Kiss and Tell

Food of love: Tedi Papavrami and Leelee Sobieski in Dangerous Liaisons.Photo: AB International

For the purposes of a four-hour cable-television mini-series, Dangerous Liaisons (Monday and Tuesday, March 15 and 16; 8 to 10 p.m.; We), the arachnoid novel by Choderlos de Laclos has been transposed from eighteenth-century France on the verge of bloody revolution to Paris and the Riviera in the 1960s. Instead of letters, which the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont seemed to secrete from their bored bowels like inky weblets, we get telephone calls: heavy breathing, reverse the charges. On the plus side, this means nobody has to wear a wig. But on the minus, it’s no longer possible to think of the Marquise and the Vicomte as embodiments of the ancien régime, playing erotic power games, soon to lose their heads. We are left with something much less thrilling—the rage of a woman scorned.

Of course, she must be quite a woman, which Catherine Deneuve is, icily iconic until she frazzles. For Roger Vadim in 1959, Jeanne Moreau played the Marquise, also in modern dress, with a jazz soundtrack, plotting Valmont’s seduction of the virgin her former lover intended to marry. Glenn Close was a wonder in the 1988 Stephen Frears adaptation of the Christopher Hampton play, like a pink shark. About Annette Bening in the 1989 Milos Forman version, Valmont, I refused to believe that, deep down, she wasn’t as nice as she always is. Even those of us impatient with the Laclos novel like to bicker about casting. Rupert Everett is Valmont here, following in the peculiar footsteps of John Malkovich and Colin Firth. Nastassja Kinski plays Marie Tourvel, the virtuous young matron with whom Valmont falls in love; she’s no Michelle Pfeiffer, but leaves Meg Tilly eating dust. To the part of the innocent heiress, Cécile, Leelee Sobieski brings the same indignant pout she brought to Joan of Arc, but Uma Thurman owns the role. With two nights to fill, they smoke and talk a lot. There will also be convertibles to drive to the countryside, horses to ride on the beach, piano keys to tickle, and tennis balls to swat. One can’t help wondering what might have happened if Bernardo Bertolucci had been in charge of these four hours instead of Josée Dayan. Suppose that rather than scheming, the Marquise and the Vicomte had gone to the movies, leaving Cécile at home to play bathtub games with people her own age. And suppose that the movie they went to in the sixties starred a young Deneuve—something about umbrellas?

Century City (Tuesdays, starting March 16; 9 to 10 p.m.; CBS) is a wonderful idea, not quite wonderful enough, so far, to sit all the way through. Imagine yet another Los Angeles law firm with the usual mix of wise old heads (Hector Elizondo, Viola Davis, Nestor Carbonell) and younger, nubile bodies (Ioan Gruffudd, of Horatio Hornblower; Kristin Lehman, the trophy wife in The Way of the Gun). They will attract the usual eccentric clients, ensuring the usual oddball legal strategies. Except: This is L.A. in 2030. Pretrial hearings consist of my hologram talking to your hologram while a hologram of a judge listens in a sort of visual fizz. And the cases that go to court involve cloning, “telomerase activators” to inhibit the aging process, and genetic engineering to guarantee the perfect blue-eyed, high-IQ test-tube offspring. Lehman, in fact, is not a smart and beautiful blonde lawyer just by chance; she was custom-compounded to be so, prototypical and disease-resistant.

The first episode, guest-starring David Paymer, will have to sort through the complications of a case in which a man has not only cloned a “son” from his own cells, making him simultaneously a father and a brother, but now seeks, seven years later, to clone from this ailing son an identical twin who can be harvested for a life-saving liver transplant. While some of this may be legal in Singapore, L.A. has feverish scruples. You see the many possibilities of a series in which ethical dilemmas only beginning to suggest themselves will be hashed out in play courts by writer-producers—Paul Attanasio (Homicide), Katie Jacobs (Gideon’s Crossing), and Ed Zuckerman (Law & Order, JAG)—with a rap sheet for intelligence. It’s just that in the two hours I’ve seen, there is more righteous sermonizing than dramatic tension. These lawyers have yet to enjoy being in the same office kitchen with the instant-ice machine.

Significant Others (March 9; 9 to 10 p.m.; Bravo) introduces a new sitcom about couples seeing a marriage counselor to whom they explain their problems with pregnancy, promiscuity, unemployment, in-laws, and body odor, as if to a priest at confession or a camera on a reality show. Because some improvisation on the part of talented actors is called for, this, as Mark Twain said of Wagner’s music, is better than it sounds.

Wonderfalls (March 12; 9 to 10 p.m.; Fox), starring the addictive Caroline Dhavernas as an underachieving twentysomething with a philosophy degree from Brown and a sales-clerk job in a souvenir store at Niagara Falls, is Joan of Arcadia without God. Which is probably why I prefer it. Animals, whether in toy form or cartoons or statuary, talk to Caroline. They are full of inconvenient advice causing baroque complications; whatever their subjects, the feeling is of Northern Exposure.

Spinning Boris (March 14; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime) is the appalling, true story of American political consultants hired to run Boris Yeltsin’s campaign for president of Russia in 1996. Jeff Goldblum, Anthony LaPaglia, and Liev Schreiber manage to sidestep limousines, mafias, and automatic-weapons fire long enough to defeat a resurgent Communist Party by introducing U.S.-style opinion polls, focus groups, and negative campaigning to these neophytes at the voting racket. The CIA will be deniably involved, and the G7 summit, and Time magazine, with an exclusive cover story. These are actors fun to watch, but I’m not sure I feel better about a political process so speeded up that democracy is corrupted before a critical presidential election.

Family Sins (March 14; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) asks us to believe that Kirstie Alley—devoted mother, pillar of the community—has for decades been secretly in charge of a crime family responsible for kidnapping, extortion, child abuse, rape, and white slavery. Nobody else will believe until Assistant Attorney General Will Patton comes along and gets a search warrant. I still don’t believe it. Kirstie Alley?

Kiss and Tell