A&E's "Biography" has been on the air since April 1987. In 900 hour-long episodes, it has covered a lot of ground. Celebrities from all walks of life - from the Caesars to movie stars - have been investigated, probed, and explained with balance and journalistic integrity. When, and if, the show errs, it tends to be on the side of generosity toward its subjects.
May is "All-New Premieres" month on Biography (Monday-Saturday, 8-9 p.m.). "It's a really good way to highlight the strengths about 'Biography,' " says CarolAnne Dolan, executive producer of the series.
"We do a lot of programming [150 hours of new shows a year]. The subject matter we cover is all across the board - from Matthew Broderick to Martha Stewart, Oscar Wilde to John McEnroe."
Biography's mission, she says, is to tell the stories of fascinating people who have influenced our lives, past and present, and to place their stories in the context of the times in which they lived - and how their lives or work reflected or changed their times.
"It's got to be a recognizable name," she says. "Is there enough story there to sustain an hour of television, and is it a story our viewers are going to want to look at - from characters in the Bible to politicians," Ms. Dolan says. "Sometimes it's a pop-culture phenomenon - and you know it's not a lasting story, but it says something about who we are and where we are now."
Some of the subjects have spent a lot of time and effort self-mythologizing, or at least spin-doctoring their images. How do producers get to the truth about someone as famous and enigmatic as Bob Dylan or Martha Stewart?
"At the outset of any 'Biography' - especially with a contemporary person - we always look at what is our ability to tell this story? Who can we talk to, whether we have the cooperation of the subject or not. Most people realize we are not going to give up editorial control, but that we will be fair, objective, and factual. That is who we are."
She acknowledges that there are some people who don't want a film made about them and will set up every roadblock imaginable, down to calling everyone they know or making it difficult to get footage.
"We have done our share of notorious characters. What makes a [serial killer] Jeffrey Dahmer? ... What were the influences? How can we look at him and see what caused this kind of behavior? I think when we do [these shows], we stay away from the sensational approach. "
It may be "escapist fare," but Steve Martini's 'The Judge' (NBC, May 6 and 7, 9-11 p.m.) offers enough twists and turns to keep the viewer dizzy with anticipation. Don't expect the kind of thoughtful moral issues you might find on "Mystery!" Still, the only really dull-witted thing about "The Judge" is the predictable love story between the two defense attorneys (Chris Noth and Lolita Davidovich).
Edward James Olmos stars as a stern judge who is accused of murder. When he turns for help to his courtroom nemesis, the liberal attorney he has recently jailed for contempt, the antagonisms fly. In the end, the attorney takes the case - along with his reluctant partner and an ex-district attorney with a chip on her shoulder.
Untangling the web of vice and deceit ensnarling the judge gets personal for one of the attorneys on the team, whose younger brother is a corrupt cop. But nothing is exactly as it seems, either - some of the bad guys are not as evil as their fellows. Never "judge" too soon.
The script is good: The few cliches are easily overlooked, given the engrossing nature of the story. The murder is replayed in flashbacks a few too many times. But this is no thriller; it's an old-fashioned mystery with a labyrinthine plot. And the cast has a lot going for it, especially Olmos, whose enigmatic judge may be a hypocrite or an admirable man. It's hard to tell until the very end.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor