The original Sarah, Plain and Tall TV movie, adapted by Patricia MacLachlan from her novel, produced a bumper crop of ratings for CBS in 1991. A sequel, Skylark, followed two years later. So why such a wait for Winter's End? The simple answer is, they don't rush things on the Witting family's Kansas farm.
In MacLachlan's new tale, set in 1918, Jacob Witting (Christopher Walken) and wife Sarah (Glenn Close) have to deal with the unexpected appearance of old John Witting (Jack Palance), the father who abandoned Jacob and his mama many moons ago. There are some honest emotional exchanges on the way to the predictable reconciliation, but there are also some pregnant pauses that feel nine months long. In the middle of one talk, Sarah and John stop for 10 seconds of deafening silence.
The drama does hold rewards for the patient viewer. Close conveys Sarah's inner strength and straightforward wisdom as well as ever. Walken is effective as her troubled, taciturn spouse. And Palance penetrates to the heart of a proud man who wants forgiveness but won't beg for it. As Winter's End unfolds, try not to grow antsy for the arrival of spring.
Bottom Line: Slow but steady
HBO (Sat., Nov. 20, 8 p.m. ET)
Show of the week
One moment is especially exhilarating in this colorful drama on the making of the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Told that a camera angle can't possibly be lower, director-star Orson Welles (Liev Schreiber) grabs an ax and prepares to tear out the floor. He's 25. It's his first real movie. He hasn't learned about limits.
Welles is no hero here. In a skillful performance, Schreiber portrays the "boy wonder" as petulant, manipulative and insincere about almost everything except his work. In fact, Welles comes across a shade less favorably than William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell), the newspaper magnate who does his best to have Citizen Kane suppressed because the life it chronicles bears an obvious resemblance to his own. A ruthless despot, Hearst at least has the love of a good woman, longtime mistress Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith). The most sympathetic characters are screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and RKO studio chief George Schaefer (Roy Scheider), old Hollywood hands trying to balance considerations of art, business and survival.
Bottom Line: Film buff's feast
NBC (Sun., Nov. 21, 9 p.m. ET)
Here's just what America needs for November sweeps, 1999: a TV movie to feed on fears that the millennium bug will cripple computers and cause worldwide chaos. Irresponsible programming? How about inevitable programming?
"So what is your worst-case scenario?" a White House staffer asks Martin Lowell (Joe Morton), who heads the government's computer-monitoring project in Washington, D.C. Y2K answers that question by setting off a series of calamities, from a plane crash in the Pacific to blackouts in Paris, New York City and presumably Podunk. As usual in formulaic disaster dramas like this, only one brave man can save civilization. He's Nick Cromwell (Ken Olin), a peerless techno-troubleshooter known as a "big picture" guy. But Nick narrows the focus by hopping a supersonic jet to Seattle, where the nearby nuclear power plant is about to blow and his teenage daughter is out partying on New Year's Eve, against Mom's orders. While Nick acts locally, viewers may forget they're supposed to be thinking globally.
Bottom Line: Scary premise, standard execution
PBS (Sun., Nov. 21 and 28, 9 p.m. ET)
This is a drama about making connections, and I can't say I was able to put it all together. But the puzzling Shooting the Fast has a mesmeric quality that will hold you through two 90-minute installments. The Mobil Masterpiece Theatre entry centers on a vast photograph library housed in a London mansion. When an American developer arrives to turn the building into a business school, the staff tries to keep him from dispersing or destroying the century-spanning picture collection. Writer-director Stephen Poliakoff makes fascinating use of the stills to weave tales, and Timothy Spall (Secrets & Lies) is superb as an abrasively eccentric photo researcher with preternatural cross-referencing skill.
Bottom Line: Give it a long look
CBS (Wed., Nov. 24, 9 p.m. ET)
"It never occurred to me, not for a second, that there would be some kind of a mix-up at the hospital and they would switch the babies," says confused mother Gail (Melissa Gilbert) in this routine TV movie. Obviously Gail missed the 1991 NBC miniseries Switched at Birth, which drew on a similar situation. Described by CBS as "inspired by actual events," the new drama tells what happens when affluent wife Gail and struggling single parent Linda (Rosanna Arquette) find out each has been raising the other's little boy. At first they try to be friends and maintain the status quo. Then along comes Linda's greedy ex-lover (James McCaffrey), who has base motives for promoting discord between the two women. "God, he's so transparent," notices Gail's husband (David Andrews). For that matter, the whole film's none too subtle.
Bottom Line: Feel free to switch channels
Lifetime (Wed., Nov. 24, 8 p.m. ET)
This worthwhile special spotlights a group of women—not famous, but surely not ordinary—who have been eyewitnesses to the 20th century. Included are a 98-year-old Texan who still gets her kicks on horseback; a self-described "rebel" of 96 who earned a Ph.D. after years of nurturing her husband's surgical career; a 95-year-old veteran of the civil-rights struggle; and a 106-year-old survivor of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist sweatshop in New York City. With their historical perspectives and inspiring personal stories, these women could easily fill the hour with good talk. We don't need face time for host Camryn Manheim, who has been given little of value to say.
Bottom Line: Lives well-led
>Sunday, Nov. 21 THIRD WATCH NBC 8 p.m. ET) Drumstick, anyone? A cop is taken hostage when he tries to settle a family feud on Turkey Day.
Monday, Nov. 22 APOCALYPSE! PBS (9 p.m. ET) To suit your millennial mood, Frontline examines doomsday theories based on the Book of Revelation.
Tuesday, Nov. 23 ONCE AND AGAIN ABC (10 p.m. ET) In a Thanksgiving episode, Lily's dad (Paul Mazursky) gives her less-than-whole-hearted support.
Wednesday, Nov. 24 CELINE DION: ALL THE WAY CBS (8 p.m. ET) Gloria Estefan and 'N Sync join Dion for a concert at New York City's Radio City Music Hall.
Thursday, Nov. 25 SECRET OF GIVING CBS (9 p.m. ET) Reba McEntire stars in this holiday-time TV movie as a rural widow with a passel of problems.
Friday, Nov. 26 RICKY MARTIN: ONE NIGHT ONLY CBS (8 p.m. ET) The pop sensation shakes it in an hour-long special.
Saturday, Nov. 27 I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER HBO (8 p.m. ET) Jennifer Love Hewitt and Brandy get the creeps in this 1998 horror sequel.
CBS (Sun., Nov. 21, 9 p.m. ET)