Two serious subjects dramatized: mixed results

A serious alert is being sounded on commercial TV Monday night. "Bitter Harvest" (NBC, Monday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings) is a gripping drama and also purports to be a warning to consumers that they cannot depend solely upon government agencies to protect them from contaminated foods, but must always be on the alert themselves.

Based on a book of the same name, with a sparce and tersely effective script by Roger Friedenberg under the deft direction of Roger Young, "Bitter Harvest" is acted with total believability by a trio of stars: Ron Howard (of "Happy Days" fame), Art Carney, and Tarah Nutter.

The docu-drama focuses on a young dairy farming couple whose cows develop strange symptoms which eventually appear to affect their infant, too. The plot line shows the couple dealing unsuccessfully with a regulatory bureaucracy which refused to quarantine all cows producing contaminated milk until further proof was provided. Then the young farmer proceeds on his own to warn all dairymen who were using a certain feed contaminated with PBB -- a fat soluble toxic chemical which is said to remain in the human system forever once it is there. PBB was allegedly used in a fire retardant produced in the same factory as the feed.

"Bitter Harvest" is acted with skillful subtlety by Ron Howard, who has developed into a top-rate professional. The dairy farm atmosphere rings true enough, and viewers can apparently learn a great deal about this fascinating business.

Producer Tony Ganz told me that, although the names in the story have been changed, the actual farm couple (Frederick and Sandra Halbert) who wrote the book upon which the story is based served as advisers. According to Mr. Ganz, in 1977 in the toxic substance hearings before the US Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Sen. Don Regal of Michigan said: "Reputable scientists now estimate that as many as 9 million people here in the state of Michigan now have the toxic chemical PBB in our bodies."

The actual case is dramatic enough to seem fabricated, but an advisory note at the end asserts that consumer vigilance is essential. 'Freedom'

ABC's Monday Night Movie has come up with a Better-than-average made-for-TV movie: "Freedom" (ABC, Monday [May 18], 9-11 p.m., check local listings). It is an unusually candid film but suffers from a seemingly uncontrollable urge to turn heart-rending reality into flip entertainment -- a problem over which most films in this category stumble.

"Freedom" is the unlikely story of a rebellious teen-ager who convinces her family that she should be allowed to roam the streets on her own as an "emancipated minor," a status the script says is legal in California. Her divorced parents agreed that she will get the child-support money and pay her own way, whereupon she proceeds to link up with a carnival roustababout and, eventually, join the traveling carnival herself. There she observes the amoral/immoral standards of the "carnie" and feels she has found the life-style and familial affection she has left behind.

The problem is not in the acting, which is believable (especially by Mare Winningham in the lead), but in the script. What should be a depressing, unpleasant life among the roustabouts appears to be more of a teen-ager's fantasy, not at all as unpleasant as it is meant to be. Thus youngsters watching a show that is supposed to warn them against the pitfalls of such a life may very well feel the life is exciting enough to emulate.

Another problem with the script is that the amoral life her divorced parents lead is not too far afield from the distasteful amoral life of the "carnies" she comes to know.

"Freedom" is a problem film which wallows in its own problem just a little too much. It is a superficial study in criss-crossed moralities in which adults fail to comprehend that their own morality needs to be questioned before they can come to grips with another person's morality --even if that person is one's own dau ghter.

Especiallym if she is.

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