True-life stories: it doesn't take much to qualify
New York — On commercial TV truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is cheaper. Network drama seems to have run out of original stories, now depending to a great extent upon dramatizations of news stories.
Such programs used to be called docudramas when they concerned mostly heroic people in the public eye. But now any quirky story in today's newspaper is liable to be turned into a two or three-hour drama. You don't have to be General MacArthur or Winston Churchill to merit a TV show based upon your true-life story - it almost seems just about any trauma in your life will do.
Most of these mini-docudramas are at their best when florid writing is kept to a minimum and the truth is followed as closely as possible. The latest in such programs is ''A Long Way Home'' (ABC, Sunday, Dec. 6, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). Like most such shows, it is stretched to two hours when a half hour would have done nicely. But ''A Long Way Home'' is, at least, an inspiring tale about the strength of blood ties.
This GE Theater presentation concerns a young man named Donald Booth (in the TV show Donald Branch) whose story you may have read about as filler material in the newspapers recently. His search for his long-lost brother and sister, adopted into different families after all three had been abandoned, resulted in the discovery that his brother lived only ten minutes away in Florida.
Timothy Hutton, whom you may remember as the son in the film ''Ordinary People'' and the TV drama ''Friendly Fire,'' portrays Donald, a father figure to his siblings, with masterful skill. He manages to bring out all the pathos and repression inherent in the role. The script by Dennis Nemec is terse, directed with just a bit too much schmaltz by Robert Markowitz. But all involved manage, somehow, to keep a slight story slight - the great secret for successful mini-docudramas of this type. Give it too heroic proportions and it succumbs to phony histrionics.
''A Long Way Home'' is full of harmless sentimentality, sometimes shamelessly tugging at what used to be called heartstrings. It does, however, manage to detail the complexities of bureaucratic adoption and foster-home regulations which too often separate families.
It is full of lovely visions of idyllic family life juxtaposed against the awful conditions these youngsters endured until they were placed in separate homes where a whole new set of untenable conditions evolved. The film records the pathetic and amazing way that the children idealized their deprivation as long as it also involved memories of their ''togetherness.''
The joy of the final reunion, tempered by the built-in repression of emotion caused by their early emotional deprivation, is handled with delicacy - long, drawn out delicacy, but delicacy no less.
''A Long Way Home'' is manufactured-to-order ''real life'' programming - skillful in its determination to make drama out of honest but skimpy truth. The story might be better read in a newspaper than stretched to fit the two-hour, commercial-interrupted demands of network television. But it is there to be seen - and, at least, provides an eventually joyous two hours for drama-hungry viewers.