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TV REVIEW : ‘Wizard’ Proves a Dim Biography of Edison

If necessity is the mother of invention, then Thomas Edison seems to have been its father. The program about him tonight on the Disney Channel--"The Wizard: Thomas Alva Edison” (at 8 p.m.)--is as much concerned with the invention of myths about (and sometimes by) Edison as it is with his scientific developments.

“The Wizard” is a pilot for a possible series called “American Originals”; biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright, Joe Louis, Marian Anderson, Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt are planned. If that overly biographied lineup seems to overlap PBS’ “American Masters” and A&E;'s “Biography,” those series need not fear stiff competition. Not if the less-than-wizardly “The Wizard” proves typical of “Originals.”

The program, from MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, leaves our conception of the “real truth” about Edison almost as muddy at the end of the hour as it was at the beginning. Make that Mudd-y, since veteran correspondent Roger Mudd hosts.

Mudd starts off by noting that we’ve always been told that Edison was “a great American hero--honest, hard-working, practical, enterprising.” But less known, Mudd adds, is that the inventor was also “demanding and driven, boastful and mercenary.”

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If that awakens some expectation of juicy revelation, put it back to bed. “The Wizard” turns out to be fairly ordinary TV biography--slightly jazzed up with overly insistent music and talking-head quotes from opinionated but questionable Edison specialists. Mudd and the experts use words like probably a lot in stating that one thing or another is or isn’t true about Edison, but the reasoning behind these surmises is seldom forthcoming.

Fortunately, the documentary proceeds through the more indisputable facts in brisk, interesting and fairly clear fashion, even if it lacks insight into what drove the inventor. Edison--who invented the phonograph, the electric light bulb and the film projector among many other items--is such an incredible figure that he lights up, so to speak, even an otherwise rather dim documentary.


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