"Trade Winds," on NBC, has some things going for it: It offers the distinct pleasures of seeing people of color in positions of power and wealth, of seeing a young woman of color as the female romantic lead, of seeing a world that's just a little more colorblind than ours.
But that liberation and the distinct visual pleasures of the island of St. Martin sum up the good news about this miniseries, which premieres on NBC at 9 tonight, launching a Friday night anthology series the network is calling "Great Escapes." (Because of an Orioles telecast WMAR [Channel 2] is delaying the start of the miniseries until 3 p.m. tomorrow.)
NBC is promoting "Great Escapes" as the romance novel come to TV. But it's mainly NBC's finding a cheap way to fill the time slot until another anthology of mystery movies featuring such big names as Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, Larry Hagman, Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers is ready to go.
The network hopes viewers won't notice that Cosby and the other stars aren't anywhere to be seen this fall on NBC despite months of promotion saying they'd be back. NBC is hoping to confuse you.
Tonight's first hour of "Trade Winds" is certainly confusing enough. It requires a scorecard, scoreboard, flashcards and cribsheet to keep everybody straight in this would-be pot boiler about two rival families fighting for women, hotels and sunken treasure in the Caribbean.
To be kind, let's just say the pot never quite boils.
It tries to simmer and give off some steam, but the actors are so inexperienced and the script so nondescript that everything takes a back seat to the backdrop of sea, beach and mountains.
The plot revolves around two grandsons of a patriarch (played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) trying to find a sunken Spanish galleon.
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and a Spanish galleon. Enough said? In case it's not, here's the rest. One of the grandsons is trying to save his father's hotel. Another grandson -- this one from a rival part of the family tree -- has mounting gambling debts. Yet, a third has just become a district attorney. There are other grandchildren, but enough's enough. The number of offspring of Zimbalist's Christof von Philips is biblical.
This is a miniseries of worsts, right out of the tradition of "Lady Boss" and "Scruples." John Beck, long hailed as the most wooden actor to ever get steady work outside of martial arts movies, plays a tight-fisted banker who is another one of Zimbalist's grandkids. But topping Beck is the old man himself, Mr. FBI, Zimbalist, who seems to have replaced Vincent Price as the hammiest actor around.
"It feeds on itself, this fighting between two families," the old man's wife says in one scene.
"When will it stop?" Zimbalist says to her.
Not until NBC gets its big-name, Friday-night, mystery movies made and can deep-six "Great Escapes."