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Spinning Webs

The Big Time goes back to the early days of TV, when nothing was canned but the tomatoes and the networks had a public mission. Jacqueline Bisset runs a dance hall -- you got a problem with that?

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SMALL-SCREEN GEMS: Christina Hendricks and Dylan Baker in The Big Time.
  

Return with us now to several thrilling days of one specific yesteryear, 1948, when television was in its infancy, mewling and famished, not to mention polymorphously perverse; when drama was live and everybody smoked; when advertising agencies were program producers and corporations owned entertainers as though they were tropical fish.

The Big Time, from veteran executive producers John Wells and Carol Flint, is an affectionate remembrance of this ramshackle past, as seen through the thrilled eyes of an attractive secretary (Christina Hendricks) newly arrived in Manhattan from Michigan and newly employed to do a little bit of almost everything at the fledgling Empire Television Network -- whose millionaire owner (Christopher Lloyd) has just acquired a much younger wife (Molly Ringwald) and a brain tumor; whose vice-president for programming (Dylan Baker) has both budgetary and Oedipal problems; and whose best floor manager (Michael B. Silver) and best advertising salesman (Shane Mikael Johnson) would both rather direct, even if what they're directing is a potentially disastrous "Encore Playhouse" production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

You'll enjoy meeting Hendricks and get a kick out of Ringwald's ascension from floozydom to the executive suite -- and Baker has always been interesting, with a clock in his head that keeps some other daylight savings. But The Big Time also delivers on an odd nostalgia. Instead of a share of the audience, what Empire Television seems really to be competing for is the enthusiasm of such sponsors as the soap companies and the cigarette-makers. And I'm left to wonder if the media world is better or worse than it was when Arthur Godfrey belonged to Lipton Tea, Milton Berle to Texaco, Bob Hope to Pepsodent, Dinah Shore to Chevrolet, and Jack Benny to Jell-O; when Kraft, Lux, Revlon, GE, Westinghouse, Magnavox, Budweiser, Armstrong Circle, and Johnson Wax all had Theaters; Bell Telephone, 20th Century Fox, and U.S. Steel had Hours; Philco, Schlitz, and Prudential had Playhouses; Geritol had an Adventure Showcase; DuPont had a Show of the Month; Hallmark had (and still has) a Hall of Fame; Firestone had a Voice; Colgate-Palmolive had a Comedy Hour; and Pabst had a Bout. Sounds like diversity to me.


That Jacqueline Bisset, a professor of English lit in Dancing at the Harvest Moon, would be dumped by any man, much less Nick Mancuso on the eve of their twentieth wedding anniversary, is perhaps more unlikely than that she should then retreat in confusion to the pastoral digs of her romantic past, where she meets old friend Valerie Harper, undertakes to rebuild the Harvest Moon Dance Hall, where she used to waitress, and is fallen in love with by her construction foreman, who just happens to be the son of her very first dance-hall love. Of course, Eric Mabius is going to fall for Jacqueline Bisset, just as his father did. That she should reciprocate, even though he seems not even to have read the poet he's named for, is harder to credit. But it's good to see Bisset again. (On the other hand, it's even better to see Lena Olin again, as the evil mother on Alias. Olin, who was discovered by Ingmar Bergman, made her most memorable big-screen appearance in 1988, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where she did for bowler hats what Herman Melville did for whales. She is now, in my opinion, the most beautiful woman in the world. But I digress.)


A Crime of Insanity, produced for Frontline by David Murdock, Miri Navasky, and Karen O'Connor, explores the case against Ralph Tortorici, a 26-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who is also a psychology student at the State University of New York, where he seriously wounded a student after taking a college classroom hostage in 1994. His own prosecutor knew he was insane. I won't reveal the surprise ending to this miscarriage of justice. But it's not a happy one.

The Big Time
Sunday, October 20; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT.
Dancing at the Harvest Moon
Sunday, October 20; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS.
A Crime of Insanity
Thursday, October 17; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13.


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