A nifty new gadget was recently introduced which, when hooked up to a VCR in playback mode, will automatically detect and blow right past any commercials. Actually, I already have one of these in my home: my 7-year-old, Erin. She is (as I suspect many of her generation are) an absolute Paganini with the VCR. As soon as a commercial (or a coming attraction at the beginning of a rental movie) starts, Erin has that tape flying in a fast-forward blur. She can eat a pickle, conduct a conversation, play with her vast Barbie collection, even turn her head away from the set completely. And yet, when the feature resumes, she'll drop down on the first frame with unerring precision. Our children may lag behind their contemporaries in other industrialized countries as far as language skills, math, geography and the like, but when it comes to VCR virtuosity, I will match our American youth against anyone in the world. And that is a resource that surely must give our global competitors pause.

NBC (Wed., Feb. 16, 9 p.m. ET)


Ken Howard and Blair Brown are the affluent parents of three teenagers in the Cleveland area. Fed up with their oldest, a trouble-prone college dropout (Cameron Bancroft), they coerce him to enlist in the armed forces, believing the discipline will straighten him out.

To everyone's surprise, he thrives in the Marines—that is, until a stray bullet during a training exercise leaves him a paraplegic with severe brain damage. Howard and Brown now fight ceaselessly for their son's rehabilitation, railing against conditions in the V.A. hospitals. Finally Brown evokes the court of final appeal: TV talk shows. She threatens a Marine functionary that unless her son gets better treatment, "I'm gonna go on Oprah and Donahue and I am gonna tell the entire world what a callous and coldhearted organization the Corps is!" Zounds! From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Ricki Lake!

This dour fact-based film bites off far more than it can gnaw. Though not bad initially as a portrait of a troubled family, the movie fails badly as an inspirational tale.

NBC (Fri., Feb. 18, 9 p.m. ET)


Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers reprise their roles from the early '80s series Hart to Hart. Surely you remember Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, the wealthy so-much-in-love couple who amuse themselves by solving crimes? In this creaky remake, Jennifer has inherited an incredibly remote seaside village, lock, stock and lobster pot. (I know, I know. That type of thing happens to me all the time too.) Soon the town's dark secrets begin to emerge. (Any resemblance to Jessica Fletcher's Cabot Cove is purely intentional.)

Hart to Hart (a concept originally dreamed up by novelist Sidney Sheldon) was always a fatuous Thin Man knockoff, but it's beginning to look positively gaunt. This project is interesting only for its supporting cast: The Harts' gruff leg man is played again by Lionel Stander. Roddy McDowall turns up as a lawyer, the town idiot is played by Alan Young of Mister Ed fame, and former soap star Brian Patrick Clarke plays a thug.

The Family Channel (Sat., Feb. 19, 8 p.m. ET)


This film is a fictionalized account of four slaves (Courtney Vance, Janet Bailey, Falconer Abraham and Dawnn Lewis) who flee from a cotton plantation in North Carolina in 1850, hoping to reach Canada. They follow the underground railroad, a loose affiliation of blacks and whites who in the antebellum era acted as guides or allowed their property to be used as temporary refuge for fugitive slaves making the trek to freedom.

The story employs "cameos" from important historical figures such as Harriet Tubman (Alfre Woodard) and Frederick Douglass (Tim Reid). For a far more compelling evocation of the black orator, see Fred Morsell in Presenting Mr. Frederick Douglass, a Bill Moyers special on PBS this week (check local listings).

The period detail in Race to Freedom is not convincing, and the dramaturgy is a little viscous. But Bailey and Vance give affecting performances, and the gross inhumanity of slavery is strongly established. The film is being simulcast on cable's BET channel.

NBC (Mon., Feb. 21, 9 p.m. ET)


Cybill Shepherd plays a single woman in her 40s desperate to adopt a child. Through a classified ad, she contacts a shady couple (Tom O'Brien and Nina Siemaszko) with a baby on the way, brings them to Los Angeles and agrees to pay all their living expenses. Meal-ticket city! While these low-life opportunists are bilking Shepherd (who is curiously gullible for a psychologist), they're also stringing along, and extorting money from, several couples in other cities with the promise that the baby will be theirs.

Actually Law & Order covered this same plot a few weeks ago far more effectively than this hammy fact-based project does. After grinding our tender parental feelings through the wringer for two solid hours, the film ends happily as Shepherd gets a baby, a boyfriend, a rapprochement with her mother and just about everything else her little heart has ever desired, this side of Bruce Willis. Who does she have to thank? Hard Copy, which televises her plight. Ah, yes, tabloid television: avenger of the aggrieved.

Shepherd seems to be sleepwalking through the role. O'Brien and Siemaszko bring a good deal more energy and conviction to their parts as the unscrupulous baby makers. (Siemaszko resembles a cross between Roseanne Arnold and Shannen Doherty, if you can picture that dangerously volatile hybrid.) The cast also includes Jeffrey Nordling, Anna Maria Horsford and Joseph Maher.

>The things you learn on television. For instance, until watching a recent episode of Oprah, I had no inkling about the kind of near-religious zeal that Martha Stewart, that dewy avatar of home and garden, was inspiring among many women in this country. Oprah's Chicago studio was full of self-described "Martha wannabes" and wild-eyed acolytes bubbling about "doing things the 'Martha way.' " We were even introduced to "a woman who is obsessed with everything Martha." And Oprah, who's anything but shy about offering her views, was prefacing comments with such deferential disclaimers as "Well, I'm not Martha but..." Meanwhile Stewart, our modern-day Vesta, sat on the stage, taking in all this adulation. At one point she raised the possibility of opening a string of "Martha camps." (Boy, I bet the bunk-making inspections would be strict. Martha, if nothing else, gives new meaning to the word fastidious.) It may not yet be time for Janet Reno to start monitoring the goings-on at Martha's immaculately appointed Connecticut compound, but I believe that anyone who can render Oprah awestruck on her own show...well, that's just way too much power for a single human being to have.