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The Boston Phoenix Shoot-'Em-Up

Black Tar Heroin, plus The Awful Truth, Freak City, Love Songs, and It's like . . .

By Robert David Sullivan

APRIL 19, 1999:  April is the cruelest month for a TV critic. Outdoors, it's a joyous time of rebirth, but I'm stuck inside brooding about the news that time wasters like Becker and Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place have been renewed for another year. I'm upset that Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been dumped by the Sci-Fi Network just as a wealth of new material becomes available for MST3K-style ridicule -- namely, Sci-Fi Network original series. Plus, I gotta get through nine months without any new episodes of The Sopranos. Give us something, HBO. I'd even rewatch the entire series dubbed into Japanese, just to hear how they'd translate Anthony Jr. asking his mom, "So no fucking ziti?"

My mood wasn't helped by the fact that after overdosing on all 16 episodes of the violent and claustrophobic prison drama Oz, I moved on to a grim documentary about heroin addicts and a sappy TV-movie about the inmates in a facility for the disabled. But my spirits were lifted by a charming TV-movie with Andre Braugher and by the fact that Homicide: Life on the Streets is finally getting back on track after Braugher's departure from that series (probably just in time for it to be canceled for not holding enough of the lead-in audience from Providence).

Get over any fear of needles before watching Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street (Monday at 10 p.m.), the latest installment in HBO's America Undercover series. The five addicts profiled in this San Francisco-based documentary have pretty much run out of veins on their arms and legs, so we get to see them repeatedly shoot up in their necks and feet. "Even if I wasn't doing heroin, I don't know what the fuck I'd be doing with my life," says 25-year-old Tracey, using logic that could also be applied to people who make films about people who do heroin, not to mention people who write about people who make films, etc. Indeed, Tracey claims that she first became intrigued with the drug after watching the film Sid and Nancy. Director Steven Okazaki follows the bare-bones style of most America Undercover episodes, limiting the narration to title cards like "Tracey is back on heroin within eight hours of her release from jail." Much of the documentary takes place in the trash-filled apartments shared by addicts, complete with walls stained by squirting veins. I don't miss the treacly approach of a newsmagazine like 20/20, but the subjects in Black Tar Heroin tend to disappear into their surroundings, and we don't get a clear sense of how they got there. (Last month's America Undercover installment, in which a variety of men talked about and showed off their penises, seemed far less voyeuristic.) Some of the addicts get their money from prostitution, and I couldn't stop wondering about the clientele that these obviously broken bodies could attract, but we never get a good glimpse of a john. Overall, Black Tar Heroin is more disturbing than enlightening.

At the other extreme of documentary filmmaking -- with a wider perspective and a shamelessly self-promoting narrator -- is The Awful Truth (Sundays at 9 p.m. on Bravo), Michael Moore's latest attempt to put some juice into the TV-newsmagazine format. The changes from Moore's 1994-'95 series, TV Nation, are generally unfortunate: he opens the show with a stale monologue, and the live audience hangs around to provide a laugh track for the videotaped segments. Ever since his breakthrough documentary, Roger and Me, Moore has been accused of tweaking the facts in order to get laughs, and this innovation isn't going win over skeptics. Perhaps he's deliberately provoking his enemies. After all, his greatest asset is the look of priggish irritation he can get out of corporate PR hacks accustomed to respectful treatment from television journalism hacks.

In last week's episode, Moore took on the case of a diabetic man whose HMO refused to cover a pancreas transplant. After helping the man to take out his own obituary in the local newspaper, Moore ambushed an HMO spokesman with an invitation to the funeral -- while the future corpse stood a few feet away, shooting daggers from his eyes. At the close of the show, Moore bragged that the HMO had caved in and agreed to cover all pancreas transplants. I'll take such claims with a grain of salt, but I will credit Moore with the ability to focus on the duplicity of corporate culture. Without pointing it out, for example, he includes several references to the HMOs promise to "improve the health of our members" -- another way of saying that they reserve the right to screw over those members foolish enough to let their health decline.

This Sunday's episode includes a lighter segment in which Moore tests the knowledge of upper-class pedestrians on Park Avenue in Manhattan against that of working-class pedestrians in Pittsburgh, using such questions as "What's your zip code?" and "How much is it to supersize a meal at McDonald's?" Best response: when asked, "What's the first thing you do if the toilet won't work?", one Upper East Side dowager finally responds, "Run like hell!"

Now that The Sopranos is over for the season, Showtime might be able to attract more of the pay-cable crowd with its original movies on Sunday nights. Next up is Freak City , about a feisty young woman named Ruth (Samantha Mathis) with multiple sclerosis who's shunted off to an institution for unemployable actors -- er, adults. Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) plays a resident who's "developmentally challenged" (not deaf, but speaking as if she were), Jonathan Silverman (The Single Guy) is a sensitive blind guy, and Natalie Cole (duets with her dead father) plays a brain-damaged pop vocalist who gets to pad out the obligatory scene where the whole bunch of misfits take a field trip to a local bar.

Freak City is a slight cut above the typical made-for-TV movie, thanks to director Lynne Littman (one nice touch: frequent but subtle shots of the elderly residents, showing what might become of our heroine), but Jane Shepard's script is flat and predictable. I almost stopped watching, but then the requisite bitter young inmate told Ruth, "You think going out makes your life any different? It only makes it worse." It's almost as if there were a conspiracy to keep people in front of the tube . . .

Far more satisfying is Love Songs (April 25 at 9 p.m. on Showtime), whose pleasures include Andre Braugher as a gregarious produce salesman out to win the heart of a high-society customer. ("I got string beans so fresh you can hear them snap two blocks away," he boasts, and it's great to see Braugher play someone not weighed down with unsolved murders.) Love Songs is a trilogy of short stories, all set in the same African-American neighborhood, and all written by playwright Charles Fuller (A Soldier's Play). The acting and directing is on a rotating basis: Louis Gossett Jr. directs Robert Townsend as a genial boxer who apparently lacks the passion to become a real contender; Townsend directs Braugher as the produce salesman; and Braugher directs Gossett as a bar owner trying to protect his son and sister-in-law from the effects of domestic violence. It's hard not to view Love Songs as an earnest attempt to put some positive African-American male characters on the little screen, but the understated script and performances give every scene an authentic feel.

Love Songs is also a welcome alternative to the bloated two-hour movies on both broadcast and cable networks. In the first story, Townsend gets a job sparring with an up-and-coming boxer but is warned that he won't get paid if he fights back too hard. "You hurt him and his chance is gone," says the manager of the younger guy, and that one line tells us all we need to know about Townsend's life. Showtime has had mixed success with its many anthology series (The Outer Limits, for example, is often too long), but I'd love to see more Love Songs on a regular basis.

Among the new spring sit-coms, ABC's It's like, you know . . . (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.) has the best chance of coming back next season, though its premise is even more implausible than that of The Beverly Hillbillies: a successful magazine writer from New York temporarily moves to Los Angeles and is shocked, shocked, by the superficiality of West Coast life. Hasn't he watched TV or gone to the movies in the past 20 years? And don't most Americans consider Manhattan, not Los Angeles, to be strange and exotic? It's like, you know . . . was created by a former Seinfeld producer, and by the third episode we get a plot that seems to satirize the pretensions and paranoia of New York: a secret society of Harvard alumni thwarts the comeback attempt of washed-up actress Jennifer Grey (who plays herself on this show, neither convincingly nor amusingly).

Still, Chris Eigeman is fun to watch as the perpetually amazed New Yorker, and Evan Handler does a great twist on a character clearly based on Seinfeld's George -- bald, nit-picking, and often instantly disliked by strangers for no apparent reason (but unlike George, also fabulously rich). As George, Jason Alexander always seemed about to have an aneurysm, but Handler always seems ready to burst into tears. I guess they really are wimps out on the West Coast.

I doubt that LA's drug scene will be adequately explored on It's like, you know . . . , but you can find plenty of pharmaceutical humor on Strangers with Candy (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central), a series-length parody of ABC's infamous "Afterschool Specials." Amy Sedaris (David's sister) plays a 46-year-old ex-con who returns to high school after being "a teenage runaway for 32 years." Comedy Central proudly calls the series "sick," but it can't compare to its lead-in, South Park -- even though the first episode ends with someone using a live turtle for golfing practice. Strangers with Candy is better characterized as sophomoric, like an SCTV parody stretched out to a full half-hour. It'll give you a buzz, but you'll probably end up wanting harder stuff.

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