Under the Influence CBS, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. Starring Andy Griffith, Season Hubley, Joyce Van Patten. Written by Joyce Rebeta-Burditt. Directed by Thomas Carter. Produced by Vanessa Greene. Alcoholism has become almost a conventional topic for television melodrama. But honest, unsparing, unsentimental yet sensitive and compassionate dramas that portray the affliction in all its complexities have been scarce. Too often the tendency is to tie up all the loose ends with simplistic solutions based on a victim's instant self-knowledge. ``Under the Influence'' doesn't fall into that trap.
It is an unwaveringly true-to-character drama about the ravages of alcoholism on the physical and mental health of an alcoholic and his family. With a cast headed by Andy Griffith, this harrowing story takes no shortcuts, makes no excuses for reliance on alcohol, allows no easy escape routes for any of the parties. The story suggests that a solution requires, first, recognition of the problem and then unconditional surrender to a desire to correct it.
Griffith plays a nasty, insensitive man who refuses to acknowledge his problem, even as his career and personal relationships fall apart.
His wife turns to escapism, regressing into the past. One daughter ruins her marriage while trying to please her dad; another tries to live with a feeling of guilt at being responsible for her father's problem. The younger son seems to be staggering in his father's footsteps. The older son, alone, has managed to break free of the influence of his father's alcoholic habit and has launched a career as a stand-up comic. His professional monologue, in which he pokes fun at all-too-serious family problems, serves as a meaningful interlocution, punctuating the drama throughout. It is a skillful and insightful serio-comic device that works marvelously in the framework of this tragedy.
The idea of family intervention and confrontation is suggested by a doctor who is unable to convince the wife that the problem is not merely the result of overwork and normal family pressures. Thus the alcoholic is allowed to continue on his path toward self-destruction, unhindered by those who love him and wish him well, but refuse to help him face the seriousness of his plight.
Joyce Van Patten, as the devoted but unhelpful wife, matches Griffith's skillful performance. Season Hubley, Paul Provenza, Keanu Reeves, and Dana Andersen manage to give strong characterizations to each of the children.
``Under the Influence'' is much more than a skillfully scripted, acted, and directed drama about alcoholism. It is also a compassionate investigation of family relationships. It portrays the family as having a constantly evolving series of relationships and suggests that members must be allowed to express their individuality -- sometimes with greatly varying goals and attitudes. It makes clear that parents must be discerning in order to help the others achieve their own possibilities. There is also the implication that not all of an alcoholic's nastiness can be attributed to drink alone.
This film makes no compromise with alcohol, no attempt to justify its use as a prop for the inability to cope with emotional conflicts. It is equally harsh on the older daughter's addiction to pill-popping.
``Under the Influence'' makes for a harsh and unrelenting drama -- as informative in its view of how alcoholism can sever a family apart as it is moving. The film doesn't solve problems; its value lies in its effectiveness in showing that recognition is a vital first step toward solving them.