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Sweeps Stakes

From ‘Loch Ness’ to ‘In Cold Blood,’ the big three networks are fishing for great ratings with sensational TV movies as bait

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It’s probably a testament to how good so much regular weekly TV programming has become that this fall’s sweeps-period events seem so aimless and uneven — alternately ambitious and trashy. This week alone, you can watch In Cold Blood, a version of Truman Capote’s famous 1965 ”nonfiction novel”; Loch Ness, a modern-day fairy tale featuring Ted Danson; What Kind of Mother Are You?, a piece of unmitigated schlock; and Fall Into Darkness, a surprisingly well-crafted TV version of a young-adult horror novel.

It used to be you could throw any woman-in-jeopardy or disease- of-the-week TV movie on the air and millions of eyeballs would watch. But the networks are no longer sure what you’re interested in these days, or even who’s watching. They’re hoping the ratings for this week’s offerings will give them a clue.

Capote’s book about the 1959 Midwestern killing spree by two pathetic creeps, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, was innovative in its use of fictional techniques to tell a real-life story; director Richard Brooks’ 1967 movie, filmed in black and white and starring a pre-Baretta Robert Blake as Perry, was an arty crowd-pleaser. The TV version stars ER‘s Anthony Edwards as Dick and Eric Roberts as Perry, both of whom play engagingly against type: The usually nice Edwards captures Dick’s thoughtless meanness, while the usually gonzo Roberts underplays Perry, both to subtle effect.

The movie itself, though, is extremely slow and plodding. Blood spends a disproportionate amount of time detailing the small-town lives affected by the murders of the Clutter family, as well as with a wooden Sam Neill as a state investigator who takes forever to bring these degenerates to justice.

Equally slow but more satisfying is Loch Ness, starring Ink‘s Ted Danson as an American zoologist sent to Scotland to debunk the existence of the Loch Ness monster. That Danson had an unexpected ratings success last season with the miniseries Gulliver’s Travels was prime evidence that the old sweeps formulas might be exhausted. Danson’s brash skeptic becomes a believer when he befriends a pretty Scottish woman (Joely Richardson) and her adorable daughter (Kristy Graham), who takes him to the place where the monster lives. Sentimental and predictable, Loch Ness is nonetheless a charmer, as is Nessie, designed by the Jim Henson folks.

Not charming at all is What Kind of Mother Are You?, in which Something So Right‘s Mel Harris plays harried mom to a sullen brat (Nicholle Tom, of The Nanny). To teach her teenage daughter not to stay out late with bad boys, Harris tells the police to throw the kid into juvenile hall for a night, which sets off a legal-system chain reaction that results in Mom trying to get Daughter sprung from a lengthy sentence. Tom is terrific, but Harris and the rest of the movie are pitched at an impossibly hysterical level.