As has been widely advertised, the 12 hours of “Roots,” the television version of a black American’s search for his African origins and family history, is being aired by ABC-TV over eight consecutive nights. The subject of the show, the time devoted to it and the innovative scheduling combine to guarantee “Roots” a good deal of attention and praise, and deservedly so.
Judging from the two-hour beginning, however, “Roots” falls into a program category that on Mexican television is called “didactic soap opera.” African tribal life is portrayed almost as “Ozzie & Harriet” in blackface, and one-dimensional characterization is the rule.
In aiming at a mass TV audience, however, the program shrewdly exploits the historical content of the shows, along with a parade of guest stars, and polishes production to a high gloss. It may be that only by sugarcoating the very bitter pill of the “Roots” content can the story be merchandised successfully on television.
It is probable that the weaknesses and strengths of the TV show — with different directors and writers for various segments — mirror the qualities of the Alex Haley bestseller on which it is based.
At any rate, the production and performances are strong, with newcomer LeVar Burton effective as the African youngster trapped into slavery. Edward Asner, as he did in “Rich Man, Poor Man” a year ago, dominates the screen in his opening scenes. As the conscience-torn ship captain who carries the slaves, he suggests character dimension far beyond that of the other roles. Ralph Waite is effective as the raffish aide to Asner who looks on blacks as so much meat, and Cicely Tyson scores in her role as Burton’s mother. Some actors simply flash on the screen and off, none more noticeably than O.J. Simpson, who is held to three yards on one carry.
With any luck, however, “Roots” is going to be a ratings success, and future ideas of similar scope will be encouraged. Simply as part of the currently raging miniseries trend, “Roots” is a shining example. Its history probably is about as sound as “Missiles of October,” and dramatically it’s fairly simple melodrama. But as fresh and innovative television, it stretches the medium, if only a little.
Some more care should be paid to commercials, by the way. It was a bit disconcerting to cut from the anguished screams of a mother whose oldest son had been enslaved to a blurb for Ben-Gay, for use “when pain is at its worst.”