TV drama sheds tears but little light on tragedy

You can't observe some aspects of the natural world without having a devastating effect on the very life forms you want to observe. In that spirit, television networks ought always to consider the subjects they choose to dramatize, and the way they get into those subjects. One place to begin such a consideration is with teen-age suicide.

Surviving (ABC, Sunday, Feb. 10, 8-11 p.m.) takes a plunge into this painful issue and races to get as much sensational, graphic mileage out of it as possible. Almost every line and camera angle is bent to the purpose. ``Surviving'' is written like a compendium of suicide notes and interviews with those who have tried. Despite some very accomplished artistry by actors and directors, it fails as drama.

The two upscale and almost modularly constructed families who are drawn into this tragedy wear their pat, contrived problems like name tags. Even the smart, blunt acting of Molly Ringwald (Lonnie) can't make the hurried melodrama of the ill-fated young lovers really believable.

On the other hand, Paul Sorvino's grief as the father of Lonnie, and his yearning to survive, carry freight-train impact. Marsha Mason as his wife and Ellen Burstyn as Rick's mother have faces like icons: They weep even when they are not crying. And Waris Hussein's direction keeps things tight and highly charged.

With this kind of talent afoot, ``Surviving'' has plenty of energy to carry it where it will go. The problem, however, lies in its determination to go pointlessly through every wail and accusation. The thing keeps so intently to the business of making this death graphic and large that it seldom draws back to give a deep breath of life.

The overall effect, then, is to romanticize suicide. And that only invites questions about the effect of such a program on children dealing with heavy problems. Might some of them be tempted, for example, by the great outpouring of love and grief depicted here to fulfill their own need for attention in a suicide attempt? Does the nation truly benefit when television (a most intrusive medium) injects an emotional, basically fruitless rehashing of personal pain into an enormously complex social problem?

One can only wonder whether these questions were considered carefully enough by the network. -- 30 --

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