Cable television often is like the storybook character "Madeline": When it is good, it's very, very good; but when it is bad, it's horrid. That's pretty much the case this weekend with a pair of premium service premieres.
The good entry is "Kurt Vonnegut's Monkey House" on Showtime tomorrow night, bringing three short stories by the imaginative writer (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.) to TV for the first time. The horrid (and sordid) one is "Fever," a new HBO Pictures film premiering tonight.
Taking the good first, "Monkey House" (at 9 p.m. tomorrow, with repeats May 15, 20 and 28) is a delightful new example of cable's recent capture of the anthology approach to storytelling.
Broadcast TV's version of the short story, of course, did not click with viewers in recent high-profile ways, with the demise of "Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories" and new editions of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "The Twilight Zone."
But it seems to work nicely on cable, with such other entries as the "Showtime 30-Minute Movie" series, USA's "Ray Bradbury Theater" and even HBO's trilogy specials last year, "Prison Stories: Women on the Inside" and "Women and Men: Stories of Seduction."
In "Monkey House," we see some of the sharpest writing since Rod Serling was knocking out his own scripts for the original "Twilight Zone."
And the somewhat reclusive Vonnegut, in an interview in this month's Cable Guide magazine, reveals that while he feels considerable ambivalence toward TV, "I'd rather have written 'Cheers' than anything I've written."
The three stories here, each a parable, are "Next Door," "The Euphio Question" and "All the King's Horses."
In the first, the story line is somewhat like the movie hit "Home Alone," as Kaj-Erik Erikson plays a 9-year-old left home when the baby sitter cancels on his parents' 10th anniversary.
"What if something happened?" his mother worries.
"What could happen?" responds the boy innocently.
What does happen is a surprise with a neat, O'Henry-like ending. Instead of fending off attackers (as in "Home Alone"), the boy eavesdrops on the couple fighting in the next apartment, witnesses more than he expects, and tries to intervene to make things right.
In "The Euphio Question," TV itself seems the satirical target, as an astronomy professor scanning the skies with a radiotelescope taps into a cosmic signal that gives all who hear it a major high.
It's called "euphoric radio," and one character argues in a hearing on whether to commercialize the process, "if you allow euphio into our homes society will fall apart. People will no longer pursue happiness, they will turn it on."
We've heard that before, haven't we? But the lengthy scene in which the signal is first broadcast into a home is a slow-motion scream.
Finally, "All the King's Horses" demonstrates the power of humans to put their own concerns aside for the benefit of the larger group. A Latin American rebel (Miguel Fernandez) captures a group of 16 Americans, including a high-ranking ambassador (Len Cariou).
And when his ransom demands fail, the rebel subjects them to a living game of chess, making each captive play a game piece on a patio chessboard. If the ambassador wins, the hostages will be set free. If he loses, all will die. The twist is that when a piece is captured, the person portraying the piece is taken out and shot.
The ambassador discovers he can win, but only by sacrificing a key piece: his son.
In all three stories, Vonnegut's satirical voice comes through nicely and the production quality is high.
As for "Fever," premiering on HBO at 9 tonight (with repeats May 14, 20, 24 and 30), the movie is an unpalatable, violent and mostly muddled affair seemingly done in the over-orange color balance of a bad dream.
While cable can offer a bright new source of display for filmmakers, and often does, this proves the cynical mix of sex and violence that sometimes sells at the cinema has a new TTC outlet, too.
For the record, Armand Assante stars as a paroled ex-con seeking to re-establish a relationship with his ex-girlfriend (Marcia Gay Harden). The former druggie, however, has taken up with a straight-minded lawyer (Sam Neill).
There could have been some interest in this story, but that would be too tame. So what happens here is that an extremely nasty inmate with a grudge (played by Joe Spano, who was the idealistic lieutenant on "Hill Street Blues") sends his minions to kidnap the girl. And Assante and Neill must join forces to find her.
To name just a few particularly offensive things about "Fever," the "F" word gets a numbing workout from everybody involved, the so-called good guy (Neill) indulges in what most viewers would call a rape of his girlfriend, a nasty thug with a knife does suggestive things with the blade to the girl and the longest "relationship" scene in the film -- it's triple the length of any of the several sex scenes -- is the fight between the two male stars.
Nudity? Sure. Graphic violence? Plenty. Blood? Buckets.
But sense? Indeed, any point at all? Forget it.