Smits and Helgenberger nail down fine performances in ABC's 'Tommyknockers'


When it comes to film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's works, the best thing to expect is not too much. However, this weekend's ABC miniseries, "Stephen King's The Tommyknockers," defies those low expectations by being passably entertaining from start to finish.

Well, almost to the finish.

As with "Stephen King's IT," another ABC miniseries that gathered an interesting cast and began with an interesting presence, "Tommyknockers" (Sunday and Monday, 9 p.m. on WJZ, Channel 13) builds to a climax that's more of an anticlimax.

But I don't mean to be a total "Tommyknockers" knocker. Some interesting performances, and a few of Mr. King's wonderfully weird touches, make it worth the time. And, so far as I'm concerned, any TV movie these days that isn't based on fact, and ripped opportunistically from the headlines, gets extra points.

Adapted by Lawrence J. Cohen, who did the same for "IT," and directed by John Power, this four-hour "Tommyknockers" story is about an alcoholic writer named Jim Gardener -- a down-on-his-luck guy.

Jimmy Smits plays Gardener, and Marg Helgenberger of "China Beach," who provides the program's best acting, plays another writer: Bobbi, Gardener's romantic and creative soul mate. They live in a small town that seems as idyllic as their relationship. Until, that is, she begins to excavate an object in the woods, which emits a green glow and makes everyone act strangely.

This is hardly a unique or classy premise. But Mr. King, who's almost always more adept at setting up intriguing situations than resolving them, turns "Tommyknockers" into a cross between "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Days of Wine and Roses" and a Rube Goldberg cartoon.

The "Body Snatchers" parallel comes in because everyone in town, save for Gardener, falls under the spell of, or is victimized by, the glowing green "thing." The "Wine and Roses" aspect comes in because it's dramatized as an addiction, making everyone a little obsessed and odd. And as for Rube Goldberg -- well, one of the side effects of this particular big bright green pleasure machine is to turn people into instant inventors.

Bobbi, for example, invents a typewriter that turns her dreams into finished novels as she sleeps. A postal worker, played by no-longer-infamous, not-yet-famous Traci Lords, invents a lipstick that emits a death ray. Allyce Beasley ("Moonlighting"), as an abused housewife, turns her TV set into an accomplice to murder. And so on. The trade-off is that these possessed tinkerers get in bad shape, and begin to fall apart, as the story progresses. Then again, so does the story itself.

Mr. Smits and Ms. Helgenberger take this story a lot more seriously, or at least do a better job, than most of the other players, except for Joanna Cassidy as a policewoman. Others in the cast include John Ashton, E.G. Marshall and Robert Carradine -- all of whom, by the end, are undone by this sanitized and ultimately silly rendition of Mr. King's novel.

"Stephen King's The Tommyknockers" is fun for a while. Like "IT" and "The Shining," a better-filmed conclusion would have helped tremendously. It isn't up there with the best of the King adaptations -- "Stand by Me," "Carrie," "Misery" and "Salem's Lot" -- but it's not down there with the worst, either.

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