Big-Ticket TV; From Daddy Warbucks to Regis 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' Philbin, the networks are sparing no expense for November sweeps.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Leprechauns, orphans and a couple of rock 'n' rollers from the heartland are the stars of network television this weekend in an orgy of big-budget programming.

If you throw in Regis Philbin and the return tomorrow night of ABC's hit game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", the overriding theme of the shows and, indeed, the weekend itself is money.

NBC and CBS are spending big money on "The Magic Legend of the Leprechauns" and "Shake, Rattle & Roll" miniseries, respectively, while ABC does its Disney-lavish best with "Annie," because this is the first weekend of the first sweeps ratings period of the new television season. Because the size of the audiences for these shows will be used to determine future advertising rates, the big money spent today can result in even bigger money made tomorrow for the networks.

It is easy to deride sweeps programming for its excess, but get underneath the glitz and gloss just a little, and you will often find narratives, archetypes and patterns that speak to us in powerful ways.

As Whoopi Goldberg, who plays the Grand Banshee in "Leprechauns," put it in talking about her miniseries, "The folk tales this story is based on have been around a long time. And there's a reason they've been around a long time: People try to absorb these tales so they'll have them in their mind and can turn to them in tough times. The truth is, they make us feel better."

Rock and roll romance

"Shake, Rattle & Roll" is CBS trying to capture the ratings and soundtrack magic of NBC's "The Temptations" last November.

That saga of the Motown singing group not only became one of the highest-rated films of the television season, it sold more than 250,000 CDs -- second only to the 400,000 soundtrack CDs that NBC's other big musical miniseries, "The 60's," sold later in the TV season.

CBS put "Shake, Rattle & Roll" into production exactly a year ago, when it saw the numbers on "The Temptations." Then, as the ratings and CD sales for the "60's" started to register in the spring, CBS scheduled "Shake, Rattle & Roll" as its big event for the fall.

The four-hour film starts in 1955 and tells the story of a fictional band that grows out of the love affair between a Missouri farm boy with a guitar (Brad Hawkins) and a girl singer (Bonnie Somerville) whose father is stationed on a nearby Air Force base. The two come together through their mutual love for the sounds of early rock and roll. Their journey takes them from the rural heartland to the urban Promised Land of New York City, where the story explores in its own soap-opera way such big American themes as innocence lost and "money-can't-buy-me-love."

Like Forrest Gump, they meet several of the leading figures and participate in some of the most widely remembered moments of the era. One of the best musical moments is a stop at a blues club where B.B. King is in a late-night jam session playing a song called "Fur Slippers." The little-known song was written by Bob Dylan.

Other strong musical stops along the way include a concert with Dicky Barrett (of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones) as Bill Haley doing the title tune, and Terence Trent D'Arby as Jackie Wilson.

The leads, Hawkins as hip-shaking Tyler Hart and Somerville as the sweet and super-talented Lynn Danner, seem to have been cast more for looks than anything else. He's got a vague Elvis sideburn sense about him, while she's blond-on-blond enough to suggest Grace Kelly, except this young lady likes Fender Stratocaster guitars.

At its worst, "Shake, Rattle & Roll" looks and feels as frothy as "Grease," with its emphasis on a saddle-shoe and poodle-skirt wardrobe. But that's mainly in the early going. Once it settles into the odyssey of Tyler, Lynn and their band, the HartAches, it starts mining a richer cultural ore.

For all its let's-just-feel-the-music sensibility, the film has a lot to say about race. It oversimplifies the case in some regards, suggesting at a Little Richard concert (played by Billy Porter of "Smokey Joe's Cafe") that once the music started, racial differences magically disappeared. And it pulls punches by raising the issue but not showing how ugly and devastating racism can be to its victims. Still, it does explore the matter with some sensitivity through the relationship between Lynn and her best friend, Marsha Stokes (Samaria Graham), a fellow Air Force brat who is African-American.

"Shake, Rattle & Roll" also is quite surprising in terms of what it tries to say about gender and the role of women in the music industry in the 1950s and '60s. Dana Delaney, as Hart's New York manager, turns in a nicely nuanced performance that offers viewers a take on femininity at distinct odds with the one provided by Lynn.

In the end, "Shake, Rattle & Roll" is more soap opera than Great American saga. But, if nothing else, "The Temptations" proved a little bit of sociology and a lot of CD sales can make for a winning prime-time recipe.

Eire's 'little people'

Just as "Shake, Rattle & Roll" is an attempt to imitate last year's triumph of "The Temptations," so is NBC's "The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns" an effort by Robert Halmi Sr. to repeat the success of his "Gulliver's Travels," "The Odyssey" and "Merlin."

Yes, this is the same Halmi who last year led me to plead with network executives, "Stop Halmi before he ruins another legend, myth or literary classic." My specific complaint last May dealt with what he did to the Bible in "Noah's Ark."

But, of course, "Noah's Ark" was a ratings blockbuster, and Halmi is back, this time making Irish myth and folklore into prime-time cotton candy with "Leprechauns" tomorrow night.

I hate what Halmi does to literature, and, if you are Irish, you might not like what Halmi does with your cultural heritage. But, in terms of television as big-event entertainment, the miniseries is probably just the ticket for families with children that want to watch something together.

The story line is straight from Disney, with Randy Quaid playing Jack Woods, a tightly wrapped, hard-charging American business executive who goes to Ireland under the guise of taking a vacation in the country. But he's really there to size up a gorgeous chunk of wooded real estate so that his U.S. firm can develop it.

Ah, but there are leprechauns living in the little cottage in which he is staying, and before you can say, "Hey, where's your pot o' gold, little guy?" Woods is up to neck in leprechaun troubles. He's also up to his heart in love with a beautiful young woman (Orla Brady) whom he comes upon while she's bathing at a waterfall. (Don't worry, it's handled Disney-style.)

The leprechaun troubles involve nothing less than a war between the leprechauns and fairies, in part the result of a Romeo-and-Juliet love affair between a leprechaun and the daughter of the king of fairies. The king is played by Roger Daltrey.

If Daltrey, Goldberg, Quaid and Brady are not enough for you, Halmi's also got the Irish Folk Ballet Company, and the troupe is river dancing all over the place.

The story almost gets lost in all the special effects, but, in the end, don't you just know Woods is going to find that the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is filled with love and not money.

'Annie,' by way of Disney

If you liked "The Wonderful World of Disney" presentation of "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella," you won't want to miss Disney's movie version of "Annie" tomorrow night on ABC. It is from the same producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and they bring the same passion and big-budget production-number sensibility with them.

From the second number, a bucket-pounding version of "Hard Knock Life" done the way Stomp might perform it onstage, this production absolutely shimmers.

What a cast: Kathy Bates as the nasty Miss Hannigan, Victor Garber as Oliver Warbucks, Audra McDonald as Grace Farrell, Alan Cumming as Rooster Hannigan and Alicia Morton as Annie, with a special appearance by the original Annie, Andrea McArdle, thrown in to delight.

The choreography on numbers like "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" is stunning and unlike anything you've seen elsewhere on TV. It is the work of Rob Marshall, who received two Tony nominations as co-director and choreographer for Broadway's "Cabaret."

I loved the multicultural sensitivity with which Zadan and Meron took on "Cinderalla." They show that again in their casting of the orphans and the relationship between Warbucks and Farrell.

A little girl, a shaggy dog, some big hearts and bigger production numbers. It's great family entertainment. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow night at 7 on ABC. It's only a day away.

Mulder, Scully return

The truth might be out there, but it doesn't appear Mulder (David Duchovny) is ever going to get anywhere near it as the seventh and probably last season of "The X-Files" opens tomorrow night on Fox.

This is Fox's big sweeps event, the return of "The X-Files," picking up where last May's season-ending cliffhanger left us with Mulder in a padded cell at an asylum in Washington and Scully (Gillian Anderson) in West Africa trying to find out what fried Mulder's brain. As Mulder's diseased mind races toward what his doctor describes as a kind of cosmic implosion, Scully scours the crash site of an alien space craft for clues to save him.

She's under siege by a mysterious apparition known in Africa as the Vanishing Man and swarms of insects of biblical proportions. He's being injected with concoctions of biblical proportions by Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), which might be aimed at saving or killing him.

And what is Agent Diana Fowler (Mimi Rogers) doing back on the scene, telling Mulder, "I love you. Now we can be together."

Every summer, I forget how delicious and weird the paranoia is in this series. But, two minutes into the fall premiere, and I am back under its spell. It is a spell that Chris Carter creates. The whole series is like a long, strange dream that defies logic, speaking in the language of archetype and dream.

This weekend's TV:

What: "Shake, Rattle & Roll"

When: Tomorrow and Wednesday night, 9 to 11

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In a nutshell: The miniseries as CD marketing campaign.

What: "Annie"

When: Tomorrow night, 7 to 9

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In a nutshell: Some of Broadway's best packaged for great family entertainment.

What: "The X-Files"

When: Tomorrow night 10 to 11

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In a nutshell: A nightmare I never want to wake up from.

What: "The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns"

When: 9 to 11 tomorrow night, 8 to 10 Monday night

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In a nutshell: Robert Halmi Sr. makes Irish folklore into primetime cotton candy

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