Past Perfect

Heebie-jeebies: From left, John Billingsley, Bill Cobbs, Julianne Nicholson, Gabriel Macht, and Melissa Crider in NBC's new paranormal series, The Others.Photo: Marni Grossman/NBC Photo

In a week full of pleasant surprises, the biggest if not the best is The Others (Saturdays, starting February 5; 10 to 11 p.m.; NBC), a sort of paranormal Dirty Dozen. It’s the biggest surprise because I like it. It’s not the best because I shouldn’t. Exactly what this anxious culture doesn’t need is more Twilight Zone woo-woo – precognition, psychokinesis, and telepathic dead men talking. Yet The Others, whose loftiest ambition is to scare the bejesus out of us, not only buys into every infirmity of the deracinated modern mind but positively wallows in them.

For starters, the usual neurotic college co-ed, Julianne Nicholson, finds in the bathtub of her dorm room the bloody naked body of a previous female occupant who seems to be trying to tell her something before she dematerializes. Julianne will bring this ghost story to her professor of folklore and mythology, John Billingsley, who promptly whisks her off to an ESP support group that includes Melissa Crider as a sultry New Age “sensitive,” Gabriel Macht as a medical-intern “empath,” Kevin J. O’Connor as a crazed visionary, John Aylward as the blind grouch, and Bill Cobbs as a wise old man so close to dying that he can camp out in the netherworld. These Spooks Anonymous meet regularly to agitate about anomalies in the old Cartesian flimflam. Of course, they’ll help Julianne determine if her apparition killed herself or got some murderous help.

Next week, The Others involves a dead husband, a dead baby, the mystical significance of the numbers 11 and 12 on a pair of bleacher seats from the old demolished Boston Garden, etc. Even as he is dropping in on the annoyed dead – from, for instance, the Apollo disaster – Cobbs explains to Julianne that “there are no ifs.” The Ancestor is grooming his Adept. And DreamWorks executive producers Glen Morgan and James Wong abet this hokum with clever scripts and delirium-tremens special effects.

Maybe Two of Us (Tuesday, February 1; 9 to 11 p.m.; VH1) seems to me the week’s best just because I expected the least. Whatever: A TV movie on a music-video cable channel purporting to imagine a Manhattan reunion on an April Saturday in 1976 of Paul McCartney (Aidan Quinn) and John Lennon (Jared Harris) seemed an unlikely candidate for excellence, even with Michael Lindsay-Hogg directing from a script by Mark Stanfield. But good-guy Paul, on tour with Wings, insists on showing up at the Dakota door of an edgy and suspicious John, while Yoko’s out of town. After some terrific awkwardness, a reopening of old wounds, and nasty remarks by John about Paul’s “silly little love songs,” they resort to pot and past. (Well, they are the friends they get high with a little help from.) Spiced up with In His Own Write wordplay and sly references to walruses and “Yesterday,” they discuss Buddha, happiness, Walt Whitman, reality, Stevie Wonder, and their dead fathers. Whether or not this is the Beatles, it is certainly enduring friendship. And when these “two of us” sit down at John’s white piano to sing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” it is also absolutely wonderful.

Meanwhile, in Missing Pieces (Sunday, February 6; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) James Coburn seems so recovered from having been, in Affliction, the lousiest father since Eugene O’Neill’s James Tyrone that he’s turned into one of the nicest. As Atticus Cody, a widowed patriarchal Colorado rancher, Coburn has never been able to talk to his artist son, Scott (Paul Kersey), about the auto accident that killed their wife and mother. And when he gets a telephone call telling him that Scott’s committed suicide in Mexico, it seems he never will. But in Mexico, what with Lisa Zane’s lying to him in the middle of her Madonna/Body Double impersonation, the cops’ neglecting to investigate a hit-and-run, the missing passport and the mysterious key, this father earns a second chance. Missing Pieces has been scrupulously adapted from Ron Hansen’s novel Atticus. If you have never read Hansen, Atticus is a better place to begin than his recent Hitler novel. But best of all is the one he wrote about a nun, Mariette in Ecstasy.

We bring our younger, better selves to a television movie like Mary and Rhoda (Monday, February 7; 8 to 10 p.m.; ABC). As Mary Tyler Moore when she smiled so often seemed as life-affirming as a field of sunflowers, so we wanted to smile right back at her. It’s heliotropic. Such is my affection for her, for Valerie Harper, and for the sitcom that killed off Chuckles the Clown, my worst fear was that they’d embarrass us all with a sixtysomething reunion in New York City. It took me half an hour to relax.

Mary is a widow who quit her job as an ABC News producer to be a better mother to her daughter (Joie Lenz) and now discovers that her congressman husband squandered their savings on campaign debts. Rhoda is divorced, from someone French and awful, and returning from a journey into alternative religions – “I’m Jewish and Shaker; I can make my own furniture and sell it retail” – to be near her Columbia premed daughter (Marisa Ryan). Looking for jobs, they find each other, and, of course, move in together. You don’t need to know more, except that, besides permitting us to enjoy two old friends again, Mary and Rhoda also has smart things to say about the “invisibility” of older, single women and the decline of TV news.

Finally, Madame Bovary (Sundays, February 6 and 13; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) gets the two-part Masterpiece Theatre treatment. Frances O’Connor is luckless Emma, who will be punished for a head full of dime novels, a heart that sings the “Song of Songs,” a dream life that tends to gondoliers, and piano lessons in bed with a man other than her hapless and besotted husband, Charles (Hugh Bonneville). It seems to me that director Tim Fywell has better luck with O’Connor than Jean Renoir had with Valentine Tessier, Vincente Minnelli with Jennifer Jones, and Claude Chabrol with Isabelle Huppert. But it also seems to me that Emma was a nicer person than Flaubert.

Past Perfect