Wading Through a Flood of Earth Day Specials

Will too much of a good thing turn out to be a bad thing?

There is not always strength in numbers. The danger exists that the sheer crush of this week's programming keyed to Sunday's 20th anniversary of Earth Day will be ultimately less illuminating and motivating than desensitizing. It all gets to be a blur.

If there's one of these programs that makes unique use of television, however, it's the ambitious, two-hour "Time Warner Presents the Earth Day Special" at 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42).

Too often it's sophomoric, preachy, heavy-handed, disjointed and as scattershot as TV itself. Yet it's also touched by genius on occasion, and its use of celebrities in an eclectic, loose-and-easy narrative about our imperiled environment turns out to be as educational as it is sometimes entertaining.

The familiar faces range from Barbra Streisand, Magic Johnson and E. T. to Bette Midler, who spends most of the time on her back in intensive care as an apparently mortally ill Mother Earth. Outside, Candice Bergen stands in front of a TV camera as Murphy Brown: "There are unconfirmed reports that Mother Earth is dying."

The thrust of the story, then, becomes Mother Earth's rescue from the lethal ignorance of a littering, destroying, plastic-bagging, plastic-foaming, aluminum-canning humanity. And the means is education, whether it's Danny DeVito getting environmentally lobbied by his wife, Rhea Perlman, in their roles as a couple watching all of this on TV, or Kevin Costner as a bartender advising a patron played by Meryl Streep, who feels the problem is too overwhelming for a single person to make a difference. He tells her: "You need to do something instead of being afraid."

Dwight Hemion is the director of "The Earth Day Special" and Armyan Bernstein, Richard Baskin and Paul Junger Witt the executive producers. Even if this program itself were mostly rubbish, it would be worth watching for a brilliant short sketch with Robin Williams as a concerned Everyman and Dustin Hoffman as an unconcerned Everylawyer debating ecological issues over lunch. Everylawyer: "Let me tell you, plants and flowers in the wrong hands is a dangerous thing."

Meanwhile, Rick Moranis, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase play Earth Day-ridiculing friends whose smoky card game is visited by DeVito in a nightmare. Chase: "Save the whales, save the trees, save your breath!"

Exactly. A nice thing about this program is its acknowledgement of the skepticism and apathy that encumber the movement to stem the planet's destructive spiral, and also its awareness that Sunday's momentum may be fleeting and perhaps most do-gooders will suffer amnesia a day later. Mother Earth: ". . . Monday comes, and people forget."

But this attitude is countered here by clear and concise tips on what individuals can do to help launder the environment. Put it this way, recovery sounds manageable, and that's the key.

What you don't see in "The Earth Day Special" is the sheer beauty of the planet that's said to be in jeopardy. That comes in "Challenge of the Seas," a truly swell, pictorially grand series from Hardy Jones and Julia Whitty that premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on cable's Arts & Entertainment network.

Members of the sea's net-ravaged population are on display here, with Ted Danson as on-camera host and occasional narrator.

The opening program on the gliding giant manta is breathtaking, its every movement part of a graceful underwater ballet. The mantas look like black-caped figures when silhouetted in the deep, and Jones goes for a ride on one of these beautiful creatures, each treating the other gently, man and fish not as enemies but in concert.

In the second program, Jones and cinematographer Howard Hall swim safely among hundreds of seemingly docile hammerhead sharks, huge schools migrating with an eerie slowness as if pulled forward by a magnetic force.

Dolphins are the subjects of the amazing third and fourth programs, in which Jones and Whitty--who are married--frolic beneath the sea and even communicate with these highly intelligent creatures. You just have to see it.

The enormous appeal of these programs is that they present fish and underwater animals not as abstractions but as our planetary partners. Much as Jane Goodall used the power of television to enable us to identify with the wild dogs, baboons and chimps she closely studied in Africa, Jones and Whitty return to a school of dolphins they have been observing for years and, in a manner of speaking ("Any chance that could be Dee Dee?"), renew old acquaintances.

What a thrill it is to experience this enfolding realm with them, and to watch the gap separating man and animal being narrowed.

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