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Monkey Business

NBC's Lost Empire revisits the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King, complete with martial-arts pyrotechnics; CBS's Big Apple looks like NYPD Bluer.

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Any mini-series that begins in the underground chamber of the ancient Chinese terra-cotta warriors is okay by me. And when these statues actually begin to wink and nod, in anticipation of the Tinker Bell materializing of Kwan Ying, the Goddess of Mercy, I am a happy clam. While The Lost Empire had to have been in the works long before Crouching Tiger, Inner Child proved so remarkably popular on the big screen, it appeals to the same appetite for fabulism -- the Robin Hood and Peter Pan in us, the Oz and Stargate.

Like Maxine Hong Kingston before him, David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) has written a riff on Wu Ch'eng-en's sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West, a sort of Chinese Pilgrim's Progress in which the Monkey King -- a trickster who could assume at whim the forms of a falcon, a koi fish, and a cormorant -- led a military expedition to bring back Buddha's sutras from India. As Wu, 500 years ago, was reimagining Hanuman, the Monkey Chief of the Ramayana who saved Sita from the demon Ravana, so Hong Kingston in Tripmaster Monkey reimagined him as Wittman Ah Sing, a draft-dodging playwright and "badass China bluesman" in sixties Berkeley bearing more than a passing resemblance to Abbie Hoffman, who sought to save America from the war in Vietnam. And so Hwang reimagines him yet again, as a warrior chief who needs a lot of help to save -- not Sita, not the sutras, not America -- but first, Wu's very own manuscript, and then the modern world.

All this is news to Nicholas Orton (Thomas Gibson), who quit his Chinese academic studies to become a "cowboy capitalist" in the emerging Asian markets. He is leading a client around the terra-cotta chamber with a view to turning the warrior tomb into a theme park, when the Goddess of Mercy (Bai Ling) appears to him. He is, she says, "the Scholar from Above," who can enter a parallel universe where "the lost empire" of sixteenth-century China still resides; lift the curse from the freeze-dried Monkey King (Russell Wong) and his lieutenants, Friar Sand (Kabir Bedi) and Pigsy (Eddie Muran); and rescue the manuscript of Journey to the West before it is burned by the evil emperor Shu (Randall Duk Kim). Should the book disappear, so will modernity.

Well, Gibson, Dharma's favorite Greg, would follow Bai Ling, a Chinese Audrey Hepburn, anywhere. And before you know it, with gee-whiz insouciance, through the combined miracles of classic Chinese literature and modern computer graphics, he will be skipping clouds, wrestling serpents, and being muscle-toned in the martial arts by Wong's own master, Subhodhi (Lim Kay Siu), the better to kick-box demons. There are jokes about about yin and yang, Mahatma Gandhi, Oz itself (could Frank Baum have read Wu?), and even "liberals" (that is, anybody who wants something different from sixteenth-century China). We will also meet Wu himself (Henry O), who suffers like all great writers from low self-esteem. It could be here that David Henry Hwang is working out personal guilt feelings about having deserted Philip Glass to rewrite the book for a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song.

That Big Apple, the new thursday-night CBS series about cops and feds at war on organized crime and one another, wasn't ready for advance screening by reviewers for the weeklies and the monthlies suggested maybe a disaster in the making. Wrong again. The belated pilot, which is all I've seen, is every bit as sharp as anybody could have hoped from executive producers like David Milch (NYPD Blue) and Anthony Yerkovich (Miami Vice). A half-dozen characters and more than a thousand mixed emotions, ulterior motives, and conflicting agendas had to be introduced in 45 dark and stormy minutes, and they were -- with a resonant shorthand and a minimalist dispatch.

So the cops (Ed O'Neill, Jeffrey Pierce, Michael Rispoli) and the FBI (David Strathairn, Titus Welliver, Glynn Turman, Kim Dickens) convene at a Park Avenue-penthouse crime scene, where the dead stripper somehow connects to a Hell's Kitchen "tit bar" where the feds have set up a sting on our old friends, the Russian Mafia, with or without the help of undercover informant Michael Madsen and his hot-headed protégé-thugee, Donnie Wahlberg. Strathairn, coming on a lot like Sam Waterson on Law & Order, is worried about Welliver, who is too close to Madsen, which is why the very blonde Dickens has been brought in to spy on the New York office. O'Neill hates the FBI on principle, dating back to "Hoover in a pinafore," but this time he has to work with them. There are wisecracks about everything from Baywatch to Sarajevo.

Big Apple is almost as dark as the late-lamented EZ Streets, but not so pitch-black that we can't see what's going on. The return to series television not only of Strathairn and O'Neill, but also of Anthony Yerkovich, who's been semi-missing in action since Private Eye went down the drain, is an occasion to be grateful for. Do we need such a show? No more than we need ten extra minutes of Monica, or yet another preachy sulk by Bobby on The Practice. But when it's done as well as Big Apple does it, it's like Eminem and Elton John. We can't help watching anyway.

While my attention was elsewhere -- Chris Rock came back from the dead in the body of Kevin Costner's Elvis? -- The Sopranos returned for a third season. By now you already know that no sooner did Tony put Janice on a bus to Seattle than she was already back in New Jersey to attend their mother's funeral -- the wake itself was worthy of Joyce and Finnegan. Joe Pantoliano joins the cast just in time to go completely bonkers on April 1. Christopher (Michael Imperioli) is at last promoted to "made man," at a ceremony at which they burn a saint's card. Peter Riegert guest-stars as a corrupt state assemblyman, and we are promised, as well, Charles S. Dutton and Anabella Sciorra.

Meanwhile, at Columbia, Tony's daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is about to lose her perspective and her virginity to an upperclassman (Patrick Tully) who happens to be, gasp, half-black. While you surely can't expect me to risk getting whacked with a spill of the Freudian beans about Tony's therapeutic breakthrough in the prim presence of Lorraine Bracco, I will hint (no big surprise) that the reason for his panic attacks will be traced back to his father, his mother, his traumatic childhood, cold cuts, finger food, and what Claude Lévi-Strauss would probably call "the raw and the cooked" of human sexuality.

TV Notes
Doc (March 11; 8 to 10 p.m.; PAX) is a two-hour pilot introducing a new series with country-music singer Billy Ray Cyrus as a Montana doctor who follows a magazine editor to New York, where nobody makes house calls and the whole city is almost as mean as an HMO.

Lorna Doone (March 11; 8 to 11 p.m.; A&E) is, never mind the Catholics and Protestants in seventeenth-century England, worth checking out for Amelia Warner in the title role -- I will not reveal her true identity, but the outlaws stole her from a very high place of very great privilege -- torn between a super-goody John Ridd (Richard Coyle) and an utterly evil Carver Doone (Aidan Gillen). This is the same peach who plays the convent girl in Quills, who was no sooner traduced by Michael Caine then she read Justine and ran off with her interior decorator.

Columbo: Murder With Too Many Notes (March 12; 8 to 10 p.m.; ABC) happily brings back not just Peter Falk, who at the age of 73 is older than his raincoat, but also Patrick McGoohan, who starred in a couple of memorable Columbos and who co-writes and directs this one, which is all about who should have gotten the credit and the Oscar for music Billy Connolly says he composed for the murder-mystery movies Charles Cioffi directs. Pay attention to the shoes.

The Familiar Stranger (March 12; 9 to 11 p.m.; Lifetime) lets Margaret Colin settle the hash of her husband, Jay O. Sanders, after he's embezzled funds from the local college, pretended to commit suicide, and left her and their two young sons to fend off guilt and bankruptcy, while he goes off to Kennebunkport, Maine, to steal somebody else's money. I would watch Colin in anything, so I watched her in this.


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