Plucking a few gems from TV's sea of rhinestones is tougher than ever in the good old summertime.
Cable supplies most of the good stuff. If it didn't, we wouldn't keep paying for it. That helps explain the presence of TBS' delightful, bold "Moon Shot," adapted from the memoirs of the late Donald K. "Deke" Slayton. Slayton was elected chief astronaut by his peers.They thought he'd be a rubber stamp, we're told. But this Wisconsin farm boy had his own ideas, and they provide fascinating insights here. Slayton died a year ago, at 69, of cancer.
His four-hour insider counterpoint to Tom Wolfe's best seller "The Right Stuff" airs Monday, July 11, and Wednesday, July 13. It's the first shot in a barrage of TV specials celebrating the silver anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landing, July 20, 1969.
It will be hard to top Slayton's ribald, irreverent look at his fellow Mercury pilots and the space program in general. Stuff like Alan Shepard's debate with rocketeer Wernher von Braun over whether the astronaut could urinate in his space suit while waiting to fly. Von Braun said no, but nature voted yes. Beautiful women, Slayton tells us, fought to bed the astronauts, which "wasn't that hard."
We also get Slayton's wry observations on John Glenn's political aspirations, cockpit hot-dogging by Scott Carpenter and "Gordo" Cooper, and much more. Barry Corbin, who plays a former astronaut on CBS' "Northern Exposure," narrates, with just the right stuff.
It's all from a book that Slayton wrote with Shepard for a sister company in Ted Turner's communications empire. But the book doesn't have this special's stunning film and tape of America's space triumphs and failures.
* IT'S DOWNHILL from here, but not precipitously at first, in a tour through reruns and "busted pilots" (tryout series that lasted one episode).
Typically, CBS offers the most summer tryouts, including "One West Waikiki" and "Hotel Malibu," which both premiere Aug. 4.
There's a sharp drop in quality to Fox's summer tryouts, already under way.
"Encounters: The Hidden Truth," a magazine about the paranormal, premiered a couple of Fridays ago with "true stories" about alien abductions and impregnations, and mysterious huge circles cut in farm fields. With an anchor and reporters, this looks like a newsmagazine but sounds like the National Enquirer.
Fox can do worse - and does - in "Models Inc." on Wednesdays. producer Aaron Spelling has no shame; this "drama" about models' personal lives makes his "Charlie's Angles" look, by comparison, like "Masterpiece Theatre." Linda Gray just looks lost.
NBC and ABC each plan one new summer series. "TV Nation," a frothy magazine from Michael Moore, premieres on NBC July 19, a Tuesday; ABC's "The Better Sex Show" arrives on Thursdays sometime later.
PBS also gets into the summer replacement act with two comedies.
I preferred British satirist "Clive James," with an eight-parter, premiering Monday. Much of the first half-hour involves singer Engelbert (he's dropped his last name), who's not worth the time. James maintains his English smugness, if not the quality of his parody.
Still, he's better than American Steven Banks, starting his own eight-week run with "The Steven Banks Show" on Monday. What could producer Brandon Tartikoff, NBC's former ace programmer, see in this guy's endless quips about dead singers?
HBO subscribers have at least one bright spot in the batch of new programs: "Southern Justice: The Murder of Medgar Evers," on Monday.
Evers was an NAACP worker, registering black voters when he was gunned down one hot night in 1963. This "American Undercover" documentary depicts justice ignored for 30 years. Evers' widow, Myrlie, kept up her pursuit of Byron de la Beckwith through two hung juries. Finally, last February, he was sentenced to life in prison.
This HBO-BBC co-production plays Beckwith's bigotry off Myrlie's recollections with help from re-creations of the murder. The re-creations, a dubious technique, mar what is an otherwise compelling tale of a civil rights martyr.