TV Eye

Get a Man? Get a Life

The good thing about following a series from its premiere is that you come to appreciate how it develops, how characters evolve. It's like reading a good novel; you are rewarded for your persistence with intriguing developments and satisfying revelations. The pleasure is compounded when the series seems to stake a claim outside the run-of-the-mill, when it offers the promise of being extraordinary. This year, two new shows and one ongoing favorite sparked my interest in this way: That's Life (CBS), The Gilmore Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both on the WB. However, all of these shows have stumbled into what I call (thanks to my good friend and fellow Slayer-watcher, JoAnne) the chasm of compulsory heterosexuality. This is the notion that a lead character, especially a strong woman, is not enough: She must, at all costs, find love, even if the relationship is tortured. In fact, the more tortured, the better. Naturally, this love must be with a man. Heaven forbid homosexual relationships be taken seriously on network television. (The Willow-Tara union on Buffy deserves a mention, but this is a second-tier relationship, and NBC's Will & Grace has yet to deliver.)

I don't poo-poo "hot relationships," and television has had its share of them. Frank Furillo and Joyce Davenport of NBC's Hill Street Blues (1981-87) come to mind, as do Jonathan and Jennifer Hart from the Sidney Sheldon confection Hart to Hart (ABC, 1979-1984). And you can't overlook the steamy but doomed relationship between Buffy and Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The present-day couple of the moment is the Rick Sammler-Lily Manning (Billy Campbell-Sela Ward) union on ABC's Once and Again. But must the cornerstone of every main character's story be dependent on when and with whom the main character will be bedded or wedded?

Seen that, done that. Which is why when That's Life came on the air, I was nearly apoplectic with anticipation. This is the story of Lydia DeLuca, a single, working-class woman, played engagingly by Heather Paige Kent. The only daughter of a conventional Italian family, she gives up marriage and stability to return to college at 34. No, the premise isn't entirely fresh, but its attempt to convey her desire to learn, to carve a life for herself after years of working in one thankless job after another, struck a chord with a small but devoted audience. You'd have to be devoted to catch this show in the hinterland of prime-time programming on Saturday night. Thank goodness for VCRs. The show took its troubling step into the chasm a few episodes back, when Lydia was paired up with one potential love interest after the next. As if the network, worried at the show's weak ratings, believed the only hope for saving the show was to find Lydia a man. If that weren't enough, Lydia has been infantalized by moving back home with mom and pop (the marvelous Paul Sorvino and Ellen Burstyn). I'm still holding a candle for this woman-meets-world drama, but if the tinkering continues in this direction, the original charm of the show will be lost. In fact, it seems to be diluted a great deal already. Not so with The Gilmore Girls. This show continues to surprise and delight, mainly because of its bright writing and the performance of the ebullient Lauren Graham as mom Lorelai to 16-year-old Rory (Alexis Bledel). Just when it looked like Lorelai was going to slip into the chasm, she declares to her suitor that her commitment to her daughter and their life is stronger than her desire to embark on the love boat. This act could have been altruistic in a Ma Ingalls sort of way were it not for the fact that her desire (Lorelai is only 32, after all) and fear of rejection were lurking around the corners of her declaration. Still, her choice not to place a male-female union at the top of her relationship hierarchy is refreshing and challenging.

Which brings me to Buffy. I was thrilled when love interest Riley (Mark Blucas) was taken out of the picture a few weeks ago, but I worried that Spike's (James Marsters) declaration of love for Buffy would be allowed to blossom into another ill-fated relationship. Thank goodness that's not what happened. Spike was harshly rejected in such a way that will surely send each character on a new trajectory. (Caution: Spoiler follows.) Add to this the probable passing of Buffy's mom (actress Kristine Sutherland reportedly wants to leave the show), and Buffy moves into a new stage of life, man-free, with room to explore the fullness of her slayer roots.

It's not that I'm anti-love or anti-man. But isn't it time that the complexity of all human relationships, particularly for female lead characters, is explored? Conventional network television always seems to be behind the curve when it comes to expressing what's happening or what's been happening in popular culture. I will keep hoping that these shows (and shows in the future) can bring a candid and honest light to the life of single women leading their lives and finding passion in events and relationships not intrinsically tied to marriage and motherhood.


Celebrating Writers

Turner Classic Movies continues its series featuring great screenwriters. Friday, Feb. 23, the theme is "Classic Film Writers Still Working." The featured films include: Darling (1965) written by Frederic Raphael, at 8pm; Harper (1966), written by William Goldman, at 10pm; Gore Vidal's The Best Man (1964), at 12:30am. Saturday, Feb. 24, features Writers Guild of America Laurel Award Winners. Films include: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), adapted by Bruno Frank, at 8pm; Interiors (1978) by Woody Allen at 10pm; and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, screenplay by Ernest Lehman based on the play by Edward Albee, at 1:30am. Check local listings to confirm films and show times.


Merchants of Cool

Frontline examines how popular culture is sold to today's teens. The teen market is worth an estimated $150 billion dollars. But are the so-called "merchants of cool" -- the creators and sellers of "the next big thing" targeted at teenagers -- reflecting teen desires, or have they begun to manufacture those desires in order to snag the lucrative market?

"Entertainment companies look at the teen market as part of this massive empire they're colonizing," says media critic Robert McChesney. He likens the merchants of cool purveyors to the colonial aspirations of the British Empire in the 19th century. "Teens are like Africa -- this range they're going to take over," he says. "Their weaponry are films, music, books, CDs, clothing, [and] sports teams." The Merchants of Cool airs Tuesday, Feb. 27, 10pm, on PBS. Check local listings for encore presentations.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at tveye@austinchronicle.com

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

the gilmore girls, buffy the vampire slayer, that's life

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