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.
But the showiest and most affecting performance is probably that of Glenn Plummer as small-time con artist Rommy Gandolph, better known by two nicknames: Squirrel and Romeo. He confesses to the murders while being interrogated by Selleck. The stress causes him to wet his pants, prompting the cop to utter the regrettable line, "I think maybe that's your conscience, Romeo, talking through your bladder."
A cameo locket with a missing photograph, a bartender with an eye patch and Luisa's bad habit of stealing airline tickets all figure in the mediocre mystery. The film lacks the electric crackle of Turow, or any good mystery novelist, at his best.
A cranky old judge angrily asks a couple of the characters, "Don't you want to know what the hell really happened?" and unfortunately a viewer's answer is likely to be "No, thanks just the same."
Showtime's decision to remake "The Lion in Winter" using essentially the same James Goldman script as a previous film version is more of a mystery than "Reversible Errors" is. How many viewers who either have or haven't seen Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn give spectacular performances in the film will jump at the chance to see the same story with performers of lesser caliber? Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close don't even approach the magnetic glamour of O'Toole and Hepburn as Henry II of England and his embittered wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Goldman apparently wanted to reassure us that families who suffer the burden of great wealth and power also tend to be full of jealousy, skulduggery and simple, visceral hatred. The notion really isn't all that comforting, and besides, it tends to be the subtext of many headlines and news stories every year. Even so, everybody knows that, especially in America, life is much easier if you don't have to worry about money every freakin' minute. That's the real luxury enjoyed by the rich.
The film opens in 1173 in the cacophonous court of Henry, who banishes wife Eleanor to imprisonment in the tower at Salisbury Castle. What is this "Aquitaine" that keeps coming up and everybody seems to want? It's like Hitchcock's McGuffin in a way, a part of France that at this moment in history belongs to England. We never see any Aquitainians except Eleanor, of course; after the opening credits, the movie jumps ahead 10 years, and her majesty, released from the tower, returns to Henry's castle via a very slow-moving barge. Henry has perversely gathered the clan -- including sons Richard, Geoffrey and the plump imbecile John -- for a protracted verbal donnybrook about who will succeed him on the throne and, of course, who will have dominion over Aquitaine. They're a crafty and nasty lot of rotters, this crew, and nearly every actor in the cast gets ample opportunity to stage tantrums, tirades and hissy fits. It's not an engagingly screwed-up group. They wouldn't have survived a first draft by Eugene O'Neill.
Hepburn and O'Toole were such fun to watch that the work took on a stature it otherwise would have lacked -- and indeed does lack with Stewart and Close at the helm. Stewart, also one of the executive producers, indulges himself in tiresome bombast and rhetorical flatulence. Close's performance is all about her hair and the suspense over how it will look in the next scene. She and Stewart simply don't ignite when they clash, and Close might as well be playing Cruella of Aquitaine as Eleanor.
Versatile Jonathan Rhys-Meyers livens things up as that sneaky rake Philip II of France, brother of Henry's mistress, Alais, played seductively by Yuliya Vysotskaya.
Rhys-Meyers has an intriguing sense of decadence about him, although like Close he nearly suffocates in wigs. "You're good at rage," Rhys-Meyers tells Stewart, but Stewart isn't particularly good at it. He's Johnny One-Note even when bellowing.
In one of the film's best scenes, Philip confronts one family member after the other as they pop out from their hiding places behind the drapes in his room. Richard is handed the biggest bombshell when Philip implies they did more than hunt for boar during their merry little play-date in the woods two years earlier. They get close enough to sniff (!) each other, and just when it looks as if they'll kiss, they don't. Were Goldman alive, he probably would revise that scene now -- though he might leave it alone on the grounds that same-sex smooches have become a dime a dozen in the movies.
The supposedly witty dialogue often clanks and tanks. "Oh God, but I do love being king," Henry exults. "We are the killers," says Eleanor in an introspective moment. "We breed war." Director Andrei Konchalovsky tries to disguise the fact with a few shots of rabble and revelers outside the castle walls, but Goldman's play stubbornly remains a play, replete with entrances and exits and even italicized exit lines from the actors.
"Lion in Winter" was filmed in Hungary, in and around one of the bleakest and most underfurnished castles ever. "Reversible Errors" is set in Boston but was shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which helps explain why everybody looks so chilly. Not only was it filmed there but it was produced, says a closing credit, "with the assistance of the Nova Scotia Film Industry Tax Credit." Ah, the romance of show business.
So much for murdered hussies, one-eyed bartenders, scheming siblings and that much-coveted and excessively discussed piece of real estate called Aquitaine. They're sending the May sweeps out with a very muffled bang (the official last night is Wednesday). Sweeps, shmeeps. Let's watch some real TV. Let's click our little clickers over to HBO and see what Tony, Carmela, Meadow, Christopher, Uncle Junior, Dr. Melfi and Paulie Walnuts are up to.
Probably no good. But the best "no good" on television.