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The Black Sheep of the Family

By Aline Brosh

TELEVISION'S role in this year's election has been much discussed. The significance of "sound bites" and "spin doctors" has equalled concerns over the deficit or defense or health care. Last week's fuss over the NBC mini-series Favorite Son pointed up the campaign's love/hate tempest with the pervasive boob tube. Now, it seems, politics is in dialogue not only with the network news shows but with primetime soap operas as well.

Favorite Son, which ran last week, starred L.A. Law heartthrob Harry Hamlin as Texas Senator Terry Fallon, a former history teacher elected to the Senate with the aid of an ambitious press aide, Sally Crane (Linda Koslowski of Crocodile Dundee fame).

Fallon makes a dramatic debut to political stardom when a Contra leader he welcomes to Washington is assassinated on the podium while the two embrace. Fallon is shot, but struggles to the podium to make a heroic speech urging Americans to support the Contra cause in honor of the leader who lies dead beside him.

So, Fallon becomes a possible vice presidential candidate. But he's unqualified and vapid and young and his main attribute is his good looks. Sound familiar? The Bush/Quayle campaign quickly denounced the series. They managed to get the network to drop the "from today's headlines" tag, and a network affiliate in Indiana dropped the show.

The first installment of the series, depicting Fallon's rise, was sharply satiric and surprisingly topical. There were references to Iran-Contra and Gary Hart scandals. This segment lived up to its commercials touting a show "taken from today's headlines." When President Samuel Baker (James Whitmore) asks his aide what Fallon is made of, he is told, "The same thing all good running mates are made of. Ink."

As the miniseries progressed, the focus swung away from politics to the steamy sex scandal of Crane's relationship with Fallon and their tendency towards kinky sexual behavior. Favorite Son provided one of the most explicit sex scenes I've ever seen on television. It features Koslowski, clad in push-up bra and garter belt, perched on the bed as she tries to seduce the FBI agent investigating the case. She produces two ribbons from her bureau and ties them around her wrist, then raises her hand to the bedpost moaning, "Tie me up." Bad politics, it seems, has concomitant vices.

Republicans protesting the show made the mistake of underestimating the savvy of American viewers by thinking that voters would conflate the outlandish soap operatic hero of Favorite Son with the solidly pedestrian Quayle. Whatever one might think of Quayle as a political thinker, he's an unlikely candidate to be at the center of a kinky sex scandal. As Quayle's wife said, "Anyone who knows Dan knows he would rather play golf than have sex any time."

By the second segment, the miniseries had wandered away from its amusing political satire deep into sex, gossip and love affairs. And this, I suspect, is what perturbed GOP advisers most. In an era in which everyone's closets are being carefully checked for skeletons, politicians are apt to be edgy about the portrayal of senators as sex degenerates. Gary Hart and Donna Rice, Ted Kennedy and Chappaquidick, the Congress and their pages: these scandals shook American politics not simply because they demonstrated poor judgement but because we as a nation are so uncomfortable with the idea of our leaders being sexual. We want them to be above desire, above emotion and strictly in line with the law.

The Republican paranoia reflects the pervasive combination of fear/reverence that politicians have acquired for television. It can make candidates look better than usual ("I want a kinder, gentler nation") or unusually silly ("Pearl Harbor day, September 7..."). But stooping to censorship pressure tactics is a dangerous, needless precedent.

What's really surprising is that anyone who watched Favorite Son could take this elaborately outlandish fantasy at all seriously. In the climax of the truly absurd third segment, Koslowski cuts her hair off with a Bowie knife, changes into fatigues, and looking utterly Ramboesque (though Sly is no peroxide blonde), runs amuck at a Fallon press conference, slaughtering first Fallon, then a couple of policemen, then herself.

Her suicide is shown on the news that night, a grisly reminder of the Philadelphia station that broadcast the public suicide of the Pennsylvania treasurer (who was under indictment) a couple of years ago. In that particular case, televison clearly did overstep an unspoken boundary by showing one of life's truly, indisputably private moments.

But Favorite Son did no such thing. It was mostly melodrama. By overreacting to the show, Republicans gave the show more publicity than it otherwise would have warranted and betrayed a chilling reverence for the power of the little blue screen.

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