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Super Nero

Imperious and mysterious, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe was always a natural for television. Finally, A&E got him right.

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Rex Stout wrote 73 Nero Wolfe mysteries, each a music box or clockwork orange, a closed-time-table tick-tock mini-world, like the great detective's famous brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan, seven steps up to fine food, imported beer, rare orchids, strong opinions, and snits the size of monsoons. Weighing in at a seventh of a ton, addicted to crossword puzzles, bottlecap-counting, and Lawrence of Arabia, Wolfe was an eye so private, he never left his own music box. That's what he had Archie Goodwin for, a wise-guy assistant. And Saul Panzer, his slinkiest operative. And the permanently furious Inspector Cramer, who would round up the usual suspects for their unmaking in the book-lined study.

All of which should have been a television natural, but until now it hasn't worked. While a 1977 TV-movie adaptation of The Doorbell Rang, with Thayer David as the heavy, was intended as a series pilot, David's sudden death postponed a weekly Wolfe for four more years -- and even then, William Conrad would only last on NBC from January to August. When The Golden Spiders turned up last March on A&E with Maury Chaykin as Nero and Timothy Hutton as Archie, I liked it so much that I hoped for a series. Thanks apparently to Hutton, for once I get my wish. Starting with another two-hour movie on April 22, and then subsiding on subsequent Sundays into hour-long episodes, the old-fashioned freelance detective makes a comeback. Of course, he has to do so in the hazy past, in the tinted forties and fifties, back when we believed the client was innocent and the system rigged, before we assumed guilt (and the position).

My only complaint is that we start off once again with The Doorbell Rang. It's a favorite of Rex Stout fans not because it's one of his best novels (it's just routine) but because it's the one where he went after the F.B.I. for bugging, tapping, tailing, and otherwise invading the privacy of American citizens whose only crime was holding opinions contrary to those of J. Edgar Hoover. When Stout published it in 1965, however, Hoover was still alive and malign. Now that he's dead and a joke, it has lost its edge. Nevertheless, Chaykin's Nero is every bit as imperious as the late director, Hutton's Archie is so gleeful as his Sancho Panza-John Garfield sidekick that he seems to have been genetically engineered for the part, and when the doorbell rings, we do know exactly who is stranded on the stoop. And the dialogue (almost all of it right off the page) is peppermint-stick snappy. E.g., Archie to a client: "If you weren't rich, I'd marry you."

Never mind the megabucks widow, the sinister secretary, the murdered journalist, or the Fred Cook book Wolfe just happens to be reading -- or, in next week's more satisfying "Champagne for One," the wonderfully choreographed charity ball for unwed mothers and the Hogarth gallery of grotesques who must face the music later on in Wolfe's study. It is the furniture of the series, the rooftop hothouse orchids, that are so appealing. Bill Smitrovich is back as Cramer, chewing cigars and scenery. Saul Rubinek, who played Saul Panzer in The Golden Spiders, has been mysteriously transformed for the series into Archie's newspaper-reporter buddy Lon Cohen, while Conrad Dunn takes over as Saul. After getting Debra Monk in the opener, we are promised other guest stars in forthcoming episodes, like Ron Rifkin. If Chaykin is not as huge as we imagine Wolfe to be -- on the order of, say, an Orson Welles -- he grows on us, eventually coming to embody an authority so oracular as to amount to a Montenegrin Buddha or a fat Freud. And Hutton has such a romping good time in his zippy suits, his snap-brim fedoras, and his spectator shoes, we suddenly realize that Archie, the comic relief of the novels, has also always been their moral compass, their Huck Finn.

As if to chime with the return of one eccentric sleuth, we get another in the TV remake of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. While Alfred Molina, Meredith Baxter, Leslie Caron, and Peter Strauss cannot compete in box-office boffo with the star-studded cast of Sidney Lumet's 1974 version of the Hercule Poirot mystery -- imagine not only Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and Vanessa Redgrave but also Jacqueline Bisset, Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins, and Michael York -- they're a lot less lassitudinous than their predecessors, and I found myself surprisingly absorbed, even though I've known whodunit since I was prenatal.

Partly this is because Molina is a fine Poirot -- more melancholy than foolish or foppish, shadowed by an unhappy love affair, taller than usual, and much less given to excessive fidgets than a Finney or a Ustinov. Caron, too, forever to be cherished for Lilli and Gigi, has sprightly moments as the widow of a Latin American dictator. Baxter seems to have recovered the sense of humor she so famously abandoned, after Family Ties, for television movies in which she killed men and abused substances. And Strauss richly deserves his multiple stab wounds. But Stephen Harrigan's screenplay also deserves credit, updating Agatha nicely with sitcoms, laptops, and DNA evidence, as well as witty references to Ross Perot and a Salt Lake City dinner-theater production of The Mousetrap.

If, miraculously, you still don't know whodunit, I will only tell you Roger Ackroyd didn't.

Finally, in Kiss My Act, Camyrn Manheim moonlights from The Practice -- not a bad idea for all of them, in fact, just to get away from Bobby -- as both Cyrano de Bergerac and Pagliacci. At a New York City comedy club, she is the all-wisecracking bartender and heartbroken clown who falls in secret love with a talent scout for a comedy festival, Scott Cohen, but who, instead of speaking her feelings to him, writes the stand-up and e-mail lines for a much thinner pop tart, "Malibu Barbie" Alexondra Lee, with whom the scout thinks he is smitten. On Camryn's side are Dabney Coleman, a sort of Sid Caesar-Bob Hope barfly who knows Camryn would knock them dead if she'd only take her own material to the stage, and Marlee Matlin, who needs sign-language help in Lamazing a baby boy. Some of this is very funny, like the routine about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. Some of it's sadly painful, like the fat jokes. And much of it is more symbolic than a body ought to have to bear, like sign language, e-mail, and ventriloquism in one movie. But Camryn does knock us dead.

TV Notes
Passion & Prejudice (April 17; 9 to 11 p.m.; USA) requires the gifted actress Frances Fisher, as a New England college professor, to go completely bonkers after engaging the services of Derwin Jordan, an African-American prison convict on work furlough, to landscape not only her Atlantic coastal property but also her lonely bed. She teaches him to read, he teaches her to whatever. But when he gets out, enrolls in college, and meets coeds his own age and color, she will, of course, have to destroy him. What a waste.

Born in My Heart: A Love Story (April 20; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) allows Barbara Walters to stay at home, more or less in her own network newsroom, where a surprising number of ABC employees have either adopted children or are themselves adopted, and tell their heartfelt stories to the camera, as well as supplying home movies. We hear from Connie Chung, Carole Simpson, Cynthia McFadden, 20/20 producer Janice Tomlin, medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson, Walters herself, her daughter Jackie, and Rosie O'Donnell. A very nice hour indeed.

Rising Waters: Global Warming and the Fate of the Pacific Islands (April 22; 11 p.m. to midnight; Channel 13) goes to American Samoa, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands to, as it were, personalize all the heat-trapping carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels. After which you may want to go back to Kyoto and rethink America's position on the death of our only environment.

Stephen Foster (April 23; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) sends "American Experience" back to the nineteenth century to consider the alcoholic career of our first professional full-time songwriter, whose banjo minstrel music grew up, almost in spite of the college dropout who wrote it, from contemptible blackface stereotyping to something better -- sentimental but also tragic and even humanizing. You will want to listen again to "Old Kentucky Home."

Backstory: Valley of the Dolls (April 23; 10 to 11 p.m.; AMC) goes behind Jacqueline Susann's novel, Mark Robson's film, and (subtextually) Susan Sontag's essay on camp, to pretend to think about rising starlets and falling Judy Garlands and dissolving pills.

Nero Wolfe: The Doorbell Rang
Sunday, April 22; 8 to 10 p.m.; A&E.
Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express
Sunday, April 22; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS.
Kiss My Act
Monday, April 23; 8 to 10 P.M.; ABC.


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