The Yellow Brick Road



Amid the glitzy May blitz of we'll-show-anything-to-get-your-attention programming, there's something very comforting about the presence of The Wizard of Oz (5/8 7:30pm, CBS). In this, the second-to-last week of the 1998 spring ratings sweeps, you'll be plied with season finales, guest appearances, and ludicrously hyped "specials." The Wizard of Oz is an oasis in that desert.

The yellow brick road unfolds on television for the 39th time since its small-screen debut November 3, 1956 on CBS. Expect many annoying commercial breaks in this showing, as the 101-minute film is being stretched across two-and-a-half hours of prime time scheduling.

Watching The Wizard of Oz is like being able to go home again. Its childlike sense of wonder holds up remarkably well in these days of dazzling special effects; the make-up and costuming still capture the imagination. When Mattel first came out with their Wizard of Oz Barbie collection a while back, I stood in Toys R Us and stared dreamily at Glinda the Good Witch in her peach-tulle-with-iridescent-trim glory, desperately wishing I were nine years old again. (The reality is that if I were nine and had the Glinda Barbie, her dress would have doubtless ended up worn by our pet Chihuahua and the doll strung up naked for target practice by G.I.Joe-loving brothers.) I also didn't know The Wizard of Oz had color footage until I was in my teens. When I discovered that, I felt even more deprived by my parents' unwillingness to get a color TV (although I was busy rejecting their other middle-class values).

As an adult, I watch The Wizard of Oz every chance I get. Which is more wonderful, Judy Garland's luminous portrayal of Dorothy Gale or Margaret Hamilton's unforgettable Wicked Witch? Who in the audience doesn't smile at Munchkinland or the Emerald City? And whose heart doesn't dance to "If I Only Had A Brain"?

Time has given Oz a very special place in our hearts and our culture. Director David Lynch liberally sprinkled Oz references throughout Wild At Heart. Pink Floyd created an auxiliary soundtrack with Dark Side of the Moon. Phrases such as "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" and "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" are part of our slang. And Harold Arlen's Academy Award-winning "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is as much a part of American music as "Happy Birthday."

There are few surprises in The Wizard of Oz, and maybe that's one of the reasons it endears itself to us. We know the twister will sweep Dorothy away. We know the munchkins will dance to "The Lullabye League" and "The Lollipop Guild." We know the trees and flying monkeys will menace the travelers but that the Wicked Witch will melt when Dorothy dashes water on her. And still, The Wizard of Oz charms enduringly as few other films have been able to do.

So what is on the schedule for this week that the networks hope will attract your precious attention? Astonishingly enough, another film likely to retain its charm in decades to come is showing the following night.

Babe (5/9, 7pm ABC) won a Golden Globe and the National Society of Film Critics for Best Movie of 1995, as well as an Oscar for visual effects. It's hard not to go overboard (I've seen it at least a dozen times) about a "family film," but Babe's guilelessness and genuine charm is irresistable. Brilliant, even.

The folks at ABC, however, would like to get the jump on Babe's "cute factor" two nights before with what is being touted as a "one-hour reality special" hosted by "the ABC host puppies." Awww, The Puppies Present: Incredible Animal Tales (5/7, 7pm ABC) looks simply adorable but that could just be a result of finally getting to watch Teletubbies (Weekdays, 6am KLRU) while in New Orleans last week. (Like many other sane things N.O. offers, Teletubbies is on in the evenings so adults can watch. I wish they were on at night here in Austin.)

A season finale well worth catching is The Practice (5/11, 9pm ABC). Because I like The Practice but don't watch it regularly, I'm hoping it will eventually get picked up like Law and Order (weeknights, 10pm A&E), so that I can watch lots of it. Meanwhile, since the show often draws its stories from contemporary cases, this closing plot sounds like it might be based on Betty Shabazz.

Ellen (5/13, 8pm ABC) will not only make its last appearance but will serve as sort of a test case. While not wholly successful as a sitcom — it was always uneven in its writing — Ellen will prove to be a noble effort in the long run. The argument that the outing of Ellen Morgan hurt the show is sort of obfuscating — this show always had an identity crisis. It wasn't even called Ellen to begin with; it was These Friends of Mine when it first aired in the spring of 1994. Ellen Morgan was initially a bookstore employee but in the show's first makeover, she became the owner. Her original co-stars, those old friends of hers, were dropped and new ones brought in. With all that waffling in her screen life, is it really surprising Morgan was hesitant to come out and say "I'm gay"?

Maybe it was that not all comics make good comic actors. As a stand-up comedienne, Ellen DeGeneres was very polished, using routines that were self-deprecating but affectionately so. Her humor was never mean, though it could be pointed. Still, Ellen the show just never quite matched the warmth of Ellen the comic.

I am guessing that this final episode may be closest to what Ellen might have become had it not suffered from identity crisis. This one-hour, This Is Your Life-like "mockumentary" is hosted by Linda Ellerbee and features a jaw-dropping number of guests including Helen Hunt, Jada Pinkett Smith, Woody Harrelson, Glenn Close, Cindy Crawford, Julianna Margulies, Christine Lahti, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Phil Donahue, and Diahann Carroll. That's a high-powered sendoff for someone who was unceremoniously dumped.

Too bad DeGeneres couldn't have closed her eyes, clicked her ruby slippers together three times and said "there's nowhere like Kansas."

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