Not diabolical enough for true black comedy, too scary and violent for kids lured by its PG rating and witless in its sendup of obsessive TV viewing, "Stay Tuned" is a picture with nothing for everybody. John Ritter and Pam Dawber look glum for more than plot reasons as a Seattle couple trapped in a hellish cable system run by the devil himself. The Warner Bros. release, which was not trade-screened, had a weak opening and probably will be zapped from theaters before long.
Not diabolical enough for true black comedy, too scary and violent for kids lured by its PG rating and witless in its sendup of obsessive TV viewing, “Stay Tuned” is a picture with nothing for everybody. John Ritter and Pam Dawber look glum for more than plot reasons as a Seattle couple trapped in a hellish cable system run by the devil himself. The Warner Bros. release, which was not trade-screened, had a weak opening and probably will be zapped from theaters before long.The premise had some potential–an opportunity for a free-flowing satire of TV programming, like the clever 1976 pic “Tunnelvision” or the uproarious old “SCTV” series. And with 666channels to choose from in satanic emissary Jeffrey Jones’ state-of-the-art cable system, director Peter Hyams had plenty of comedic options. But the titles of the cable shows are the only (mildly) amusing things about them–“Sadistic Hidden Videos,””Three Men and Rosemary’s Baby,””Autopsies of the Rich and Famous,””Driving Over Miss Daisy,” etc. The crudely executed skits in the script by Tom S. Parker and Jim Jennewein tend to expire as soon as they’re announced, without much further development. Ritter is introduced as the ultimate couch potato, a depressed plumbing-supplies salesman who’s a sucker for the suave Jones’ free cable-tryout offer. The catch is that if he and Dawber don’t survive 24 hours lost inside the alternate dimension, they forfeit (what else?) their eternal souls. An able farceur stuck in a thankless role, Ritter struggles desperately with a variety of thin situations including a nasty game show called “You Can’t Win,” a hideous wrestling match and a near-guillotining in a dull French Revolution program. The strained-looking Dawber, saddled with a charmless part as the brighter half of the hapless couple, uses her wits to keep them barely alive. But her (supposedly) clever idea to return them to reality is a dismayingly simple-minded resolution. Intended as a satiric commentary on the dangers of excessive TV-watching, “Stay Tuned” stays flatly on the surface of its subject, succumbing to the same kind of wretched, idiotic excess it intends to criticize. One brief respite from the overall inanity is a six-minute cartoon interlude by the masterful Chuck Jones, with Ritter and Dawber portrayed as mice menaced by a robot cat. The animation has a grace and depth sorely lacking in the rest of the movie. Hyams’ lensing and Philip Harrison’s production design are slick, and Peter E. Berger’s editing works hard to simulate the zapping effect of cable remote control, but technical cleverness can’t overcome the deadly lack of intellectual invention on display in this mechanical exercise.