Mi Amigo Loco

TV Eye

The Bitch is Back: Joan Collins sashays back onto the small screen in FOX's Wednesday night potboiler Pacific Palisades.

"Lemurs," Keith Ferguson's voice would cryptically announce, with an excited lilt that was much different from the gravelly monotone he reserved for just about everything and only varied if someone mentioned Antonio Bribiesca, Lydia Mendoza... or lemurs. "Lemurs are on TV."

"The Birds & Bees Channel?" I teased him.

"Yes," Ferguson would reply.

This was a mid-Eighties ritual with him and my soon-to-be ex-husband Rollo. Anytime something came on the one nature channel our cable system had then that involved lemurs, lowland gorillas, or other odd mammals, I could be sure the phone would ring and Ferguson would be apprising us of the details.

Rollo would hang up and dutifully change channels. Sometimes they would call each other during the program, and I would see Rollo with the phone at his ear, the TV on, and nothing being said. Then an occasional comment about opposable thumbs or prehensile tails might be uttered, but that would be all. After about 30 minutes, the receiver would be replaced in the cradle and I could get the TV back to myself. Unless a special about platypuses was about to start....

The husband is history but that's how I got hooked on the birds & bees channel. Since then, The Discovery Channel (DISC) and The Learning Channel (TLC) have provided endless hours of viewing and entertainment on subjects ranging from DNA testing in law enforcement to Genghis Khan's childhood. I have roamed through Scottish castles looking for ghosts, learned to cook a favorite Thai dish, and sailed high seas with pirate queen Anne Bonny. I followed the Yellow Silk Road throughout its nine-week run and regularly share details of Operation with my office-mate (this week: a Caesarean section, 5/3 at 7and 10pm, TLC).

Unfortunately, the quality of the programming on these two networks is often woefully inadequate. Daytime hours are crammed with cooking and home-oriented shows that make me wonder if I have accidently tuned into the Lifetime Network. While shows like the Yellow Silk Road, Horde From the East, and Operation represent the higher-end of programs, the ones that really peak my interest are often overly glossy and lacking in depth, letting graphics carry the content, perhaps a legacy of the Burns brothers' style of documentary-making. The current Legends of the Isles series is such a case -- last week was a pastiche of figures from Celtic mythology. While the reanactment and costumery was charming, it seemed remarkably devoid of hard info. An episode on St. Patrick is up next (5/2, 7:30 and 10:30, TLC), and a little-recognized Irish female pirate named Grace O'Malley is scheduled for upcoming segments of Legends of the Isles.

When these networks produce a winner, as the Discovery Channel did with the recent Titanic: Anatony of a Disaster it's a success the scale of the ship itself. The premiere of that special that aired on the 85th anniversary of its sinking broke records for DISC rating, and was seen in 3.2 million households with cable, astonishing numbers for the network. Complete with graphic computer depiction of what really happened to the luxury liner on its maiden voyage, the two-hour special was fascinating for the most part and deadly dull in others, but a clear indicator of the quality the network is capable of achieving. Contrast numbers like that with the Arts & Entertainment Network's Ivanhoe, whose first part was seen in 2.25 million cable households, the third-best numbers ever for a drama on cable.

While finishing this column, I noticed a program on wildebeest migration tonight and one on wolverines later this week (5/3, 7 and 11pm, DISC). Damn it to hell -- I can't call Keith Ferguson and tell him.

Yes, It IS Sweeps time: You didn't really think they'd let Ellen come out of the closet on spring break, did you? It's too early to tell how its ratings went but they will doubtless make ABC executives smile. They may need it, since their hoped-for cash cow The Shining came in third in the ratings on its first night (behind CBS and FOX) but won the top spot on its second showing Monday night. We'll just have to wait to see how it did against NBC's top-rated Thursday night lineup, including the usual first-place winner, ER... On KLRU this week, the American Masters Special presents Jack Paar: As I Was Saying... (5/7, 9pm), a two-hour profile on the seminal talk-show host. The Austin City Limits segment with Nanci Griffith and Iris Dement debuts this week also (5/3, 7pm, repeats 5/9 at 11pm)... Bette Midler guest stars in The Nanny (5/7, 7pm, CBS), followed by the first part of Knot's Landing: Back to the Cul-de-sac (5/7, 8pm CBS). This might qualify for what FOX has lately been calling "events" if that weren't just another cheesy way of yanking in audiences to make the Nielsens look good... Joan Collins stepped back into Spelling-land when she made her grand sweep (there's that word again!) back onto the small screen on last week's Pacific Palisades. The latest creation from the mind that brought you Models Inc. brings back one of the trashiest villians ever to one of the trashiest (i.e. fun to watch) programs on television. Pacific Palisades premiered three weeks ago in 60th place, dropped dramatically the next week but pulled back up to 77th place. It's also safe to bet that the network will move PP to a more appropriate slot, say, after Melrose Place on Mondays, leaving the aging teens of Beverly Hills 90210 to, well, age some more. Fox has ordered an additional 13 episodes of its PG-14 dry-hump drama for showing this summer, and that's before they can get Joan Collins back into a pool! It was interesting to see ex-90210er Luke Perry tell TV Guide "Somebody has to have enough sense to pull the plug and say, `You know what? It's great what we've got now. But if we go any further it's going to be less and less and less.'" We who, Luke? You're off the series!

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