The least of the tragedies surrounding Michael Landon’s death from cancer on July 1 is that his passing robbed CBS of what probably would have been the network’s only surefire smash of the new fall season. CBS is now airing the two-hour pilot for that series, which the 54-year-old Landon wrote, directed, and starred in before illness overtook him, and US proves to be a heart tugger fully in the tradition of Landon’s other creations. Like Little House on the Prairie, his TV adaptation of the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and his angel-on-your-shoulder fantasy, Highway to Heaven, US offers the kind of shameless melodrama that a large percentage of TV viewers finds compelling and a larger percentage of TV critics finds tricky to attack.
Knocking Landon’s shows is like complaining that Mom, the American flag, and apple pie are cliches; the complaint is true but nearly irrelevant, because lots of people like clichés, and lots of people is what mass entertainment is all about. Landon came to his work free of cynicism. As a craftsman inspired and excited by the most common dramatic story lines and plot twists, he could thrive in television, producing one hit after another.
In US, Landon plays Jeff Hayes, who has served 18 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. When new evidence proving his innocence turns up, Jeff is freed and seeks out his family. He discovers that his wife (Meg Wittner) has remarried and that their now-teenage son (Casey Peterson) had been told that Jeff died ”in an accident.” Jeff finds his father (veteran character actor Barney Martin) living a miserably lonely bachelor’s life in a slum-neighborhood apartment.
US proceeds like a cross between a soap opera and a fairy tale. I’ve never seen more tears shed on television; it seems as if every person in US has at least one good cry over the course of two hours — even the prison warden weeps when he tells Jeff he’s to go free. Then, too, I’ve never seen a convict reenter society with more success: Within days of his release, Jeff has given his ex-wife good advice about Sher troubled new marriage; he has steered his son away from the path of juvenile delinquency; and he has become the friend that his father so desperately needs.
Not only that, but Jeff also lands a dream job: A newspaper publisher (Luke Reilly) asks him if he wants to travel around the country, writing a column about what he sees — ”sort of like Charles Kuralt on the road,” says the publisher, reasoning that after 18 years in the can Jeff will see the country with ”fresh eyes.” By the end of the TV movie, Jeff has convinced his dad and son to hop into a big camper with him. Had the series continued, this cozy threesome would have roamed America, spreading goodwill and gathering good column items.
US is as much a fantasy as Highway to Heaven was, a fantasy we’ve all had at one time or another: What would it be like to start your life over, to be given the opportunity to do the sort of work and raise the sort of family you’d always wanted, if given a second chance? The final shot in the TV movie is an image of Jeff hunched over his typewriter, pecking out the title of his new newspaper column: US.
But of course, in capitalizing the letters, Landon wants us to think of this show as taking in all of the United States — that his new hero’s journeys aren’t just going to take him all over the country, they’re going to embody the country. It’s not even going too far to say that Jeff Hayes, his father, and his son represent a kind of secular version of the Holy Trinity: The Hayes men enter people’s lives and make them feel better about themselves; at one point, Jeff even redeems the life of a prostitute by taking her to an Italian restaurant and treating her with respect.
If Landon weren’t such a likable actor, such self-glory would be appalling, laughable, repulsive. Instead, it’s endear-ing: US is saturated in corn, but its world-view is infinitely generous and comforting. I’m not going to lie and say that US is great, or even good, television. After marveling at the sentimental shrewdness of this pilot, I’m sure I’d have done my best to avoid ever watching the show again; I like my clichés a lot more artfully wrought. But when it comes to stringing those clichés together, US proves that nobody did it with the conviction that Michael Landon had. C+