Turow Mystery, Showtime 'Lion': When Networks Think Big
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page N01
In one of the songs for the musical "Carousel," Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, "May was full of promises, but she didn't keep 'em quick enough for some." For mainstream TV viewers, May, as well as November and February, have been full of promises for years because these have been the principal sweeps months, when Nielsen ratings affect a TV station's ad rates more than usual.
Thus did the commercial broadcast networks overload the lusty month of May, and the other sweeps-swept months, with big-budget, hot-ticket, high-profile programming -- a miniseries here, a controversial docudrama there and so on, and so on, yada yada yada. Nothing in television is what it used to be, however, including the sweeps. The whole concept has lost much of its allure for the networks, and for viewers, too. May 2004's have turned out to be sleepy sweeps indeed.
Tonight, the last Sunday of the May sweeps, is full of promises. CBS offers Part 1 of a new murder mystery based on a Scott Turow novel, "Reversible Errors," starring the bracingly terrific William H. Macy. And although cable networks aren't really involved in the sweeps -- especially premium cable networks with no advertising -- Showtime's new production of James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" has the surface shimmer associated with sweepy-time television.
It is no pleasure to report that the two productions are major disappointments and minor events. "The Lion in Winter," at 7:30 p.m. on Showtime, is just the 1968 movie made over again but this time with a far less fascinating cast. Talk about sound and fury signifying nothing; this Olympian shouting match seems merely a chance for hammy actors to orate, declaim and yell.
"Lion" could pass for a 12th-century Anglified version of HBO's enthralling thriller "The Sopranos," which without doubt is a better bet for viewing tonight than either of the special shows, particularly since last week's episode, Tony's eerie dream, was clearly the prelude to something horrendous. Tonight's is the penultimate episode of the "Sopranos" season. Eminently unmissable and TiVo-worthy.
"Scott Turow's Reversible Errors," the official title of the CBS miniseries airing at 9 tonight and Tuesday on Channel 9, may be more of a letdown than "Lion in Winter," since one expects Turow to whip up compellingly complex yarns that keep viewers on the proverbial edges of their seats. Our nation's seat edges will get little wear during "Reversible," however. The whodunit lopes along so sluggishly that the matter of who done it becomes conspicuously immaterial. At times, it's hard even to remember what "it" is.
Macy, so implosively riveting in "Fargo" -- perhaps his finest couple of hours upon any screen -- is one of the few plausible reasons to watch "Reversible," the kind of snail's-paced plodder that inspires you to catch up on your magazine and newspaper reading. Macy meticulously plays Arthur Raven, a prosecutor in a big-city DA's office who feels burned out by all the sordid crimes he has encountered: "I never want to see another drug dealer in my life," he announces in one of the first scenes.
Vulnerability has been Macy's specialty in movies and TV, but Raven is a character who has authority and a temper, a change of pace that Macy handles nimbly. As written by Alan Sharp and directed by Mike Robe, "Reversible" starts out like a very self-conscious parody of many a film noir. The opening bluesy-trumpet music and such settings as the gaudily tawdry Anchor Motel evoke memories of "Chinatown" and other noir films.
An early scene in which nearly naked prosecutor Muriel Wynn (Monica Potter) and lumbering police detective Larry Starczek (Tom Selleck) end a tryst with a chat about also ending the affair, meanwhile, plays very much like the famous opening sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," prominently featuring Janet Leigh in a bra and the broad hairy chest of John Gavin. Wynn is not wearing a bra, however; we see her topless from the back pulling up black panties instead.
As for the leaden and expressionless Selleck, he looks like Stalin when lying down and Saddam Hussein when standing up. How's that for twice the fun?
Sex and violence are deployed to hook viewers as quickly as possible. In the back room of the Paradise Diner, police find a hellacious sight: a slew of dead bodies including that of a woman named Luisa who, we are bluntly told, was sexually assaulted after she was murdered. Gross.
Writer Sharp at least tries to be risque rather than just dirty, stirring in the occasional randy banter. Selleck as the cop is discussing height with a former flame and says, "We could all use a couple inches," to which she retorts, "That's funny, Larry. I don't remember that being your problem." There's also a pair of semi-sexy lovemaking scenes, mostly disjointed limbs and patches of skin -- one involving Selleck and Potter, the other teaming Macy with Felicity Huffman as Gillian Sullivan, a no-nonsense judge who, it turns out, gets addicted to heroin.
Huh? Yes, a heroin-hooked blond judge is but one of the colorful details meant to liven up the poky show. When the flashbacks start, as they inevitably must -- no violent crime can be shown only once in such films -- they're filmed via amazing Tilt-O-Cam, which makes everything look as if it's taking place on a storm-tossed ship. The shots are also sometimes dyed a bilious blurry green.
The heavily mustachioed Mr. Selleck slows the film down whenever he shows up, draining whatever energy and oxygen are around. Macy's performance is so much stronger that he makes you forget Selleck is even in the movie. Huffman as the addicted judge, who is indicted for malfeasance in office and relegated to the perfume counter at a department store, makes this implausible character almost credible.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Monica Potter and Tom Selleck in CBS's sluggish "Reversible Errors," based on a Scott Turow novel.
(Chris Reardon -- Cbs)