THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY CBS; Jan. 1, 9 p.m. EST
"Karen, you're not eating," says the concerned mother to her undernourished daughter. An edgy family discussion ensues over dinner. "You look too thin, if you ask me," says Mom. "Mother," replies Karen Carpenter, "how can anybody be too thin?"
Is this a Saturday Night Live sketch? An ad for the Beef Industry Council? No, it's The Karen Carpenter Story, a TV movie about the life and 1983 death (from heart failure linked to anorexia nervosa) of the creamy-voiced pop singer. The CBS film is a fitting New Year's Day kickoff for a genre that has run rampant in the past year: the TV docudrama. Virtually every headline- grabbing news story, from mass-murder spree to airline hijacking, is being processed and spun out as "fact-based drama." One can almost feel the hot breath of Hollywood waiting for the Joel Steinberg trial to end so it can be recast and retold as the inevitable Sunday Night Movie.
These TV sagas allow the audience to relive a sensational news story in a compact two- or four-hour chunk, with climaxes italicized and ambiguities excised. More subtly, they help viewers cope with tragic events by imparting the foreknowledge of God. Seemingly random occurrences of day-to-day life take on major significance with TV-movie hindsight. Early in Karen Carpenter, the teen-age Richard Carpenter grabs a pizza from his little sister. "You don't want to get fat, do you?" he taunts. Ah, if only they knew . . .
As TV pulp fiction goes, Karen Carpenter is quite enjoyable. Cynthia Gibb (who lip-syncs Karen's syrupy hits like Close to You) and Mitchell Anderson are convincing as the sister-brother act. Director Joseph Sargent traces their rise to fame in brisk if superficial strokes. The film (which lists Richard Carpenter as executive producer) is blunt about the troubles the young stars faced: overprotective, underaffectionate parents (Louise Fletcher, Peter Michael Goetz), Richard's drug problems, Karen's growing obsession with losing weight. The scrubbed duo make drug abuse look positively wholesome, but the movie deftly grafts the morbid thrills of a disease-of-the-week drama onto a traditional show-biz bio.
The trouble, as usual, comes in the oversimplified and heavy-handed message. In the realm of docudramas, the best lack all conviction: last spring's Baby M was a gem precisely because it had no overt agenda other than to convey the clash between two impassioned, tragically irreconcilable points of view. Karen Carpenter takes the more familiar didactic approach. Message No. 1: losing weight has its limits (or, you can be too thin). Message No. 2: such an illness can often be traced to the failings of Mom and Dad. A psychiatrist who has examined Karen chides the senior Carpenters for making her feel inadequate and hiding their love. Mom bristles, but in the last scene finally utters the magic words "I love you." In the final shot Karen is seen walking toward the camera, beaming. Message No. 3: for connoisseurs of docudramas that turn depressing stories into upbeat affirmations, we've only just begun.