Television Reviews : AIDS News Magazine Begins on PBS

“The AIDS Quarterly” (tonight at 9 on Channels 28 and 15, at 10 on Channel 50) takes the news magazine format to the next logical level: hourlong, quarterly reports on a single issue. In this case, the issue demands no less. One of AIDS’ most sinister qualities is its inexhaustible ability to find new social sectors to infect. Whether this video magazine, produced by PBS affiliate WGBH-TV in Boston and hosted by Peter Jennings, can keep up with the pandemic remains to be seen.

Tonight’s first edition suggests that it will. The unifying theme of the two segments, “The Education of Admiral Watkins” and “A Death in the Family,” is of conservative heterosexual white men forced to face the social and emotional realities of the disease, finding their personal values and assumptions upended in the process.

Adm. James Watkins, picked by Ronald Reagan to head the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic, was a Navy man thrown into a crisis that he readily admits he had no appreciation for. The report follows Watkins and his group, lambasted by AIDS activists for their ignorance of the disease’s dimensions, as they crisscross the country on a fact-finding mission.

They find that the virus is killing families, babies and runaway teens no less than homosexual men, that the medical infrastructure is physically and financially incapable of the double demands of finding a cure and caring for the infected, and that intolerance and neglect for those infected is as viral as the disease itself.


Watkins, in a remarkable confession, says that the commission’s investigation “softened my military views. Being on the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a piece of cake next to combatting AIDS.”

The softening of Dr. Joseph Pace’s heart is at the core of “A Death in the Family,” in which the dying days of his AIDS-infected son, Malcolm, bring a profound moral dilemma to the surface. On one hand, the Paces are Mormons, and Malcolm had fled the church for the love of men--a paramount sin in Mormonism. On the other hand, the family is Mormonism’s bedrock; after years of admitted coldness toward his son, Joseph must at last confront his paternal duty at Malcolm’s deathbed.

The father observes that “I love my son and my religious beliefs. They don’t mix.” Yet the family comes together, and the camera intimately watches them. Too intimately, some might feel. But such close-up reporting is television’s way of confronting its own past denial of the disease.