CBS (Tues., Nov. 17, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

This TV movie does some things wrong, yet goes right to the heart. The drama is based on the true story of Sam Reese Sheppard, the son of Dr. Sam Sheppard (Peter Strauss, Moloney), the Cleveland osteopath convicted of the 1954 murder of his wife in the case that inspired the TV series and movie The Fugitive. By the time his conviction was overturned, he had spent almost 10 years in prison and changed from a supremely self-confident professional into a bitter, unstable wreck. Through painful flashbacks, the film brings home the confusion and humiliation of the son (played by Bradley Reid as a small boy and Jonathan Kroeker as a teenager) as he struggles to remain loyal to his notorious but—or so the film argues—innocent father. Strauss plays the older Sheppard with such conviction that his degradation is uncomfortably real. The 1990s part of the story, in which the mature son (Henry Czerny, Glory & Honor) fights to establish his mother's true killer, is burdened by exposition and marred by ill-conceived scenes in which he imagines conversing with his now-dead father's ghost. But flaws aside, this one will hold you.

Bottom Line: Strong drama of the father-son bond

CBS (Sun., Nov. 15, 9 p.m. ET)

The most we can say for Monday After the Miracle is that it serves as an adequate acting vehicle for CBS series stars Moira Kelly (To Have & to Hold) and Roma Downey (whose Touched by an Angel precedes this TV movie). Otherwise, William Gibson's 1982 Broadway flop was hardly worth adapting.

A sequel to Gibson's The Miracle Worker, the turgid drama picks up the true story of Helen Keller (a sweet, sympathetic Kelly) in the early 1900s. Thanks to the efforts of personal tutor and best friend Annie Sullivan (Downey, flinty but vulnerable), deaf and blind Helen is successfully pursuing college studies. After a professor urges her to submit her essays for publication, Helen takes on a literary collaborator: a smooth dreamboat named John Macy (blandly played by Bill Campbell from The Rocketeer).

John soon falls in love with Annie, who agrees to marry him on the condition that Helen will share their home and "always comes first." On her wedding day, Annie realizes that "This is a mistake. Three people can't be married." The rest of the film slowly proves her right.

Some of the dialogue involving Helen is heard in voice-over as the characters are shown communicating in sign language. But the talk sounds especially artificial when John moves his lips. "Let me into your bed, my fierce Annie," says he, by way of a proposition. Later John announces: "Something is dying in this house, and it's me." Then go quietly, if you please.

Bottom Line: No dramatic miracles performed here

FOX (Fridays, 8 p.m. ET)

A dead cop, serving an afterlife sentence in hell for murdering his wife's rapist, is temporarily sprung by the devil and assigned to track down 113 dangerously evil souls who escaped from the underworld and are now roaming the earth wreaking havoc. The premise of this new series would not seem to promise a barrel of laughs—particularly when you consider that the hunter (Peter Horton, thirtysomething) must send the fugitives back to the hot place by shooting them in the eyeballs. Surprisingly, though, the drama works best when it chooses not to take itself seriously.

Last month's premiere found Horton trailing a demon disguised as a priest. The bogus cleric had been abducting and killing altar boys as part of a bizarre ritual linked to biblical prophecy. There were a few fleeting moments of levity (after 15 years down below, Horton was shocked to learn that baseball had adopted inter-league play), but they seemed out of place in a plot so gruesome. The next episode was easier to take because humor gained almost an equal footing with the requisite unpleasantness. John Glover, at his best when he brings a touch of camp to a villainous part (like his malevolent mogul in Gremlins 2: The New Batch), seemed to be warming to his role as the devil. "Everyone's in such a rush," he complained on a visit to earth. "I say, stop and smell the burning flesh of sinners." There's no telling how tolerable this show could become if Horton spruced up his grungy wardrobe and learned to smile when delivering the occasional bad pun.

Bottom Line: Erratic drama ranges from rather clever to awfully grisly

HBO (Sat, Nov. 21, 8 p.m. ET)

In print and on the radio, famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell had a slangy, hard-driving style that let people know he was always in the know and always on the go. Urgency, not depth, was his stock-in-trade. So the superficiality of this TV movie may be a form of faithfulness to its subject. Still, as he hustles through Winchell's career from the '20s to the '60s, director Paul Mazursky (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, An Unmarried Woman) leaves us hungry for more on what motivated the reporter to amass power through information and what spurred his progress from apparently nonideological New York City newshound to FDR cheerleader and anti-Nazi crusader to redbaiting Joe McCarthy booster. Stanley Tucci (The Impostors) is a crisp and cocky Winchell, and his mannerisms seem just right, but the film never delivers a great deal more than surface verisimilitude. And by adopting the point of view of the columnist's chief ghostwriter, Herman Klurfeld (Paul Giamatti, The Truman Show), Winchell only distances us further from the man himself.

Bottom Line: Worth watching, but something short of a sensational scoop

CBS (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. ET)

The Cheers bar closed back in 1993, but everybody still knows Ted Dan-son's name. CBS figures he has another hit sitcom in him, even if his Ink did dry up on the network two seasons ago. So here's Danson as John Becker, an abrasive but dedicated physician in general practice in New York City's borough of The Bronx. Becker is a little like the irascible old Brooklyn G.P. played by Paul Muni in the 1959 movie The Last Angry Man—except this doctor is middle-aged, tall and handsome.

If you happened to catch Danson several months ago in the Showtime drama Thanks of a Grateful Nation, you know he's fully capable of playing a man who's both principled and a royal pain. The problem with this new series (which premiered Nov. 2) is not the star's performance but the writers' unwillingness to take the character far enough. In the episodes we've seen, the doctor's diatribes have been directed at relatively safe targets: daytime talk shows, a bad driver, a noisy neighbor (okay, he did throw in a gratuitously nasty reference to the neighbor's immigration status). We laugh when Becker bluntly chastises a patient for his obesity or insults a would-be swinger seeking Viagra. But his devotion to an HIV-positive child (he even pays the bill for the boy's special treatment) is quickly advanced as evidence that this healer is a good guy underneath. And that pretty diner owner (Terry Farrell) who professes not to fancy regular customer Becker? It's all too clear she really does. The show would be better if the doc had more bite to go with his bark.

Bottom Line: Medical sitcom's condition is only fair

>Sunday, Nov. 15 BIOGRAPHY: BURT REYNOLDS A&E (8 p.m. ET) Pull down the evening shade and review the ups and downs of the Boogie Nights comeback kid.

Monday, Nov. 16 COSBY CBS (8 p.m. ET) It's Stunt City. Cos runs into Kevin James of The King of Queens, starting a night of sitcom crossovers.

Tuesday, Nov. 17 JUST SHOOT ME NBC (9 p.m. ET) French Stewart (3rd Rock from the Sun) plays a puppeteer who pulls Maya's heartstrings.

Wednesday, Nov. 18 AMERICA 1900 PBS (8 p.m. ET) Turn, turn, turn. A solid American Experience documentary looks at the last time we changed centuries.

Thursday, Nov. 19 MAX Q ABC (9 p.m. ET) Armageddon producer Jerry Bruckheimer blasts into TV movies with this space shuttle thriller.

Friday, Nov. 20 TRINITY NBC (9 p.m. ET) Burp. The family patriarch mistakenly eats part of the Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Saturday, Nov. 21 RED CORNER Showtime (8 p.m. ET) Richard Gere gets railroaded for murder in China in this 1997 thriller.

>Jennifer Aspen

It takes a lot to faze Jennifer Aspen. A troubled pregnancy? No problem. Stripping? Ditto. The 27 year-old L.A.-based actress plays former dirty-dancer Daphne on FOX's sudser Party of Five. "But that's not the only thing Daphne does," says Aspen of her character. "She sold cheese in a mall too." Plus, she just gave birth to a girl, her child with Charlie Salinger (Matthew Fox).

Aspen became a semiregular on Party after guest spots on NYPD Blue and Beverly Hills, 90210. She has been acting since she first heard some music while sitting in detention at Santa Cruz High School in California. "I thought it was the cheerleaders, who I had a thing against because I always wanted to be one and I couldn't," says Aspen. It turned out to be students preparing to audition for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. She tried out, landed a lead role and has been succeeding in the-business ever since. Whether stripping or pretending to be preggers, her acting secret is preparation. Aspen studied Lamaze and is still reeling from a strip-club field trip she took to pick up pointers on Daphne's former profession. Says Aspen: "Those guys watching the strippers? Total morons!"

  • Contributors:
  • Monica Rizzo.