Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Right show, wrong panel

"Impressions," TV Times, 5-11 March 1978


I must admit I had to virtually tape my eyelids open to keep them from closing. This is not a reflection on the TV show, just on its timeslot. More viewers would have been attracted to Xerox Science Report had it not been shunted to man the last sentry before the late-late movies. The time is simply not kind to working women who, at 10.30 p.m., barely manage to close the night with grace.

So there we were, our eyelids seemingly laden with a hundred burdens. Tina Monzon-Palma comes on with a hello-face. We wince a little. It has been a long day and our hello can never sound as chirpy as hers. As matter-of-factly as possible, she introduces her panelists for the night: a fire chief, a fire protection engineer, a student.

The subject, she says in so many words and in light tones that cannot quite overcome the studied terseness of the script, is fire control. She mentions one of the most devastating high-rise fires in recent memory. My disembodied mind refuses to bite: my memory must have gone on leave.

She pauses. For a while, the pause hangs thick and heavy in the air. Suddenly, there is this voice and this film sequence. Not Towering Inferno, though a little like it. But without the glorious color, without the dramatic close-ups, and thankfully, also without the imposed illusions and pretensions. Just the simple story of a fire in a high-rise building, how it spread, how the loss of so many lives could have been prevented, how--in theory-- fires can be prevented and/or stopped. A fire drill. Firemen storming what was supposed to be a building in flames. People being herded like sheep into cul-de-sacs of safety. Sophisticated control casters that look like computer rooms. And men and women calmly going through the paces of firefighting. After all, it is only a fire drill.

Back to the local panel. Tina starts asking questions. The fire chief is polite but reserved: nothing fiery in him, to be sure. That coolness is enough to douse all your hopes for a spirited discussion. The fire protection engineer tries to make up with his technical expertise and reassuring mien. He is restricted by the atmosphere, and probably by the need to translate his jargon into layman's language for a television audience. But it is clear he knows his business. The student (is he dazzled or jaded?) comes up with two questions in the best of his not-quite-Filipino accent.

The whole television show takes only a half hour, minus a few minutes. Of course, watching the panelists, one gets a faint feeling they are going through what seems to them much longer than a half hour. Perhaps this is one of the less relaxed episodes of Xerox Science Report. Or are we just imagining those nervous half-breaths when you can almost feel Tina Monzon-Palma plumbing the depths for the next question, the next comment? And we can sympathize with her as she willfully and gamely pushed the minutes along, all the while getting very little help from her panel.

A satisfying interview/discussion on television is the result of a lucky convergence of interviewer and guests, a meeting of minds. In that particular episode, sadly, luck was a lot shy. Which is not to say that the whole concept misfired. The purpose behind Xerox Science Report remains noteworthy. The determination of its producers remains even more admirable. Sometimes there's very much less to say about other programs.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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