To begin with, there seems to be a method in the titles: Colons are important. In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco. Triumph Over Disaster: The Hurricane Andrew Story. Without Warning: Terror in the Towers. TV reality, of course, is a contradiction in terms, depending on how you like your reality - slightly artificial or completely so. During the Gulf War coverage, viewers got used to the Alice Through the Looking Glass experience of watching a box within a box within a box. We watched as CNN's Tel Aviv bureau chief sat in his office with his gas mask on, watching Israeli television coverage of the war.
Then there are different levels of TV reality. There's local news reality, talk show reality, nighttime drama reality, made-for-TV-movie reality. Each has its own cumulative effect. No disaster is valid until it is confirmed on TV. So that when the explosion in the Twin Towers happened at the end of February, the 'real life heroes' who populated the talk shows during the following days all thanked the news crews who made their stories possible. A scant 60 days later, when the made-for-TV-drama aired, local New York news stations went back to interview these same heroes. But by then, there was a sense of disappointment and dislocation, as their mere existences became incompatible with the new, bigger-budget, more star-power, made-for-TV-movie truth.
The cycle is even more complicated than that, as TV voraciously promotes itself. Each of these movies showed a world out of control, where television is the only constant. In the Waco film, ATF agents were shown watching TV news videotapes of themselves making drug busts.
This TV-centric approach reached new levels of absurdity in the Hurricane Andrew drama. It was more a case of TV romancing itself, as Triumph Over Disaster was mainly the story of crusading meteorologist Bryan Norcross of Miami station WTVJ. He fought for truth, justice and better storm windows. The idea was to personalize the tragedy by showing how it affected the lives of various characters, who were composites of real people: a fireman and his family, a widow who thinks she's lost her sister, a single mother who worked at the Homestead Air Force base. And, of course, the entire crew at WTVJ, the NBC affiliate and the only station to stay on throughout the storm. (It should have been renamed And the Van Played On, as we got shot after shot of the news van and its NBC peacock logo.)
But this advertisement for itself gets tricky, as Norcross takes on his own cult following in the movie. As the storm worsens, people use his name a lot, if not in vain. They announce things like 'I'm going to go in the bathroom, just like Bryan Norcross said.' So it became a drama not of the weather, but of the weatherman. 'I'm going to go in the chopper!' our hero says. 'You are not!' his station manager tells him. In another passage, Brian yells, 'I'm going back on!' (meaning back on the air to man the Hurricane Help-Line). 'After 22 hours, you are not!' his station manager barks.
The art-imitating-life cycle is apparent, too, as much of the footage of the storm and storm damage came from actual news clips taken by WTVJ crews. The film ends with the words 'If every community prepares for the worst, no one should have to go through the horror again.' The question that remains is how Norcross, now immortalized in the TV movie by actor Ted Wass, can ever play himself again.
Triumph did well in the ratings (a 25 share), better than the World Trade Center bombings (a near bomb with a 15 share) but not nearly as well as the real blockbuster, Waco (a 30 share). This was indeed a TV event, and a story within a story. As an In the Line of . . . NBC movie (sixth in an ongoing series about federal agents killed in the line of duty), Ambush in Waco was in the works well before the final shootout. The box within the box idea gets surreal here: The NBC production was in fact being shot on a replica set in Texas a few miles away from the compound, while the real siege was in progress.
What's more, the exploiting-human-misery-for-ratings-angle is the trickiest here, too. The TV movie ends, abruptly, with the death of the four ATF agents after the first storming of the compound. (A crawl explains what happened in the end.)
Unlike the other two teleplays that show the heroics of 'ordinary people in extraordinary times,' in the Waco movie we get to see the perverse charismatic power of a little-filmed madman. This is what TV is best at, and Tim Daly's portrayal of Koresh is fascinating. The movie parallels the stories of the ill-fated ATF agents with the story of Koresh and his cult members; the ATF part is the creakiest. Just hearing Koresh's own words has its own terrible fascination. (And indeed, he's the only living prophet who, as played here, physically seems a cross between Weird Al Yankovich and Jim Morrison. Or perhaps Doug Henning and Charles Manson.)
David Koresh was born Vernon Howell. And indeed, this seems to be Vernon Unplugged. He was a guitar-strummin' singer, and the scenes showing music sessions are eerily well done. Whether accurate or not, the inside-the-compound scenes of all-night ravings, the explanation of the food laws (no pork, no chocolate) and how he gets 12-year-old girls to lie with 'the Lamb' really work. In contrast, the ATF scenes are plodding and obvious; every act is foreshadowed several times. Dan Lauria (the Dad on The Wonder Years) plays the head agent, and it's even harder to watch him while wondering how Kevin is doing.
Unlike the other two tele-plays, there is no redemption, no satisfying end, for Ambush in Waco. It wasn't like the death of Cheers. And that's one of the problems of having all these TV lines blurred. Without Warning: Terror in the Towers was the only quick pic - in fact, the terrorists have not yet gone to trial - to get iffy ratings. It had its problems: Its idea of New York seemed completely Cagney & Lacey-based (one of the stars was John Karlen, Cagney's husband). And it was underscored by music that seemed too Hill St. Blueish. But it was wonderfully shot and offered an interesting visual account of being trapped in a Leviathan of a high rise, with no working elevators and tenants choked by smoke.
One of the possible explanations for the low ratings is that people in the rest of the country already see New York as a disaster area and need no added drama. (Whereas the weather is of continuing interest.) Moreover, Terror was the last to air, and perhaps by then even the most ravenous viewers of disaster movies felt sated. Or more likely bludgeoned and numbed. But the most likely explanation is that it was on against the Emmy Awards for daytime television. No matter how many quickie dramas appropriate the conventions of soap operas to get instant ratings, everyone knows that fact-based disaster just can't compete on TV with the real thing.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)