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Picks and Pans Main: Tube

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For the second time this year, Americans were transfixed by events unfolding on television. But the gulf war was an inaccessible story, forcing TV to rely on an army of analysts. With the tawdry final chapter of the Clarence Thomas hearings, television had a volatile but stationary target. Pundits were superfluous.

While such previous point-and-shoot TV spectacles as Watergate and Iran-contra tended to be Byzantine in their details and casts, the issues here were stark, the characters compelling and few, and the overriding question simple if troubling: Who was telling the truth?

Over the weekend the networks clung to their sports schedules. Dan Rather betrayed characteristic annoyance when he had to give way to baseball. And maybe this time he was not alone. The Friday and Saturday games between the Twins and the Blue Jays were the lowest-rated prime-time baseball play-offs ever. The real winner on broadcast TV was PBS, which went gavel-to-gavel with intelligent commentary by National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg (see story, page 55) and Paul Duke of Washington Week in Review. On Sunday night PBS bested the networks in some markets, an extraordinary occurrence.

As ever, TV generated jarring juxtapositions. In the space of 24 hours, viewers could have taken in NBC’s miniseries A Woman Named Jackie, with its portrait of a tarnished Camelot, and the sight of Sen. Ted Kennedy looking extremely uncomfortable as Sen. Howell Heflin and Sen. Orrin Hatch engaged in rancorous debate about date rape. More than once during the proceedings, a commercial came on for a movie that showed Danny DeVito making a crude sexual suggestion to an office subordinate.

This potent mix of politics, psychodrama, kinky sex, character assassination and performance art (does anyone really believe these senators were as shocked by dirty language and pornography as they pretended?) was universally inflaming. Anytime you can outrage everyone in the audience, you have can’t-miss TV.