As an epic western, 'Ned Blessing' hasn't got a prayer


There are scads of similarities between 1989's epic western miniseries "Lonesome Dove" and tonight's two-hour TV movie "Ned Blessing" (9 o'clock on CBS, Channel 11).

They both, to pick just one similarity at random, have horses in them. And they share an executive producer, Bill Whittliff.

Mr. Whittliff took a different approach with this western outing. Instead of bagging stars like "Lonesome Dove's" Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, this time he got Daniel Baldwin, who played the womanizing tavern regular "Cheesy" P. Chadwell in the 1990 CBS midseason replacement series "Sydney."

Mr. Baldwin plays Blessing, who, at the film's opening, is in jail waiting to be hanged for murder when he decides to pen his life story. And so back we flash to his days as a boy (played by Sean Baca), when he's taken from his father after the Civil War on the plains of Texas and raised for a few years by a band of evil Comancheros, led by a rotten character named Bruto ("If he tries to get away, cut his ears off," hisses Bruto. "And make him eat them.")

Ned's blessed childhood is spent learning the ins and outs of thievery -- he becomes known far and wide as el Nino Ladron de Tejas, the Boy Thief of Texas. He's a midget Van Damme. Worse, he's portrayed by a rotten actor, even for a kid. You root for him to hurry up and get old enough to let Cheesy take over as the adult Blessing.

The grown-up Mr. Ned, we find, has done an about-face. Now he's found his father and has become the sheriff of Plum Creek, one of those Gunsmoke towns a day's ride out of Austin. Plum Creek is squeaky clean thanks to its hotshot lawman.

But on the horizon, lurking outside of town, is a bad guy who makes Bruto look like a Muppet Baby. It's this fella who, with his gang of Huns on horses, rides in and kills pretty much the whole town while Ned is in Austin to watch his girlfriend Jilly Blue (Julia Campbell) perform in "Pirates of Penzance."

The blood bath is a bizarrely brutal climax to a film that sets up as a fairly lighthearted and fluffy yarn. Nor is anything resolved. "Ned Blessing" was filmed as a pilot, so everything remains as wide open as the Texas plains, which is a nice way to say the viewer is cheated out of any kind of an ending. Still, the fact that the thing ends at all is enough of a reward.

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