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Court Jesters

American Tragedy borrows a title from Dreiser, but Norman Mailer's take on O.J.'s trial owes more to Barnum -- it's the circus of the century.

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There is an O. J. Simpson to be glimpsed in American Tragedy, the CBS mini-series devoted to the lawyers who represented him in his trial for murder. He is played by Raymond Forchion. But while we hear Forchion's O.J. talk a lot, almost always on the speakerphone, we never see him except in silhouette or from behind. Whereas on Court TV the camera couldn't help itself, panning in twitchy reflex to the stone-cold defendant. Instead of demonizing, eroticizing, and merchandising the black body, that contested site of American meanings, the mini-series has dematerialized it to an inference, like the "idoru" in one of William Gibson's cyberpunk novels -- a data-glow, a media aura, a bit-map of virtual desire -- or maybe the Holy Ghost.

And there is a Norman Mailer to be tracked in American Tragedy. After books on Picasso and Jesus, why not a screenplay about O.J.? He is teaming up again with his old buddy Lawrence Schiller, who not only produced and directed the mini-series but also wrote the best-seller on which it's based. As in their previous collaboration, on the TV version of The Executioner's Song (1982), Mailer is ghostly, too. He effaces his inner aggrandizing Norman. Talking to millions of people instead of himself brings out the best in him: a fine ear; a narrative rigor. The trouble is that, without O.J., Norman, or a Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore, American Tragedy is lacking in both stars and gravity. It has to limp along with lawyers.

Well, then, the Dream Team. They include Ron Silver as Robert Shapiro, Ving Rhames as Johnnie Cochran, Christopher Plummer as F. Lee Bailey, Richard Cox as Alan Dershowitz, and, to deal with the damning DNA evidence, Bruno Kirby as Barry Scheck. Not to mention such inept prosecutors as Marcia Clark (Diana LaMar) and Christopher Darden (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). Nor to think about Clyde Kusatsu as Judge Lance Ito, who is portrayed as an idiot. On the other hand, idiocy looks almost honorable next to the balloon behavior of these hot-air egos. Even the best performances -- and Silver, Rhames, and Plummer strut and fret to beat a reggae band -- remind us that the trial itself was more about performance than it was about Nicole and Ron. The Ford Bronco, the famous shoes, the bloody glove, the 911 tape, the polygraph, even the despicable Mark Fuhrman, were all props in this race-card monte.

Which leaves us after four hours suspecting that maybe O.J., on whom we piled so much symbolic bull, was empty himself of any personal meaning -- a Ping-Pong ball of "racialized" discourse. It also leaves us in contempt of court.

Before you sit down to enjoy what the special-effects whiz kids have done to Genesis and Exodus for the "sweeps" purposes of In The Beginning . . . , you might consult a forthcoming Free Press book, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. Finkelstein chairs the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and directs the Megiddo excavations. Silberman is a scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the author of a fine biography, A Prophet From Amongst You: The Life of Yigael Yadin, which argued that for most of this century, archaeology in Israel has been one big Zionist dig -- an identity-politics daydream of warlords, battering rams, Joshua, and Bar Kokhba the bandit prince. According to The Bible Unearthed, not only did Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never exist, but the Exodus never happened. They just wrote a good story in the seventh century b.c.e., which may be why the required course for undergradutes at Georgetown is called "BibLit."

Still, Martin Landau will insist on Abraham, Jacqueline Bisset on Sarah, Luke Mably and Sean Pertwee on Isaac, Rachel Stirling and Diana Rigg on Rebeccah, Frederick Weller on Jacob, Andrew Grainger on Esau, Sophie Linfield on Rachel, Eddie Cibrian on Joseph, Steven Berkoff on Potiphar, Amanda Donohoe on Zuleika, Christopher Lee on Ramses I, Richard Rees on Seti I, Billy Campbell on Moses, David Threlfall on Aaron, Geraldine Chaplin on Yocheved, Jonathan Firth on Joshua, and Art Malik on the Pharaoh whose army chased the Red Sea mermaids. I particularly like Eve and her serpent, but the golden calf is a wowser, too, and a snazzier creation myth is unlikely to be seen outside the Sistine Chapel.

I wouldn't have thought we needed yet another version of The Miracle Worker, not after Patty Duke as Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan in the 1962 film version of the play, and especially not after Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan and Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller in the surprisingly interesting 1979 TV-movie remake. But the story must be foolproof. No matter how tired you may have become of Hallie Kate Eisenberg in those Pepsi commercials, she is a superb young Helen in this Disney production, and Alison Elliott as Annie is just as good here as she was in The Spitfire Grill and The Wings of the Dove, which means splendid. Even David Strathairn, whose choice of roles continues to perplex, is persuasive as Helen's southern gent of a father, although we could have done without the happy darkies on his 1887 tobacco plantation.

About all that's missing from Napoleon, David Grubin's four-hour "documentary film chronicle" for public television, is a talking head as excitable and expansive as the Little Corporal himself. The historians and biographers to whom we are introduced -- between paintings by Ingres, Goya, and David, quotations from Bonaparte's letters to Josephine and the memoirs of his contemporaries, footage of European landscapes and Egyptian tourist attractions, and re-creations of his many battles -- are serious and knowledgeable and French and American. But subdued. You can't imagine a single one of them going over the Alps on a mule, bringing back the Rosetta Stone, or ever desiring to be entombed in a sarcophagus of imperial pink porphyry, a tub of bubblegum, under a Baroque dome. Still, no matter what he thought he was doing, this is the man who brought the very idea of republicanism to the rest of his continent on the point of a bayonet. He has always deserved better than English-speaking historians tend to give him, and from Grubin he gets it.

TV Notes

Chippendales Murder (Tuesday; November 7; 9 to 11 p.m.; USA) is the true story of Steve Banerjee (Naveen Andrews), who dreamed up the whole idea of nightclubs featuring male strip-tease, and Nick De Noia (Paul Hipp), the choreographer with whom he went into a partnership that would end in Mob money, hit men, betrayal, and murder. Insufficiently lurid to detain you.

The Street (Wednesdays; 9 to 10 p.m.; Fox), in spite of a good running gag in the pilot about Xena the Warrior Princess versus Buffy the Vampire Slayer, can't seem to get its mind off sex long enough to think about the truly obscene, which is money. At the frantic brokerage house presided over by Giancarlo Esposito, when they aren't hopping in and out of candlelit bathtubs, they are IPOing stock in a scheme to sell Ivy League semen over the Internet: "Meet the new ruling class." Where, you will wonder, is an American Psycho when we need one?

Forever Mine (Sunday; November 12; 8 to 10 p.m.; Starz!) requires Joseph Fiennes and Ray Liotta to do terrible things to each other because of Gretchen Mol, in a noir written and directed by Paul Schrader that's so listless and numbing we need not wonder why it went directly to cable.

The Railway Children (Sunday; November 12; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), a Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the classic E. Nesbit children's story, stars Michael Kitchen as Mr. Waterbury, Jenny Agutter as Mrs. W., Richard Attenborough as the kindly tycoon who waves from the caboose of the choochoo, and Jemima Rooper, Jack Blumenau, and Clare Thomas as the downwardly mobile children he waves at as they try to keep their family afloat in genteel poverty. Everybody's terrific.

Return With Honor (Friday; November 13; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) takes American Experience back to Vietnam with twenty or so veterans who survived captivity, including John McCain and James Stockdale -- but specially "top-gun" Navy fighter-pilot Everett Alvarez, who spent eight and a half years as a prisoner of war.


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