ABC's Prey is a “Darwinian” thriller about a recently evolved race of not-quite-humans who, because “two species cannot occupy the same evolutionary space,” are constrained by natural law – it's nothing personal – to kill all Homo sapiens in order to survive. (In which business they proceed – classical alien implacability, superior intelligence and a handy sixth sense notwithstanding – with marvelous inefficiency). The series is the latest in a long line of Aliens Among Us creepshows that runs back at least to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and takes in TV's own The Invaders, with the very slight twist that here the aliens are not, strictly speaking, alien, but a local product: We have met the enemy, and he is us, almost. Global warming is adduced as having something to do with their existence – I detect here a hint of ecological comeuppance – but though the heroine wears a lab coat, and phrases like “evolutionary advantage” and “biological imperative” are slung about with studied insouciance, nothing I know of the origin of species suggests that any of this is remotely possible, faintly plausible or bloody likely. Indeed, the show is so generously preposterous, so broadly drawn, so ripely dialogued, it defeats argument; you might as well ask why anyone still lives in Sunnyvale, what with the vampires and the Hellmouth and all. If you want scientific realism, the Discovery Channel's just a click away; if it's logical consistency you're after, there's still Seinfeld.
The entire show is anyway just a big tension machine, a giant device to weekly imperil plucky, quietly glamorous “bioanthropologist” Debra Messing (late of Ned and Stacey) and provide her occasions to widen her eyes, and drop her jaw, and mess up her fine head of curly hair; the details are just dressing on her disarray. She's well up to it, without being too obviously superheroic, and up as well to the triangular romance the writers throw in for complication, femme appeal, and to distinguish their show from the relentlessly chaste The X-Files, from which they've borrowed a moody trick or three and an undercurrent of government conspiracy. Though a trifle slow at times, and seemingly insensible to its essential Saturday-serial cheesiness – its best feature, really – Prey nevertheless makes a perfectly diverting hour of fantasy trash.
The Disney Channel's Bug Juice is an 18-part series that details the true-life adventures of a cabin's worth each of boys and girls, ages 12 to 15, during two months of summer at picture-post-card Camp Waziyatah, in Waterford, Maine. Anyone who's spent much time prostate before MTV will by opening-credits' end recognize this video-documentary-cum-soap-opera of young strangers living cooperatively (or not) in an idyllic setting away from home as a barely post-pubescent version of The Real World (which Bug Juice co-director Donald Bull formerly edited), and it's just as compulsively watchable, not to mention somewhat less annoying: It's okay to act 14 when you actually are 14. The young people of Waziyatah arrive (by bus, by car) not yet too cool for school, not yet wholly complicated by sex and drugs and SATs, still willing to believe in team spirit, the magic of campfires and the possibility of perfection. Not that storm clouds can't be seen on the horizon – there'll be tears before September. (Saw it in the previews.) There'll be swimming, too. And basketball. And cross-dressing. (Really, there will.) And cliques. And couples. (I'm not sure about lanyards – is it camp without lanyards?) Boys and girls will become, if not men and women, at least slightly bigger, better boys and girls. It's all charming in the extreme, and a life I never lived, and I'll watch as often as I can remember to.
My own summers were usually spent at a little place we might call Camp Whatsontoday. (Our motto: “All right, all right, I'll go out outside – in a while.”) How fondly I remember those fast hikes to the refrigerator, the always helpful (TV) guides, that “good-tired” feeling after a long day soaking up the cathode rays. It was just such early training that gave me the stamina and the discrimination for the work I do now, not to mention the thorough pallor and poor muscle tone that mark me till this day.
Still, I can be tempted out. Next week the Museum of Television & Radio opens its 15th annual William S. Paley Television Festival, a dozen star-studded evenings devoted to past and present series of “artistic merit, cultural impact or historical significance” (which is to say, they don't have to be good so long as they're popular). While there is an “educational” element to these events, the possibility of really learning something about the making of a TV show, for many the more powerful draw will of course be the chance to see one's favorite artistes impaneled in the celebrated flesh – real life takes off 10 pounds, they say – and one's favorite shows projected sci-fi size in a real theater. Among this year's honorees are several endorsed by this department, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (March 4), King of the Hill (March 13) and – a double shot of David Kelley – Ally McBeal (March 9) and The Practice (March 16), all shows that, if nothing else, have helped make the word hit more a relative than absolute term. (It's a good thing.) Out of the past come the unseen-in-40-years uncut version of “Lucy Takes a Cruise to Havana” (March 3, with famed writers Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Davis on hand) and Fernwood 2-Night (March 11), which looks a sure bet for hilarity, given the projected presence onstage of Martin Mull, Fred Willard, Harry Shearer, Frank De Vol and – who knew? – “producer/writer” Alan Thicke. Also boding well: John Cleese on Fawlty Towers (March 5) and An Evening With Penn & Teller (March 7), which, while no more relevant to real TV history than, say, An Evening With Topo Gigio, will more than likely be worth your $15 ($13 for museum members, seniors and students with ID – or, I suppose, anyone with a fake student ID. But you didn't hear that from me).
Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls, an HBO-financed documentary about Birmingham, Alabama, in the rough days between Brown vs. The Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and focusing on the fatal bombing, in September 1963, of the 16th Street Baptist Church, comes to the small screen this week after a limited theatrical release last fall (to qualify, perhaps, for the Oscar nomination it has indeed received). Smartly photographed by Ellen Kuras (I Shot Andy Warhol, Unzipped) and edited and scored, respectively, by frequent Lee collaborators Sam Pollard and Terence Blanchard, the film is artfully made, its occasional excesses of style moderated by the plain force of the content and the passion of the testimony. Pointed without being polemical, it seeks to locate the personal within the political, the local within the historical, and to rescue Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins (all 14, forever) and Denise McNair (11) from mere martyrdom – to memorialize not just the taking of their lives but the lives that were taken. There's no narrator, and scant attempt to put segregation in context, or to “explain” what's plainly beneath; yet the story, told in interviews and newsreels, family photos and the preserved fragments of interrupted adolescence – dolls and diplomas, merit badges, musical instruments – gathers itself from several directions, never less than sensibly, to move with quiet force toward its heartbreaking climax and surprisingly hopeful conclusion. As memories fade, memorials are made; this is a fine gift to posterity and to the present.
PREYABCThursdays, 8 p.m.
BUG JUICEDisney ChannelSundays, 5 p.m., beginning March 1
“Sneak preview,” Saturday, February 28, 8:30 p.m.
THE MUSEUM OF TELEVISION & RADIO's 15th ANNUAL WILLIAM S. PALEY TELEVISION FESTIVALDirectors Guild of America7920 Sunset Blvd. (310) 786-1000 (888) ETM-TIXS
4 LITTLE GIRLSHBOPremieres Monday, February 23, 9 p.m.