There's really no secret to the success of this TV movie based on Jerri Nielsen's bestselling memoir. Put a fine actress in a choice role and you're more than halfway home.
Susan Sarandon is totally convincing as Nielsen, the only physician at an isolated South Pole research station when she developed breast cancer in 1999. In an uplifting story of courage and resourcefulness, she treated her own illness for several months—with vital help from coworkers—before weather conditions allowed her to be flown back to the United States.
The doctor is prickly and aloof on arrival in Antarctica, futilely trying to guard her privacy in an essentially communal situation. Then Nielsen warms to her job as she builds trusting relationships with mechanic John Penney (Aidan Devine) and other staffers. Finally, she reaches a new level of serenity, drawing on her inner strength but unabashedly leaning on her friends when necessary. Sarandon takes Nielsen through these stages in a restrained, intelligent performance that earns our sympathy without crying for it. There are a number of oblique references to the personal disappointments that may have prompted Nielsen to take a position at the faraway Pole, but the film—like its protagonist—refuses to dwell on them.
BOTTOM LINE: Sarandon shines in an inspiring drama
USA (Sun.-Mon., April 20-21, 8 p.m. ET)
Some viewers giggle at epics that feature guys in tunics shouting about the wrath of the gods. But you'll take this four-hour production very seriously when British actor Rufus Sewell is onscreen. Sewell brings awesome force to the role of Agamemnon, implacable leader of the Greek assault on Troy. On the softer side, Sienna Guillory (The Time Machine
) is both innocent and bewitching as Helen, who leaves Agamemnon's brother Menelaus (James Callis) for the Trojan prince Paris (a bland Matthew Marsden) and sets off a 10-year war.
Okay, I snickered at a battle scene that freezes for half a minute—with arrows in midair—while Menelaus and Helen lock eyes. But this mini-series is mostly worth watching.
BOTTOM LINE: Solid spectacle
Sci Fi Channel (Fridays, 10 p.m. ET)
"Here's the best part: Everyone was set up by a friend or family member," says Shannen Doherty, host of this new hidden-camera series. Actually that's the worst part. It's appalling, if unsurprising, to know that human beings would knowingly help a shabby reality show frighten and humiliate their loved ones.
On her first day of work at a bogus medical clinic, a woman thinks she's seeing a doctor yank an organ out of a patient's body. Ho, ho, the joke's on her! A man, believing he's taking part in a study of heart-monitoring equipment, squirms fearfully as he witnesses the apparent death of a fellow test subject. Boffo entertainment—if you're a card-carrying sadist.
Doherty occasionally serves as an onscreen accomplice while pranks are pulled on her own friends. She's pretty convincing in the role of an actress with nothing better to do.
BOTTOM LINE: Gross tactical error
Sunday, April 20 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ABC (7 p.m. ET) Charlton Heston stars in the traditional Easter airing of the 1956 epic.
Monday, April 21 MR. PERSONALITY
FOX (9 p.m. ET) Monica Lewinsky is host for the debut of a reality show in which a woman must choose a partner without seeing his face.
Tuesday, April 22 LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN
NBC (12:35 a.m. ET) The White Stripes provide the music all week.
Wednesday, April 23 THE WEST WING
NBC (9 p.m. ET) Matthew Perry guest stars as an applicant for a White House job.
Thursday, April 24 MICHAEL JACKSON SPECIAL
FOX (8 p.m. ET) Regular guy Jacko lets us see his home movies.
Friday, April 25 FASTLANE
FOX (8 p.m. ET) In the season finale, a psycho threatens a killing spree unless he gets 6,000 lbs. of diamonds.
Saturday, April 26 THE AGENCY
CBS (10 p.m. ET) David Cassidy guests as a revenge-seeker targeting prominent Saudis.
CBS (Sun., April 20, 9 p.m. ET