For more than 40 years, on foot and door-to-door, in spite of cerebral palsy, Bill Porter sold everything from dog biscuits to spot remover in Portland, Oregon. His customers may not have been exactly neighborly to the people who lived next door, but they had no problem with the anxious blurt of Bill’s speech, or his radar-dishy ears, or the forward pitch of his body in motion, like a sail tacked leeward. As William H. Macy embodies him in Door to Door, a cable-television movie co-written by Macy himself and inspired by a segment on ABC’s 20/20, he seems a sort of Johnny Appleseed. Gallant is the word that comes to mind.
And gallantry is what a remarkable cast brings to the project. Helen Mirren plays Bill’s supportive mother and best friend till her own mind slips into Alzheimer’s. Kathy Baker plays his best customer, with whom he will drink vodka and fruit juice while watching a Buddhist monk on network news burn himself to death. Kyra Sedgwick plays his office assistant, part-time chauffeur, and sex-object fantasy, who tries to help him more than his dignity can stand. These three should be more than enough for any one movie, especially since Baker and Sedgwick have always heard voices the rest of us can’t. Add, nevertheless, Macy’s real-life wife, Felicity Huffman, who shows up for a cameo without a credit.
But even the subsidiary characters seem to work harder than we’ve come to expect and settle for – from the bellhop and the shoeshine man who tie Bill’s tie and lace up his shoes in exchange for the latest traveling-salesman joke, to the florist and the teacher who worry about AIDS. What happens when everybody in a TV movie is more interesting than, strictly speaking, he or she has to be is that we pay more attention, which is exactly what Door to Door wants us to do. Behind those doors are people worse off than Bill Porter, or at least with as much reason to feel sad. It’s like the Beatles song: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” And so the sell – Bill’s soft-shoe performance – becomes a kind of gift relationship, as if salesmen were worker bees bumbling the nectar of community from one immobile and marooned flower to the next.
This, of course, is before late capitalism metastasized into insider trading and cooked account books, and loneliness went online.
Toward the end of the two-hour pilot of Monk, we are chasing a villain through the sewers of San Francisco. Actually, it had never before occurred to me that San Francisco had sewers, though I suppose it must. But Monk is really referencing Vienna and The Third Man. We can almost hear the zither. It’s a witty pilot, written by executive producer Andy Breckman, for what promises to be a clever series, with Tony Shalhoub as a homicide detective so traumatized by the murder of his wife that he can no longer function as a cop. He is afraid of germs, heights, crowds, and the dark, not to mention milk. He also counts parking meters.
On the other hand, he’s also a genius who never forgets anything and a monster of awareness whose nose can tell from the curtains in a hotel room that the killer smoked menthol cigarettes. The particular killer we are after here has been hired by someone else, apparently to assassinate a popular candidate for mayor. Shalhoub’s Monk is summoned from his therapy to do his Sherlock shtick because the police, personified by his envious former boss Ted Levine, are getting nowhere. When you aren’t enjoying the performance of Bitty Schram as the single mother–private nurse who mothers and nurses our obsessive-compulsive antihero, you will probably suspect the candidate’s glamorous black-widow spider of a wife, Gail O’Grady. But Monk is more complicated, and more fun.
Children Underground (July 9; 6 to 8 p.m.; Cinemax) goes to Romania, where some 20,000 unwanted children, many born in the last years of Nicolae Ceaucescu’s rule, when he made contraception and abortion against the law in order to increase the nation’s workforce and others more recently abandoned by an economy in free fall, live on the city streets instead of inside the brutal orphanages. Five of them speak to the camera. And aside from the occasional social worker, this camera, directed by Edet Belzberg, seems to be the only attention they have ever received.
Hybrid (July 9; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) asks us to care a great deal about corn and even more about Milford Beeghly, filmmaker Monteith McCollum’s 94-year-old grandfather, who has spent most of his life cross-breeding corn and trying to sell the idea to suspicious midwestern farmers. A P.O.V. character study that doubles as a grade-school introduction to agriculture.
Worst-Case Scenario (July 10; 9 to 10 p.m.; TBS) not only imagines but actually ordains the worst that could happen to us, from falling down a mountain to being trapped in a burning building, and so on. The gimmick involves rounding up volunteers to face their worst fears every week on camera. We are promised, for instance, that a single mom will overcome her phobia about heights by jumping five stories from a cliff into water while her children watch. I can hardly wait.
Wide Angle (July 11; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13), co-hosted by the broadcast journalist Daljit Dhaliwal (who is only incidentally gorgeous) and the former U.S. assistant secretary of State James P. Rubin (who is not), will be going to places Americans would rather not think about, like Iraq (for a visit with the Kurds who were nerve-gassed by Saddam Hussein), Argentina (which just defaulted on $155 billion in public debt), and Serbia (where Milosevic is making a comeback).
Crossing the Line (July 15; 9 to 11 p.m.; Lifetime) stars Terry Farrell as the new assistant coach for a high-school girls’ basketball team who discovers that while these student athletes may think they’re playing a game, their parents – including Adrian Pasdar, Sherry Miller, Barry Flatman, and Beverly Cooper – are playing for keeps. A by-the-numbers View With Alarm, but Farrell, who was an adornment on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is always interesting to watch, and so is some of the basketball.
Refrigerator Mothers (July 16; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) – getting an early jump on next week – introduces us to mothers falsely blamed in the fifties and sixties for having caused what the medical Establishment called autism in their children by failing to love those children enough. While it now seems clear that autism is a neurological disease, back then Bruno Bettleheim liked to lay it on what he saw as the concentration-camp-guard behavior of the female parent unable to bond. A P.O.V. that hurts.
Door to Door
Sunday, July 14, 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT.
Friday, July 12, 9 to 11 p.m.; Fridays thereafter, 10 to 11 p.m.; USA.