Idiot Box: Docudramatic Tension

Those longing, in this suddenly post-Lewinsky era, for more real-life melodrama to watch on television have good news: This third week of sweeps brings plenty of docudramas (one starring Lauren Bacall) and jazzed-up documentaries to slake our thirst for TV-enhanced reality. Even the regular fictional series are borrowing the day’s headlines or real-life characters to goose ratings, a practice as old as Shakespeare.

TV’s version of truth (or something resembling it) is stranger than fiction and often more entertaining as well. The medium’s blend of fact and fiction is part of its very design; the tube creates a living-room world that sometimes seems as real as our own. It’s the perfect environment for biopics, infotainment, or fictional cover-ups.

This Friday (Feb. 19) conspiracy, with tips of the hat to Ken Starr and The X-Files, rules the airwaves. Homicide ( NBC, 10 p.m.) wraps up a two-part “cross-over” episode that began on Law and Order Wednesday. The two teams of crime-stoppers plumb a murky murder mystery connected somehow to a lesbian sex scandal and the White House. There’s even a nefarious independent prosecutor who abuses both key witnesses and our heroic prosecutors! Unfortunately, the story line is as convoluted as an X-Files alien episode, and both NBC crime shows lack the energy–and the charismatic lead actors–of their glory days. Still, it’s good to see the Homicide crew finally spending more time solving crimes than pursuing their boring office romances.

Dark doings continue on Chris Carter’s Millennium on Friday (Fox, 9 p.m.). Frank Black (well played by Lance Henriksen), the grim ex-FBI agent who can enter the minds of murderers, learns more about the past of the mysterious, influential Millennium Group–and J. Edgar Hoover’s role. Oddly enough, the group hasn’t run into the X-Files’ all-powerful Syndicate yet.

No one’s bothered with the generally mirthless Saturday Night Livein the last five years or so. Tonight’s (NBC, 11:30 p.m.). may be an episode to at least glance at. Bill Murray, fresh off his rave reviews in Rushmore, hosts, while the wonderful Lucinda Williams, the unconventionally emotional and compelling country-rock singer-songwriter, is the musical guest.

Sunday is docudrama heaven. In Too Rich–The Secret Life of Doris Duke (CBS, Sunday and Tuesday, 9 p.m.), Lauren Bacall gives a bitchy grande dame performance as the world’s richest woman. There’s something perversely reassuring about a great beauty who had it all–and still ended up a drug-addled wretch manipulated by a Machiavellian butler (Richard Chamberlain). Bacall’s performance has echoes of her Tony Award- winning Margo Channing role, all patrician bite and bluster. Told in flashbacks, the film drags a bit when the younger version of Duke, played by Lindsay Frost, is on screen, but jumps to life every time the formidable Bacall speaks her mind. On Monday, compare Bacall with the real thing in a documentary called Doris Duke–The Lonely Heiress on A&E(8 p.m.). The big mystery of her death: Did the butler do it?

Enough seaminess: For moral uplift, check out Sunday’s Passing Glory (TNT, 8 p.m.). It’s a stirring true tale of an all-black Catholic basketball team that faces off with the best white team in the segregated New Orleans of the 1960s. The film stars Rip Torn and Emmy winner Andre Braugher, riveting as a priest leading his players in a drive to integrate school athletics. Although supposedly based on real events, it also feels phony at times. Is there a federal law that says all basketball flicks must end with one shot that determines everything?

On Monday, a series of genuine documentaries square off against reality-inspired programs. ABC gives us And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story (9 p.m.). This hagiography, produced by Sonny Bono’s widow, includes the mandatory scene of the downtrodden composer working out his masterpieces. Here it’s Bono (a bland Jay Underwood), dressed in a fur vest, plucking out “I Got You, Babe.” Renee Faia does a Cher impersonation as good as any drag queen’s, but her sullen pouting and his whining make it seem like a long SCTV skit featuring Andrea Martin. (See the real Sonny Bono on VH-1’s Behind the Music episode at 11 p.m.) True artistry is displayed in Bravo’s portrait of Little Jimmy Scott, the troubled singer with the angelic voice of a jazz diva (10 p.m.). His fans include Ray Charles and Lou Reed, and you’re likely to become one, too.

Genuine immigration abuses are the backdrop for the schlocky murder mystery, Border Line (Monday, NBC, 9 p.m.), which marks the return to television of Sherry Stringfield (formerly of ER). But the single-mom-in-peril subplot is so trite it’s a wonder she can stay awake, never mind the viewer. A better bet for drama is Meltdown at Three Mile Island (PBS, 9 p.m.), a tense documentary narrative on the 1979 nuclear accident.

Two other docs are worth your attention this week: The Learning Channel’s gritty Inside the White House Press Corps (Monday, 9 p.m.); and “RFK vs. LBJ,” which offers fake footage of look-alike actors over real audio tape of the leaders scheming (Tuesday, 9 p.m.). It’s competing with a comic take on politics, Spin City (ABC, 9 p.m.), featuring guest star Christopher Lloyd as yet another wacky mentor to Michael J. Fox. This time around, Lloyd believes he’s the Messiah.

At the Grammyson Wednesday (CBS, 8 p.m.), expect Lauryn Hill to be treated like the musical Messiah with her 10 nominations. The host is Rosie O’Donnell, a symbol of the blandness that usually afflicts the awards.

All the best Thursday series (Frasier and ER) have sweeps- driven episodes, but perhaps the most powerful program that night is the movie This Boy’s Life (TNT, 8 p.m.), with Robert De Niro as an abusive stepdad tyrannizing Leonardo DiCaprio.

It’s based, of course, on a true story.

–Art Levine