Starting this weekend, television viewers are going to have more choices, for a few major reasons:
Several programs were pulled from the fall schedule after Sept. 11, but not for issues of propriety or taste. Network programmers were uncertain of the audience's psychological state, and didn't want to debut costly series and made-for-TV movies when viewer interest was elsewhere. That created one backlog of programs.
The Olympics aired during a "sweeps" ratings period, making for a second, smaller backlog. Networks and cable channels held back some programs so they wouldn't get crushed by the games on NBC.
The logjam starts to break tomorrow night, when CBS offers one of its strongest made-for-TV movies in years; HBO launches the second season of Alan Ball's acclaimed Six Feet Under; and Showtime premieres a new series starring Luke Perry and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
The one you don't want to miss is CBS' Crossed Over, starring Academy Award-winner Diane Keaton and Jennifer Jason Leigh at 9 p.m. tomorrow on WJZ (Channel 13). It's the story of a Texas writer and her friendship with death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, the pick-ax murderer who found God in her final days.
Having actors as talented as Keaton and Leigh in a made-for-TV movie doesn't always make for great viewing. Often, big-screen stars walk through the TV role, picking up a check without leaving anything of themselves behind.
But that's not the case here. Both Keaton and Leigh are playing near the top of their game, and when they are onscreen together, they light it up. This is a film that is all about the acting.
Keaton plays Beverly Lowry, an upper-middle-class writer living in a Houston suburb whose teen-age son is killed by a hit-and-run driver. (The film is based on Lowry's book of the same title.)
Understandably, Lowry goes a little over the edge after the loss of her only child and becomes obsessed with death, clipping articles on the subject from the newspaper, and pasting them in a scrapbook. One article she clips is about Tucker. For reasons even she doesn't understand, she writes to Tucker on death row, and Tucker agrees to see her.
This is when the film becomes more like a two-woman play, and catches dramatic fire. The scenes between Lowry and Tucker in the visiting area of the ancient prison are flat-out wonderful. And the two can't even touch; they are separated by wire mesh and glass. Yet, the two actors connect and connect and connect.
And I'm not talking about big, dramatic scenes. One of the film's finest moments has Tucker and Lowry sitting in chairs on respective sides of the prison divider, chatting casually and laughing about something they saw on Oprah.
While they both are great, Leigh's performance is the most electric. The murder and some of Tucker's drug-taking adventures are played out in flashback, and Leigh takes us inside another Tucker, the "bad girl," to use Karla Faye's term.
I sat down thinking I could care less about this story, and got up from the film as profoundly moved as I have ever been by seeing a death on television. Regardless of what you think about capital punishment, Keaton and Leigh make you care about this death.
'Six Feet Under'
Of course, no one does death like Six Feet Under, which returns at 9 p.m. tomorrow for its second season on HBO. It should give us all hope for the medium that this series not only won a regular weekly spot on the cable channel, but found a large enough audience to get renewed.
Ball took a network taboo - the frank discussion of death - and showed how an honest, sustained awareness of it could heighten life. In that sense, Six Feet Under is more about life than death.
The dysfunctional family of funeral directors running the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in Los Angeles pick up right where they left off when last we saw them - and then Ball gives the coil of mortality a turn.
Nate (Peter Krause) finds out he has an AVM (arteriovenus malformation), a problem with the arteries and veins in the brain. Like an aneurysm, AVM can lead to cerebral hemorrhage and sudden death.
There is a scene tonight between Nate and a distracted neurologist that articulates patient anger and outrage at the medical system like nothing I have ever seen on television.
Meanwhile, David (Michael C. Hall) is answering personal ads in alternative newspapers trying to find a new partner, while mom (Frances Conroy) is reading books on how to be a better parent to a gay son. Of course, the book is full of misinformation.
I forgot how much this show made me smile at the darkness.
It's a dark, dark, dark world in Showtime's new sci-fi series, Jeremiah, airing at 8 p.m. tomorrow. But there's neither the humor nor the wisdom of Six Feet Under.
Jeremiah is a post-apocalyptic, Dark Angel wannabe, with Luke Perry playing the male version of Jessica Alba's character, Max. Jeremiah (Perry) is a hero on the hero quest, a pilgrim doing battle on a journey toward rebirth.
The premise: everyone older than puberty was killed by a virus. American life as we knew at the start of the New Millennium has been destroyed. The adolescents now coming of age as young adults in the year 2021 must build a new civilization out of the ruins.
In the pilot, Jeremiah meets Kurdy (Warner), part loner and part flim-flam man, and the two set off to find the Valhalla Sector.
But first, they have to deal with Theo (Kim Hawthorne), a female gang leader who seems to thrive in chaos and decadence. Theo has established a social order based on high school, and she's the prom queen.
The mythic elements are a little too comic book for my tastes. But Showtime clearly is targeting a younger audience, and Perry has a certain angst-ridden appeal.