That Wendy Wasserstein's beltway play, An American Daughter (Monday, June 5; 9 to 11 p.m.; Lifetime), turns out to be better on television than it was on Broadway shouldn't come as a big surprise. The play itself is at least as much about television as it is about Wasserstein's usual preoccupation with disappointed baby boomers -- the grown women who spent so much time trying to be good little girls that there's hardly enough fuel left in reserve to run for their lives, and those aging boys stuck on Peter Pan. (Not for nothing is Wasserstein a Wendy.) It's about close-ups, and what we think the TV camera tells us that a CV doesn't, and whether our being comfortable with a pile of pixels in our living rooms is the right litmus test for public servants. Moreover, this television Daughter has Christine Lahti, who may be to Wasserstein what Meg Ryan seems to have become for Nora Ephron.
The inspiration here was clearly Bill Clinton's failed nominations of Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood for attorney general -- because of "nannygate" -- plus Hillary's infamous headband on 60 Minutes after she'd outraged homemakers by declining to bake cookies. In An American Daughter, an unnamed but equally gutless president nominates Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes (Lahti) to be the next surgeon general. Lyssa is the mother of two, the wife of sociology professor Walter Abrahmson (Tom Skerritt), the daughter of a Republican senator (Stanley Anderson), the fifth-generation granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant, and the head of the hospital where she specializes in oncology and women's health-care issues. She has also ignored at least one summons to serve on a jury.
This dinky dereliction, about which Lyssa is so casual as to appear arrogant, is revealed during an at-home-in-Georgetown interview by "Time Zone" correspondent Timber Tucker (Jay Thomas). Tucker hears about Lyssa's guilty secret from Morrow McCarthy (Mark Feuerstein), a gay right-wing talk-show pundit who imagines himself her friend and who got it from her husband, Walter, who has unresolved intimacy issues with his busy wife. Also on hand before, during, and after the TV interview is Quincy Quince (Blake Lindsley), an ex-student of Walter's with whom he had an affair, the author of Prisoner of Gender, and the scary sort of postfeminist who manufactures sound bites like, "We want to come home to a warm penis." Since the very existence of a Quincy was made possible by women like Lyssa, the daughter must destroy her surrogate mother.
Finally, there is Lynne Thigpen, who reprises her Broadway role as Judith Kaufman, Lyssa's black-and-Jewish schoolmate and hospital colleague, who, after yet another visit to a fertility clinic, will throw herself into the Potomac because she can't have children. (Fortunately, she floats.) "I can't make life and I can't stop death," she tells Lyssa. For Thigpen's performance alone, the TV movie is worth it. But we are also treated to a second-chance "Time Zone" interview, for which Lyssa actually wears a headband and loses her composure. Because she seems to have most of it -- good genes, elite schools, professional standing, husband, children, looks, opinions, and entitlements -- she certainly won't be allowed to have it all. Meanwhile, in our remoteness, we surf the nightly pond-scum cable talk shows where Quincy and Morrow lubricate the gears of their careers with Lyssa's blood, like pretty vampires.
I have given up on Wendy Wasserstein as our next Chekhov or Ibsen or O'Neill. But she may very well be our George Bernard Shaw in reverse. Something real is always being talked about on her stage, by genuinely intelligent women. That Walter should ever have preferred a Quincy to Christine Lahti's Lyssa is an indictment of men, and is sociology more powerful than any polemic on patriarchy. And maybe next time we will get a play about Lani Guinier (also starring Lynne Thigpen), who was also denied the chance to serve her country, not just because she happened to be black (and Clinton has the backbone of a Slinky) but also because she was smarter than the executive and legislative branches combined, even with the feeble media brain added.
Harlan County War (Sunday, June 4; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; Showtime) is that oddest of enterprises, a pretty good docudrama prompted by a superb documentary. Having seen Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), an Oscar-winning account of a thirteen-month coal-miners' strike in Kentucky in 1973-74, executive producer Mimi Rogers, with Kopple's encouragement, determined to dramatize the same violent events. What a fictionalized movie loses in the raw persuasive power of cinéma vérité, it almost makes up for with the astonishing Holly Hunter as its heroine, Ruby Kincaid, who organized the miners' wives to hold a picket line when their men were enjoined or in jail or dead. Ted Levine is Holly's angry husband, Wayne Robson her black-lung father, and Stellan Skarsgård the gun-toting union organizer who turns out to need Holly more than she needs him. The mountains themselves perform, like Japanese scroll paintings.
The public-television documentary series P.O.V. begins a new twelve-week season devoted to how "American ideals confront American realities" with the remarkable Well-Founded Fear (Monday, June 5; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), a long and agonizing look by filmmakers Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson inside the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, where well-meaning clerks, often frazzled to a point beyond ambivalence all the way to cynicism and hostility, must decide on thousands of petitions for political asylum every year, which means judging whether they're being lied to by the dissident Chinese poet, the woman from El Salvador who claims to have been kidnapped, the well-to-do Albanian businessman, the Russian Jew and the pregnant Algerian and the famine-fleeing African, many of them poorly served by translators who omit crucial information. As the case officers interrogate them, the documentary interrogates us: Who do we want to be?
Mini-rant: consult your favorite internet chat room and you'll find West Wing watchers who taped the season-ending shootout, have slo-mo'd it again and again, and will tell you which bodies under that scrum are actually bullet-riddled. This is fun but, regrettable as it was when Law & Order and Homicide did the same thing, it is disgraceful when the best dramatic show on television also indulges in this "Who Shot J.R.?" hokum. And if they've hurt C.J., they will pay.