PBS (Dec. 6, check local stations)

Show of the week

Would Bette Midler be doing her flamboyant clowning on CBS's Bette if 50 years earlier Lucille Ball hadn't gotten tipsy on spoonfuls of Vitameatavegamin or wrestled a grape-stomping Italian woman in a wine vat? Doubtful. Ball, a great physical comic who revered Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, practically invented the sitcom form along with then-husband Desi Arnaz. In a sense Ball surpassed her silent masters: According to this two-hour documentary, her face, usually framed by that flaming aureole of red hair, has been seen by more people worldwide than any other face in history.

Finding Lucy, part of PBS's American Masters series, is worth watching for some excellent archival footage: clips from Ball's middling career as a '40s movie star (roles in such films as The Big Street and DuBarry Was a Lady led to her nickname, "the Queen of the B movies"); parties around the pool with Desi at home in L.A.; a speech to a meeting of stockholders of the studio the couple founded, Desilu (which was ultimately responsible for such shows as Mission: Impossible and Star Trek). The show's bittersweet conclusion—that Ball, who died in '89, was trapped by her TV persona as she aged into her 70s—is a bit pat. And we might have been spared the I Love Lucy theme arranged as a mournful chamber piece. Waaah!

Even so, here's Lucy. Here's our history.

Bottom Line: A Ball

Showtime (Dec. 3, 10 p.m. ET)

Adapted from a British hit, this groundbreaking weekly series must be the most explicit program about gay life ever made for American TV. It trails a handful or so of hard-partying, mostly twentysomething Pittsburgh boys from bar to disco to bedroom and on to careers conducted in the glaring light of day. Queer is willing—delighted—to shock: When Brian, a handsome heartbreaker, visits a comatose friend in the hospital, he hops onto the next bed and makes love to a stranger. We're far from NBC's Will & Grace, which glides along on the blithe, elegant teamwork of Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes. If they're twin Astaires, this is dirty dancing. Proud of it, too.

But Folk could use some of Will's grace. As played by Gale Harold, Brian, the show's strongest character, is haughtily (and tiresomely) reptilian as he pursues a life of youthful pleasure. It wouldn't be a surprise to learn that he keeps his portrait, hideously wrinkled by age, stashed in a closet.

In contrast, the British original, while just as explicit, is also funny and warm, with a Trainspotting zip. You'll be happier renting videotapes of that.

Bottom Line: Folk pas

NBC (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

My fellow Americans: The presidential election this year has been such a mess, it is with considerable relief that I deliver my State of The West Wing Address. Because NBC's version of the White House, as overseen by creator-producer Aaron Sorkin, remains a winner. The show enters its second season festooned with nine Emmys and—I speak from the heart—deserves another nine.

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), now recovered from the bullet he took in last season's cliffhanger, continues to push a liberal agenda with his staff, played by an impeccable cast that includes Allison Janney, John Spencer and, yes, Rob Lowe. But the administration, which can be a smidge sanctimonious in its politics, has just gotten an unlikely new infusion of talent: Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), a Harvard-educated Republican pundit hired to work for the Attorney General. Blonde and petite, she has a tinny voice and seems scatterbrained—a tin canary that sings notes out of sequence. But her mind is a steel trap. The irresistible Procter has my vote for best new face on a series.

Bottom Line: Four more years

Sci-Fi Channel (Sun.-Tue., Dec. 3-5, 9 p.m. ET)

Fans of Herbert's 1965 sci-fi classic, rejoice: Your Muad'Dib has finally arrived! For those unfamiliar with the futuristic novel or David Lynch's visually dazzling yet otherwise disappointing 1984 film version, Muad'Dib means "Messiah." And to the Fremen, the nomadic freedom fighters of the colonized desert planet Arrakis (Dune), he seems to be personified by Paul Atreides (newcomer Alec Newman), the plucky son of an idealistic nobleman, Duke Leto (Lost in Space's William Hurt). The duke is newly in charge of mining Dune's most precious asset: spice. Spice is nice—and addictive too. Consume enough of it and your eyes turn a blazing blue and your consciousness expands. Though the stuff is protected by giant sandworms that make Moby Dick look like a minnow, it's valuable enough to die—and kill—for.

That would be plot enough for any six-hour miniseries, but writer-director John Harrison, faithful to Herbert, also works in themes of religion and ecology with a dash of Lawrence of Arabia and echoes of Star Wars—which in fact borrowed quite a bit from Herbert.

Frankly, it helps to have read the book to understand the Fremen's mysticism. Still, the sets and costumes are sumptuous, the special effects impressive, and the actors give dignity to their faux-Shakespearean line readings. Heartiest of all is Brit thespian Ian McNeice as Baron Harkonnen, a corpulent villain with a flair for rhyming couplets as he flits about in an antigravity belt. It's as if Orson Welles had been cast as Jabba the Hutt.

Bottom Line: A sci-fi high five

CBS (Sun., Dec. 3, 9 p.m. ET)

Cynthia Nixon reminds us here why she's the standout talent among the Sex and the City girls. In this holiday movie the vermilion hair of Manhattan attorney Miranda is replaced by a long blonde mane, the chic fashions are traded down to a simple cotton dress, and the brittle energy gives way to the slow ebbing of life. As a poor Appalachian mother dying of TB in the 1930s, Nixon is quietly radiant in her sorrow. It's a delicate performance that, in the hands of a lesser actress, could have slid into saintly posturing.

Once she's gone we're left with the rest of the story. Eh. The grief of her husband (Scott Bakula) is so oppressive it nearly crushes the children's spirit. A mystical touch at the end—one third the standard allotment of three ghosts per Christmas Eve—saves the household. I never got over the mother's death, myself.

Bottom Line: One angel, anyway

Terry Kelleher is on temporary leave.

>Sunday, Dec. 3 IN HIS LIFE: THE JOHN LENNON STORY NBC (9 p.m. ET) The formative years of the most complicated Beatle, with Phillip McQuillan as John and Blair Brown as the aunt who raised him.

Monday, Dec. 4 THE KING OF QUEENS CBS (10 p.m. ET) Arthur accepts a job at the company where Carrie already works.

Tuesday, Dec. 5 ONCE AND AGAIN ABC (10 p.m. ET) Endless family stresses as Rick and his former wife take their daughter to a psychiatrist.

Wednesday, Dec. 6 MARTHA STEWART'S CHRISTMAS DREAM CBS (8 p.m. ET) Martha makes an ice-cream snowman and a sugar-cube house.

Thursday, Dec. 7 SHOOTING WAR ABC (9 p.m. ET) Two-hour documentary about cameramen shooting (film) in World War II. Tom Hanks is the host.

Friday, Dec. 8 THE COMPETITION A&E (9 p.m. ET) A new series that takes a look at contests and pageants. Tonight: soap-box derbies. Wheeee!

Saturday, Dec. 9 AUSTIN CITY LIMITS PBS (check local listings) Willie Nelson plays an all-acoustic show.

  • Contributors:
  • Mike Lipton.