An "Irish 'Roots'" that's to epic for its own good

"O'Roots" is how the Irish newspapers referred to "The Manions of America" when that mini-series was filming in Ireland. This ABC romantic drama, which chronicles the lives of an Irish immigrant family a la "Roots," airs from 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday -- Sept. 30 through Oct. 2 -- check local listings). Created by Agnes Nixon, one of the nation's foremost writers of daytime serial drama (also known as soap opera), this mini-series is filmed entirely in Ireland and based upon tales heard by Miss Nixon during her childhood. It has the epic feel of such past massive audience-winners as "Roots" and "Holocaust."

In following the tale of the Manions from potato-famine time from 1845 until the American Civil War, Miss Nixon (the creator of "All My Children" and "One Life to Live") chose Rosemary Anne Sisson, who wrote much of "Upstairs, Downstairs," to bring the story from idea to script. I have seen the first three hours -- and it is beautifully photographed picture of rough days in Dublin and a rough beginning as immigrants in America.

Featuring such fine actors as Kathleen Beller, Pierce Brosnan, Linda Purl, Anthony Quayle, Steve Forrest, and Kate Mulgrew, the six-hour drama is, like its popular predecessors, a mixture of good and bad, sensitivity and insensitivity, melodrama and drama, entertainment and monotony. But in the long run it's so monumental an endeavor that one becomes almost amused by its persistent tempstuousness and its determination to squeeze every possible ounce of angst and turmoil from the epic story of an immigrant family finding its way to American financial and social glory.

Miss Nixon, the one responsible for the story line, has always been a fascinating figure to me since she has become known in the TV industry as "the Queen of the Soaps." I was anxious to chat with her not only about "Manions," But also about soap opera -- and the harm so many people and feel it does by daily feeding its audience large doses of what many consider immorality or, at best, amorality.

What would Miss Nixon consider success for "The Manions of America?"

"Aside from numbers? That people will be entertained and educated, that those who watch will come to understand our country better and the melting pot that we are and must be."

It is clear that Miss Nixon, a skilled worker in her chosen medium, regards television as a business in which her main goal is to attract as many people as possible, while at the same time atrracting as little negative attention from watchdog groups as possible. She seems honestly to believe that she is helping people solve their real problems by creating prolems on TV and explaining them daily on soaps.

A slim charmer of a mature woman, Miss Nixon is endowed with a determination to answer straightforwardly, if a bit defensively, all of my sometimes touch questions.

"First of all," she said coolly -- after I had (tactfully, I thought) referred to soap opera as "daytime continuing dramas" -- "I don't consider 'soap opera' a denigrating term.I've done them for 25 years and I feel that they deal with the actual problems people face more honestly than most prime-time shows. And perhaps sometimes that is uncomfortable for some people."

But couldn't soaps be leading viewers into accepting attitudes they might not otherwise accept, because of the implication that the kinds of lives portrayed on soaps are actually happening all over the country?

"Why are you so certain that these things are limited to New York?" she responds, and proceeds to name a long list of delicate problems faced on soap opera, never faced head-on in prime-time TV. "That's what is happening out there," she insists.

"As an example, six or seven years ago, the New York Times had an article on teenage prostitutes. . . . And eight weeks later we had the story of the rehabilitation of a teenage prostitute on the air in a soap. . . . We had the time to do it properly -- eight or nine months to show why this girl had run away from home. Out of that, came our next story line about child abuse."

But she really prefers to discuss "Manions" which, I successful with audiences in its initial mini-series form, may be picked up by ABC as a regular series."i don't consider 'Manions' a soap -- it was so different to do. We do 260 original shows a year in soap opera -- in this case we had the luxury of working for 2 1/2 years on a six-hour show. When I write for soaps, I write from characters, and that is what has to come first. In this case, historical research came first, and then I had to conjure up the characters that would best portray the story."

But how does "Manions" differ from a soap?

She gets just a bit indignant. "Listen, for a long time -- and I am going back 18 years -- anything critics didn't like was called soap opera to denigrate it. I began to think of what we could do to gain more respect. Well, we have begun to do an awful lot of subjects of social awareness. I feel, in my conscience, that we do a lot for people . . . we explain 'why' to audiences."

Does she feel the recent studies of sex and violence on TV treat soap opera fairly?

"I can only speak for my own shows. We have a policy of never doing gratuitous sex and violence. Daytime soap operas are as different from each other as nighttime shows. . . . There certainly are some daytime shows which do titillate . . . and they don't have a very good rating. What you need are believable characters and suspenseful dramatic situations with which people can identify "

Would Miss Nixon agree that today's soap opera is often a harbinger of things to come on prime-time TV?

"Yes, but we still are able to do things in more depth over a longer period of time." '60 Minutes' entraps '60 Minutes'

In an unprecedented burst of self-scrutiny, the nation's top-rated TV magazine show, "60 Minutes" (Sunday, 7-8 p.m., check local listings) empowers a panel (chosen by itself, of course,) to investigate charges of entrapment, deception, ambush, confrontation, theatricality, etc.

Moderator of the panel is media critic Jeff Greenfield, with producer Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace, Herb Schmertz of Mobil, and three newspaper reporters and editors. After showing film clips of bold confrontations on past "60 Minutes" shows, the panel discusses whether the ends justified the means, whether what was accomplished could not have been better accomplished by traditional print methods. According to Mr. Schmertz, it often appears that "60 Minutes" is more interested in getting somebody that in getting the story.

Conclusion? Well Mike sums it up: "We are not infallible any more than you are."

We all knew that before the show ever began. However, it was bold and brave of "60 Minutes" to try this kind of show at all, and it will be fascinating for those curious to learn how the show operates. But next time, one hopes producer Don Hewitt will assign the task of appraisal of "60 Minutes" to completely disinterested parties. Sophisticated blacks

Does black melodrama have the right to be as mediocre as white melodrama?

After keeping it on hold for a couple of years, NBC is finally airing "The Sophisticated Gents" (Tuesday, Sept. 29, 9-11 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 10 to 11 p.m.; check local listings). This four-hour drama , scripted by black writer/actor Melvin Van Peebles from a book by black author John A. Williams, features some of the black actors in the business -- Robert Hooks, Ron O'Neal, Paul Winfield, Rosey Grier, Bea Richards, Rosalind Cash, and lot more. Mr. Van Peebles plays a villain-hero.

It is the story of a club reunion 25 years after, and like all such stories allows the producers to fill the air with vignettes featuring people in many different stations in life. And for those who have complained that black-oriented shows on TV don't reflect the wide range of blacks in our society , "Sophisticated Gents" certainly overcomes that objection.

But in the process, it also features quite a few black and white stereotypes, as well as hackneyed and obvious plot twists. Must one of the few black dramas on commercial TV focus so much on black pimps, dishonest black detectives, and black anger at white wives in interracial marriages?

Not too long ago, a black legislator, accused of wrongdoing, pointed out in his own defense that "Whitey" does it all the time and gets away with it. Well, "Whitey" has done this kind of show featuring crooks, philanderers, murderers, etc., manyy times and, perhaps, gotten away with it. But, for me, that still doesn't justify doing it black this time around.

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