Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Christopher Gray

July 21, 1997:  How could you spend an entire column on Lassie??" a friend grilled me relentlessly after last week's column appeared. I thought it was interesting, was my reply. The friend heaved a sigh of disgust. "There is better TV out there to watch," she said. Okay, I agree with that. Still, what constitutes "better" is still an individual matter. There are people I greatly admire who live for Dukes of Hazzard re-runs. I secretly watch The Brady Bunch when no one's looking. I try not to disparage the viewing tastes of others... unless they liked Full House. Then it's open season. But that's the fun of watching re-runs -- you know these shows.

New TV programs are much dicier. You have to get to know these shows, and it can be scarier than the idea of dating over the age of 40. (Actually, the scariest thing I see these days is the way all the old rock critics are being farmed out to write for more "mature" mediums. Gives me the willies.) Autumn brings a lot of pressure on the TV viewer to get to know the new series, follow the new stories, establish new faces, meet new stars, remember new times and nights.... No wonder we can't wait for M*A*S*H.

That's why the idea of setting up new shows in the summer is smart -- HBO, FOX, and MTV are but a few of the networks willing to gamble on bored viewers. The cool thing is, they are smart to make the gamble. FOX is well into the 13-episode summer season of Pacific Palisades, and last week introduced Roar, the first prime-time Celtic soap opera. With plenty of new shows on tap for fall, FOX still cannily chooses to lasso the coveted younger market with these offerings. MTV's Apt. 2-F premiered last week and the upcoming Austin Stories begins filming here this week. Among other offerings of original programming, HBO has new episodes of the you-either-love-it-or-hate-it Arli$$, and has introduced Spawn, Perversions, and Oz. Of these, Oz is the one getting attention, with its Homicide-turned-up-to-11 crudeness jamming down the viewer's throat a technically stylish look at life in prison. And by stylish, I don't mean ruby slippers, Dorothy -- Oswald Penitentiary isn't exactly Kansas.

After watching two episodes, Oz is not exactly the belly of the beast, either. Rushing through its character introductions at a breakneck speed, the show is fueled by slam-jam camera work that sometimes leaves the viewer's eyeballs bouncing around in the skull. Gratuitously expositionary dialogue from the stereotypes of prison characters you've grown to expect sets up scenes intended to provoke response: A nerdy attorney serving a drunk-driving sentence unwittingly becomes beholden to the prison's Arayan Brotherhood leader; there's racial tension between the Italian mobsters and gangstas. These scenarios seem designed to evoke florid praise that will employ the usual prison-story adjectives: "gritty," "raw," "searing." But they forgot one: "clichéd."

This is not to write off Oz after two episodes, but it is to say that it's not enough to be "gritty." Style without substance -- Oz looks too clean. Too easy. Too... MTV. For some viewers, the side-view of cavity searches breaks new ground; I see it as hackneyed. Give me less "realism" and more thought.

Tune In: After this week, you will no longer be able to avoid the "boom boom, boom-boom ba boom-boom" of George of the Jungle, since a video by the Presidents of the United States of America of the theme song is making the rounds (I saw it first on AM15, where I tend to see the bulk of new videos since MTV is almost video-free these days), and the promo department has inundated my officemate Marjorie Baumgarten with GOTJ swag like you wouldn't believe -- coconuts, T-shirts, stuffed monkeys, CDs, beach chairs (!), and more.

You're not even safe in the soft-focus of yesteryear on AMC. Brendan Fraser, who stars as George in the new film based on the cartoon, is hosting AMC's tribute to Tarzan this month. The Tarzan films being shown run the gamut from the Johnny Weissmuller classics (but Elmo Lincoln was the screen's first Tarzan) to the ho-hum Sixties versions with Jock Mahoney. (When I found the following synopsis for Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, I e-mailed the music department writers with the headline, "So who's minding the Electric Lounge?": Further exploits of the legendary ape man (Mike Henry) as he protects a "lost" Aztec city from invasion by a maniacal despot.) Lord of the Jungle movies this week include Tarzan Goes to India (7/17, 8pm) with Mahoney; Tarzan Escapes (7/17, 9:30pm) with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O' Sullivan; Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (7/18, 8pm) with Gordon Scott and a young Sean Connery; Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (7/18, 9:30pm); and Tarzan the Magnificent (7/20, noon) with Scott and John Carradine.

Don't miss this week... Hot Rods to Hell (7/18, 5pm, TCM) Jerry Renshaw usually corners these cheesy late-Sixties drive-in films in "Scanlines," but suffice it to say Mimsy (Miniskirt Mob) Farmer never got the attention she deserved in this teens-run-amok on a vacationing family yarn. Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain star... Only 30 minutes of Betty Boop (7/19, 10am, AMC) on a Saturday morning hardly seems fair, except you can quickly turn to Daria (7/19, 10:30am, MTV)... The second episode of Roar (7/21, 8pm, FOX) sees Conor's efforts to unite with a rival tribe interrupted... Must-see films always include Billy Wilder's brilliant Sunset Blvd. (7/23, 9am, TCM), possibly Hollywood's blackest look at the decay of its star system. The incomparable Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich Von Stroheim star with a fabulous cast of bit players and cameos. And if you like that sort of thing (I do), check out the ultra-intense The Damned Don't Cry (7/23, 8:35pm, AMC), with a post-Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford striding about like a stevedore in mink. This one is almost as good as Female on the Beach, where she sashays around the beach wearing high heels!

Tuned in? Write to: TVEye@auschron.com

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