When you think about television of the '80s, three figures emerge as mystifying phenomena, mushrooming like A-bomb clouds above the electronic landscape, their source of defoliating potency beyond the ability of lay minds to grasp.
One is Vanna White, the nifty letter-turner on "Wheel of Fortune." Another is Robin Leach, whose 100th episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on KTLA Channel 5. The third is Mr. T, whose goofy syndicated series, "T and T," premieres at 7:30 tonight on Channel 5. (Thereafter it will be seen Saturdays at 11:30 a.m.)
And they said Mr. T couldn't act.
No longer jewelry-jangling B.A. Baracus of "The A-Team," Mr. T is now T.S. Turner, an investigator for swell-looking attorney Amanda Taler (Alex Amini). She was the prosecutor who helped put him away for a crime he didn't commit, then realized her mistake and got him released.
You wonder, if just for diversion, whether Mr. T would ever consider playing a character named Bob or Ralph.
In any event, Amanda is unable to restrain her muscleman's violent instincts. You know the drill: She's court smart, he's street smart. She cracks law books, he cracks heads.
But this is a new-look Mr. T, wearing a double-breasted suit and bow tie--until he has to put the muscle on someone, whereupon he goes to something along the fashion lines of Michael Jackson in the video of "Bad."
Michael is a better dancer, but Mr. T. is more convincing as someone intimidating thugs.
Tonight's story is set in Chinatown, where the evil ganglord Quang is running an extortion racket that victimizes undocumented aliens.
Overshadowing the plot is an electrifying battle of truisms, with Quang initially catching Mr. T off guard in observing: "There are many weapons in this world. It takes a wise man to know which to pick and when to use it."
Mr. T retaliates a few scenes later with this shrewd retort: "Cool it, brother! I'm not talkin' to you!" Charlie Chan, eat your heart out.
There are physical battles, too. In some of the corniest fight sequences ever shot, Mr. T throws punches at Quang and his guys that clearly miss by a foot, but he's so strong that his targets go flying through the air anyway.
Mr. T punctuates these devastating misses with such snappy dialogue as "Don't worry, I'm checkin' this dude out pretty close!" Or "This dude done made a big mistake!"
Yes, his writers are supplying those great lines.
Being an Asian thug, Quang is naturally a martial arts expert, and he's so ruthless that he squirts ink on Mr. T's shirt. But it's Mr. T who has the last laugh and the lethal last truism: "What's taken by force is lost by force."
That's bad .
Celebrating the 100th episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" is like honoring the birth of magazine racks at supermarket checkout counters.
Not only that, but host Leach doesn't even get the birth date straight, initially saying Sunday that his syndicated show premiered in August, 1983, and dates back "hawf a deckide," later adding that the "incredible journey began in 1984." Well, when you're this excited. . . .
Incredible it's been, nonetheless. As an interviewer, Leach is the National Enquirer set's Ted Koppel, the difference between them being the difference between probing and slobbering. With a breathless working-class British voice and toothy smile that could freeze warm butter, Leach has gotten famous exposing viewers to an orgy of wealth and materialism that we all may put down as appallingly self-indulgent, but secretly wish we could share.
The "memorable moments" roar by Sunday like race cars at Monte Carlo--the celebrities, blue-bloods, royalty, industrial empires, villas, chateaux, Rolls-Royces, Lear jets, yachts, furs and priceless jewels becoming a glittery blur.
The show uncranks a profile of Liz Taylor ("There are stahs, there are superstahs and there is Elizabeth Taylor"). Polishing off her on-screen career, Leach declares that "off-screen fate dealt the princess bride a different hand: a royal flush in holy matrimony."
Then come the Taylor marriages and so on, with Leach adding, "Yet behind the fun, a serious side." That, of course, is Taylor's anti-AIDS crusade.
(At least AIDS gets the proper respectful tone here, compared with that Fox series "A Current Affair" seen on KTTV Channel 11, which reported in typical gossipy, exploitative style Tuesday night that a Taylor in-law in London had AIDS. Its source: The Sun, a scandal-lusting London tabloid owned by Fox magnate Rupert Murdoch. One hand feeds the other.)
"Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" does hard news, too, of course. Witness Sunday's "exclusive investigation into Japan's buy-up of America." Fasten your seat belts as Leach plunges into "the story some said could never be shown on television." Just who said that isn't revealed, possibly to protect them from entering institutions featuring padded cells.
This show is all stagecraft.
What helps make it go are the words that complement the pictures. From Leach's mouth to your ears? Forget it. We "enter the secret world of 20 men worth $75 billion," see the "relentless real estate deals," watch "real-life Monopoly with America as the board." Oh no-o-o-o-o.
There--exclusively to "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," we're told--is Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, identified as the world's wealthiest human and so reclusive that even his friends "don't know the first name of his wife or the sex of his children." Presumably, his wife and children have that information, however.
And, "We kid you not," adds Leach, Tsutsumi "actually rations the toilet paper" of his employees. Is that before or after?
The nice thing about Leach is that he executes all this hocus-pocus good-naturedly, with no pretentions or aspirations of grandeur. His great talent is his ordinariness. He obviously knows exactly who he is and what he's doing: making himself rich and famous by riding this sucker to its conclusion.
That is why, week after week, I'm checkin' this dude out pretty close.