updated 02/05/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Time to check in on our new mistress of the morning, Deborah Norville. She's an improvement on Jane Pauley, but there's no escaping it: The early going has been strained.

That's not too surprising, considering that NBC has promoted her right out of her strength. She is an excellent, brisk newsreader; like the late Jessica Savitch, Norville has her best relationships with TV cameras. But suddenly she has been called upon to display people skills in the slightly hysterical happy-hour mood Today has adopted lately.

The strain is showing. Norville's right eyebrow is doing crazy push-ups, and her smile is cranked up to about 750 psi. Thus far, her style is too bossy on news interviews, yet she's clearly intimidated by Bryant and Willard. (She has even addressed him on air as Mr. Scott—surely no other person in America besides his busy accountant would be likely to accord him that formality.)

These problems will be fixed with time and coaching. And already, Norville doesn't make you swallow as much of her personality with the morning chatter as did Jane (the Cat Who Swallowed a Canary) Pauley.

USA (Wed., Jan. 31, 9 P.M. ET)

Grade: C

An L.A. cop (Michael Parks) likes to vacation each year out by a desert lake—unwind, do a little fishing, kill a few people at random.

While Tom Skerritt is flat as a sheriff puzzled by the ensuing deaths and disappearances in his small town, Parks displays the right cold, empty menace as the killer. If the focus had stayed on him, the story might have had the claustrophobic torque of a Jim Thompson novel. But the suspense slips away. There is, however, a startlingly bright texture to the film. Credit the air quality near Joshua Tree National Monument in California and director of photography Geoff Schaaf.

PBS (Wed., Jan. 31, 10:30 P.M. ET)

Grade: A-

This penetrating study of French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) visits the locales, including Giverny, where he lived and worked. Peter Ustinov reads passages from Monet's letters, which cast some light on his personality and art.

But the real illumination occurs, as the title implies, in detailed close-ups of the canvases Monet left behind.

PBS (Fri., Feb. 2, 9 P.M. ET)

Grade: B+

Assembled from many tribes, this Native American troupe performs beautiful traditional dances that mirror nature in their combination of grace and strength. The movements and the extraordinary costumes all manifest a deep spirituality. Witness the Ladies' Fancy Shawl Dance and see if you don't think, they could teach Paula Abdul a thing or two. We could all learn from this Great Performances special, primarily about how many basic pleasures we have forfeited in our pell-mell rush into the modern world.

Showtime (Sat., Feb. 3, 11 P.M. ET)

Grade: B-

This concert at the Valley Forge Music Fair outside Philadelphia is about what you'd expect. The goofily manic comic ricochets through off-kilter observations and bad puns, most of them gross. Maybe it was all that time spent on St. Elsewhere that got Mandel so fixated on anatomy.

Howie is most enjoyable as a comic counterpuncher. His strength lies in reacting to input he solicits from the audience. In these animated ad-libs, Mandel proves to be quick on his clumsy pixie feet, even if he is irretrievably silly.

CBS (Sun., Feb. 4, 9 P.M. ET)

Grade: A

This exceedingly well-done miniseries recounts the twisted saga of John A. Walker Jr., the Navy warrant officer who formed a nepotistic spy ring to peddle top secret military documents to the Soviets.

Powers Boothe gives a compelling performance as Walker, a manipulative womanizer whose greed and narcissism overwhelmed any vestigial patriotism. Boothe paints him as an intelligent but venal sociopath. He's supported by a fine cast, including Lesley Ann Warren as Walker's wife, Lili Taylor as his daughter, Graham Beckel as his friend and Jeroen Krabbe as the KGB agent who ran him.

Exciting and believable, the mini starts strong and gets better in Part II, airing on Tuesday. After Walker quits the Navy in 1976 under a cloud of suspicion, he tries to inveigle others—including his family—into obtaining sensitive jobs in the Armed Forces so he can keep the pipeline to the Soviets flowing.

NBC (Mon., Feb. 5, 9 P.M. ET)

Grade: B

The Peacock network isn't resting on its feathers. The night between Family of Spies installments, NBC strikes back with this docudrama, based on the deaths of civil rights activists Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman during a voter-registration drive in 1964. It serves as a strong, if slightly sappy, prequel to the feature film Mississippi Burning.

Tom {Parenthood) Hulce as Schwerner and Blair (L.A. Law) Underwood as Chaney create a potent chemistry as Hulce's Northern idealism clashes with Underwood's Southern pragmatism. (Josh Charles as Goodman is all but ignored.) Despite a sanctimonious tone that nearly canonizes its heroes, the film is affecting and atmospheric.

ABC (Mon., Feb. 5, 9 P.M. ET)

Grade: D

Robert Conrad may be slipping. He has a TV movie with young-adult and juvenile roles in it, and he hasn't stocked it with his family members. Maybe he was protecting them from this torturous survival melodrama? Nah, that wouldn't stop him.

A storm at sea strands a rugged father and his three offspring on the cold, barren Alaskan coast for more than three weeks. That translates into two grim hours of soggy bad acting broken only by stretches of frostbitten bad acting.

Disney (Tues., Feb. 6, 8 P.M. ET)

Grade: B-

Get to know the teen singing sensations from Boston. There are Jonathan, the responsible one; Jordan, the contemplative one; Joseph, the baby; Danny, the regular guy; and Donnie, the lover boy. See them backstage, playing ball, fooling around.

Then it's show time, which means snappy dance-pop tunes and slick choreography. With a Saturday-morning cartoon series and a feature film reportedly in the works, the New Kids are about to be everywhere. Thank goodness this special makes it clear that they are both more charming and more talented than most overhyped puppy-love gods.

ABC (Tues., Feb. 6, 9:30 P.M. ET)

Grade: C+

Nearly everything I saw this week was better than I expected. (Either that or the fall I took off the ladder last week affected me more than I thought.) No program surprised me as much as the premiere of this fictionalized series about the early years of America's favorite icon.

Everything associated with the Presley estate since he died in 1977 has been shoddily exploitative. But Elvis is refreshingly modest, low-key and enjoyable—easy on the myth, heavy on the music. (The show moves to its own slot on Sundays at 8:30 P.M. after this special post-Roseanne debut. Hey, if our Ms. Barr didn't have her own series, wouldn't she make a great Gladys?)

Except for the hoody hairdo, Michael St. Gerard doesn't really resemble Elvis—at least not in the way Billy Green Bush does Daddy Vernon Presley. St. Gerard looks more like Jay Leno. But he does have some of the King's pouty charisma.

In the debut, the Presley family is living in an apartment, scraping to pay the bills. It's a long way from Graceland. But based on this first show, I want to go on record as predicting this young singer's career will take off like a rocket.

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