Remember docudrama? It's back under a new name

Unnatural Causes NBC, tonight, 9-11 p.m. Stars John Ritter and Alfre Woodward. Writer: John Sayles. Director: Lamont Johnson. The George McKenna Story CBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m. Stars Denzel Washington. Writer: Charles Eric Johnston. Director: Eric Laneuville. Producer: Linda Otto.

Nobody calls them ``docudramas'' anymore.

There has been so much criticism leveled at the genre, because of the tendency to blur the line between fact and fiction, that producers now shy away from that designation. ``Fact-based drama'' is the rather awkward way they are now described.

Well, two new ``fact-based dramas'' highlight both the positive and negative aspects of such fictionalized but relevant programs. Both are high-minded, well-intentioned, and emotionally charged, but both are somewhat oversimplified.

NBC chose to air ``Unnatural Causes'' on the eve of Veterans Day because the subject matter is so meaningful at this particular time. The topic is the effect of Agent Orange on servicemen who were exposed to the chemical during the Vietnam war.

Superb acting by John Ritter and Alfre Woodward, as well as a deftly played supporting role by singer Patti La Belle, plus the involvement of two skillful directors - John Sayles, who wrote the script, and Lamont Johnson, who directed - make the program especially interesting.

``Unnatural Causes'' follows two characters whose stories converge: a whistle-blowing Veterans Administration social worker and a Vietnam veteran diagnosed as suffering from a terminal illness, possibly induced by Agent Orange. The script casts the V.A. in the role of villain, as it muckrakes and crusades its way across the veterans' political/medical landscape, pointing fingers at bureaucratic malingerers.

This drama makes no pretense at impartiality. It shamelessly - and effectively - uses every emotional trick in the book to rally support for the veterans, who may or may not be suffering tragic health problems as a result of the dioxin contained in defoliants used by the military in Vietnam. But, whether or not Agent Orange is determined in court to be the culprit, the film makes it clear that veterans who need help should get it.

``Unnatural Causes'' will have you in tears one moment, in fury the next, vexed with impatience throughout. Even though it may oversimplify complex scientific and legal issues, it cannot help but clarify the moral issues for those who watch.

Who can resist the second show - ``The George McKenna Story,'' a ``fact-based'' dramatization of the story of a courageous, charismatic high school principal who takes over a gang-ridden, drug-infested school in South Los Angeles and turns it into an achievement-oriented place of learning? Home of a Shakespeare Festival, no less.

This drama features ``St. Elsewhere'' star Denzel Washington and is directed by his ``St. Elsewhere'' co-star, Eric Laneuville.

``The George McKenna Story'' may be true to life, but it is also oversimplified in the traditional docudrama fashion. Just to make sure you know McKenna's life wasn't a picnic, the drama explores troubles with white teachers, a neglected girlfriend, selfish parents, and street gangs. Some blacks may question the motivation involved when gang members are urged not to ``act like the brand of niggers `they' expect.'' To round the whole thing out, there's even a the threat of a gang fight counterpointed against the Shakespeare Festival.

``The George McKenna Story'' overflows with the exultation of awakening black pride. As a TV program, it is inspirational ... and totally predictable.

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