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A&E's 'Hornblower': what TV should be

Two more spectacular installments in the seagoing adventure are a fine model for the broadcast networks, whose made-for-TV projects aren't what they used to be.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


Just one question remains after sitting through two of A&E's impressive new Horatio Hornblower made-for-TV epics:

Why doesn't network TV do stuff like this anymore?

Viewers whose TV movie experience extends only to Valerie Bertinelli flicks on CBS and NBC's latest Robert Halmi disaster will be entranced by A&E's new Hornblower films, The Mutiny at 8 tonight and Retribution at 8 p.m. April 15. Lavishly produced, tightly scripted and well-acted, these films offer a detailed re-creation of early 1800s seafaring and the exploits of British Royal Navy man Horatio Hornblower.

Based on the Napoleonic War sea tales by renowned English writer C.S. Forester, 1999's four-hour Hornblower miniseries drew a flood of critical praise and awards (including an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries), along with one of the biggest audiences A&E ever had.

This time around, Hornblower faces the trial of his life, accused of mutiny with three other officers during a mission to destroy a Spanish-held fort in the West Indies.

Okay, stop right here. I know what you're thinking: Highfalutin' movie drama about British Navy guys? Sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry on Masterpiece Theater.

Normally, I'd agree. But these new installments offer both swashbuckling action and well-honed character studies.

David Warner, the hard-edged butler-bodyguard in Titanic, shines as Captain James Sawyer, a national hero whose erratic demands and self-destructive urges force Hornblower and the ship's other officers to remove him from command.

When Sawyer plunges through an opening in the ship's deck, armed with two muskets to defend against the mutiny, did he trip or was he pushed?

Not even the viewer knows for sure. But the question proves pivotal, as Hornblower and the other officers attempt to justify their actions at sea.

Though there's a fair amount of musket shooting, battle scenes and explosions, the true triumph here is in the depiction of life aboard the navy vessel.

Red-coated soldiers guard the ship, not just from outside attackers but also from the ship's own crew -- common men who could cause trouble after too much rum or time at sea. Officers stand like the born nobility many are.

At the top is a captain whose power is absolute, though his abilities fall far short. But as Sawyer deteriorates, the film tussles with an essential question of British society: What can be done when those chosen for leadership by circumstance, station in society and achievement fail in their duties?

The answer comes in a sprawling four-hour production that faithfully re-creates the drama of sailing aboard a wooden military ship holding more than 700 people, with a slave mutiny, fort attack and prisoner rebellion thrown in for good measure.

It's the kind of take-your-breath-away TV spectacle that the networks used to offer regularly, from the revolutionary spirit of Roots to the romantic drama of Shogun.

But financial concerns, a thirst for big ratings and inability to challenge advertisers have led network TV to water down its made-for-the-small-screen products enough that most of them are barely watchable anymore.

Perhaps Hornblower's exploits -- and the audience they draw -- will serve as pointed inspiration for change.

* * *

It's no news flash that the network of WWF Smackdown! and Shasta McNasty has fielded yet another mediocre series.

But Special Unit 2, debuting at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WTOG-Ch. 44, is a different kind of awful. Focused on a special unit of the Chicago police that covertly chases supernatural threats out of a dry cleaning business, this series wears its influences on a very visible sleeve.

Of course, the "undercover cops chase unreal perps" concept was done first and better by Barry Sonenfeld's Men in Black. Special Unit 2 comes with a supernatural twist that brings comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the big joke in this week's debut: all that supernatural stuff is real -- except vampires! Get it?).

We meet Special Unit 2 thanks to a talented cop who stumbles onto a gargoyle while working her regular beat (if you've seen MIB, this is familiar territory). She eventually joins the unit to help foil a calamity that threatens all of humanity (substitute hatching gargoyles for an alien warship, and again you're in MIB-land).

But the rip-offs go further. In an episode airing next week, you can name the influences moment by moment: Two werewolves spar in a fight sequence taken straight from The Matrix's dojo scene; werewolves jump from a skyscraper in another Matrix echo; footage taken from the wolf's perspective brings memories of Jack Nicholson's Wolf.

And it wouldn't be UPN if there weren't a demeaning part for a little person; here, it's Carl, a decadent gnome with a taste for convenience store heists and snitching on his fellow supernaturals.

It adds up to yet another lame-o action series that offers little besides faint echoes of much better projects. You'd be better off watching another Ed rerun.

* * *

Before the onslaught of May sweeps programming strikes, here are my candidates for Best Series You're Still Not Watching. Rather than go along with that well-intentioned, but misguided TV Turnoff Week (beginning April 23), why not turn on some good TV that deserves your attention?

Third Watch, 10 p.m. Mondays, WFLA-Ch. 8 -- It started as a bland drama about cops, paramedics and firefighters who work the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. But Third Watch has improved this season with unique characters and innovative storytelling techniques.

In particular, a two-parter that showed Officer Faith Yokas struggling with an unwanted pregnancy, a layabout husband and a hair-trigger partner evolved into a look at how she has sabotaged relationships with the men in her life.

And the recent death of paramedic Bobby Caffey (Bobby Canvale) unfolded in an impressive two-part arc that featured comatose Caffey imagining a reconciliation with the father who deserted his family.

Farscape, 9 p.m. Fridays, Sci-Fi Channel -- The best science fiction series now on TV -- and yes, that includes Star Trek: Voyager. Farscape centers on American astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder), who finds himself at the center of an interstellar conflict after an accident transports him to a faraway galaxy.

Filled with colorful aliens created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, this series combines a serious special effects budget with innovative storytelling and an international cast that adds texture.

Gilmore Girls, 8 p.m. Thursdays, WTTA-Ch. 38 -- I've already raved about this quirky drama centered on thirtysomething mother Lorelai Gilmore (Townies' Lauren Graham) and her more mature daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel), in the oddball town of Stars Hollow.

Still, it airs against two of the most popular shows on television, NBC's Friends and CBS' Survivor, so it never hurts to put a plug in for a show that dares to skewer both Donna Reed and the Bangles (unfortunately, not in the same show).

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