'Flame Trees of Thika' leads flurry of first-rate PBS shows
New York — Who says PBS is through?
If you ever harbored the suspicion that the culture channels on cable TV heralded the demise of the Public Broadcasting Service, the fantastic flow of fascinating programs on PBS starting in January should convince you that, far from being near an end, PBS is alive and thriving.
On Sunday, Jan. 3, ''Masterpiece Theater'' debuted a seven-part minor masterpiece, titled ''The Flame Trees of Thika,'' and on Friday, Jan. 8, comes the premiere of a landmark 17-part Bill Moyers series on ''Creativity.'' Then on Tuesday, Jan. 12, PBS starts two important series - David Attenborough's acclaimed biological series, ''Life on Earth,'' and WNET/NY's groundbreaking series of original-for-TV works, ''American Playhouse.''
The new National Geographic series starts on Wednesday, Jan. 13, with a special on sharks. Almost unbelievably, among this amazing selection of goodies, there still remains one of the most glorious mini-series ever -- an 11-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's ''Brideshead Revisited,'' premiering on Monday, Jan. 18.
In between are such super specials as William Devane's ''Jack London'' on Monday, Jan. 4; a unique sociological study, ''Paradox at 72nd Street,'' on Tuesday, Jan. 5, as well as an incisive look at Zimbabwe, ''Not in a Thousand Years,'' on the same night. There is ''What's Left of the Left'' on Friday, Jan. 8, with a follow-up, ''What's Right with the Right,'' on Monday, Jan. 18. There's a ''World'' special on Frank Terpil on Jan. 11.
Add ''Inside Story'' on Jan. 15, ''Live From the Met'' Jan. 20, followed by the Bernstein/Beethoven concerts starting Jan. 25, and it becomes apparent that a viewer searching for worthwhile TV programming need only tune in to his local PBS station and keep the dial in place for the rest of the month.
So much for those who would denigrate PBS scheduling, now or, one hopes, in the future.
''Flame Trees of Thika,'' which premiered on Sunday, is a mini-series in the grand tradition of famed producer-director John Hawkesworth (producer of ''Upstairs, Downstairs'' and ''Duchess of Duke Street''). It is the tale of very proper British pioneers colonizing Kenya in the early 1900s, bringing with them all their tea paraphernalia, including lacy white tablecloths.
The culture shock to both natives and Britons constitutes the theme of this autobiographical mini-series, based upon the book by Elspeth Huxley. Hayley Mills plays the Mum instead of the daughter this time, the latter being played with spectacular ease by Holly Aird.
''Flame Trees'' is very much like an American western, but instead of native American Indians there are Kikuyu and Masai. It is all very chin-up, jungle ineptness, eventually overcome with pure English charm. See it and you may find yourself yearning irrationally for the ''good old days'' of ''charming'' imperialism.
But it's a delightful way to start a triumphant PBS month of TV viewing. 'Fame'
Meanwhile, on the commercial-TV side, the Grant Tinker-ing at NBC has begun in earnest.
Under the new leadership of Mr. Tinker -- who is being forced by circumstances to make the best of the programming legacy of his predecessor, Fred Silverman -- NBC has been lhaving an amazingly uncertain time with its new shows. Despite some surprise successes, it remains solidly, if tentatively, in third place among the three networks.
Tinker is the proud inheritor of two of the few new shows that seem to be making it this year -- ''Father Murphy'' and ''Love, Sidney.'' Included in his legacy is the surprise hit of its second season, ''Hill Street Blues.'' But Tinker is also stuck with such clinkers as ''Lewis & Clark,'' which will be going to black very soon, as will his own Rona Barrett disaster, ''Television: Inside and Out.''
With the premiere of ''Fame'' (Thursday, Jan. 7, and Thursdays thereafter, 8- 9 p.m.), Tinker's lineup is starting to metamorphose from an electronic larva into an electronic butterfly . . . or moth. ''Fame'' is a kind of transitional show, originated by Mr. Silverman but polished by Tinker, as are the three new sitcoms, starring Angie Dickinson, Rock Hudson, and Mickey Rooney, which Tinker will introduce later this month and in February.
Based on the recent movie of the same name, the TV ''Fame'' is just as fascinatingly flawed as the movie, which tried a similar innovative form. Both are a reality-fantasy mix, a combination of drama and musical, utilizing some very real youngsters from New York City's famous High School for the Performing Arts.
Four of the same people who appeared in the movie are regulars on the new series -among whom Debbie Allen (also of the recent movie ''Ragtime'') is a standout. The story line of the premiere episode could have come out of a teen romance novel -- a new girl from Grand Rapids comes to town, enters the tough New York environment, makes a few friends and lots of enemies, learns the questionably simplistic lesson that it's not always a matter of conforming completely or not conforming completely -- there is an acceptable compromise.
So she ends up leaving the house in preppie clothes and switching to jeans in the elevator without disturbing dear old square divorced Mom. And as to school, she manages to have it both ways, too. If only life were that simple, and moral compromises that successful.
Yes, that's what the story line really seems to be in this disco-beat L.A. MGM Studio production, with some location shooting in New York City. Too much of the sweat, grit, and grime of the real school has been given a California scrubbing, but the musical numbers are loud and energetic. If nothing else, inveterate network viewers will be amazed by the unusual combination of sitcom and musical, by the romanticized, simplistic view of big-city problems.
''Fame'' has a kind of primitive charm, a bit like the early-rock amateur groups who tried so hard that their audiences almost wished them into success. Despite its attempts at street sophistication, it remains always a dreamy look at reality, sometimes bordering on the smarmy but ultimately pulling back to good-natured innocence. In its own way it is basically a 1980s version of the 1940s Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland ''Let's-us-kids-surprise-them-all-by-putting-on-a-great-show'' movies.
Welcome to prime-time television, ''Fame.'' May the Messrs. Tinker/Silverman's new baby continue its energy, innocence, and innovative form. But please, Mr. Tinker, tidy up and dig deeper for those story lines if you want to attract us bigger kids too.