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Commentary : An Ill Wind Blows Into Late Summer


They're so thoughtful at NBC, always worrying about us poor slobs out here in Television Land. The network's latest alleged bequest arrived last week in the form of "Trade Winds," first installment in a new extravaganza called "Great Escapes" that will linger into autumn.

It's a miniseries series, a succession of multi-parters patterned after the paperback "romance" novels that feature chesty hunks caressing bosomy beauties on their covers. The promise of the books is that they will all be the same; if that's the case with "Great Escapes," we are in for one ridiculous ordeal after another.

NBC's publicity department wants us to think of this as not just a programming gimmick, but a potential tonic: "Long hours at work ... bumper-to-bumper traffic ... rising taxes ... endless battles with the bulge. We all deserve to get away--even if only for an hour or two."

True, we all do deserve to get away from those things. But the list is incomplete. What about trashy television? It's right up there with rising taxes and bumper-to-bumper traffic. What "Great Escapes" really promises is endless battles with the bilge.

"Trade Winds" is the name not only of the first miniseries (five chapters long), it's also a supposedly fabulous resort on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. There, two warring families, the Sommerses and the Philipses, have formed an uneasy truce (are there never to be any easy truces?) that involves a struggle for control of the lush property and a big rum empire.

And wouldn't you know, they have a Romeo and a Juliet blooming right in their midst. Beautiful and headstrong Maxine Philips (Michael Michele) is begrudgingly engaged to squirrelly attorney Joseph Gabetti (Dean Tarrolly) but really loves dashing and headstrong playboy Ocean Sommers (Michael McLafferty), who can boast the most exposed pectoral development in these here parts.

Maxine's handsome and headstrong brother Kyle (Allan Dean Moore) hates Ocean and conspires to break up the romance. Ocean, meanwhile, is busily trying to locate a sunken treasure left on the Caribbean floor 300 years earlier when a Spanish galleon went glub glub glub.

Christof von Philips (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), the aging yet still headstrong family patriarch, warns that death awaits he who dares to plunder the sea, at least according to a visitation he had years earlier. Seems he saw the figure of death stalking him at an open market, which can critically inhibit one's shopping.

Unfortunately, there are so many characters in "Trade Winds," and some of the relationships so nebulous, that it's hard to keep track of who's whose. One good thing about the story is that the Philips clan is matter-of-factly interracial, and none of the bickering is done along racial lines. They're greedy, underhanded and double-dealing, but they aren't bigots.

One surprise is how little lustiness brews in this tempestuous teapot. The filmmakers are so busy with financial shenanigans and voodoo curses that they neglect the heavy breathing. The shapeliest women in the cast were issued bikinis, however, and thoughtfully take turns modeling them.

For all their flaming passions and snappy tans, the people of "Trade Winds" are really not quite fascinating. Seldom have so many headstrong characters seemed so feebleminded. Viewers may find themselves wishing for a big blustery tropical storm to come along and blow them all away.

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