Times Television Critic

Most TV movies about issues are so message oriented that they ultimately forget about people. The characters become mere bystanders, at some point their personal stories slipping into the background as the issue--the inevitable detailed exposition and preachy lecture--takes over.

Airing at 9 tonight on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10, 42), "Cracked Up" is the pleasant exception, although its topic--the increasing use of lethal crack cocaine--is anything but pleasant.

The compelling focus of producer Peter Lefcourt's strong script is the close friendship between high school track star John Owens (James Wilder) and a teammate Chris McNally (Raphael Sbarge), who blithely fantasize themselves as Paul Newman and Robert Redford in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Although John is in transition and has a distant relationship with his widower father, Pastor Vincent Owens (Ed Asner), he has no serious problems until he and Chris are introduced to crack cocaine. Although Chris is repelled by the experience, the drug immediately takes over John's life and soon becomes fatal.

A brief speech by Chris about his friend becomes the movie's statement: "He died from smoking crack, every day, as much as he could. He smoked it until it fried his brains and it screwed up his heart. And it didn't take him very long to do. Believe me. And that's what happened to John."

Karen Arthur's efficient direction and fine performances by Wilder, Sbarge and Asner bring distinction to this Aaron Spelling production. But real-life victims of crack--their mounting toll reflected in newspaper and TV headlines--give the story its sharp, tragic relevance.

There's a general consensus that former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, became one of the world's wealthiest couples by plundering their own country. "In Search of the Marcos Millions" goes even further by producing documents seeming to prove outright fraud and thievery.

Airing tonight on PBS (at 9 on Channels 28 and 15, and at 10 on Channel 50), this revealing and fascinating "Frontline" documentary is from Emmy-winning William Cran and Stephanie Tepper.

They present documents allegedly obtained from the Marcos' secret vault in Malacanang Palace listing Swiss bank accounts, fake identities, phony companies and laundering schemes through which the former Filipino First Couple are said to have illegally amassed a fortune of at least $2.1 billion while much of their nation withered in poverty.

Interviewed in exile in Honolulu, Ferdinand Marcos denies all.

"In Search of the Marcos Millions" also alleges a former financial connection between the jet-setting Imelda and actor George Hamilton. And although the program is sober and at times even somber, the rash of Imelda jokes comes to mind as we revisit her famed closets, now a palace tourist attraction and occupied by only the clothes she left behind. A sample: 1,000 gowns, 1,200 handbags, 2,600 pairs of shoes and even a bullet-proof bra.

The amusement ends when you hear that the cost of one pair of Imelda's evening shoes equals the annual per capita income of the average Filipino.

Graft, corruption and a back of the hand to the people.

TV almost always gets the last word, so it's nice to see a program that gives viewers the option of immediate response. "You Are the Jury" is an exorbitant price for the opportunity, however.

This latest "You Are the Jury" special tonight at 10 on NBC (Channels 4, 36, 39) invites viewers to dial a 900 number to vote on whether millionaire Peter Farley (Robert Mandan) was slain by his wife Sheila (Audrey Landers), or his boat captain Stanley Manning (Adrian Zmed).

A blurry depiction of the murder is followed by a bite-size trial in which Sheila and Stanley each accuse the other of doing the deed. The performances are flat and perfunctory and the entire production totally lacking in suspense and intelligence. The real mystery: Who slew the script?

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