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Television reviews for week of May 11, 1990 -- We take a closer look at this week's TV shows

Television reviews for week of May 11, 1990

PEOPLE LIKE US NBC, PART 1: SUN., MAY 13, 9-11 P.M.; PART 2: MON., MAY 14, 9-11 P.M.

Pseudo-classy and super-trashy, People Like Us is certainly the loopiest miniseries to come along in a while. If you don't like one scene, just wait — a few minutes later, something completely different will come along that'll really amuse you.

Based on Dominick Dunne's best-selling novel of the same name, the four-hour People Like Us wanders all over the place: It's a revenge story about a father out to get the guy who killed his daughter; it's a fairy tale about how the nouveaux riches get riche-er; it's an exposé of old-money snobbery; it's a thriller about how Martians have been controlling National League baseball for the past 50 years. Well, that last one I made up, but it's a measure of just how silly and complicated People Like Us is that that could have been a subplot.

The TV movie stars Ben Gazzara as a well-to-do writer who chronicles the rich and famous — just the way Dominick Dunne does in his real-life Vanity Fair profiles. And early on in People Like Us, Gazzara's daughter is murdered — just as Dunne's daughter was in real life.

People Like Us is also about a lout named Elias Renthal (Dennis Farina) and his long-suffering wife, Ruby (Connie Sellecca). Elias hasshit it big as an investor, but the movie wants us to think he doesn't deserve his wealth because he has no taste — why, he pronounces the ''t'' in Monet and buys art masterpieces because they match the color of his living-room drapes! In Dominick Dunne's world, vulgarity is the greatest sin.

I guess the Renthals, real-estate moguls and social climbers, are supposed to be variations on Donald and Ivana Trump. As Gazzara moves through upper- class society, we meet a gossipy writer played by Paul Williams, who I guess is supposed to be Truman Capote.

And there's a handsome, vain TV anchorman (Robert Desiderio), who I guess is supposed to be. . .oh gee, take your pick. The anchorman gets involved with the daughter of a fabulously wealthy, old-money New York family; her brother is dying of AIDS.

How does all this tie together? It doesn't; People Like Us just jumps around. Characters from different subplots start chatting and you think, ''Hey, wait a minute — has she ever met him before?'' No matter.

Gazzara adds weight to this air-headed movie, and Sellecca is completely charming in what could have been a bland good-girl role. Best of all is Gary Frank, who plays the young man with AIDS. You might remember Frank as the huffy son on Family; he has become a fine character actor whose recent TV roles have been too small.

The direction, by Billy Hale, is fascinatingly odd in one respect: Sometimes scenes are shot from Gazzara's point of view, the camera moving in on a character as if Gazzara were walking up to that person.

But Hale isn't consistent; sometimes scenes aren't shot from Gazzara's point of view, with the result that you never know exactly how much information Gazzara is supposed to have about any given character. It's as if Hale had come up with a clever idea and then abandoned it halfway through filming.

People Like Us congratulates us on the fact that the rich aren't like us: Most of the wealthy are shown to be homophobic, anti-Semitic, and deeply unhappy.

And if we didn't get this point after four hours, Gazzara even has a little speech in which he says, ''All the money in the world can't protect you from tragedy and heartbreak.''

Boy, ain't that the truth. Brother, can you spare a miniseries? B-

SHATTERED DREAMS CBS, SUN., MAY 13, 9-11 P.M.

Well acted and direeted, Shattered Dreams comes on all solemn and earnest, promising to teach you an important moral message. But ultimately it trivializes the subject of spousal abuse and tries to appeal to your basest instincts, urging you to think of extreme cruelty and pain as prime-time entertainment.

In this case, it's all the worse that Shattered Dreams is based on real life. It's the story of Charlotte Fedders, who went public as the battered wife of John Fedders, director of enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission during the Reagan administration.

Based on Charlotte Fedders' book of the same name, Shattered Dreams is as predictably relentless as you might imagine: We watch a cheerful, innocent Lindsay Wagner as Charlotte marry handsome, friendly Michael Nouri as John.

We watch, increasingly upset, as nice John turns into a moody workaholic who takes out his frustrations on Charlotte — slapping her in the face, knocking her down, punching her in the stomach when she's pregnant.

David J. Hill's screenplay for Shattered Dreams contains a lot of standard psychobabble and a lot of good advice for viewers who have been abused, and the movie has a reasonably happy ending: Charlotte leaves John, writes her book, and starts lecturing women's organizations about her ordeal.

But Shattered Dreams isn't about its upbeat last few minutes; it's about almost two hours of unspeakable suffering. Naturally, Charlotte's beatings are shown in a discreet manner that doesn't violate prime-time standards of taste.

But one result of such tastefulness is that the movie ends up making him seem like a reasonably decent fellow who lashed out when he cracked under pressure from his job. Give me a break.

Lindsay Wagner is first-rate, holding your attention by refusing to pander to the melodrama of the movie, and Nouri, with his calm, dead eyes, does the best he can with a part that calls for schizophrenic extremes of behavior.

No matter how good the performances are, however, I'd feel like the worst sort of creep if I recommended that you spend an evening watching this sort of behavior. D

FRONTLINE: SEVEN DAYS IN BENSONHURST PBS, TUE., MAY 15, 9-10 P.M.

This very strong edition of Frontline takes a New York media sensation — the 1989 murder of a 16-year-old black youth during an attack by a group of whites — and expands it to create a vivid metaphor for race relations throughout American history.

Yusuf Hawkins had gone to the predominantly white Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn with three friends to look at a used car for sale. Withininn hour, he was dead, after he and his friends were accosted by 30 local white men, some of them armed with baseball bats and at least one carrying a gun.

The trial of Hawkins' alleged attackers is still going on — it's a big story in New York — but Shelby Steele, a writer and professor at San Jose State University, pulls Hawkins' death away from the headlines and invests it with greater meaning than any ordinary news report.

Steele follows what happened immediately after Hawkins' murder. Blacks and civil rights leaders led a march through the streets of Bensonhurst, demanding justice and an end to racial hatred; they were met with crowds of jeering whites shouting racial epithets. Hawkins also had the bad luck to be killed during a mayoral election campaign; Steele shows us squads of politicians, from candidates David Dinkins and Ed Koch to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Gov. Mario Cuomo, trooping in to express their condolences and snag a good photo opportunity. ''Both black and white politicians,'' Steele notes, ''were drawn to Yusuf's body, as though in lifelessness it contained a power they all needed.''

Perhaps most important of all, Steele shows us Hawkins' father, Moses Stewart. We've become used to the idea that when people are caught up in a tragedy, they act sad and vulnerable in front of the TV cameras. But Moses Stewart was — and still is — angry that this should have happened to his son. Articulate and impassioned, he speaks about the politics that surround a death like this.

The most chilling moment of Seven Days in Bensonhurst occurs near the end, after we've seen all the mourners, and all the politicians hugging Yusuf's mother, Diane Hawkins, and Moses Stewart.

''How many of these people have contacted you since that time?'' Shelby Steele asks several months after the killing.

''None,'' Moses says with a bitter smile.

''Not one?'' says Steele.

''Not a one.''

Steele draws comparisons between Yusuf Hawkins and Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Mississippi black who was murdered by whites in 1955 for whistling at a white woman; he interviews a black Brooklyn resident who remarks, ''You know, Bensonhurst should have been the Selma of the '80s.''

With Seven Days in Bensonhurst, Shelby Steele has written the television version of a first-rate essay. A

BREWSTER PLACE ABC, WED., MAY 16, 9:30-10 P.M.

While it's not remotely as good as Twin Peaks, Brewster Place is yet another example of the fact that ABC is trying things no other network would attempt.

In this case, we have a half-hour drama featuring a black cast that tries to show the strength and difficulties of lower-middle-class family life.

One of the show's executive producers is Oprah Winfrey, who also reprises the role she had last year in the TV-movie version of Gloria Naylor's award-winning novel The Women of Brewster Place. As Mattie Michael, Winfrey is the show's wise, kindly centerpiece, and Mattie's luncheonette, a neighborhood gathering place, is where each week's story begins.

So far, the Brewster Place stories have been gentle cautionary tales, occasions for Winfrey to rumble in a voice-over, ''Little did I know what a test this day would put us to. . .''

There's something warm and comforting about Brewster Place, and something complacent and artificial as well. It didn't surprise me at all to learn that another of the show's executive producers is Earl Hamner, who oversaw The Waltons — Winfrey's all-seeing, all-knowing voice-overs are very reminiscent of the ones Hamner himself used to intone at the start of a Waltons tale.

So far, the scripts have been lightweight. But, filled with solid actors of all ages, Brewster Place could become an urban version of The Waltons-not a bad idea at all. B-

Originally posted May 11, 1990 Published in issue #13 May 11, 1990 Order article reprints