TRASH These days we’re used to TV series regularly offering better, more serious, and more relevant drama than mainstream movies, a notion unthinkable not long ago. But even at the height of boob tube silliness, when zero cable alternatives and FCC strictures resulted in mostly bland programming, there was some room for deviation from formula. That room was primarily occupied by TV movies, which began being produced in 1964. By decade’s end they were a broadcast staple, earning strong ratings and lessening the need for networks to purchase old theatrical-release films for broadcast.
In the 1970s TV movies would increasingly take on social issues. That kind of activist edge was still pretty rare, however, when two little-remembered telepics the Vortex Room is showing on Thursday, July 14 first aired. Both are dated relics stylistically but surprisingly prescient politically.
The Man (1972), which was given a brief theatrical release after being made for ABC, was adapted from Irving Wallace’s trashy bestseller by The Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling — fair enough, since its conceit must have seemed science fiction at the time. James Earl Jones plays a fusty academic Senate president pro tempore suddenly swept into the Oval Office after circumstances wipe out the succession line before him.
Having a “black,” “Negro,” or “jigaboo” (depending on who’s talking and how publicly) commander-in-chief naturally brings out the not-so-latent racism in the various old white male power-mongers used to minority colleagues being powerless token figures. Polite and awed by his position to a fault — he’s no 2008 Barack Obama — our protag nonetheless learns to stand up for himself and his office, even if that means making some decisions unpopular with black voters.
Four years earlier, another trashy novelist (Sidney Sheldon of The Other Side of Midnight) had the pretty good idea of updating (without crediting) Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 cautionary novel It Can’t Happen Here — about a “patriotic” political party pushing the country toward a fascist dictatorship — as a modern action-suspense series. What with Vietnam protests, campus unrest, civil rights struggles, and so forth, the concept of our nation undergoing civil war was evidently too hot for the networks. They passed even after the original script had been shorn of nearly all direct political commentary.
Nonetheless, feature-length pilot Shadow on the Land is fairly strong (and violent) meat for the era. Its hectic portrait of a nation oppressed by governmental “security” brutality, air travel restrictions, etc. on one side, destabilized by a “Society of Man” underground resistance on the other is a metaphor applicable to the Nazi threat of Lewis’ day, Nixon vs. the Left, or post-Patriot Act America. It’s by turns wooden, heavy-handed, shrill, and sophisticated — not exactly good, but still a credible picture of something that could well happen here, perhaps more easily now than in 1968.
THE UNITED STATES OF VORTEX
The Man, Thurs/14, 9 p.m.;
Shadow on the Land, Thurs/14, 11 p.m., $5
1082 Howard, SF