Photo by M. GrossmanWITH THE NEWS THAT GARY OLDMAN HAS SIGNED to play Pontius Pilate in an upcoming CBS TV movie about the life of Jesus — the rest of the cast, as of this writing, has yet to be announced, but I'll be surprised if Armand Assante isn't in there somewhere — and with small-screen spectaculars devoted to Cleopatra, Noah's Ark and Joan of Arc (no relation) having aired recently or about to air, network TV is looking a lot like Hollywood in the '50s. Spooked then by the new medium of television, which offered fare of varying quality but all of it at least superficially gratis, the tottering studios devised the modern motion-picture blockbuster — sweeping historical and religious epics, widescreen and stereophonic, of unparalleled expense, with star-studded, international casts of thousands and as sexy as possible within the moral aesthetics of the age of Eisenhower — in order to lure the sprouting couch potato back into the theater. Assailed by cable on one flank and the Internet on the other, the broadcast networks now occupy similar shaky ground, and although TV blockbusters and major miniseries are often specifically engineered for sweeps — the sham that will not die — it seems to me not unlikely that there is also a kind of honest pride involved in their production: They are meant to demonstrate that the Columbia, American and National broadcasting systems can still make programs that are not only ratings magnets, but important and special and just as interesting as anything you can see on HBO.
You may note, however, that few of those big old Hollywood spectaculars were much good — it's a day's work extracting anything of substance from the glitter and the gloss and the glory that was Rome, or Alexandria, or Waterloo — and that the television variants as well misfire much more often than not. “Importance” is not a signal quality of good art (though it is of much bad art) and has even less to do with entertainment. And while it's not impossible to tell a huge tale that also resonates intimately (Dickens did), as a rule it's the small, narrowly focused story that best communicates large and complex ideas: A Lesson Before Dying, a superior social drama from HBO based on a big-selling, Oprah-endorsed novel by Ernest J. Gaines and set in small-town Louisiana of the late 1940s, works as well as it does because it is curious about one thing — what does self-improvement mean in the face of imminent death — and that as regards only two people, a black kid wrongly convicted of murder and the dissatisfied plantation schoolteacher dispatched by the boy's godmother to “make him know he's a man” and not, as his own defense attorney had argued, “a hog.” It adverts to, is rooted in, but does not attempt a comprehensive critique of racial inequality in postwar America.
The pairing of conflicted professor and recalcitrant student is a familiar one — in the '30s the protagonists would have been New York City Irish; in the '50s, Italian; in the '60s, the London toughs softened by Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love — and the characters and situations sometimes skirt stock. But the nicely detailed writing, notwithstanding a stump speech or two, and the uniformly good performances — from Don Cheadle (Boogie Nights, TV's Picket Fences and HBO's The Rat Pack), Mekhi Phifer (Soul Food), Cicely Tyson (who starred a few decades back in another TV adaptation of a Gaines novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), Irma P. Hall (Beloved) and Frank Hoyt Taylor especially — keep things close to real. Directed by Joseph Sargent, who also helmed HBO's Miss Evers' Boys, the film never lapses into melodrama — perhaps because, plotwise, the end of the story is locked into place within the first five or 10 minutes. The kid is going to die, and no one's going to dig up new evidence or petition the governor for clemency; it's that certainty against which the action beats and which drives the drama inward, making of the subtle shift from resignation to acceptance an epic climax. All that change here are perceptions.
SHOWTIME'S ROCKY MARCIANO REMINDS US THAT even the most successful, public and closely followed lives are not necessarily the stuff of which movies can or should be made. A parade, a pageant, a postage stamp, perhaps — indeed, Marciano's stamp comes out at the end of this month, just shy of the 30th anniversary of the never-bested heavyweight's death in a small-plane crash. But film, pace Andy Warhol, demands a little narrative tension, or at least the committed exploration of an idea. Or special effects. Or sex.
It doesn't help from a dramatic standpoint that the picture treats its subject as a thoroughly nice and fairly uncomplicated guy (if maybe a little weird about his money), nor that Jon Favreau (Swingers), who naturally exudes an air of thorough niceness, has been cast in the title role. (He's got the muscles for it, though.) This Rocky is a good son, a good friend, a good husband and about the sweetest person you could ever ask to beat the crap out of you. He cried, really he did, when he defeated his boyhood hero, Joe Louis. Hay might have been made from exploring the effects on a thoroughly nice guy of a career in knocking people senseless, but was not. According to a Sports Illustrated article several years back, Rocky in his later years cheated on his taxes and his wife and consorted with Mafiosi, but frankly I am happy to believe that in life he was the pussycat the film makes him out to be, and would state furthermore that there's no decent reason he should be represented as otherwise, having done the world little or no harm.
But that just takes us back to the question of why we are here; and having no more compelling idea, they have merely dropped Marciano into an old Warner Bros.style fight picture (with Raging Bull the model for the actual fights), in which by hard work, determination and a devastating right arm, a poor kid escapes the shoe factory, gets the girl and builds his pop a real bocce court, including the crushed oyster shells you need to make the ball roll right. Indeed, the picture has little to do with the real world and everything to do with the movies: You get a fresh-faced love interest (Penelope Ann Miller, a summer's day), aged immigrant parents (with George C. Scott wheezing like a thousand-year-old Chico Marx through a role I can only hope proves to be the worst of his career), a criminal element, and a greedy manager (Judd Hirsch, half awake), none of whom, unfortunately, lasts more than a round with the filmmakers' attention. Go to your corners, and don't come out.
WILD!LIFE ADVENTURES, CO-PRODUCED BY THE National Wildlife Federation (the nation's largest member-supported conservation group, it says here) and Turner Original Productions, is constructed on the quite sensible proposition that people are more likely to consider your case, your cause — to get with the program, so to speak — if there's a celebrity present, or a celebrity presenter. Past episodes have included Billy Ray Cyrus communing with the bald eagle and Mariel Hemingway exploring Panama. (How could I have missed them?) In the current edition, Wild City, the zoological wonders of the untamed corners and beaten paths of Central Park are explored by Isabella Rossellini (something of a wonder of nature herself), and if it's just about what you'd expect — squirrels, raccoons, birds, turtles, fish and bugs — it's also more than you might realize, a thriving world (an ecosystem!) of enormous variety, independent of and intersecting our own. Ospreys! Eagles! Red-headed woodpeckers! Red-tailed hawks nesting across Fifth Avenue in the old stonework of the robber barons! (Way station or home to more than 300 species of birds, the park is classified as a “migrant trap” — much in the tradition of the city itself, one would have to say.)
Technically, the show's a bit of a hodgepodge, mixing lovely film and ordinary video, and as a person of delicate sensibility, I had to squint through parts of it — the food-chain shots, the supermagnified insects and the unsuccessful rescue of a dying swan — but overall it's as delightful an hour as you're likely to find from channels 1 to 99. We are perhaps never more human than when we care for animals, and Wild City offers a range of inspiringly sympathetic citizens, from professional habitat-builders to squirrel-nursing amateurs, from bird-watching businessmen to raccoon-besotted security guards. “My pets are the pets out here,” says one, preparing a feast of shelled peanuts, cat food, bread, salami and bologna. “I don't like to cage anything. Nobody likes to be in jail.” Kleenex, please.
A LESSON BEFORE DYING | HBO | Premieres Saturday, May 22, 9:30 p.m.
ROCKY MARCIANO | Showtime | Premieres Saturday, May 15, 8 p.m.
WILD CITY | TBS | Wednesday, May 19, 7:05 p.m.