Stephen King's 'Golden Years' grows old quickly


IN SCENE One of "Golden Years" -- oops, make that "Stephen King's Golden Years" -- an actor obviously made up to look much older than he is comes to work as a janitor at some sort of agricultural research facility that has the security of a nuclear silo.

Though he is clearly a bright, alert fellow, there is much talk of his advanced age -- nearly 71. And, a few scenes down the line, he is even forced into retirement by a bad guy military boss citing a close failure on an eye exam, as if eagle eyesight is important for the clean-up crew.

Meanwhile, a mad scientist type is concocting some strange doings in the midst of a huge contraption in the research center. There's a red warning light on the panel, but he ignores it and tells the technicians to turn up the power so he can continue experimenting with his white rats.

That red light has all the subtlety of a TV-movie cough -- a character coughs in one scene, he's dead the next -- except that the inevitable explosion doesn't happen in the next scene. It takes about 20 minutes to get around to it. By that time the only way you'd be surprised is if it didn't explode.

When it does, our janitor is covered with the fallout. OK, after allthis talk about age: He's played by a younger guy made up to look old. He's been forced into retirement. Can we get a show of hands on how many think he's going to start getting younger because of this exposure?

It doesn't take a genius to figure out this central plot device. But by the time King's script confirms that this character will indeed get younger, the audience has aged by almost two hours, although it might seem like four.

"Golden Years," which kicks off its summer run tonight with a two-hour movie on Channel 11 (WBAL) at 9 p.m. and then starts its six-week run at 10 o'clock Thursdays later this week, is all dressed up like a thoroughbred but plods down its lane of cliches like a swayback work horse.

Maybe if you're lying on the beach or by the pool engrossed in some of King's well-spun sentences, then such snail-like plot pacing is acceptable. But on television, where writers regularly pack a couple of mid-life crises, a teen-age pregnancy, a substance abuse subplot and about 50 lousy jokes into a half-hour sitcom, it looks like Roseanne Barr trying to race Carl Lewis for 100 meters.

Tedious is the word that comes to mind several times during these initial two hours. There is much primping and posing, and clever camera angles and Orwellian sets, a lot of stuff to show what a great couple the janitor and his wife are, a number of odd characters and mysterious goings-on, many pregnant pauses and portentous moments, but very little actually happens. And 90 percent of what does happen you have been expecting for at least a half hour.

Also somewhat annoying: The central mystery of the story is that you don't know what the mystery is. As soon as the explosion happens, all sorts of self-important military and CIA types move in and take over in a manner reminiscent of the government scientists taking over in "E.T." (King's got bad timing; he's made the military bureaucracy his villain just a few months after it beat up on Iraq.)

Clearly something strange is going on at this agricultural research center, some reason that all those animals are dying on the electric fence that surrounds the place. But, though you seem to be in the presence of the people who know what's going on and who would presumably discuss it with one another, it's still kept a secret from the audience. It's an artificial and contrived way of keeping you guessing.

There's definite talent on display here. The janitor, Harlan Williams, is played by Keith Szarabajka, who used to be on "The Equalizer" and starred in American Playhouse's "Hyde in Hollywood" recently. The excellent Frances Sternhagen is his wife.

The striking Felicity Huffman plays the short-skirted, high-heeled head of security for the research facility. She works too hard being striking and not enough on her acting. Journeyman Ed Lauter is her boss.

And hey, the theme song is by David Bowie. That's a first. It's more successful than the series' other first, as this is King's initial foray into network series television. He came up with the story and wrote tonight's two hours and the next four episodes. Stick with novels, Stevie, baby. Let the Hollywood hacks handle television. Nobody does it better.

"Golden Years" ** In Stephen King's first weekly series, an aging janitor at a government agricultural laboratory accidentally discovers the fountain of youth when an explosion exposes him to mysterious elements and unleashes powerful forces in the government.

CAST: Keith Szarabajka, Frances Sternhagen

TIME: Tonight at 9 p.m., then Thursdays at 10 p.m.

.' CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)

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