`Samaritan' finds itself in middle of `sweeps' competition

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If you've been wondering why, despite the fact that the season is officially over, the commercial networks are still battling one another with new programming, the answer is simple. May is another ``sweeps'' month, when advertising rates are set for the future, based upon current audience numbers. Often, programs are scheduled so that viewers cannot possibly see them all, and the network attitude seems to be: ``So be it. This is a competitive business, and all we want to do is win a higher rating for each hour than our opposition. If it means viewers suffer, that's just too bad.'' Of course, these days viewers have an alternative that the networks will soon have to take into account: the videocassette recorder, which can record one program while the viewer is watching another. Unfortunately for the viewer, however, it cannot record two unwatched programs simultaneously.

The ratings game explains why this weekend will find these worthwhile programs airing opposite each other: Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story (CBS, Monday, 8:30-11 p.m.); Johnny Bull (ABC, Monday, 9-11 p.m.); and On Wings Of Eagles (NBC, Sunday, 8-11 p.m. and Monday, 9-11 p.m.).

``Samaritan'' is the story of Mitch Snyder, an advocate on behalf of the homeless in Washington, D.C. Mr. Snyder believes that ``bureaucracy is nothing more than the name of a system that stops us from being human beings.'' His is a simplistic, if humanitarian, philosophy that has been accorded a similar television treatment by scriptwriter Clifford Campion and director Richard Heffron.

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People are either good or bad, according to the script, and the most effective way to convince the ``bad'' ones to help the ``good'' ones is to stage dramatic events that will draw attention to the problem. In his fight for the rights of the homeless, Mitch eloquently states his case at a congressional hearing: ``Destitute people are missing persons -- absent from our consciousness.''

A series of Snyder stunts, including a climactic fast that almost costs him his life, appears to convince authorities to provide at least temporary shelter for the D.C. homeless. Cicely Tyson is totally and unforgettably believable as an aging bag lady: ``There's nothing worse than being old and ugly except being old and ugly and homeless,'' she says poignantly. Mitch Snyder, as portrayed with a kind of esoteric sensitivity by Martin Sheen, emerges as a sincere fighter for his cause whose major effectiveness stems from his public-relations wizardry.

Snyder's philosophy as well as the philosophy of the film is summed up: ``Next time you see a homeless person on the street, don't turn your face away. Stop and say hello, offer to get him something to eat and if you can't do that, look that person right in the eye and tell him that you care. Because you are only looking into a mirror.''

Despite its tendency to provide overly simple solutions to complex problems, ``Samaritan'' is a triumph for Mitch Snyder, who once again has succeeded in bringing the plight of the homeless into the forefront of public consciousness.

By contrast, Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst are totally miscast as Hungarian immigrants in ``Johnny Bull,'' but who cares! It's such a pleasure to see such superb actors try valiantly to triumph over the wrong roles in the wrong vehicle. They don't succeed, but they make the attempt worthwhile for viewers.

``Johnny Bull'' is a new drama by Kathleen Betsko Yale, developed at the prestigious National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Set in the 1950s, it tells the tale of a pregnant, working-class Cockney girl, who marries an American GI. She becomes disillusioned when she is brought to live with his Hungarian family in a small, distressed mining town in rural Pennsylvania.

Although the action is supposed to take place in the 1950s, the play somehow takes on the air of 1930s social consciousness, attempting to combine certain superficial elements of Clifford Odets with Eugene O'Neill. The writing, alas, is simply not up to the ambitions of the writer, who has chosen a subject ripe for tragedy and has come up with what, unfortunately, borders on soap opera. In some ways, the play anticipates the women's liberation movement of later years. Although she has a fine cinema record, director Claudia Weill too often misses whatever few nuances might have been squeezed from the all-too-predictable script.

Aside from the fact that it is one of this year's few attempts at serious original drama on television, what makes ``Johnny Bull'' worth watching, are those intrepid performances by Dewhurst and Robards.

Tomorrow: Preview of ``On Wings of Eagles,'' which airs on Sunday and Monday night, opposite these shows.

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