Showtime (Sat., April 20, 9 P.M. ET)
Dennis Hopper plays a shylocking shopkeeper in a small town in Georgia in 1949. While collecting on a bad debt, this merchant of menace shoots a black mother and daughter, killing the girl. He's a cruel bigot, yet he is incensed when he's prosecuted for the crime.
Ed Harris, in his strongest performance since Places in the Heart, is the attorney who, with growing repugnance, defends Hopper. Barbara Hershey is the wife who suffers under Hopper's vile treatment.
Though not as mesmerizing as Pete Dexter's masterful novel of the same title, the film is largely faithful to the book. Some characters are undeveloped (the young prosecutor), others have disappeared (Harris's wife). The major problem for director Stephen Gyllenhaal is that he runs out of time. The compressed ending makes the brutal climax seem unduly shocking.
The movie's salient features are its beautiful visual texture and its disturbing mood, due in large part to explicit scenes of sex and violence.
ABC (Sun., April 21, 9 P.M. ET)
This Civil War drama weaves a three-stranded story. There is a Confederate officer (Campbell Scott), gravely wounded at Gettysburg and taken to a Washington. D.C., hospital. We also follow the progress of the officer's young brother (Lukas Haas), who travels north from Atlanta to see him. And then there is the movie's most pungent element, Jason Robards as the beleaguered Abraham Lincoln, suffering through a crisis of conscience as the war's death toll climbs to unimaginable proportions.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address serves as a mere prologue to a silly twist of fate that brings all three characters together for a king-size deathbed scene. While the period re-creation is quite handsome, the plot is contrived and maudlin—the Classic Comics version of the Civil War. Look for Katherine (Who's the Boss?) Helmond in a bizarre bit part as a camp follower.
Fox (Mon., April 22, 8 P.M. ET)
An insufferably narcissistic real estate developer (Kevin Conroy) dies and is reincarnated in a more lowly form, as scruffy Curtis (Moonlighting) Armstrong. Under the watchful eye of an irreverent angel (Paul Rodriguez), Armstrong tries to straighten out his karma, correcting transgressions committed against his wife (Catherine Hicks) and his son (Dark Shadows' Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
In this less-than-clever rip-off of Maid to Order, Ally Sheedy's 1987 comedy, Armstrong must learn a rather tedious lesson in humility by seeing how the other half lives. Then he must relearn that simple truth when his old arrogance pops up again.
Although the script is uneven, the comedic touches early on do have some zing. And the casting, right down to the bit players, is quite good.
NBC (Mon., April 22, 9 P.M. ET)
Corky (Parker Lewis Can't Lose) Nemec plays a high school senior in Austin, Texas, in 1960. He's supposed to find a "nice Jewish girl" but instead falls for the Catholic bombshell (Cheryl Pollak) next door. Their romance is as distressing to his mom (Christine Rose) as it is to Dirt get your dander up? Fight fire with fire. Get a Dirt Devil(r) vacuum, hers (a perfectly cast Deidre Hall).
The movie presents itself as a sort of American Graffiti—with a witty grown-up narrator looking back at his youth à la Wonder Years. The cars, the clothes and the music all make for a redolent piece of nostalgia, but the plot isn't much, particularly a sophomoric, timidly lewd subtheme about guys losing their virginity.
Nemec is, as usual, appealing, except in the movie's stupid postscript. Pollak, however, is vacuous. She's left in the dust by Mädchen (Twin Peaks) Amick in a much smaller role as a girl with a scandalous past.
THE KILLING MIND
Lifetime (Tues., April 23, 9 P.M. ET)
Stephanie Zimbalist, as a specialist in developing criminals" psychological profiles, is a former FBI agent who is the newest member of an LAPD crime squad.
For personal reasons, she reopens a celebrated 20-year-old murder case, enlisting the help of the reporter (Tony Bill) who made his reputation writing about the crime. Her powers of insight and empathy (in training, they called her the Soul Thief) get her all too close to the killer.
That premise (semipsychic female detective hunts killer and is in turn stalked) sounds familiar, doesn't it, Lambs fans? It also served as the basis for a few undistinguished cable movies last year.
In this case, a rather languid thriller owes most of its spunk to a sarcastic detective duo nicknamed Frick and Frack (Daniel Roebuck and K. Todd Freeman). They heckle and jeckle Zimbalist in a most entertaining way.
Most of the weighty, issue-oriented work on TV these days appears on cable—as this week's two reality-based movies demonstrate. In HBO's One Man's War (Sat., April 20, 8 P.M. ET) Anthony Hopkins plays Joel Filartiga, a Paraguayan doctor who redoubles his battle against a repressive regime after his son is tortured and killed. TNT's Chernobyl: The Final Warning (Mon., April 22, 8 P.M. ET) stars Jon Voight as Dr. Robert Gale and Jason Robards as the late industrialist Armand Hammer, who helped Gale, a California bone-marrow specialist, get into the U.S.S.R. to treat radiation victims of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Both films are realistic but dull. Only on cable—especially after the low ratings earned by ABC's serious-minded Separate but Equal.
So ends the strangest game of musical chairs in TV history. Katie Couric deposes Deborah Norville, who deposed Jane Pauley (see story and requisite kissy-face denials of ruthless behavior on page 72). Is Today running a news show or a popularity contest? Both Couric and Norville are talented and capable. Their faults cancel each other out. Couric can be impatient in interviews (as when she plowed through Tony Horwitz, author of Baghdad Without a Map), while Norville, in her 17-month reign, was simply too brisk and bright-eyed for those muzzy morning hours. More important, she never escaped a public perception that it was she, and not myopic NBC execs, who shafted Pauley. The ratings increase when Norville went on maternity leave had less to do with a groundswell of Couric support than it did with remarkably obdurate anti-Norville sentiment. Never have the Nielsen families seemed so vindictive. In fact, this morning melodrama has resembled nothing so much as a homecoming queen election at a very catty high school.