Wendy Crewson must wonder what she ever did that ABC should hate her so. Only a little more than a decade ago, the talented Crewson -- a Canadian version of Anne Archer, especially suited to playing adult women who prove to be as smart as they are handsome -- was cast as the honest producer in Studio 5-B, an ABC dramatic series about a morning-TV-news program, with George Grizzard and Jeffrey Tambor. I will admit that I was kinder than I might have been to this show, which lathered up more soap than journalism, because I had liked Crewson as a reporter on the CBS newspaper series Hard Copy, and liked her even more when I met her in October 1988 at the Cannes Television Festival, where she was hanging out with Robert Altman's entourage. Still, Studio 5-B deserved better than the three weeks ABC gave it before the ax.
And now Crewson is ever so briefly back in The Beast, another ABC dramatic series, this time about a whole 24-hour-broadcast news organization instead of just a single show. But if you tune in the next six Wednesdays, try not to get excited: Even though it's better than anything else on ABC, the network pulled the plug not only on Wendy Crewson, but on Frank Langella, Elizabeth Mitchell, Peter Riegert, Jason Gedrick, Naveen Andrews, and Harriet Harris, all of whom also work for World News Service (WNS), where the people who are watching us find themselves watched as well.
If the media are the "Beast," WNS is Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, an all-seeing model prison. Langella, the maverick mogul who has created this monster of surveillance, believes that journalists have lost their objectivity. To encourage them to find it again -- a kind of obligatory introspection reminiscent of the self-criticism sessions of the Chinese Communists during the Cultural Revolution -- he has cameras trained on their workplace, in the halls, from the ceiling, so that the very process of news gathering is itself recorded and can be broadcast live on the Internet. There is a supereditor somewhere in the pixeled sky, more God than ombudsman, a divine executive producer determining which failures of craft or character are made public. It's as though, in some second-guessing chat room made entirely out of two-way Microsoft Windows, Cops met The Blair Witch Project during halftime at an XFL game.
Thus the new girl on the block, former freelancer Mitchell, has been lured by Langella to WNS specifically for her righteous standards. Will she lower them to get that interview with a death-row convict, and even allow herself to be fondled to secure exclusive broadcast rights to his "live" execution? Thus news anchor Gedrick is so furious about the lunacy of most of what he reports that he sounds hourly more and more like the prophet Jeremiah with a substance-abuse problem. Thus news director Riegert, unemployable anywhere else because of his terrible temper and even greater contempt, stays on in the belly of the "Beast" because Langella's process would seem to require his potential for creative violence.
While Crewson wants a baby of her own, with test-tube help if necessary, she will have to settle for being the managerial mother of the rest of these misfits. The divine executive producer has to decide whether to inform his fellow WNS employees that the McVeigh-like media bomber being so assiduously tracked by Naveen Andrews has actually signed on as an intern in the Panopticon, and looks poised to strike at the very nerve center of the military-industrial-entertainment complex while the rest of them are all too busy worrying about their professional ethics to notice or, except for Harriet Harris, to care.
The Beast was created by Kario Salem, who wrote the remarkable Don King: Only in America. Executive producers include Mimi Leder, who directed the first episode; Ian Sander and Kim Moses, who co-conspired at Profiler; and Ron Howard. The cast is as snap-crackle-and-pop as the dialogue put in their mouths. It is as satisfying as it is provocative, much like Max Headroom, the dramatic series it most resembles and the best one ever on any network about TV news, which also embarrassed ABC by being more subversive than it could stand. And that was in 1987, before Disney. As with Wonderland, so with The Beast. So long, we never knew you. It's getting worse, folks.
On the other, happier hand, the Witchblade that originated last August as a TV movie -- in which Yancy Butler, a New York City homicide cop buffer than Buffy with Antarctic eyes to die for or drown in, battled the supernatural forces of evil with a magic glove from an ancient suit of sentient armor -- returns this week to TNT as a series dark and slick. I described Witchblade the movie as "Rambimbo/Ninja/Terminator Chic." But that was before I had seen Crouching Tiger, Inner Yancy. It is now clear that we are tapping into something deeper. Never mind the random appearances of the motormouth ghost of Yancy's dead partner (Will Yun Lee). Or if the tormented Nottingham (Eric Etebari) is a guardian angel or an assassin. Or whether media mogul Kenneth Irons (Anthony Cistaro) wants Yancy for her body or her blade. Or why her new partner (David Chokachi), who gave up perfect waves for violent crime, would ever surf any other woman. All this is beside the point, which is kick-ass sisterhood.
Even episodic plot details are really a screen. In this Tuesday's "Parallax," so many men in black are trying to waste one another on motorcycles, it's impossible to know who's satanic and who used to be Special Forces before they were turned into killer zombies by psychotropic drugs and virtual-reality music videos, while in next Tuesday's "Conundrum," either a serial killer or a giant boa constrictor specializes in the crushing to death of fashion models between flashbacks to Hitler's Germany and what appears to be Batista's Cuba. But in both cases, what's really at stake is possession of the Witchblade, which not only confers superpowers on warrior Yancy, but also foists upon her hallucinatory glimpses of Empowered Womanhood down through the darkest of ages, from Cleopatra in Egypt to Kali in India to Joan of Arc in France. Somewhere along this long bloody line, I am encouraged to believe, the adopted Yancy will discover her true mother. Meanwhile, more religions are ransacked for metaphor than Joseph Campbell ever shook his shtick at.
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (June 12; 7:30 to 10 p.m.; Cinemax), narrated, alas, by Tom Cruise, is plopped down in the middle of a Kubrick cable-TV festival. Tribute is paid by the likes of Woody Allen, Arthur C. Clarke, Shelley Duvall, Nicole Kidman, Paul Mazursky, Malcolm McDowell, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Sir Peter Ustinov. Snippets are snipped from many movies. Disinformation is repudiated, with a schoolmarm hand. And all of this is actually more interesting than Eyes Wide Shut.
Tasmania: Land of Devils (June 12; 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13), the latest in "The Living Edens" series, goes to Australia to look at the tallest flowering tree in the world, hack through giant kelp forests to get to friendly sponge gardens where the weedy sea dragon and the giant cuttlefish hang out, and spend some quality time with the devil himself, the biggest marsupial carnivore still at large, which is in the habit of devouring every bit of its prey except the jawbone.
The Kitchen (June 15; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is percussionist Andre Degas's lovely attempt to come to terms in a semi-autobiographical play with the ghost of his patriarchal father, who emigrated from Egypt to Hell's Kitchen, where he ran a bodega and tried to run his son's life. Jason Raize plays Jamal, who wants to be in a band instead of a bodega. Mark Margolis plays his father, who drove away the most important woman in their lives, and who will have to go to the hospital to see the light.
Heroes of Iwo Jima (June 17; 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E), narrated by Gene Hackman, goes behind Joe Rosenthal's AP photo of the staged flag-raising, a couple of hours after the Marine Corps photo of the real flag-raising, to talk to the young men who raised both flags in the middle of horrific fighting, who became famous for having done so, and whose memory of the volcanic ash and dangerous caves of Suribachi is somewhat less than heroic.
Wednesdays, starting June 13, 10 to 11 p.m., ABC.
Tuesdays, starting June 12, 9 to 10 p.m., TNT.