Show of the week
"This is for all the fat girls!" Camryn Manheim declared jubilantly in 1998 when she accepted an Emmy for her acting on The Practice. "I'm only doing it for the fat girls," Samantha "Sam" Berger (Manheim) says before her first bona fide gig as a stand-up comedian. For those unaware that Manheim is a woman on a mission to gain fair treatment for the un-thin, this new take on the Cyrano de Bergerac tale pounds the message home.
Sam has a fertile comedy mind but can't get over the idea that her size precludes a performing career. So she tends bar in a nightclub and provides free material to Jennie (Alexondra Lee), an aspiring comic who's all looks, no wit. When talent scout Michael (Scott Cohen) falls for Jennie and her act, Sam helps the pretender keep him hooked by feeding her clever lines for professional and romantic use. Sam does this despite her own love for Michael. Why? Her pregnant pal Casey (Marlee Matlin) suggests masochism, and I'm not sure I would argue. Nevertheless, the star's persuasive performance will have you rooting for Sam, who works with the deaf and rides a motorcycle just as Manheim did in real life.
On the minus side, the movie is manipulative. (Brace yourself for an emergency interruption just as Sam gets comfortable onstage.) And there's no need for comedy veteran Henry (Dabney Coleman) to remind us so often of Sam's brilliance and Jennie's lack of smarts.
Bottom Line: Not the classiest act, but Manheim fans will dig it
Showtime (Sun., April 22, 8 p.m. ET)
Varian Fry was not famous when he died in 1967, but he was a man eminently worth learning about. Described by Showtime as "the American Schindler," Fry is credited with rescuing some 2,000 people from Nazi-occupied France—among them artist Marc Chagall and political philosopher Hannah Arendt.
Unfortunately this drama brings Fry's story to our attention without bringing it fully to life. The talented William Hurt gives a mannered performance in the lead role—cocking his head, leaning on his walking stick, taking off his glasses, putting them back on. The gestures work when Fry is consciously presenting the deceptive image of a dandy out of his depth, but we hardly ever see past them into the character's mind and heart. Fry's able aide, a composite figure played by Julia Ormond, has two salient features: sexual candor ("I collect special men") and a persistent cough ("Probably TB, and it's probably going to kill me"). Neither is particularly convincing.
Viewers are meant to appreciate the climax—an uphill hike to the Spanish border by winded artists and intellectuals—as the moral equivalent of The Great Escape. Mentally I did, but not emotionally.
Bottom Line: Historical disappointment
CBS (Sun., April 22, 9 p.m. ET)
The 1974 film adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express—set in the '30s—boasted a starry cast of suspects that included Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud and Ingrid Bergman. How does this updated version compare? Lauren Bacalls compartment on the luxury train is now occupied by Meredith Baxter.
All right, that's unfair. The character in question has been turned into an erstwhile sitcom actress with celebrity pretensions, and Baxter plays her well. More importantly, Alfred Molina makes Hercule Poirot a suave sleuth with sex appeal, as opposed to the fussy eccentric portrayed by Albert Finney in '74. Some will find Molina's modern approach refreshing. But to sustain interest in the creaky plot, this mystery needs colorful supporting performances—and it hasn't nearly enough of them. Peter Strauss is adequately thuggish as the murder victim, Leslie Caron brings her customary elegance to the role of a despot's widow, and David Hunt briefly attracts notice as a passenger who loudly resents the master detective's questioning. Alas, no one else on board the Orient Express will cause you to care a whit who done it.
Bottom Line: Fresh Poirot, stale case
UPN (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET)
This new series is as derivative as they come. Men in Black and The X-Files are written all over the largely tongue-in-cheek adventures of a secret Chicago police unit assigned to track strange, dangerous creatures described as missing links ("links" for short) between man and beast.
That said, the April 11 premiere was surprisingly entertaining. When cocky cop Nick O'Malley (Michael Landes) grilled a surly gargoyle, both managed to work in sarcastic references to Starsky and Hutch. The second episode also offers a few laughs, the best coming when Nick and partner Kate Benson (Alexondra Lee from Kiss My Act; see review on page 31) try to elicit information from a disembodied head.
But I do have concerns. Episode 3, in which Nick infiltrates a group of werewolf-like power players, leaves the uneasy feeling that Special Unit 2 may be starting to take itself seriously. (Please, don't let Nick and Kate deepen their relationship.) And the unit leader (Richard Gant), who showed amusing quirks in the pilot, is stuck with dull duty after that.
Bottom Line: Can't hurt to investigate
>Sunday, April 22 LADIES AND THE CHAMP ABC (7 p.m. ET) Olympia Dukakis puts up her dukes in this TV movie about elderly women who become boxing managers.
Monday, April 23 MAKING OF CARMEN MTV (10:30 p.m. ET) Behind the scenes look at an upcoming hip-hop take on the famous opera with Beyoncé Knowles.
Tuesday, April 24 IN STYLE CELEBRITY MOM NBC (8 p.m. ET) Roma Downey and Kelly Ripa
are among the stars sharing the joys of pregnancy and parenthood.
Wednesday, April 25 AMERICAN COMEDY AWARDS Comedy Central (8 p.m. ET) And the life-achievement honor goes to...iconoclastic George Carlin.
Thursday, April 26 TALES FROM THE TOWER TLC (10 p.m. ET) Gather round and hear of torture and skulduggery in the Tower of London.
Friday, April 27 LIVE BY REQUEST A&E (9 p.m. ET) Gee, will they remember "Stayin' Alive"? The Bee Gees sing your favorites.
Saturday, April 28 61* HBO (9 p.m. ET) Yankees fan Billy Crystal directs a film about the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home-run race.
ABC (Mon., April 23, 8 p.m. ET)