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Hearts and Soul

Despite an all-star cast in The Ponder Heart, something about TV still disdains Eudora Welty's Southern gentles; Shot in the Heart, by contrast, sizzles.

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Southern: From left, JoBeth Williams, Boyce Holleman, and Peter MacNicol in The Ponder Heart.  

So much for art therapy. No matter how hard we root for Eudora Welty, we end up stuck with Norman Mailer. No matter how much we'd rather be contemplating The Ponder Heart among lovable loonies on a shady veranda in subtropical Mississippi, we are Shot in the Heart instead, by a killer in a death-row cage in Mormon-gothic Utah. It's as though the problematic times have dulled our appetite for anything but blood and dread.

Not that any of the talented people associated with the adaptation for television of Welty's 1953 novel for Masterpiece Theatre's "American Collection" have stinted on exertion. Peter MacNicol stars as Uncle Daniel, the feckless heir to the Ponder family fortune, with an eye for pretty women, a friendly word for everybody else, and a habit of giving away things like cows or gas stations to strangers who just happen to be passing through Clay County on a motorcycle or a whim. JoBeth Williams plays his niece, Edna Earle, so busy telling us his story that she doesn't pay sufficient attention to the traveling salesman who wants to whisk her away to New Orleans. Lenny Von Dohlen is the semi-competent family lawyer DeYancey "Tadpole" Clanahan, who must defend Daniel on a murder charge trumped up by Dorris Gladney, a politically ambitious district attorney played by Brent Spiner with a molasses accent thick enough to stop a tractor. And Angela Bettis is Bonnie Dee Peacock, the backwoods girl with the blonde curls who has been purchased for marriage by Daniel as if she were an ice cream cone, who can't think what to do with herself in the stately Ponder home except spend money and play jacks, and who will be frightened to death by a ball of fire in a summer storm.

There are even a couple of black folks in this Deep South idyll, one to keep house and the other to shine shoes. Director Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose) puts these characters through their paces -- more, in Mississippi, like an amble -- with a knowingness almost as all-wise as Miss Welty's own, although lacking the novelist's wickedness. It's just that we can never quite credit MacNicol's Uncle Daniel as the desired amalgam of Dostoevski's Idiot and Vonnegut's Mr. Rosewater. Maybe something about television doesn't like the South except in sitcoms and can't help making drawls sound slow-witted. Or maybe something about frantic urban culture can't abide a sour mash of civility and eccentricity that isn't also decadent. I remember being flabbergasted when Saul Bellow's mean-minded Mr. Sammler's Planet won the National Book Award for fiction instead of Welty's luminous Losing Battles . . . and I was on the panel that so decided.

What's the matter with us? How come so many critics agree that The Executioner's Song was Norman Mailer's best novel, even if some of us did have our doubts about his screenplay for the 1982 TV mini-series and Tommy Lee Jones's charismatic performance as convicted murderer Gary Gilmore? Was Gilmore -- just because he drew pictures of ballet dancers, read the poems of Shelley, admired the music of Johnny Cash, and wanted to die in spite of his ACLU lawyer and the anti-death-penalty crowd determined to save him -- any more interesting, instructive, or worthy than any other stone killer on any other death row?

On the other hand, if we are going to turn killers into Charlie Manson rock stars, at least Gary had a kid brother, Mikal, who wrote for Rolling Stone. And this brother had much more to say than he ever confided to Lawrence Schiller, whose research into the case was the basis of the Mailer novel and who would direct the TV mini-series. And Mikal would finally say it in 1994, in an open wound of a memoir called Shot in the Heart, which is the basis of the HBO movie. So it's back again to the dread zone, with Elias Koteas as Gary, Giovanni Ribisi as Mikal, Sam Shepard as their abusive father, Amy Madigan as their Mormon mother with the white-horse death dreams, and Eric Bogosian as Larry Schiller, a vampirish one-man media feeding frenzy. Like the memoir, the movie ends with Mikal's declaration that the only way he can be sure of ending a Sophoclean cycle of family violence is by never having any children of his own.

Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) directs this stunning cast in what is essentially one long therapeutic interrogation with evidentiary flashbacks -- a claustrophobic seizure, a water torture of family secrets. Mormonism, to be sure, is exploited for its kinks. But so is Sigmund Freud, for intimations of patricide. As creepy as Koteas is (nor are Sam and Amy any bargains), Ribisi is even creepier, like a Hamlet itchy from some trichinous nematode he can't scratch out of his system. There is actually a scene when no one is hurting anybody else, when the brothers are just driving in a car listening to Fats Domino on the radio singing "Valley of Tears," that is as lonesome as anything I've ever seen on television, a desolate haiku. I would like to believe that most of our families are more like the Ponders than they are like Gilmores, but it's hard to these days.

In Brief
Local News . . . One Station Fights the Odds (October 9, 16, 23, 30, and November 6; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) spends a year at an NBC affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina, where broadcasters under pressure to improve their ratings must cover a hurricane, a murder case, and a court challenge to a plan to desegregate its public schools, all while a just-hired news director deals with racial tensions in his own shop, a corporate owner that keeps changing its agenda, and ethical questions that are as troubling as questions of community responsibility. The amazing thing is that almost everybody is honorable.

What Girls Learn (October 14; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime) suggests that while it's easy enough for Scott Bakula to take on Vulcans, Klingons, and even the shape-shifting Suliban in the new Star Trek series Enterprise on UPN, it's another to take on the teen daughters of Elizabeth Perkins when it seems she is about to die before Alison Pill and Tamara Hope have gotten used to Scott as the perfect stepfather. Hokum for the whole family.

The Ponder Heart
Monday, October 15; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13.
Shot in the Heart
Saturday, October 13; 9 to 10:45 p.m.; HBO.


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