Lifetime's Savitch Portraits Fail To Answer Key Questions

----------------------------------------------------------------- "Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story," 8 p.m. Monday, Lifetime. "Intimate Portrait: Jessica Savitch," 10 p.m. Monday, Lifetime. ----------------------------------------------------------------- The new season of television movies is starting off with - surprise! surprise! - a docudrama: "Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story," the saga of the rise and fall of the high-profile TV anchor who was killed in a freak accident in 1983.

It's often been my opinion, after suffering through innumerable docudramas about famous people, that their stories could be better told through the medium of a straightforward documentary than in TV movie form with their inevitable combined characters and invented scenes and dialogue.

Now I'm not so sure - Lifetime is experimenting with using both forms: First, the movie, "Almost Golden," at 8 p.m. Monday; then, at 10 p.m. Monday, there's a straight documentary, "Intimate Portrait," both about Savitch.

Neither works

Both works fail, to a certain degree, because they never really capture the essence of the subject. We're told repeatedly, in both films, of how popular Savitch was, of how her enormous popularity in both Houston and Philadelphia markets led to her being signed by NBC. What isn't clear, whether we're watching video clips of the real Savitch or Sela Ward impersonating her, is what exactly was responsible for her phenomenal success.

Was it just because she was movie-star pretty? Visually, she was a knockout. Even Sela Ward, attractive as she is (and sporting a blond hairstyle), doesn't come close to Savitch. Or was she indeed a terrific newsperson?

All we are shown, in either film, are the briefest of snippets, mostly Savitch doing stand-ups somewhere on locations with statements like "Today a man was killed inside this building." The scene ends and we're left with the impression that Savitch's journalistic talents were nothing extraordinary. So what was it that led to her being one of the most respected TV anchors in the nation in the early 1980s?

Both films are much more concerned with Savitch's reported use of cocaine (although how she became hooked and how she obtained it are not touched upon, even though, in the movie, Savitch is shown being fairly open about her use.) And it appears Savitch had a fairly violent relationship with another TV reporter, played by Ron Silver in the movie (who makes the character a lot more vital than he appears in the documentary). However, Savitch's two marriages are more interestingly portrayed in the documentary than they are in the film.

Given a friend

In the movie, Savitch is given an invented friend/confidante, played by Judith Ivey, to whom Savitch can confide her problems. In the documentary, those problems are more provocatively discussed by members of Savitch's family, by Savitch's former Philadelphia co-anchor and, most of all by Alanna Nash, who wrote "Golden Girl," upon which the movie is based. Nancy Glass is the narrator of the film and, presumably, the interviewer, although one wishes she had asked hardball questions of Nash rather than accepting everything she says at face value.

While Savitch's downward spiral is painful to watch, in either film, perhaps the greater victim here is TV news itself. The claims (and suspicions) of many that TV news is too concerned with pretty, young faces, with ratings, sensationalism, and dog-eat-dog behavior is reinforced by much of what goes on in these two programs.

Adding a sixth ----------------------------------------------------------------- "Biography," A&E, 5 and 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. -----------------------------------------------------------------

The A&E network has discovered one of its biggest successes are the hour-long "Biography" programs that originally aired once a week, then switched to five times a week in June 1994. This past season, "Biography" began having a weekly "theme." And, starting at 9 p.m. Saturday, A&E will add a sixth night of "Biography," with that focusing on a newsmaker of the week.

Alternately hosted by Peter Graves and Jack Perkins, "Biography" consistently does a good job of compiling interesting facts and footage about its subjects.

The network is kicking off its new fall season with "Great Entertainers Week," starting at 5 p.m. Monday with a look at Dean Martin, followed by Tony Bennett, Liberace, Debbie Reynolds and Sammy Davis Jr.

Both the Martin and Liberace reports, available for previewing, are entertaining and informative (and instructive as to how time flies: It was 30 years ago Martin's hit NBC TV series was launched!) It's also a pleasant reminder of Martin's easy-going charm.

Liberace's life and career are more familiar, but the film is less interesting because he eventually became tiresome with his emphasis upon excess. What is appealing about this hour are clips of Liberace's early TV shows when he was a much less hyper, much more engaging singing piano-player. The hour is a lesson in how success can as easily be a detriment as a blessing. `Games' may catch on "Deadly Games," premiere of UPN series, 8 p.m. Tuesday, KIRO-TV.

United Paramount Network is unveiling its third new series this week, "Deadly Games," which should delight the hearts of video game players.

Created by Leonard Nimoy and Paul Bernbaum, "Deadly Games" stars James Calvert as Dr. Gus Lloyd, a scientific genius who has created his own video game, complete with villains, based on people he knew in real life.

"Deadly Games" spends an awful lot of time setting the stage before we get to the gimmick: Unlike "Sliders" and "VR5," in which real people were swept into the world of technology, "Deadly Games" releases the Bad Guys from the video game into the real world and the hero has to try to track them down before they destroy the world.

If you take the world of video games seriously, "Deadly Games" will probably have a certain appeal for you. If you don't, then this series will not only seem silly but far too violent and noisy, one tiresome, unbelievable explosion after another.

That's not to say that "Deadly Games" doesn't have some charms.

Calvert is a likable hero, and Christopher Lloyd makes a wonderful villain, playing a wicked spoof of Ricardo Montalban on "Fantasy Island." Ex-football star Tom Rathman makes a powerful nemesis, and Cynthia Gibb is on hand as the hero's ex-wife who gets conned into taking part in his complicated schemes. Stephen Kay plays the hero's best friend, a totally extraneous role.

"Deadly Games," like "Quantum Leap" and the sci-fi shows mentioned earlier, requires viewers to abandon anything like disbelief and to accept all this nonsense at face value. It's a Saturday morning cartoon in prime time. But it doesn't have strong competition - NBC's "Wings" and ABC's "Roseanne" have been around a long time; Fox will be competing with a movie and CBS with "Matt Waters," a drama about a teacher in an inner school, starring Montel Williams. "Deadly Games" could become a success by default.