STARTLING ORIGINALITY HAS NOT BEEN a theme of the fall 1996 television season. With the exception of Millennium, Fox's creepy Chris Carter offering, which starts on Oct. 25, and Lifetime's intriguing Canadian import Traders (Sundays, 7 p.m. ET), which deals with voracious investment bankers, most of the new shows—even the good ones—are formulaic retreads.

Two new offerings are sanitized remakes of British sitcoms (Cosby, Men Behaving Badly), and five shows are about teachers (Dangerous Minds, Mr. Rhodes, The Steve Harvey Show, Something So Right, Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher). There are too many movie remakes (FX, Clueless, Party Girl, Dangerous Minds), too many roommates, secret government agencies, shows set in Seattle, and too much facial hair. The only bright spot: Fox's Lush Life, with Lori Petty, has already been canceled, and NBC's The Jeff Fox-worthy Show can't be far behind.

Still, despite the short supply of fresh ideas, there is one blatant rip-off worth watching: Dark Skies, a paranormal Cuisinart of The X-Files, Independence Day, Three Days of the Condor and even Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Like The X-Files, the program deals with a secret government organization (Majestic-12) that investigates weird occurrences; like Alien, it has scary, jumbo-sized parasites festering inside seemingly harmless organisms; and like Body Snatchers, it warns that the aliens have already landed.

What gives the program (NBC, Saturdays, 8 p.m. ET) its only original touch is that it is set in the early 1960s and immediately raises the possibility that treasonous government agencies—or extraterrestrials—may have been involved in John F. Kennedy's assassination. Oo-ee-oh. One eagerly awaits future episodes explaining the involvement of space aliens in the deaths of Jimmy Hoffa, Malcolm X and Elvis.

One other selling point of the show is J.T. Walsh's performance as the head of Majestic-12. Walsh (Nixon, A Few Good Men, The Client) is one of the most gifted, credible character actors working today, and his potbellied, middle-class malevolence is a nice change from the generic depravity we see in most TV villains. No, Dark Skies is not breaking much new ground. But it's ground worth revisiting.

HBO (premieres Sun., Oct. 13, 9 p.m. ET)

B

Demi Moore (executive producer), Cher and Sissy Spacek join forces in a film about three women living in the same house in different eras who must cope with unwanted pregnancies. Cher, who directed the segment in which she plays a doctor in a family-planning clinic, is fine. Sissy Spacek, as a harried mother of four who would prefer not to be a harried mother of five, is characteristically uncommunicative. Moore is no more convincing than usual as an Eisenhower-era nurse who resorts to a knitting needle to solve her problem. Emphatically pro-choice, the film is not for the faint of heart nor, for that matter, most Republicans.

CBS (Sun., Oct. 13, 9 p.m. ET)

C

Think WASPs don't have problems? Think again. Sean Young (No Way Out, Blade Runner) plays a successful art director who tries to rebuild her life after her husband (Charles Shaughnessy) and two children are murdered by thugs. This being television, she inevitably falls in love with the detective (Jack Scalia) assigned to solve the case. Young buys a gun and joins forces with Scalia, an avid reader and a surprisingly good cook, but not before losing the baby she is carrying.

Concerned about her daughter's lingering depression, Young's mother peps her up by saying, "You're young, and you have so much to look forward to." No one, but no one is going to deliver a nuttier line of dialogue this season.

NBC (Mon., Oct. 14, 9 p.m. ET)

C

Charles Shaughnessy (murdered the night before in Everything to Gain) switches gears to play a creepy apparel designer who seduces his daughter's roommate.

As if the reluctant Lolita (The Five Mrs. Buchanans' Charlotte Ross) didn't have enough problems, she is also being stalked by a somewhat younger creep armed with a camera with a telephoto lens.

This is the kind of movie where you just know that someone's going to get into a car with a murderer hidden in the backseat. Guess who.

VH1 (Mon., Oct. 14, 9:30 p.m. ET, repeated various times)

B-

VH1 is always looking for ways to change its image as MTV's recycling bin. Well, a talk show hosted by a 6'5" drag queen certainly makes a change from those American Bandstand reruns. Not unexpectedly, hoop star Dennis Rodman is RuPaul's first guest; not unexpectedly, the king and queen of rehearsed iconoclasm do kiss. Wonder what Michael Jordan makes of all this. Or Dick Clark.

>Charley Gentry

THE REAL SUPERBOY

IN THE BEGINNING WE ASKED, 'WHY DID this happen to us?' " says Cheryl Gentry, 39, of her severely deformed son Charley. "But every day a little piece is answered. I believe his main purpose is to educate and help society."

With the energetic cheerfulness of any other 7-year-old, Charley Gentry fulfills that promise in Without Pity: A Film About Abilities, a moving HBO documentary premiering on Oct. 8 (and airing again Oct. 14 and 17). Narrated by Christopher Reeve, it profiles seven remarkable people surmounting enormous physical disabilities.

Charley, for reasons doctors have not yet determined, was born without arms or legs—only the stub of what might have been his left foot. He uses that, and his mouth, to pick up toys and utensils. At home in Phoenix, he rolls on the floor from room to room; at school he rides a customized wheelchair. "He has a computer," says Cheryl, who works in a Christian counseling center, "but someone has to turn it on for him, hand him the mouth stick and give him the mouse."

Gentry moved to Phoenix with Charley and her two older daughters in June to be in an area with better facilities for Charley. (At the time of filming, the family lived in Price, Utah, where Cheryl had already separated from Charley's father, Bill, a farmer.) When the new school year began, she accompanied Charley to class, answering students' questions. "Once those kids' curiosity is sated," she says, "everyone is Charley's best friend."

So far, Charley and Reeve, paralyzed in a fall from a horse in 1995, have met only via satellite at the Television Critics Association press tour. But the show has fulfilled one dream, Charley says: "To show that I can do more stuff than you thought I could."

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Longley.