LIKE HAL, THE INSANE COMPUTER IN 2001: A Space Odyssey, Comedy Central's equally demented Mystery Science Theater 3000 is in danger of un-spooling. Officials at the channel insist that the elaborately conceived cult hit, in which a run-of-the-mill guy (Michael J. Nelson) and two junk-assembly robots ridicule vintage schlock movies they watch in outer space, isn't canceled. But producer Jim Mallon isn't encouraged by the fact that no new episodes have been ordered, and none taped since Dec. 22. "A rose by any other name," muses Mallon. "That sounds like cancellation!"

The show's fans, who have already given MST3K the greatest pledge of fealty a series can ask for—they attend conventions—are determined to keep it in orbit. They've even taken to the Internet. The "Save Mystery Science Theater 3000" site, launched by Jamie Plummer, 19, in his second year at the University of Virginia, has recorded 13,000 visits in two months.

Boldly going onto the Net, I asked Plummer (http://fermi.clas.virginia.edu/~jcp9j/canceled.html) to discuss the show's appeal. MST3K, he replied, challenges its audience. "The broad range of jokes asks us to be familiar with everything from Shakespeare to Citizen Kane to Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap to old beer commercials." (Watching a clumsy pas de deux in an atrocious musical fantasy, Once Upon a Honeymoon, robot Crow does a flawless Lawrence Welk impersonation: "Bobby and Sissy! Are-en't they wonderful-em, em, em!") The loss of MST3K "would leave a large void in intelligent programming," Plummer adds. "America needs another Tony Danza sitcom like a hole in the head."

Plummer is right. MST3K is a bright attempt to create something pleasurable out of the nonbiodegradable pop-cult landfill. If you're a young comic talent, as are Nelson (who's also head writer) and his predecessor, Joel Hodgson, and you have a needling wit looking for something to prick, trash movies like Killer Shrews and Hercules Unchained are a fine place to start. As a boy, I watched Killer Shrews one Saturday in the rec room. Its awfulness scarred me for life.

Let's hope the crew lives, on one channel or another. In any event, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is due at the multiplex in April.

Fox (Tues, Feb. 20, 8 p.m. ET)

C+

This two-hour movie, a pilot for a potential series, is based on a Marvel comic book about a band of five teenagers, each with a genetic oddity that translates into superherodom. One kid sends bolts of electric fire from her fingers, another has elastic skin, etc. It's impossible to tell whether this will translate into a series because too much of the pilot is given over to an evil genius (Matt Frewer) who wants to get control of people's minds as they sleep. Frewer contorts his face and honks his lines in the manner of Jim Carrey. Finola Hughes, as the teens' leader, wears a blond wig and looks like Nancy Sinatra.

HBO (Sat, Feb. 24, 8 p.m. ET)

A

The Letterman-Leno war is recounted, blow by blow, meeting by meeting, in this crisp, clever two-hour movie. As tormented old Dave, John Michael Higgins gives a shrewd performance that has the self-conscious zest of good parody. Daniel Roebuck makes an earnest Jay, although that latex jaw could serve as the prow of a cruise ship. Rich Little shows up for a few brief but decisive scenes as Johnny. And Kathy Bates as Helen Kushnick, Leno's vituperative former agent, walks off with the show. She's the only screamer in a roomful of talkers.

NBC (Sun., Feb. 25, 9 p.m. ET)

B+

A sicko-vicious teacher's aide who looks great in knit pullovers—it's Ann-Margret starring, after all—bullies, cajoles and (as the title indicates) seduces a student (Christian Campbell) into bumping off her adulterous husband (Peter Coyote). To Die For told a similar tale, but satirically. At four hours over two nights, this fact-based version of a 1995 case tends to be ponderous. The murder is done with fancy cross-cutting to a solemn sunrise Easter service, like one of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather climaxes. But Ann-Margret, her pretty pink mouth twitching with anger, makes a dynamic villainess. If she ever formed an alliance with Heather Locklear, they could steer the world like a golf cart.

CBS (Sun., Feb. 25, 9 p.m. ET)

A-

A young, working-class couple (Shannen Doherty and Kevin Dillon) tumble into disaster after their daughter is abducted from their suburban home while they sleep. Already numbed by grief, they're nearly crushed by the arrogant mistakes and miscalculations of the police, the media and the legal profession. Grim, powerful stuff.

>TIBE: Ann-Margret triumphs wickedly in Seduced by Madness; the kids of Generation X aren't all right; Brian Boitano glides smoothly into Skating Romance

SCREEN: Thanks to Al Pacino, City Hall isn't just politics as usual; Is a fighter pilot role in Broken Arrow really the right stuff for John Travolta? 19

SONG: Jackson Browne satisfies his fans with singing editorials; West Side Story has been told better; Wynonna talks about her new family 22

PAGES: Bill Bradley wins write-in votes in Time Present, Time Past; an anonymous insider paints the White House in pulpy Primary Colors 27

>Brian Boitano

AXELS AND ROSES

Call it a golden opportunity: the on-ice director-choreographer of USA Network's exhibition event, Skating Romance (Thurs., Feb. 22, 8 p.m. ET), is none other than Brian Boitano, 32, the figure skater who won Olympic gold in Calgary in 1988 and first place at 18 televised competitions since. We caught up with Boitano, a first-time director, in Erie, Pa., where he was resting between dates on the Tour of World Figure Skating Champions.

How did your role as director affect your skating?

I prefer skating and directing to just skating. But when you direct, there's no time to eat, no breaks, and you're exhausted. I wore so many hats—I cast the show and worked with a dozen skaters, I chose the music for the opening and closing numbers, I even created some of the costumes.

What was it about Skating Romance that made you want to work on it?

I felt that there weren't enough romantic shows, and that's what I like to do. Women are our core audience, and a lot of the skating specials have gone in an MTV direction and ignored the kind of classic love story that our core audience enjoys.

Why has televised skating become so popular?

Skating has always been popular. But the Tonya-Nancy incident made the men in corporate and network boardrooms take a look at skating and decide to put their money in it.

What did you learn from your work behind the scenes?

I enjoyed having a say in the look of a show, and when I decide not to skate anymore, I'll have directing experience. But I have to learn to pace myself better. I don't know what I was running on the last two days in Los Angeles. Next time, I'm hiring an assistant.

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet.