Before Women Had Wings

Programming on Sunday nights has become, in Homer Simpson’s impeccable phrase, a highly sophistimacated doo-wacky. For quite a few of television’s earlier years, the conclusion of the weekend was dominated by that comforting cavalcade of puppets, plate spinners, and pop stars known as The Ed Sullivan Show. Steve Allen gave Ed some competition in the ’50s, but not much. No, over the years, Sunday shows like Lassie, Bonanza, The F.B.I., and still-not-wheezing 60 Minutes were able to win their time periods without encountering much in the way of a fight.

Recently, however, NBC and Fox have transformed Sunday from a day of rest into a night of wily, cutthroat counterprogramming. A couple of years ago, NBC took its Sunday TV-movie franchise and jazzed it up through relentless promotion into a series of ”events” that have included disaster-film knockoffs like Asteroid. Ratings are sweet, but most of the stuff stinks. In that vein, the network enters the sweeps-period fray on Nov. 2 with House of Frankenstein 1997 (9-11 p.m.), a two-part silly dilly of a horror film that concludes on Monday.

It stars Adrian Pasdar (Profit) as an L.A. cop hunting down a modern version of Frankenstein’s monster (played by Peter Crombie), plus a winged vampire and a slinky werewolf. For this sort of thing to work, H of F needed a sly script that would acknowledge our familiarity with monster-movie standbys; what writer J.B. White has provided instead wobbles as badly as the vampire’s rubbery pointed ears. The creatures aren’t scary, and H of F is notable mainly for Pasdar’s oddly unheroic hero — a rattled tough guy babbling lines like ”He took her in his … things … and he flew away with her!”

Over at Fox, the current lineup of The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and The X-Files (which makes its long-awaited season premiere Nov. 2) is Sunday night’s highest-quality slate by far, one that is being rewarded with ratings that increase competitive pressure everywhere on Sundays, and that crunch is most pressing during sweeps. NBC has tried to lure Fox’s young male viewers away with what’s turned out to be the dual disasters of Men Behaving Badly and Jenny, but ABC skews even younger in the early Sunday hours with The Wonderful World of Disney, whose pricey sweeps entry is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Nov. 2, 7-9 p.m.).

In the title role of this new version of the venerable musical, Moesha‘s Brandy Norwood is adorable, and Jason Alexander makes the most of his fussy-assistant-to-the-prince role. Whitney Houston, however — once upon a time slated to play the Cinderella role herself in this production — strikes a wrong note as a sassy, vaguely hostile Fairy Godmother. Paolo Montalban makes for a drearily bland prince, and the staging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs is, with the exception of a pearly ”The Sweetest Sounds,” clunky.

Chances are the kiddies will sleep through Cinderella, and that’s just as well, because the family drama that follows it, Before Women Had Wings (9-11 p.m.), produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey, is rough stuff lacking in insight. Winfrey is understatedly fine as a woman who comes to the aid of two young Southern girls suffering at the hands of a viciously abusive, alcoholic mother played by an excellent Ellen Barkin. The problem is the material. Connie May Fowler has adapted her own novel, but she’s trimmed its most interesting theme, that of the characters’ rich religious devotion. The result is a coarse melodrama that comes across as a watered-down variation on last season’s superior Bastard Out of Carolina.

The subtlest Sunday strategist right now may be CBS, which is sticking with its courting of an older audience with 60 Minutes, Touched by an Angel, and its evergreenly popular Murder, She Wrote, returning Nov. 2 as a two-hour TV movie, Murder, She Wrote: South by Southwest (9-11 p.m.). Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher searches for a killer and a missing woman (Something So Right‘s Mel Harris), all aboard an Amtrak train that should have gone on strike rather than allow this flimsy whodunit to chug and sputter along.

But quality of writing aside, Murder benefits enormously from Lansbury’s skillful charm. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if this movie won the Sunday ratings clash. That’s because I’m betting the X-Files season opener will siphon horror fans away from the odds-on favorite, House of Frankenstein. C’mon — no way you’re gonna miss finding out how Mulder managed to escape death this time, right? House of Frankenstein: C-; Cinderella: C; Before Women Had Wings: C+; Murder, She Wrote: C

Before Women Had Wings
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