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UPDATED 03/14/2005 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/14/2005 at 01:00 AM EST

DRAMA

Their Eyes Were Watching God

ABC (Sunday, March 6, 9 p.m. ET)

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Distinguished cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. has described Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as "a bold feminist novel, the first to be explicitly so in the Afro-American tradition." A nice endorsement but not exactly big money in the bank. Oprah Winfrey calls Their Eyes "my favorite love story of all time." Now that will get a 1937 book made into a major network movie starring gorgeous Oscar winner Halle Berry.

Excuse any irreverence toward Oprah. Fact is, she has the juice to get worthwhile things done. This production from Winfrey's Harpo Films isn't a perfect literary adaptation, but it's sexy and deep at the same time. That's a strong combination.

Set in rural Florida, Their Eyes follows Janie Crawford (Berry) through her relationships with three very different men. Her grandmother (Ruby Dee) forces the young beauty to marry aging Logan Killicks (Mel Winkler), but Janie soon leaves the crusty farmer in favor of Joe Starks (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), a traveler with big ideas. Joe becomes mayor of a growing black town called Eatonville, and Janie is happy by his side until his self-importance swells and blocks her view of the horizon. After Joe's death, she scandalizes the town by running off with Tea Cake (Michael Ealy), 12 years her junior and gifted at sexual healing. Tragedy awaits them, but so does fulfillment.

Berry is radiant but real as a sensuous woman who captains her own soul, and the intimate scenes between Berry and Ealy have a heat that helps explain their reported offscreen romance. Though Their Eyes overflows with melodrama toward the end, we're left with a sense of life lived to the fullest.

COMEDY

Fat Actress
Showtime (Mondays, 10 p.m. ET)

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This is the show where Kirstie Alley lets it all hang out.

The March 7 premiere begins with Alley, beyond plump in her peignoir, thrashing hysterically on the bathroom floor after the scale gives her bad news. She then heads to a fast-food joint, where she devours a whopping burger while berating her agent on the cell phone. Later she bends over and her backside basically fills the screen. Playing an exaggerated version of herself, like Larry David in the similarly improvised Curb Your Enthusiasm, Alley casts dignity to the winds as she lampoons her own weight problem and Hollywood's obsession with body image.

It's probably therapeutic for Alley, but is it fun for us? Occasionally. There's a helping of delicious showbiz humor in the opener, featuring NBC's Jeff Zucker in an expletive-laced self-portrayal that could never be seen on the network he runs. But the second episode, in which Alley's laxatives kick in just as she's trying to flirt with Kid Rock, is embarrassingly low on laughs. Not that anyone here greatly fears embarrassment.

DRAMA

Blind Justice
ABC (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

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Irony alert: Last summer ABC aired a funny special full of clips from failed pilots. One stinker concerned a sightless superhero with "a passion for justice—blind justice." Now the same network asks our serious attention to a new series about Jim Dunbar (Ron Eldard), a New York City police detective who returns to the front lines of crime fighting after being blinded in a shootout.

It's hard buying into this premise, but the drama generally rewards the effort. Co-created by NYPD Blue's Steven Bochco, it shares some of that show's grit and visual style. Although the March 8 premiere severely strains credulity when Jim pulls his gun in a life-or-death situation, he goes on to rely mostly on experience and deductive skill in cracking cases with partner Karen Bettancourt (Marisol Nichols). And the complexity of the cop's character, including his past unfaithfulness to wife Christie (Rena Sofer), gives the talented Eldard something to play besides heroic determination.

REALITY

The Contender
NBC (Mon., March 7, 9:30 p.m. ET)

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If you've been praying for Sylvester Stallone to make his long-planned Rocky VI, answer the bell for The Contender.

This reality series is an elimination tournament with 16 boxers fighting for a $1 million final bout that will air live. But the 90-min. opener sure seems like a Rocky sequel. Host Stallone, one of the executive producers, peppers us with clichés—"Who will dare to be great?"—while the music pounds us with portentous percussion and echoing horns. When ex-champ Sugar Ray Leonard joins Stallone in lecturing the fighters, the mentors do a dumb-and-dumber act. Ray: "You win, it goes on your record. You lose, it goes on your record." Sly: "If you blow it, you blew it."

Another of the executive producers is Survivor's Mark Burnett, so it's no surprise that the hopefuls are initially divided into tribes—er, teams—and required to take part in a ridiculous, nonboxing challenge (carrying logs up a Hollywood hill). The first episode climaxes with an exciting five-round bout, deftly edited to emphasize sharp blows and shifting momentum. First, though, there's a load of prefight hype, endlessly repeating the idea that these heroic pugilists put family first.

Nothing is said in the premiere about last month's suicide of contender Najai Turpin (seated, in red shorts). Let's hope the series handles it tastefully.

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