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THANKS TO CABLE, THERE IS LIFE ON THE TUBE IN SUMMER

He's in a strange town in a strange country, exiled by an angry father. By day, he's required to listen to an effete, epicene man tell him how to sell cosmetics. By night, he's bored to death. So he lets a couple of Sybaritic classmates take him to a decadent and very unusual nightclub.

He sees a very strange act there. A slimy fellow in shades, somewhere between a carnival barker and a pimp, introduces the beautiful Musidora, a woman with a peculiar gift. As she stands there with a self-possessed smile, the fellow in shades shoves a cavalry sword so deep into her midriff that it comes out her back. Then he slowly pulls it out the same way it went in.

There isn't an ounce of blood on the blade. Nor is there a wound. The smooth skin of her back and midriff is inviolate. He invites others in the audience to plunk down their cash and perform the same stunt on the willing, smiling Musidora.

Sex, love and dire consequences ensue, all in a compellingly odd 30-minute package. And then two more stories of similar length and darkly erotic tenor.

That was from last Sunday's bang-up premiere of Showtime's "The Hunger," a new TV series that marks the first TV offering by the Scott Brothers, Ridley and Tony, two of the most visually gifted and erratic film-makers alive. (Ridley gave us "Blade Runner" and "Thelma and Louise" and, in mid-August, weighs into theaters with "GI Jane." Tony gave us "Top Gun," "True Romance" and "Days of Thunder.") Other stories in the opening trilogy also seemed like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" gone topless.

"The Hunger" now stakes out macabre territory every Sunday night on Showtime for a while.

Try this scene from tonight's premiere episode of "Stargate SG-1" on Showtime at 8. It's a generic supermarket sci-fi sequel to the humorless but hugely successful movie whose creators took it as an object lesson in everything they needed to do better in their next movie, a little thing called "Independence Day" of which you may have heard. (See Page 24 for the lowdown on "Stargate SG-1.")

The movie's astral travelers have gone back through the Stargate to the other planet, see. The old buddy they left there -- the brilliant, sneezing dweeb originally played by James Spader -- has taken up with a gorgeous, voluptuous Esmeralda type who is, unfortunately, kidnapped by the astral bad guys. Like old, slavering B-movie aliens everywhere, it seems they want nothing more than to steal women, dress them in low-cut, sheer dresses and put them in harems. (Who could forget that classic Z-movie title "Mars Needs Women"?)

What do they want with the Esmeralda type? In between battling American grunts, the space goombas want to take off her clothes, reveal her in her splendor, lay her out on a table and see if their slimy, parasitic reptilian leader wants to use her body as its newest host.

Why won't aliens ever behave? At that point, true to cable TV, Saturday matinee movies suddenly sprout skin. A 20-part series will follow, with more extraterrestrial misbehavior from lecherous space creatures.

Here's another snippet -- this one from another Saturday-matinee-filled program this evening, TNT's fond, if generally unremarkable, "Big Guns Talk: The Story of the Western." Maggie Greenwald, the director of the quietly remarkable film "The Ballad of Little Joe," talks about her movie's heroine, one of a bunch of documented cases of very real women who lived in the Old West and passed as men until their deaths. (Was she or wasn't she? Only her undertaker knew for sure.)

It seems, says Greenwald, that the real Little Jo went west in the first place because she had disgraced her upper-crust family somewhere back east -- Buffalo, Greenwald thought.

If true, that lays out genteel society in 19th century Buffalo as the unofficial beginning of the story that turned into one of the few genuinely revisionist westerns of the past 15 years (far more so, I think, than Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" or Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves").

But the most touching thing of all about "Big Guns Talk" (which airs on TNT tonight at 8) is what you see when James Garner, the narrator, introduces each section. He is required to amble through various conspicuous western movie sets -- dusty streets, etc. -- as he delivers his lines. Garner's now of an age where such a simple thing is no longer easy. He's audibly short of breath after a very few steps. In a very curious and subtle way, it lends a kind of odd, unexpected and added poignancy to what is, otherwise, a pleasant but very unexceptional two-hour quilt of clips from great movie westerns.

I reviewed almost every single one of John Wayne's latter-day westerns after the cancer surgery that required the removal of one of his lungs. Wayne's line delivery -- always oddly parsed -- was then totally dependent on the amount of air in his remaining lung. The longer his career went on, the more his lines were kept as short, quiet and sparse as possible for his lung's sake.

Garner's health problems are obviously not that severe. But for a while, it's as if this wonderful movie and TV figure is speaking to us with the very sound of the western in twilight decline. It is, as I said, unexpectedly touching.

What all this means is that the summer rerun doldrums are over. Gone. Goodbye. Courtesy of the Fox network and cable TV (where Showtime is calling what it's doing "All-Out Summer"), the networks can continue to hoist themselves on their own rerun petard this summer while cable TV is going to do all kinds of uncommonly interesting things at a time of year the networks usually turn into a used car lot.

Courtesy of HBO, for instance, Tom Fontana has been able to continue and refine his investigation of claustrophobia and its effect on the soul in "Oz," a series of hourlong dominance rituals set in prison that no self-respecting major network would ever want to hear about in a meeting, much less grubstake. As a laceratingly revisionist result, all the S & M that was left out of prison dramas in the Cagney-Bogart-George Raft era seems ever-present in a TV series.

Take that, Ozzie and Harriet.

God bless cable TV. There is a cure for the summertime blues after all.

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