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HOWARD ROSENBERG

New ABC Show, Old TV Ploy : Television: 'Turning Point' premieres tonight by evoking the specter of Charles Manson. That's one way for the network to ensure notice for its newsmagazine.

March 09, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Travels with Charlie. . . .

The grin, so twisted and sinister. The eyes, shiny black currants under a tiny swastika branded into his forehead. The rambling rages, right on cue.

The great thing about Charlie Manson is that he's always there for you. He's steady, he's reliable. Like a coat on a hook, he's accessible.

He's been there for Geraldo Rivera. He's been there for "Hard Copy." He's been there for "A Current Affair." And if you've a new series that you want to launch with a bankable sociopath who knows from years of experience how to put on a good show for the camera, he'll be there for you, too. Take tonight, for example.

Diane Sawyer to Charlie: "Is Charlie Manson crazy?"

Charlie to Diane: "Sure he's crazy, mad as a hatter, what difference does it make? You know, a long time ago, being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody's crazy."

*

At last, sane words from the 59-year-old wild man.

Nowadays everybody is crazy. At least you can get that impression from watching television.

Don't be too hard on the ABC News program "Turning Point" for starting life as a weekly series tonight with an hour titled "The Manson Women: Inside the Murders." The producers may have had no choice. Jeffrey Dahmer probably wasn't available.

"Dateline NBC" had him Tuesday night.

Actually, long-imprisoned, middle-aged "Manson girls" Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel get the bulk of camera time with Sawyer on "Turning Point." But Manson haunts the entire hour, and the manacled life-termer is occasionally trotted in from the wings to provide just the right touch of deranged frenzy.

The women are interesting studies, and you have to hand it to "Turning Point" for knowing how to suspensefully restage grisly homicide. But why a program that recounts the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders for the umpteenth time without adding any real insight? Why put this foot forward?

Why not open the series with a fresher topic instead of exhuming America's preeminent bogyman and his former disciples?

Because this is the age of screaming tabloid sensationalism.

ABC apparently felt that its zillion-dollar co-anchor Sawyer alone could not be counted on to hold the expected big audience from the preceding "Home Improvement" and "Grace Under Fire." Not when the furor over the scheduled parole of an Oregon murderer is the theme of competing "48 Hours" on CBS and five homicides are the grist of NBC's "Law & Order." No, evoking the specter of the creepy Manson was the only way for ABC to ensure that its new program gets noticed.

And listen, if it works, and "Turning Point" survives, hand out the party favors and bring these kids back for the anniversary show. It's what happens when everybody is crazy.

Quiet Thunder: In a curious way, TV is constantly in transition--a succession of turning points, shifting from one familiarity to another.

ABC's new comedy series "Thunder Alley," for example, perpetuates the impression of prime time being a sprawling day-care center. The premiere tonight introduces Ed Asner as Gil Jones, a former race car driver whose routine is disrupted when his divorced daughter (Diane Venora) and her three children come to live with him in the apartment above the garage he operates.

The 65-year-old Gil's biggest fear is that the grandkids will damage his classic record collection, and he and his daughter clash over child rearing. For awhile, his general surliness and lack of affection make him refreshingly unlikable, but ultimately he sheds this disguise and reveals himself to be one of TV's stock characters, the grouch with a heart of cotton candy.

Asner is a very good actor whose track record is proof that all he needs to make audiences laugh is a funny script. But his opening is much less humorous than humdrum, and the comic lightning implicit in the title fails to strike.

*

Deadly Games: What do "Beavis and Butt-head" and the Oscar-winning "The Deer Hunter" have in common? Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything.

When MTV's mentally challenged cartoon stars were accused of being an evil influence on the younger set, MTV yanked these primitives from their early-evening time slot and redeployed them later in the evening. A reasonable move.

Yet was KTLA-TV Channel 5 acting reasonably in airing "The Deer Hunter" as a two-parter in its 8-10 p.m. movie slot Monday and Tuesday? Wasn't this the same "The Deer Hunter" whose extended, incredibly violent Russian roulette sequences were blamed for a string of Russian roulette fatalities that occurred after the Vietnam movie was widely shown on TV in the early 1980s?

You hate even to consider restricting work as memorable as "The Deer Hunter." Despite charges when it was released that the Russian roulette sequences distorted reality, they were brilliantly executed and anything but gratuitous. Moreover, it's impossible for TV to guard against all negative influences, given that a deranged viewer conceivably could imagine getting a violent message from something as benign as ABC's "Full House."

Yet when a violent movie seems to have inspired gun-shooting copycats in the past--when there appears to be a demonstrable record of it--isn't it irresponsible to return it to TV?

For whatever reason, "The Deer Hunter" seems to have a destructive impact on a handful of viewers. Removing the Russian roulette sequences would be creative butchery and would render much of the movie incomprehensible. Yet showing them may result in real-life butchery.

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