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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

Melodrama, Anyone?

By Belinda Acosta

MAY 1, 2000:  Wouldn't you know it? As soon as I leave town, one of the biggest news events in the nation occurs: Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban boy at the center of a binational tug-of-war, gets spirited from his great uncle's house by INS agents.

I did not see the "highlights" of the event on television until I checked into a Phoenix-area hotel room on Saturday night. From what I could see, it was all Elián, all the time on the cable news networks, specifically CNN. The locals without cable access got 30-45 seconds of footage from network news with an occasional passing mention on the local news.

Combined with the disorientation that comes with traveling, the new developments with Elián Gonzalez were disturbing to me. Not just his personal story, which ignited old tensions between the United States and Cuba, but how it conveniently unfolded for the camera -- or, should I say, how well the players played their parts for the camera.

There's Elián's 21-year-old cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, who has taken on the role of grieving mother, stepping in for Elián's real mother who died at sea in a failed attempt to reach the United States from Cuba via a 16-foot motor boat. There's the great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, who refused to give up custody of the boy after his plea for Elián's asylum was turned down. There's Donato Dalrymple, the lifesaving fisherman who plucked Elián out of the ocean on Thanksgiving Day, and by a coincidence that seems almost too dramatically convenient to be true, was the person holding Elián when federal agents stormed the Gonzalez house to take Elián for return to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

Other players include the legions of passionate Cuban expatriates who have made Elián the incarnation of the fervent American patriotism they've embraced since abandoning Castro's Cuba and settling in Miami. There are the key officials, with no personal relationship to Elián, but whose actions will profoundly impact the boy's future. The beleaguered Janet Reno is at the top of this list and is the one person whose professional life will forever be defined by this -- along with that other spectacle that occurred under her reign as attorney general, the raid of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. And lest we forget, there's Elián himself. What did he think was in store for him after witnessing his mother's drowning, aimlessly floating at sea until his rescue? Could he have imagined the epic drama he would star in?

The whole event has the flavor of a movie of the week -- which CBS is already planning for November sweeps. Obviously, Elián's story is dramatically appealing, but would it be too much to expect that we actually learn something from all of this? Will it be possible to comb the depths of what makes this entire story so compelling and painful for all involved? Will the extended family in Miami be cast as kooks, and Elián's father as a loving father but evil communist? Will all sides of the Cuban-American community be heard? More importantly, will Elián be heard?

Most movies of the week are made to exploit an already exploited person or circumstances under the guise of need-to-know entertainment. Still, I have hope that the Elián Gonzalez circus can teach us something about ourselves -- make us question our knowledge and attitudes about immigrant communities, examine world enemies, concepts of family, and what it means to be a citizen of a "free" nation. I don't think a movie of the week is necessary for that kind of work. Unfortunately, it's probably as far as most people will push themselves to learn about the larger circumstances that surround Elián Gonzalez.

Coming Attractions

May 10-21: The 53rd Annual Cannes International Film Festival. The Independent Film Channel will carry key events live. The opening ceremony occurs on May 10 at noon (encore broadcast at 7pm). The closing ceremony, which includes awarding of the Jury Prize, the Grand Jury Prize, Best Performance awards, and the Palm D'Or, will air May 21 at 2:30pm. (encore broadcast at 7pm.). Roger Ebert hosts the awards ceremony with translators on hand to translate the French-language events into English. Between opening and closing ceremonies, a movie marathon featuring past Cannes Film Festival winners and nominees will air on the IFC and on its sister network, Bravo.

May 28: The Indianapolis 500 airs on ABC at 10am.

May 29: The premiere of MTV's Summer Beach House.

The network sweeps, which began Thursday, April 27, continue through May 24.

May 5: HBO premieres Americanos: Latino Life in the United States. Conceived and co-produced by Edward James Olmos, the documentary special features the personal stories of Latinos from across the United States. Profiles from individuals and families in Los Angeles, San Diego, New Mexico, Illinois, Miami, and New York reveal the similarities and differences between Latinos across the nation.

They're Baaack

Networks have renewed the following series:

ABC: NYPD Blue, The Practice, and Once and Again.

CBS: Everybody Loves Raymond, King of Queens, Becker, JAG, Judging Amy, Touched by an Angel, Nash Bridges, and Walker, Texas Ranger.

NBC: Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me.

HBO: The Sopranos (returning in March 2001; the delayed season launch provides time for creator David Chase to plan the series through two seasons).

Pilots in production

NBC: Semper Fi, a "marine drama" produced by Steven Spielberg. David Alan Grier has the lead role as a secret service agent in D.A.G. The sitcom also features Delta Burke as the first lady.

FOX: Star Patrol, a sci-fi parody set in the 27th century. Michael Ian Black (the "dog" in those goofy Pets.com commercials) will star in the sitcom Hey Neighbor. Black, along with Andy Richter (Late Night With Conan O'Brien), David Alan Grier, Tone Loc, and Tommy Chong, will provide voices for the live-action comedy Dog Years.

The WB: Day One, described as "an apocalyptic drama," features an ensemble cast which includes DB Woodside (Romeo Must Die). An addition to the network's stable of supernatural-themed series is Dead Last, about a band with a magical jewel which allows them contact with the spirit world.

UPN: A government thriller, Level Nine, is in the works at the smackdown network.

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