NBC is touting its double shot of romantic TV movies, Danielle Steel’s Palomino and Danielle Steel’s Daddy, as an alternative to CBS’ coverage of the World Series this week. According to an NBC press release, it’s ”part of the network’s ongoing counterprogram-ming strategy against sports.” Gee, what’s the rest of the strategy, NBC? Breaking into CBS’ broadcasts of the Series with footage of Bob Costas reading from Harlot’s Ghost?
Palomino and Daddy, both based on big, thick Steel novels from the past decade, share the same structure: The central character’s marriage falls apart, and after a period of lonely suffering, an exciting romance with a new, far more ideal person makes life worth living again.
With acting as mechanical as the plot, Palomino is tedious. A better, giddier time may be had with Daddy, which, in contrast to Palomino, features a man — Step by Step’s Patrick Duffy — as its sensitive central character. Daddy begins with the breakup of Duffy’s marriage to Kate Mulgrew (Man of the People). ”You have no idea what I need, much less who I am!” yells Mulgrew. We know this must come as a big shock to Duffy’s doe-eyed ad-agency exec, Oliver Watson, because just a few minutes earlier we had heard him telling someone at work, ”I have the life I always wanted, and I’m smart enough to know it.”
Hmmm — would you be willing to take an IQ test, Oliver? Turns out you didn’t even realize your wife had become completely fed up with raising three children and living in a gorgeous house. She wants to go back to college — and for a master’s degree in literature. Boy, how’s that for selfishness? And not only that, she wants to live on campus, with no kids pestering her, and, oh yes, honey: ”I think that we should be able to see other people.” Boinnng!
You’ve got to hand it to L. Virginia Browne’s teleplay of Steel’s book: With lightning narrative speed, Mulgrew’s character goes from being a smart,independent woman to an evil harpy who reduces her gentle, caring husband and her abandoned children to sobbing saps.
Our Oliver endures a period of lonely suffering — remember the formula? — until he meets Charlotte Sampson (Lynda Carter), an actress and the spokesmodel for his agency’s new ad campaign. Charlotte is beautiful and kind and loves Oliver’s children, but she must wrestle with her own private anguish — she can’t understand why she’s never been asked to star in a Broadway play (”I worked hard and I learned my craft and I’m good!”). Oliver wins Charlotte’s heart with his endearingly neurotic come-on lines — ”I have been living in a halfway world that’s driving me over the edge!” — and before you know it, Charlotte is cooing, ”You’re a very special man, Oliver.”
Both of these TV movies are directed by Michael Miller, but Daddy is the better soap opera. Duffy and Carter are superior sufferer-lovers, and while Browne’s script features many more campy howlers than I’ve quoted here, the production itself never lapses into absurdity the way Palomino’s loopy love scenes and florid triumph-over-adversity conclusion do.
Palomino and Daddy offer the escapism of idealized love, in which pain gives way to passion and people get the chance to rebuild broken lives. Done better, this is the stuff of Wuthering Heights, of The Great Gatsby — of great fiction. Done this way, it’s just counter-programming to baseball with exchanges like: ”With you, Oliver, I realize for the first time I am truly in love”; ”And Charlotte, for the last time I have fallen in love.” Kate Mulgrew with a master’s degree in literature couldn’t diagram sentences like that. C+