By Ken Tucker
Updated March 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST


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The made-for-television movie is in peril right now. This, despite the fact that HBO has produced a couple of corkers, such as its recent, extraordinarily directed civil rights saga Boycott and, premiering this week, Wit, starring Emma Thompson as an English professor dying of cancer.

But the broadcast networks are at a loss as to how to deploy this genre. The era of the multi-part miniseries seems, for the moment, to be a dying relic. The two-hour TV movie is endangered both by repetition (too many diseases-of-the-week weepies) and competition: Cable outlets such as TBS and Lifetime Television crank out everything from Westerns to up-with-women melodramas, some with fair ratings, few of great quality.

For a while, NBC could rely upon producer Robert Halmi Sr.’s largely European-made extravaganzas (such as the highly entertaining Merlin) to attract big crowds, but recent Halmis, such as the flabby epic The 10th Kingdom, were the sort of thing you wish Mystery Science Theater 3000 was still around to make fun of. The guys doing the canniest TV-movie work for the networks are the producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who’ve tapped into one area that’s a novelty for TV viewers: the musical. Zadan and Meron’s productions of everything from Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows to previous seasons’ Cinderella and Annie, all highly rated, are well cast and briskly paced, sprinkled with music numbers for a generation that doesn’t regularly set foot in a Broadway, or even a neighborhood, theater.

Still, the most interesting TV movies have been ceded to premium cable channels who deploy their no-commercials content freedom for grown-up fare. Certainly Wit, based on Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, wouldn’t be touched by CBS, NBC, or ABC: How could they wedge flashy promotions for the agonizing death of a professor of metaphysical poetry between spots for Becker or Ed? Wit is the anti-Survivor.

Or at least it is on its surface. British literary scholar Vivian Bearing (Thompson), who specializes in the 17th-century sonnets of John Donne, is diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. Her physicians are Dr. Kelekian, a self-important researcher played with a perfect mixture of self-absorption and false concern by Taxi’s Christopher Lloyd, as well as a younger but equally chilly doctor, Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward), who by coincidence took Bearing’s Donne class in college. These medicine men invariably greet Bearing with, ”How are you feeling today?” and yet never wait for an answer — bedside courtesy that provides Bearing with grim amusement.

Edson’s play, adapted for the screen by Thompson and this movie’s director, Mike Nichols, hinges upon the extent to which Bearing acknowledges the ironic similarities between the unfeeling clinicians and her own cold, imperious style as a teacher. She admires their professional rigor when confronting the mysteries of cancer because she treasures the same clinical precision Donne brought to the mysteries of the soul. Bearing looks straight at the camera (but Nichols never allows the ploy to be hokey) and makes constant, rueful comparisons as she — once a teacher who commanded students’ attention — is now studied as an ailing artifact by the young doctors under Dr. Kelekian’s tutelage: ”Once I did the teaching,” she says. ”Now I am taught.”

I saw the original Off Broadway production of Wit, which starred Kathleen Chalfant in a heroically unsympathetic performance that Thompson has softened. Don’t get me wrong — Thompson is excellent — but in reshaping Edson’s play, she and Nichols emphasize the element that bothers me about Wit. It’s the play’s central deviousness: While filled with admiration for Donne’s poetry, Wit ultimately says that well-reasoned, ferociously disciplined scholarship is inferior to what one character calls ”the meaning-of-life garbage” — that is to say, that Professor Bearing’s life would have been less lonely, more full, if she had loved her students as much as her subject. To which I say: Oh, phooey. The character of Bearing’s nurse is played here by Audra McDonald with transcendent skill, which proves necessary, since the part is terribly underwritten. (Bearing never asks Nurse Susie one thing about her own life.)

The legendary playwright Harold Pinter, in a tiny role as Bearing’s gruff father, shows once again what a subtle actor he is. Thompson, her head shaved, recites Donne with admirable clarity and, yes, wit. If Wit ultimately panders to its audience — telling us, in effect, it’s okay if you don’t understand 17th-century rhetoric, you’re still a good person — it’s undeniably better than a year’s worth of Hallmark Hall of Fame flicks.

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