ABC (Sun., Nov. 16, 7 p.m. ET)

B-

Considering there have been at least a half-dozen film adaptations of this Charles Dickens classic—including an Oscar-winning musical and a Disney animated feature that turned the title character into a kitten—do we really need a new Oliver Twist on ABC's Wonderful World of Disney? Only if it gives a deserving actor the chance to feast on the role of Fagin, the wily, grasping old leader of a ring of boy pickpockets. Richard Dreyfuss, looking like a bird of prey with an enormous beak (comparable to Alec Guinness's oversized schnoz in the 1948 version), growls confidently in the early going, giving the impression that he can find some humor in the character without softening him into the gang's foxy surrogate grandpa. Increasingly, though, the film puts a specious twinkle in Fagin's avaricious eye, and at the end he receives a half hug and a vote of thanks from Oliver (newcomer Alex Trench), the orphan he has exploited.

Trench shows some natural appeal as the protagonist, but teen throb Elijah Wood needs more street grime, as well as more Cockney lessons, to be convincing as the Artful Dodger, Oliver's tutor in thievery. David O'Hara, on the other hand, has real menace as hardened criminal Bill Sikes, and Antoine Byrne is appealing as Nancy, the woman who inexplicably loves him. Their characterizations compensate for Fagin's fuzziness.

CBS (Sun. and Tues., Nov. 16 and 18, 9 p.m. ET)

C-

The cast looks strong, the premise promising: Mafia widows (Vanessa Redgrave, Nastassja Kinski, Jennifer Tilly and Illeana Douglas) team up to get even with the underworld enemies who murdered their men. There are so many ways to go with this material—from straight melodrama to The First Wives Club in gangland—that it seems Bella Mafia can't lose. But the tone of the miniseries turns out to be as uncertain as Redgrave's and Kinski's Italian accents.

The guys, wouldn't you know, are the biggest problem. It takes all of the first two hours to get the principal women into revenge mode because Dennis Farina (as Redgrave's husband, a Sicilian don with a Chicago accent) and Tony Lo Bianco (hamming shamelessly as his New York City rival) are given way too much time to talk tough. As the nutso hit man responsible for murdering nearly every male dear to Redgrave, Kinski and company, James Marsden is allowed to dominate the second night while the Mafia princesses mostly scream, dither and flounder. Marsden overacts wildly, but who wouldn't in such a multidimensional part? He's Kinski's illegitimate son (as well as her would-be seducer), Lo Bianco's adopted son and, judging from his behavior, the devil's spawn. At the end, when Kinski accedes to crime-family leadership a la Al Pacino in The Godfather, we're pretty sure Bella Mafia is winking at us. Let's give writer Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) the benefit of the doubt and interpret the whole thing as a bloody put-on.

ABC (Sun. and Thurs., Nov. 16 and 20, 9 p.m. ET)

C-

When it rains, it pours. Not only is a monster hurricane about to devastate the East Coast, but a pilot (Vincent Spano) has just discovered that his Washington-bound cargo jet is carrying a live nuclear warhead with a ticking timer. And when the nuke blows, it won't merely kill millions. A mad, dying Miami scientist (John Glover), who conned his ex-wife (Gail O'Grady) into taking the device to the Pentagon with the understanding that it was just a mock-up, has designed it to set off an electromagnetic charge—a "Medusa wave"—that will melt every computer chip on the continent. This may be the most explosive situation since Pandora's Clock, another airborne-disaster miniseries based on a John J. Nance novel, was shown on NBC during last November's sweeps.

Medusa's Child is even more preposterous than it sounds. Just wait till Part 2, when a fellow passenger (Lori Loughlin) is forced to play in-flight heart surgeon and cut out O'Grady's pacemaker—for reasons we won't attempt to explain. But Spano is fairly pleasant company in the cockpit. He plays it cutely cocky (picture the Fonz as a flyboy), a refreshing change from Richard Dean Anderson's curt and dour piloting of Pandora's Clock. Loughlin thinks Spano's hot stuff even before he steers the world away from doomsday.

Discovery Channel (Wed., Nov. 19, 10 p.m. ET)

B

Maybe this special amounts to an hour-long commercial, but only a curmudgeon would deny interest in the products on display. Slinky, Etch-A-Sketch, G.I. Joe, the Radio Flyer wagon, the Barbie doll—these playthings are true classics, and Our Favorite Toys is here to tell us who invented them, how they are made and why they have endured. Although the "why" part tends toward the obvious (they're fun), learning the "who" and "how" is an enjoyable, if trivial, pursuit. Visits to the Slinky and Etch-A-Sketch factories may put suggestible viewers in mind of Santa's workshop.

>Midseason Replacement Shows

WAITING TO EXHALE

DON'T GET AL FRANKEN WRONG. THE former Saturday Night Live regular turned political humorist says he's grateful to be starring in Lateline, a new NBC sitcom in which he plays an obnoxiously eager late-night news correspondent. Still, Franken, who has shot six episodes, can't help noting, "The cast is frustrated. We like what we've done, and everyone wants to do more, but you have to sit and wait."

That's because Lateline, like other new midseason shows being readied to replace fall flops, probably won't air until early '98. Why so late? "You wouldn't put on a new show in November, because it's [a] sweeps month," says Steve Grubbs, executive vice president for national broadcast buying at BBDO. "And a show could get lost [amid December Christmas specials]. If you really want to give it a chance, you go for January."

Some stars, though, actually welcome the delay. "It's like a safety net," says Debra Messing of ABC's Prey, a sci-fi series about a deadly new species. "You can be fixing your show while watching others to see what else is going on." But there is a downside. "We're working in a vacuum. You don't get [a] response from the public," says Melanie Greene, co-executive producer of Fox's Ask Harriet, about a newspaperman who masquerades as a female gossip columnist. "All we can do now," says Franken, laughing, "is show [Lateline] to our friends. I know my wife really likes it."

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.