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Friday, February 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

PBS, "SNL" and using your Noggin

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist

A cartoon cataclysm has helped topple a PBS president. Th-th-that's not all, folks.

At 8 Sunday on Fox (KCPQ-TV), "The Simpsons" will air its much-bruited "There's Something About Marrying" episode. Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage, Homer becomes a minister to cash in and someone comes out. Rumor favors sister-in-law Patty.

The plot practically invites conservative condemnation. Forget it: Those taking aim at "Postcards from Buster" and "SpongeBob SquarePants" for tolerating gays won't waste powder on a sweeps stunt, especially one broadcast on Fox News Channel's sister network. They're out for bigger game, which they bagged when PBS President Pat Mitchell announced Tuesday she would not seek to renew her contract next year.

On the surface, it may seem as if criticism from the media and PBS viewers governed Mitchell's decision. She was harshly reproached for caving to U.S. Department of Education threats to yank funding if PBS nationally televised the "Postcards from Buster" episode in which Buster the animated rabbit visits Vermont children with lesbian parents.

The uproar undoubtedly had an effect — as a final straw. PBS' current situation calls to mind "The Peter Principle" co-author Raymond Hull's observation that he who trims himself to suit everyone will soon whittle himself away.

Better for Mitchell to quit before American public television comes to resemble Al-Jazeera or state-run TV in Russia by reflecting the government's ideology instead of the taxpayers' diversity.

Yes, we're still a long way from that. But the White House and Congress have plenty of time to oversee a successor. Don't be surprised if the next PBS president is a tad to the right of Placatory Pat.

"SNL" special

Although "The Simpsons" flaunts diversity on a regular basis, the show's creators generally resist making a statement in favor of making us laugh.

The same can't be said of "Live From New York: The First 5 Years of Saturday Night Live," airing from 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday on NBC (KING-TV).

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Nostalgia is a standout sweeps performer, as ABC's recent "Happy Days" crypt-trip reaffirmed. Yet rather than stick with the best clips from early "SNL," at least half of Sunday's special is a weird, windy blend of gossipy trivia and pseudo-serious musings.

The talking-heads list is long and interruptions are frequent. Repeatedly, just as I began to enjoy some memorable bit of genius, it would be cut off so a former star, guest host or staff writer could remind me: This is genius.

It's also death to funny. Didn't the producer ever see "Sullivan's Travels," the Preston Sturges movie that skewers artistic pretension in the name of social significance? You can't grin and frown at the same time unless you're prepping for a botox injection.

As if the interjections aren't maddening enough — over two hours, perhaps five skits are fully presented — "SNL" is recast as TV's first groundbreaking provocateur.

This is wildly off the mark. "SNL" was the neener-neener show of mid-'70s comedy. It ran at least 90 degrees counter to the topical humor of "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H," not to mention the truly bold (and canceled) "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

In fact, SNL's failure to deeply engage with anything and instead make fun of everything created resounding success. It perfectly echoed a listless, tapped-out era that deserved trivial treatment, especially if you were a post-'60s adolescent watching at home.

On Sunday, the closest manifestation of this spirit comes from a segment dealing with the freewheeling creativity, pervasive drug use and dorm-room atmosphere that prevailed. Truly, these were the "Animal House" days of wine and roaches.

Otherwise, drugs are an awkward topic. John Belushi's self-destruction evokes clichés about excess success and a remorseful comment from creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels, who sounds like a coach apologizing for not disciplining his players.

The program weakly addresses the racial tokenism of "SNL." A skittish interview with Garrett Morris, the original cast's lone African American, doesn't explain the dearth of black talent in a period when "The Jeffersons," "Sanford and Son," "Car Wash" and "Uptown Saturday Night" were hits on TV and film.

Regardless of whether "SNL" ever has matched its early years, we are reminded of Michaels' sustained ability to recruit promising stars. An opening sequence of past cast members is impressive. As an agent, he'd have been richer than Michael Ovitz.

Returning to 1975-80 also gives viewers an Emersonian opportunity to reconsider early judgments. Gilda Radner's brilliance holds up. Belushi seems overrated. Dan Aykroyd is much better than I once appreciated. The musical acts are brief and mixed.

But the special's elaborate approach emphasizes how much "SNL" has become a victim of the values it once mocked, such as celebrity worship and self-importance. Comedy Central and Fox's "MAD TV" today are ruder, sharper and less indulgent.

Finally, the show provides a cautionary lesson for that 30th anniversary "Daily Show" retrospective: Don't cut off your clips to spite your face.

"Miracle's Boys"

Digital cable network Noggin, called The N when it turns to nighttime shows for teens, premieres the miniseries "Miracle's Boys" from 8 to 9 tonight, Saturday and Sunday. Each installment is repeated from 10 to 11 p.m. The plot centers on a trio of half-African American, half-Puerto Rican orphaned teenage brothers living in Harlem and struggling to hold the family together.

There's Ty'Ree (Pooch Hall), the oldest, who quits MIT to take care of his younger siblings; Charlie (Sean Nelson), the rebellious middle brother fresh out of juvenile detention; and Lafayette (Julito McCullum), a sweet-faced 14-year-old determined to become a baseball star.

Many shows about kids in an urban environment make everything look scary. Here, nuance is brought to bear on what is or isn't dangerous for city-raised children. The series' producers have managed to get inside tricky teen life without glorification or censure.

Although a bit forced at first owing to lots of front-loaded exposition, "Miracle's Boys" smoothes out and becomes endearing by the second half-hour of tonight's installment. Nelson and McCullum are especially convincing young actors.

The project attracted first-rate directors, including Spike Lee, LeVar Burton, Ernest Dickerson, Bill Duke and Neema Barnette. The lead executive producer is Lee's wife, Tonya Lewis Lee.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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