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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 1998

  Tom Shales


    Vengeance Unlimited Kathleen York and Michael Madsen star in "Vengeance Unlimited." (ABC)
It appears dismally definite: The next golden age of television will be put off for at least another year. For the new prime-time TV season, which officially starts tomorrow, the networks are serving up mainly a digitally remastered mishmash of last year's crum-bummy claptrap.

These aren't just time-killers, ladies and gentlemen. These are serial time-killers. They clobber and torture time before killing it, too.

The new shows are so bad that at least one television critic asked to be put on a 24-hour suicide watch during his days and nights of laborious pilot-viewing. The request, incidentally, was denied. But his pilot light kept going out anyway.

A crop of shoddy shows hardly means we will lack for compelling television, however. TV's latest amazing reality miniseries, the White House sex scandal, which everyone is sick of but which still draws millions of viewers, promises (or threatens) to drag on and on. Every moralistic windbag, after all, must be heard from. As unsavory entertainment and guilty-pleasure viewing, it's the biggest baddest bombolina of the decade. In fact it may end up making the wretched excesses of O.J. Simpson coverage look terse and tasteful.

1. "Sports Night," ABC
2. "Felicity," WB
3. "Cupid," ABC
4. "The Brian Benben Show," CBS
5. "Martial Law," CBS

1. "L.A. Doctors," CBS
2. "Buddy Faro," CBS
3. "The King of Queens," CBS
4. "Living in Captivity," Fox
5. "Fantasy Island," ABC
– Tom Shales

If, on the other hand, NBA labor troubles continue and the pro basketball season is delayed or even canceled, viewers will find themselves stuck with more exposure than usual to standard network "entertainment" programming – and not loving it. Prediction: Prozac prescriptions will be going up, viewership down. The only network likely to benefit will be AOL.

Of course, the broadcast networks can always toss in another cheap magazine show to fill an empty space. It's hard now to find a night when that dreadful "Dateline NBC" isn't on, and ABC has hypercloned "20/20" into a three-night franchise. Even CBS News caved in to the trend and will introduce a kind of "Son of '60 Minutes'" later in the season. Suggested slogan for that one: "All the stories that weren't good enough for the real '60 Minutes'!"

You can't expect much innovation or experimentation by the networks when their main goal is just to hold on desperately to the viewers they still have. With their share of the total TV audience continuing to erode, the networks don't want to air anything so new and bold it might scare anybody away. Records are being set all the time, but for the lowest-rated Saturday night ever, the lowest-rated Wednesday night ever, and so on.

Although last year's crop of new shows was a tiny tad better than this year's, the 1997-98 season has to be looked upon as a resounding failure. Zenith Media Service, which makes a business of charting TV's ups and downs, has found a lot more downs than ups lately. Its summary of last season: It produced "the lowest level of return for new programs" in TV history.

"Of the 35 series that premiered last fall," says Zenith's annual report, "only five survived the season, an abysmal 14 percent success rate. This is in sharp contrast to the 45 percent return rate of fall '96 freshmen." Thirty shows canceled out of 35 introduced! It's an extraordinary accomplishment, in an utterly appalling sort of way.

An additional 23 shows premiered later during the season, and of those, a mere 16 have died and gone to TV's ever-expanding Boot Hill. Actually, it's Boot Mountain now. Soon to be the vast Boot Range. As for what lies just ahead, in a story headlined "Networks Face Power Outage," Daily Variety predicts "one of the most lackluster fall seasons in recent memory" and notes, "It's not a great sign that there's less buzz about the new crop of fall shows than about the backroom deals that were made to get those shows on the air." Example: NBC paying Warner Bros. a staggering $13 million for each new episode of returning hit "ER."

The basic problem can be stated simply: There aren't enough truly talented people out there in Hollywood to produce enough good television to fill all the channels. And guess what. More channels are coming. As channels proliferate, the amount of bad television becomes virtually immeasurable.

One TV tradition that began last season has already been continued this year. Fox has canceled one of its new shows, "Hollyweird," before it ever got on the air, just as it did last year with something called "Rewind." At all the networks, more new shows than ever are undergoing last-minute revision and recasting. The networks have gone from mere tinkering and tweaking to hypertink and supertweak.

But wait. What's that humming, rumbling rum-tum-tumbling sound? It's the curtain going up and the overture beginning for the new fall television season. Pretend you care. Please.


Rank: No. 3
Prime-Time Audience: 12.3 million
Real Boss: Michael Eisner, Disney chairman and CEO
Crown Jewel: "Monday Night Football"
New Sitcoms: "Brother's Keeper," "The Hughleys," "The Secret Lives of Men," "Sports Night," "Two of a Kind"
New Dramas: "Cupid," "Fantasy Island," "Vengeance"
Best Shot for a Hit: "Two of a Kind"
Strategy: Stretch football franchise to fill Monday prime time in order to fix 8 p.m. ratings black hole. Put established shows in other 8 p.m. time slots across week to bring viewers to the network. Be the first of the Big Three to abandon Sunday movie and give viewers an alternative viewing choice. Change name of all newsmagazines to "20/20" to create strong brand identity more competitive with NBC's "Dateline."
– Lisa de Moraes
"The Hughleys" is the better of two new sitcoms about black families moving into previously all-white suburban communities (the other is Fox's execrable "Living in Captivity"). But it still isn't very good. The characters, white and black, are too obsessed with their racial identities, and the male lead, stand-up comic D.L. Hughley, is a loudmouthed bore. In the pilot, one joke is predicated on the notion that no self-respecting African American ever pays his bills on time. In two words: Un funny. (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.)

"Sports Night" is the most agreeable, least abrasive, most humane new sitcom of the year, a refreshing surprise. Set backstage at an 11 p.m. sports news show obviously patterned on ESPN's epochal "SportsCenter," the series teams Peter Krause and Josh Charles ("Threesome") as the show's anchors, with Felicity Huffman as their tough yet occasionally tender producer and Robert Guillaume as the big boss over all. The newsroom is full of crackly banter and bubbly hubbub in the best tradition of comedies about journalists, and the characters register strongly right off the bat. (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m.)

"The Secret Lives of Men" is really about the not-so-secret lives of dull men, three divorced guys who hang around a golf course and love to shoot the breeze – to death. Peter Gallagher, Bradley Whitford and Mitch Rouse at least have variety going for them; they're all unlikable in different ways, and the pilot features icky jokes about death, defecation and diarrhea. In sum: utterly unnecessary and flagrantly flat. (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m.)

"Vengeance Unlimited" stars Michael Madsen, who was so scary in "Reservoir Dogs" and so warm and fuzzy in "Free Willy." Here he's back to being scary, playing an "Equalizer"-like vigilante named Mr. Chapel who helps bring to justice criminals who have escaped their due punishment. Many viewers will consider the series undue punishment, but it may win a few fans with its premiere, because Mr. Chapel terrorizes a mangy lawyer right out of his $30 socks. Maybe ABC could sic him on Kenneth Starr. (Thursday, 8 p.m.)

"Two of a Kind" suffices as a new entry for ABC's Friday night, family-friendly "TGIF" comedy block even though there's really nothing new about it. As it turns out, those adorably adorable Olsen Twins have finally learned how to speak dialogue so it can be understood. They play cutie-pie cut-ups who keep trying to get their widowed daddy remarried, perhaps to the hammy nanny (strident Sally Wheeler) they get him to hire in the premiere. Warning, warning: Not for the weak of stomach. (Friday, 8 p.m.)

"Brother's Keeper." Like virtually every other new series TV Guide picked as a "favorite" in the fall lineups, this one stinks. It's all about the low jinks that ensue when a pro football player with a playboy lifestyle has to move in with his button-down brother and the brother's cute 8-year-old son. The child is ridiculed by the football star for being a conscientious student and, under the influence of the new arrival, declares it "cool" when Dad gets embroiled in a bar brawl. As Dad himself says in the premiere, "This is not gonna work." (Friday, 9:30 p.m.)

"Fantasy Island" was an amusingly worthless entertainment during its first incarnation on ABC as an Aaron Spelling show in the late '70s and early '80s. It certainly became iconic. The new version, produced by a whole new generation of hacks, substitutes pretentiousness, gloom and New-Age philosophizin' for the old kitsch and kookery. In so doing, they've managed the seemingly impossible: They've made Aaron Spelling look good. Malcolm McDowell plays Mr. Roarke this time, and he's strictly from Creepsville. (Saturday, 9 p.m.)

"Cupid" deserves kudos; it's a show that sounds coy and moist and actually turns out to be semi-clever and beguiling. Jeremy Piven, one of the straight friends on the expired "Ellen," plays either Trevor Hale, a deluded loony who thinks he's Cupid, or the real thing, Cupid himself. His mission is to unite 100 couples in happy harmony so he can return to the fun and frolic of Mount Olympus. Gimmicky or not, it's got charm. (Saturday, 10 p.m.)


Rank: No. 2
Prime-Time Audience: 14.1 million
Real Boss: Mel Karmizan, CBS Corp. president and COO
Crown Jewel: NFL football
Dirty Secret: Network's audience is so old it gets far fewer ad bucks than networks with smaller but younger audiences.
New Sitcoms: "The Brian Benben Show," "The King of Queens," "Maggie Winters."
New Dramas: "Buddy Faro," "L.A. Doctors," "Martial Law," "To Have & to Hold."
Best Shot for a Hit: "Martial Law."
Strategy: Empty wallet to get football back on the network, replace old-timer Tom Snyder with Comedy Central hipster Craig Kilborn, and put shock jock Howard Stern on Saturday nights – all in hopes of bringing more young viewers to the network.
– Lisa de Moraes
"The King of Queens" represents yet another attempt by CBS to create a blue-collar hero akin to Ralph Kramden or Archie Bunker – and also another flailing failure. This time it's a tubby henpecked schnook (Kevin James) whose fondest wish is for a finished basement ("the cave," he calls it) with a 70-inch TV set. Then in moves his cranky dad (Jerry Stiller, essentially reprising his Frank Costanza character from "Seinfeld") and all of Fatso's plans go awry. The show goes awry right away. (Monday, 8:30 p.m.)

"The Brian Benben Show" turns out to be not that bad-bad, especially considering how smarmy Benben was leering his way through HBO's "Dream On." As an L.A. anchor unseated by a plastic-coated mannequin (think Stone Phillips), he skillfully plots revenge, having been kept on at the station to replace the human-interest reporter who was killed by "an ape in heat" while covering a zoo story. Bad sign: Only about six minutes into the first show, Benben's already dropped his pants. (Monday, 9:30 p.m.)

"L.A. Doctors" takes the cake among new-season shows as the howliest, dopiest and dim-wittedest drama, about as appetizing and entertaining as colonoscopy. The audience is asked to empathize with three rich internists and a gorgeous blond partner operating out of a lavishly appointed building and catering to rich clients. Ken Olin outdoes his previous embarrassments playing the leader of the group, a greedy rich quack who in the premiere hires a publicist to ballyhoo the firm. Awful and dreadful, "L.A. Doctors" reaches a new pinnacle of asinine inanity. (Monday, 10 p.m.)

"Maggie Winters" will have you rooting for Faith Ford (Corky on "Murphy Brown") but not for Maggie Winters, the character she plays, and overplays, in this forced sitcom: a feisty young woman who returns to her home town after her dentist husband runs off with his hygienist. As Winters seems trapped in the joyless burg, so Ford seems trapped by the very limited possibilities of the premise. She tries hard, though. That's for darn sure. (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.)

"To Have and to Hold" is to tape and to erase. It's a means-well kind of drama, and the stars, Jason Beghe and Moira Kelly, are certainly attractive, but the contrivance of having them play newlyweds who also oppose each other in court as cop and public defender comes across as an albatross around them. "Adam's Rib" it ain't. (Wednesday, 9 p.m.)

"Buddy Faro," or "The Further Adventures of a Jerk," stars Dennis Farina in the title role, a celebrated and inebriated private eye who returns to Los Angeles after 20 years of retirement in Mexico, still using come-ons like "Hiya, toots, how about a little rub-a-dub-dub?" when a rich woman discovers him in her bathtub. Though imaginatively shot and edited, the pilot seems shiny but soulless, and so does Farina. (Friday, 9 p.m.)

"Martial Law." Only about half the pilot of this chop-socky action series was available for preview, but it looked as if it had possibilities, at least as simple-minded escapism full of cleverly choreographed fights. Massive Sammo Hung (yes, that's really his name) plays a fleet-footed Chinese cop transferred from Shanghai to Los Angeles, where heaven knows the police department could use some help. (Saturday, 9 p.m.)


Rank: No. 1
Prime-Time Audience: 14.9 million
Real Boss: Bob Wright, president and CEO, NBC
Crown Jewel: "ER"
Dirty Secret: $13 million per episode fee to Warner Bros. for "ER" means more in-house-produced "Dateline" editions on schedule to help amortize cost, and in-house-produced drama series to prevent network from being held up again.
New Sitcoms: "Jesse," "Conrad Bloom," "Encore! Encore!" "Will & Grace"
New Dramas: "Trinity," "Wind on Water"
Best Shot for a Hit: "Jesse" (it airs between "Friends" and "Frasier")
Strategy: Shore up Thursday hole left by departing "Seinfeld." Turn into a sitcom and news network. Big-ticket movies only on Sunday.
– Lisa de Moraes
"Conrad Bloom" doesn't. Bloom, that is. Yet another NBC sitcom built around a young urban single lookin' to get lucky, this wilted item droops dead on arrival, partly because bland busybody Conrad, as played by Mark Feuerstein, seems a doormat for his co-workers, his friends and his mother, played with a hearty ferocity by Linda Lavin. The premiere is one of those farces about coitus postponus, and the so-called hero ends up looking like an idiot. (Monday, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 21)

"Will & Grace" aims to do for NBC what "Dharma and Greg" has done for ABC, but NBC's lovable couple isn't lovable. Will (Eric McCormack) is a supposedly gay young lawyer, but he's about the straightest gay guy ever on TV. He acts as though he wouldn't bat an eye if Brad Pitt walked into the room naked and oiled. According to the premise, Will is platonic friends with daffy Grace (Debra Messing), who has bad taste in men, which would seem to include men who are her platonic friends. The subsidiary characters on the show are fun and completely upstage the sparkleless "stars." (Monday, 9:30 p.m.)

"Encore! Encore!" will have you shouting anything but. Although created by the team that gave a grateful world "Frasier," the troubled new sitcom stars Nathan Lane as a vain opera singer who loses his voice and returns to live at the family vineyard in Northern California. So now who exactly is supposed to identify with that? Certainly all the retired opera singers will tune in. Lane, so great in "The Birdcage" onscreen and in various triumphs on Broadway, quickly grows tiresome playing the blabby fussbudget. Joan Plowright, Herself, is wasted as his mother but still has fun with the role, especially when she smacks Lane upside the head. You can almost hear her saying, "Who got me into this mess?" (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 22)

"Jesse" is another case of a lovable leading lady deserving a better show – like Faith Ford with "Maggie Winters." The unlucky actress this time is Christina Applegate, the knockout from "Married . . . With Children," playing a divorced waitress at her bigot father's bar in Buffalo. Already it sounds more like tragedy than comedy. Jesse has a dumb brother who refuses to speak and a dumber brother who buys 8,000 garden gnomes, hoping to get rich by selling them. A hunk from Chile moves in next door and will apparently be Jesse's love interest, but so far, even the sparks are soggy. (Thursday, 8:30 p.m.)

"Trinity" is the saga of an Irish American family who apparently will manage to wrestle with all the topical issues of our time as well as their own relationships. Starring nobody in particular. (Friday, 9 p.m.)

"Wind on Water," which NBC has also declined to make available for screening, brings Bo Derek to television for her first weekly series since the collapse of her bombed-out movie career. She apparently plays the Barbara Stanwyck role in a Hawaiian version of "The Big Valley" (1965-69), which, if it does nothing else, will probably remind everybody how much they miss Barbara Stanwyck. (Saturday, 8 p.m., Oct. 17)


Rank: No. 4
Prime-Time Audience: 10.6 million
Real Boss: Peter Chernin, president and COO, News Corp., and chairman and CEO, Fox Group
Crown Jewel: "The X-Files"
Dirty Secret: Best half-hour sitcoms are cartoons – "King of the Hill" and "The Simpsons"; how come they can't develop a sitcom with real live people?
New Sitcoms: "Holding the Baby," "Feeling Alright," "That '70s Show," "Costello"
New Drama: "Brimstone"
New Other Shows: "Guinness World Records," "Fox Files" (news magazine).
Best Shot for a Hit: "Guinness World Records"
Strategy: Open up new sitcom time slots on Tuesday, Sunday and Friday. Fill troublesome time slots with reality programming and develop paranormal dramas.
– Lisa de Moraes
One of the worst new sitcoms of the year has already premiered and, if we're lucky, will be canceled by Halloween: "Living in Captivity," an ugly sitcom about a black family's encounters with idiotic white neighbors who live on either side of them. The premiere was shriekishly mean and unnecessarily nasty.

Naturally or not, the show airs on the Fox network.

"Costello," a very brash and blabby sitcom, stars stand-up comic Sue Costello as, get this, Sue Murphy, waitress in a Boston bar, single mom and dreamer of a better life via self-education. "Hey, Sue," says a scoffing customer, "could you actualize your potential and bring me a beer?" Much of the show's humor, however, is vulgar even by current standards. Even so, Costello does seem a powerful new source of energy. (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.)

"Holding the Baby," a sitcom about a husband and father's attempts to divide himself between the workplace and the homeplace, stars Eddie McClintock and Jennifer Westfeldt. And of course, a baby. (Sunday, 7:30 p.m.)

"Brimstone," another dark and dingy spook-o-rama in the increasingly moldy "X-Files" mold, returns Peter ("thirtysomething") Horton to television as a dead cop sent back to Earth to punch out the eyes of mischievous zombies. Huh? Not screened, and it doesn't premiere until Oct. 27 (Tuesday, 9 p.m.)


Rank: No. 5
Prime-Time Audience: 4.5 million
Real Boss: Bob Daly
Crown Jewel: "Dawson's Creek."
Dirty Secret: They have no programs on Friday or Saturday.
New Sitcom: "The Army Show"
New Dramas: "Charmed," "Felicity," "Hyperion."
Best Shot for a Hit: "Felicity" Strategy: Grow audience with branded kids shows and network of former Fox folks, goes after very young audience with teen-angst dramas.
– Lisa de Moraes
Now if you've stopped reading already, (a) you can hardly be blamed but (b) you'll miss advance notice of one of the absolutely best new shows: "Felicity," which airs on that cute little froggy network, the WB (Channel 50 in Washington). This is an intelligently written, non-gimmicky teenage drama that benefits immeasurably from the casting of newcomer Keri Russell in the title role, a formidable young woman off to New York for her first year of college.

Dictating a letter into a tape recorder, making goo-goo eyes at a boy who doesn't know of her passionate fascination with him, or standing up to her parents when they demand she leave mean old New York, Russell as Felicity is at the very least felicitous. As the Police once sang in their early days, "Every little thing she does is magic." Lovely, touching, endearing – both Russell and her series. (Tuesday, 9 p.m.)

"Charmed," the adventures of a trio of whimsical witches, marks the return to TV of Shannen Doherty, who, it seems, will inevitably play fat-faced Monica Lewinsky in a TV movie somewhere down the road (Wednesday, 9 p.m.). "The Army Show," a self-descriptive comedy in uniform, stars a fat guy and a thin guy (Sunday, 9:30 p.m.). And "Hyperion Bay" is a new drama series about troubled youths, the only kind TV knows (Monday, 9 p.m.).


Rank: No. 6
Prime-Time Audience: 4 million
Real Boss: Kerry McCluggage, Paramount TV Group chairman; Evan Thompson, president and CEO, United Television Inc.
Crown Jewel: "Star Trek: Voyager"
Dirty Secret: Network partners Paramount and United Television at odds.
New Sitcoms: "DiResta," "Guys Like Us," "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer"
New Dramas: "Legacy," "Mercy Point," "Seven Days"
Best Shot for a Hit: "Legacy"
Strategy: Broaden urban audience with eclectic mix of diverse programming. Expand from three to five nights. Grow new audience through deal with Disney to provide kids' programming Monday through Friday afternoons and Sunday morning, starting in fall of 1999. Get into new cable markets.
– Lisa de Moraes
Shows debuting on the even more wee UPN network (Channel 20 here) include "Guys Like Us," about a bunch of brothers living together (Monday, 8 p.m.); "DiResta," about yet another working-class dreamer struggling to succeed (Monday, 8:30 p.m.); "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," a sitcom set during the Lincoln administration (honest!) with full-bodied Chi McBride as Abe's assistant; "Mercy Point," set aboard an intergalactic hospital ship of the future (Tuesday, 9 p.m., Oct. 6); "Seven Days," a time-travel action-fantasy (Wednesday, 9 p.m., Oct. 7); and "Legacy," a western about a wealthy, Cartwright-like clan (Friday, 8 p.m., Oct. 9).

Whatever you do, don't confuse "Trinity" with "Felicity" or "Legacy" with "Living in Captivity." And don't get "DiResta" mixed up with de resta da shows, heh heh heh.


ABC's roster of big events this season is dominated by remakes. Oprah Winfrey has produced a new version of, of all things, that soppy old melodrama "David and Lisa," about two very special people meeting at a mental hospital. It airs Sunday, Nov. 1, at 9 p.m. Meanwhile, Christopher Reeve stars in a new version of the Alfred Hitchcock classic "Rear Window." Which we need like a hole in the rear head (Sunday, Nov. 22, 9 p.m.). Whoopi Goldberg will star in a new version of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"; Jane Seymour and hubby James Keach will head up "The New Swiss Family Robinson"; and a certain supple supermodel takes to the airwaves in the bluntly titled special "Sex With Cindy Crawford," Tuesday night at 10.

CBS will unveil a new miniseries based on a work by Alex "Roots" Haley: "Mama Flora's Family," another multigenerational saga. The network also plans a four-hour, nonmusical version of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" (already made into a theatrical film and a Broadway play); and four of the Baldwin brothers – Alec, Daniel, Stephen and William – star as "The Harris Brothers," who band together when the mean old railroad takes their land. How's that for a new plot?

NBC, last year's most profitable network (and the year before that, and the year – well, you get the idea), has the most dazzling slate of big-bang projects, including an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment"; Jon Voight in "Noah's Ark," which Voight in network promos is calling the biggest production in TV history; Kevin Costner in a western miniseries called "Not Between Brothers"; and "Stephen Crane's [no, not Stephen King's] The Monster," starring Danny Glover as a turn-of-the-century hero whom racists try to make a villain. It's based on a Crane short story.


Original movies premiering on HBO this season: "Walter Winchell," a biography of the widely feared and hated gossip columnist, with Stanley Tucci in the title role; "Lansky," with Richard Dreyfuss as Meyer Lansky, a gangster who inspired one of the memorable characters in "The Godfather"; and "Shot Through the Heart," a story of brotherly love set amid the strife and horror of modern Sarajevo.

The biggest one-person show on HBO's fall agenda is "Janet: The Velvet Rope," a mucho fabuloso (one would assume) Janet Jackson concert to be aired live from Madison Square Garden on Oct. 11. You go, girl!

Showtime's bill of fare includes two Holocaust dramas later this month. "Rescuers: Stories of Courage – Two Families," about Christian families who rescued Jews from the Nazis, was co-produced by Barbra Streisand. "The Island on Bird Street," set in Poland during Nazi occupation, concentrates on a young boy whose great-uncle dies in the act of saving the boy from a concentration camp.

In October, Showtime begins a series of movies featuring characters from the 1947 film noir classic "Naked City," with the first, "Justice With a Bullet," airing Sunday, Oct. 4, at 8 p.m. The late E.G. Marshall will be featured in one of his last projects, another movie based on Marshall's great TV series "The Defenders." This one, called "Taking the First," co-stars Beau Bridges and Martha Plimpton and premiered Sunday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m.

Comedy Central will try to class up its act with a series of specials based on the famous Friars Club celebrity roasts. Victim No. 1 is comic Drew Carey on Wednesday, Oct. 28. Turner Classic Movies (TCM), best of the old-movie channels, offers a salute to Universal horror films, just as American Movie Classics (AMC) did last year. But TCM's festival includes a new documentary, "Universal Horror," narrated by Kenneth Branagh, which premiered Friday, Oct. 9, at 8 p.m.


Mobil's "Masterpiece Theatre" returns for another season with such productions as "King Lear," starring Ian Holm (Sunday, Oct. 11), and the umpty-umpth version of Emily Bronte's nothing-if-not-venerable "Wuthering Heights," with Robert Cavanah as the Heathcliff who chases Orla Brady's Cathy all over the damp moors (Sunday, Oct. 18). Actually, NBC also has a version of the novel planned, with actor Gabriel Byrne producing but not starring.

"Africans in America" promises to be one of the major PBS efforts of the year, a four-part documentary (each part 90 minutes) that will attempt the most thorough investigation of slavery ever done on film. The miniseries airs Oct. 19-22 at 8 each night.

Presumably somewhat less fascinating and relevant will be the PBS production "Legendary Lighthouses," six hours about those noble beacons of the seashore. Wait, they're kidding, right? It's some kind of a joke, no? Alas, like much else about the season ahead, including the sitcom set in the Lincoln White House, it's all too true.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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