With Thanksgiving coming up, it's time for another warm and wonderful family TV movie to inspire you to buy - Band-Aids? Mylanta? Tylenol?
The holidays aren't just for Hallmark anymore. Johnson & Johnson has gotten into the act, with its "Spotlight Presentations." This year, it's another installment of the William H. Macy Show, in which the clever actor gets to write a movie starring himself as a good soul with a disability. Tonight at 8, he premieres as a mute in The Wool Cap, which runs seven more times in the next week on cable's TNT.
Oh, Hallmark Hall of Fame has a production, too, No. 221, if you count reruns, which they do. Hallmark teams up with novelist Anne Tyler, creator of contemporary literature's quirkiest families, for the third time, with Back When We Were Grownups, which airs only once, tonight at 9 on CBS.
Neither film is the sort of masterpiece that Hallmark crafts frequently and that Macy approached in 2002's Door to Door, in which he played a Fuller Brush man with cerebral palsy. But both are better than 95 percent of what you see on TV, and each will extract a tear or two while giving an opportunity for some familiar stars to shine.
Blythe Danner has the lead in Grownups, supported admirably by Peter Fonda and, God bless him, 85-year-old Jack Palance. Faye Dunaway provides an unimpressive cameo.
Don Rickles transcends his usual hockey-puck persona in Wool Cap, Ned Beatty puts himself into Emmy competition with a powerful scene toward the end, and 11-year-old newcomer Keke Palmer steals the show.
Part of the pleasure in Back When We Were Grownups is figuring out just who is what in the Rube Goldberg family that Danner's Rebecca Holmes Davitch holds together with optimism and a smile, and the rhyming toasts she offers at the myriad get-togethers she hosts.
She is related by blood to only two of the crowd, her mother and one of a younger generation of four women, whimsically named, as is Tyler's way, Patch, Biddy, NoNo and Min Foo. One is expecting her third child with her third husband. Another will marry during the movie and pick up a stepson. Another lives with the gay brother of her children's dead father. Zeb, who appears to be the closest thing Rebecca has to a husband, stays in another house, while Poppy, who is nobody's father in this movie, lives with her.
Tyler is a genius at constructing odd agglomerations that illustrate the most mundane aspects of family relationships, which makes her novels (Back When We Were Grownups was a 2001 best-seller) perfect fodder for the Hall of Fame. It has produced two previously, Breathing Lessons (starring James Garner and Joanne Woodward) for Valentine's Day 1994, and Saint Maybe (starring Mary-Louise Parker, Edward Hermann, and Danner) just before Thanksgiving 1998.
It's a standing joke among TV critics that every writer, actor and producer in TV Land thinks his or her shows are about relationships. These Tyler movies really are. One of the great TV writers, Robert W. Lenski, who died in 2002 after scripting, among many in a long list, Kojak, Mannix, and a 1994 Hall of Fame version of The Return of the Native starring a young beauty named Catherine Zeta-Jones, did the first two teleplays. Former ABC News producer Susanna Styron (William's daughter) and Bridget Terry (a producer on Shelley Duvall's magnificent Faerie Tale Theatre in the early '80s) wrote this one.
Not a lot happens, but, as in ordinary life, while it's not happening, people grow and learn and feel in complicated ways, and that helps to attract high-powered actors. Fonda, 65, and Palance play against type, not surprising considering that they have both aged into a different stage of life from the one in which they achieved fame.
Fonda's obsessive, depressive physics professor makes an unlikely boyfriend for Danner's Holly Golightly party girl. Palance, who was born Vladimir Palanuik in Lattimer Mines, about 15 miles northwest of Allentown, 22 years after 19 miners protesting working conditions were massacred there, owns a big piece of the show. He plays a forgetful 99-year-old who drinks pickle juice and wants nothing more than to make it to his 100th birthday, and he'll probably beat youngster Ned Beatty, who's only 67, for that supporting-actor Emmy.
Beatty plays Macy's father in Wool Cap, based on the movie Gigot, which Jackie Gleason wrote for himself more than 40 years ago.
Macy is a drunk with a past, who winds up custodian of a little girl abandoned by a drug-addict mother. His acting, too, is superlative, but you hope to see him discard disabilities and return to mainstream parts, maybe as a nebbishy neighbor in the hit show Desperate Housewives, one of whose stars, Felicity Huffman, is his wife.
You may very well see little Keke Palmer, whose energy and innate savvy make up for her occasional lack of diction, in her own series. Two minutes into an acting career, she has already landed a Disney Channel pilot produced by Claude Brooks and Ralph R. Farquhar, who has helmed about a dozen shows, including Moesha and The Parkers.
The African American kid and the pasty white, mute drunk make an unusual duo, as they traverse their difficulties to the lusciously spare jazz soundtrack of Jeff Beal, but their film proves that there's room for more than one perennial family tearjerker at the holidays - even from a company that makes a lot of its money selling birth control.
Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.
"The Wool Cap" will repeat tonight at 10 and midnight, Wednesday at 9 and 11 p.m., Thanksgiving at 11 a.m., Saturday at noon, and Sunday at 9 a.m.