romance took you from Dallas to Denver, where you were surrounded by mansions, cars, elegant clothes and rock-sized jewels. Oh, those soulful kisses. The fights and then the making up. Sigh.

Admit it, you were hopelessly devoted to the likes of J.R. Ewing, Alexis Colby and the Carringtons. A nighttime soap junkie. It was easy to get your fix in the '80s when the airwaves were full of them. But now that you can't find such melodrama anywhere on the prime-time schedule, you're pining for the family feuds, the action from the bedroom to the boardroom. No amount of sitcom jokes, compulsive home-shopping network purchases or pints of chocolate ice cream can mend your broken heart.

At least that's what producer Douglas Cramer is counting on. The TV veteran who co-produced "Dynasty" and "The Love Boat" plans to resurrect nighttime serials with two miniseries under the NBC umbrella title "Great Escapes." The first is "Trade Winds," a six-hour drama set on exotic St. Martin starring Anita Morris, John Beck, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and several newcomers. It's a "Romeo and Juliet" story gone Caribbean, complete with balcony scene.

Next up, in October, is "The Secrets of Lake Success," the saga of a battling family who run a major pharmaceutical company and live in a company town, starring Valerie Perrine, Samantha Eggar and some new faces. If the miniseries catch on with viewers, producers say they'll become series.

But could it be that nighttime soaps are better off extinct, a relic of the freewheeling, free-spending '80s? In these gritty, Angst -ridden times, can viewers tolerate all the glitz and fantasy?

To Cramer, the time is right to bring back the love and the lust. "I think the networks made a great mistake to assume that because "Dynasty," "Dallas" and "Knots Landing" had reached the end of the line that the time had come to move past the form," he says. "There's always been an audience for this kind of thing."

And what a perfect time for a great escape, says creative executive of NBC Productions Perry Simon. "It's not only the recession, but the multitude of social ills that we face. I think the audience can really enjoy an opportunity to lose themselves," says Simon, who had the idea for the shows after noticing what he saw as a void in programming.

But, instead of losing themselves, surfing viewers might whiz right by, seeing the genre as yesterday's news. To prevent this, Cramer set out to "push past the formulas."

He claims his shows are ready for the scaled-down '90s. "All of the consumption is not conspicuous. Our people live well, but it's toned down. You don't see any Rollses and Bentleys," he explains. "The clothes are Armani and Calvin Klein--they're understated."

The lush island atmosphere in "Trade Winds" is another hook. "It's a locale everybody dreams of being in," says Cramer, who owns a home on St. Martin. "It's hot and sexy--no one has to wear many clothes. It speaks romance without having to say it."

Yet another tweak on the genre: the storyline features an interracial romance. "But it isn't made into an issue," says Michael McLafferty, a 20-year-old Ralph Lauren model who makes his acting debut as Ocean, the hunk involved in the affair. "We touch on topics that normally you wouldn't see on nighttime soaps."

What the shows do share with the old prime-time soaps: a heavy dose of steam. As Cramer puts it, "Our characters spend a healthy amount of time in bed, but not sleeping."

How can it not get steamy during a sex scene on a humid, rainy night in a greenhouse? Michael Michele, who plays Ocean's true love Maxine, describes the couple's big moment: "Fantasize about a wonderful evening on the ocean, with rain and orchids. It was very, very passionate."

The genre still relies on larger-than-life characters. In "Trade Winds," the rambunctious award goes to the Contessa, played by Anita Morris. "If you combine Scarlett O'Hara with J.R. and Susan Lucci, that's the character," says Morris.

The fun quotient in "The Secrets of Lake Success" relies on Honey Potts Atkins, played by Valerie Perrine. "If the series goes, yes, she could be the next Alexis," Perrine says of the outrageous ex-Las Vegas showgirl who makes a surprise return to Lake Success.

Although geared to women, the shows don't neglect men. "In 'Trade Winds,' it's not by accident that we involve chases and underwater sequences," Cramer says.

The miniseries don't end with "Who Shot J.R.?"-style cliffhangers, but Cramer says there will be unanswered questions: "Hopefully, you'll say you can't wait to see more."

"Trade Winds" airs Friday at 9 p.m. and the next four Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC. "The Secrets of Lake Success" airs on three consecutive Fridays beginning Oct. 1 on NBC.

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