The Awful Truth Gives Michael Moore a New Channel, and Some New Targets

Wednesday, April 7

Banned in America: The World’s Sexiest Commercials . Um … if they’re banned in America, then how can Fox air them? Just another example of a Murdochian paradox. [WNYW, 5, 9 P.M.]

Thursday, April 8

Forget that Mars-Venus crap. Here’s the true gender divide: Men like to watch hard-core pornographic acts of sex and violence, women like to watch pookie-wookie little-wittle babies crawl around. Go figure. Every episode of Baby’s Story follows a happy couple through pregnancy, birth and itty-witty googly-shmoogly baby-waby gaga. In other words, this one’s strictly for the ladies. [Learning Channel, 52, 2 P.M.]

Friday, April 9

Speaking of babies, aspiring parents who’d like their child to be born on the first day of the new millennium would do well to conceive tonight, based on the obstetric convention that gestation averages 266 days. To set the mood, NYTV recommends the cooking show that gives free rein to the id– Two Fat Ladies . [TV Food Network, 50, 11 P.M.]

Saturday, April 10

So you weren’t one of the hundreds of millions of people who saw it in the theater, or one of the millions more who saw it on video. It was too mainstream, you said. It’s too long. James Cameron’s an ass. I’m not a 13-year-old Leo fanatic. I know the ending. I don’t like boats. I hate the song.

Now Titanic is on cable. Don’t you realize by now that it’s inescapable? (Don’t worry. Despite the dialogue, it’s actually entertaining.) [HBO, 32, 8 P.M.]

Sunday, April 11

The cable network Bravo is known for its sedate programming, offering such arty fare as Inside the Actor’s Studio and films like Farinelli . But with Michael Moore, the liberal labor activist and obnoxious television personality whose new program, The Awful Truth , debuts tonight, the network gains some topicality and controversy. Following the same path as his film Roger & Me and his previous show TV Nation , The Awful Truth finds Mr. Moore railing at targets such as Ken Starr (by staging a real witch hunt on Capitol Hill, complete with shrieking hysterics in 17th-century dress) and tobacco executives (by leading a group of carolers, who have lost their larynxes from smoking, to their houses).

“With Bravo, we can go a little further,” said Mr. Moore from his Michigan home. Mr. Moore hosted each of the 12 episodes in front of a live audience in Chicago. “We don’t have to go through a broadcast network standards and practices department. What you see is exactly what we intended.” In 1994, NBC aired TV Nation , and then it moved to Fox in 1995. At those networks, Mr. Moore said, he had to cut pieces on abortion, gay rights, condoms and the savings and loan crisis. “The cuts were not because of sex, violence or language, but because of ideas,” he said.

Mr. Moore has already run into trouble with his new show, but not from the network. While shooting a segment about Ira Rennert, the tycoon building a 63-acre property in Southampton, L.I., Mr. Moore received a restraining order from Mr. Rennert, who claimed Mr. Moore and his crew trespassed and harassed him. Mr. Moore had to stay 150 feet away from Rockefeller Center, which houses Mr. Rennert’s office. “We shot a funny piece on what I couldn’t do because of the restraining order,” said Mr. Moore. Since Mr. Moore couldn’t appear on Late Night With Conan O’Brien , which is taped in Rockefeller Center, Mr. O’Brien shouted questions at him from his ninth-floor window.

One of Mr. Moore’s favorite tactics is to enter corporate offices and demand immediate action for some cause or another. For instance, he shows up at an H.M.O. with a man who cannot get the company to pay for his life-saving surgery, presenting an addled public relations executive with an invitation to the man’s upcoming funeral. Even though the publicist doesn’t make any decisions regarding the man’s fate, he or she becomes the focus of Mr. Moore’s ire.

“They’re the good Germans,” Mr. Moore said. “‘We are only doing our job’: I don’t buy that as an excuse for participating in something that hurts other people. The P.R. execs are not minimum-wage employees. Many of them are former journalists who realized they can make three times as much money in P.R. They go from a profession where they try to tell the truth, to a profession where they don’t tell the truth, they spin the truth. You notice we never hassle security guards or secretaries.”

Mr. Moore also ignores critics who say he’s gotten too big for his role, that his celebrity makes him incapable of acting the underdog. “I don’t present myself as a victim–in a democracy, we have the most power. Instead, I would say to myself, ‘This is really amazing. You made Roger & Me nine years ago, you have not sold out or crossed over, you’re still fighting the good fight, standing up and giving voice for people whose voices we don’t hear in television or movies.’ I’ve been consistent in my beliefs. Yes, I make more money now than when I did Roger & Me . But before Roger & Me , I was making $15,000 a year.” [Bravo, 64, 9 P.M.]

Family Guy , the lukewarm animated show that premiered after the Super Bowl, finally settles into its cozy post- Simpsons time slot tonight, and Fox will see if its gamble paid off. In giving the slot to Family Guy , the network shuffled Futurama , another new animated show, into a less attractive Tuesday time slot. But when Fox let Futurama debut in the Sunday slot for the last two weeks, it drew monster ratings, attracting several million more viewers aged 18 to 49 than its Simpsons lead-in. If Family Guy tanks, expect Fox executives to hang their heads in shame. [WNYW, 5, 8:30 P.M.]

Monday, April 12

Fatboy Slim may as well give up producing albums and videos and just concentrate on commercials for films. In the last few weeks, the films She’s All That , Office Space , Cruel Intentions and 10 Things I Hate About You have all used the musician’s catchy dance hits in their ad campaigns, no doubt giving him some sizable copyright fees for “The Rockafella Skank,” “Praise You” and “Going Out of My Head.” Now comes Go , the flashy new film from Swingers director Doug Liman, whose ads contain a snippet of Fatboy’s “Gangster Tripping.” Tonight, Go star Scott Wolf stops by The Tonight Show With Jay Leno . [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]

Tuesday, April 13

After the massive publicity MTV scored last year with its Wanna Be a VJ Too contest, it was inevitable that they would do it all over again. So today, 2,000 screaming wannabes will clog Times Square for their shot at fleeting fame.

Last year’s big winner, selected by viewers, was the massively irritating Jesse Camp, a gaunt, spiky-haired, flamboyant slacker, an incoherent lad who made Pauly Shore look like George Plimpton. Fortunately for both the network and its viewers, Mr. Camp is moving on from MTV and is ready to pass the torch to another young thing. Attempting a music career, Mr. Camp has recorded a glam-rock album with his band, the Eighth Street Kids, whose video MTV will air this week.

Amid all the Jesse Camp publicity and backlash–he’s not really a punk, he boarded atthe exclusive Loomis Chafee School!–Dave Holmes managed to squeak by. Mr. Holmes, a jovial, stocky, likable guy, was the runner-up in last year’s contest, and was bid farewell, thanks for trying, have a good life. But he made connections, and tenaciously networked the MTV execs until they found a job for him, veejaying on MTV’s sister channel M2. Since then he’s become a full-fledged video jock on MTV, hosting his own shows and attracting a following. Though MTV viewers chose Mr. Camp over him, it’s Mr. Holmes who’s sticking around.

“This is the best job,” said Mr. Holmes recently, kicking back in a sweatshirt and khakis at the MTV Studios–which look as you would expect, with bluish lights and funky, annoying designs on the walls and floors. “This place is the ultimate treehouse.”

Mr. Holmes, 28, had moved to New York in 1994 after graduating from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. He spent three years crunching numbers as a “media planner” in advertising firms such as Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, but quit to become an actor, temping during the day and working with sketch comedy and improv troupes at cabaret joints at night. Thanks to his affable on-camera presence and his music-geek knowledge, he beat out 3,998 other contenders to earn his runner-up status.

Now he can’t go into record stores without being recognized by 12-year-old girls. “If I want to grab a disk, I throw on a hat and sprint,” he said. For the record, the kind of disks he’s buying lately are neo-country alternative like Son Volt and Wilco.

And what does Mr. Holmes think of Mr. Camp? “He’s a great kid, a fun guy. But we don’t hang out on the weekends. He’s not on my speed dial.” [MTV, 20, 8:30 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

In 1939, M-G-M released an effervescent, lightly satirical romantic comedy called Ninotchka [Sunday, April 11, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 6 P.M.; also on videocassette] , which ranks well among the enduring delights of American cinema, yet virtually all its makers were heavily accented Europeans: a Swedish superstar, Greta Garbo; a Polish-German director-producer, Ernst Lubitsch; two Viennese scenarists, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch; a Hungarian story-writer, Melchior Lengyel; a German composer, Werner Heymann; Prussian, Hungarian and German supporting actors, Felix Bressart, Bela Lugosi and Sig Ruman. While the picture is about Russian aristocrats and communists (seduced by the Western world) in Paris, it was shot entirely in Culver City, Calif., and the closest anyone got to Russia was co-star Melvyn Douglas’ father, a Russian-born concert pianist. Among the other above-the-line talent, only Irish-descended supporting actress Ina Claire and witty, sophisticated co-screenwriter Charles Brackett were born in the United States.

Can anyone argue that a great part of the golden age of American film–from the 1920′s through the 50′s–was not enormously influenced by the vigorous and various talents from abroad? Remember, our most beloved star of the silent era was the Englishman Charlie Chaplin, and among our most influential directors was another Englishman, trained in Germany, Alfred Hitchcock. Could we use more of this foreign impact right now? French master Jean Renoir–himself a Beverly Hills resident from 1940 until his death in 1979–used to say that the mischievously urbane Ernst Lubitsch “invented the modern Hollywood,” by which he meant that American films were significantly colored by Lubitsch’s cosmopolitan humor after his arrival here in 1923. Ninotchka is a perfect, and extremely popular, example–with lots of lighthearted joshing of the Soviets, who were about to become one of our strongest allies. How much more sophisticated the world was then.

The original ads for the movie were notoriously succinct: “Garbo laughs.” This signaled the waiting populace that it was the divine diva’s first comedy–and what a lovely comedienne she turned out to be–kidding brilliantly her own sullen reclusiveness. Who else could get such a terrific laugh from a two-word response to Douglas’ admission that he has an overwhelming compulsion to flirt with her? She says languidly, “Suppress it.” Of course, Lubitsch and his writers designed the whole picture for Garbo, and the big moment–when, after Douglas has tried in vain to make her laugh, he accidentally falls off his chair and she completely breaks up–is deservedly famous and breathtaking in its simple audacity. Talk about effectively playing off a star’s persona! But this sort of picture-making essentially disappeared with the fall of the studio star system. Today we encourage versatile actors, not star personalities, and so another major glory exclusive to the movies is taken away.

Ninotchka was only the second really great film of Garbo’s long career (the other was George Cukor’s 1936 version of Camille ) and also, sadly, it would turn out to be her penultimate picture. (Her last was a better-forgotten, ill-conceived comedy, Two-Faced Woman , ironically also directed by Cukor.) But what a true and wonderfully human exit Ninotchka remains. Lubitsch used to say, “I have been to Paris, France, and I have been to Paris, Paramount–I prefer Paris, Paramount.” Well, this is Paris, M-G-M–a fantasy world of charm and merriment, and of that fabled “Lubitsch touch,” which implied charm, provocative circuitousness and gaiety, combined with a slightly bittersweet awareness that all happiness is transient–but isn’t it swell while it lasts! With pictures like Ninotchka , we can savor this unique and very special Lubitsch feeling forever.