Living Spirits

Jenifer Estess, center, flanked by sisters Valerie, left, and Meredith.Photo: Wendy Moger-Bross

Jenifer, Meredith, and Valerie spend most of Three Sisters: Searching for a Cure (Wednesday, May 19; 8 to 9 p.m.; HBO) in the same room, to which Jenifer Estess seems pretty much confined, wearing an oxygen mask because her lungs can no longer do her breathing for her, with a changing guard of nurses, therapists—and filmmakers. The year is 2003, and she has suffered with Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, for six years, which is longer than most patients with ALS last. Jenifer’s two healthy sisters are encouraging her to tell her story—and their story, too, of course—all over again, from the first signs to the scared doctors to “Why me?” to the frontiers of a perplexed medical science to fund-raising benefits with celebrity friends to the realization that time had run out, full circle back to the woman in the mask, “a prisoner of war.”

Whenever Jenifer breaks down, Valerie, who is blonde and bossy, or Meredith, who is dark and watchful, calls off the shameless camera. Segue, then, usually to the accompaniment of soupy music from West Side Story, to old photos of the girls growing up after their father abandoned them, home movies of a final vacation in the tropics or of Jenifer’s nieces and nephews gathering around her for birthday parties, and C-span videotape of Jenifer’s testifying at various congressional hearings. Before she was paralyzed from the neck down, she had been a theatrical producer. So we also see such “Friends of Jen” as Matthew Broderick, Katie Couric, Gina Gershon, Calista Flockhart, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Dylan McDermott, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ben Stiller, Marisa Tomei, and, especially, Camyrn Manheim and Paul Simon rallying to the cause. But we actually see less of them than we do of neuroscientists at Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and the Salk Institute, financed by the $18 million the sisters raised, looking into gene sequencing, stem cells, and rat brains.

Jenifer will die in December, shortly before Christmas, although Three Sisters doesn’t say so; it presumes our already knowing. We are watching the loyal troops in the last days in their bunker. They have passed from the early incredulity at a diagnosis that sent three “hypochondriacal Jewish girls” straight to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to the optimism of several years ago when they believed that their own “Manhattan Project” of dream-team medical researchers would save the day, to this on-camera comradely stoicism that is another face of brave love, behind which they only hope that the Food and Drug Administration will authorize clinical tests of the new therapies that might help future victims of ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.

And here is where I suppose we are expected to think up something to say—if not profound, at least diverting—about reality programming. If too much of it is game-show greed and peep-show glands, there is obviously another reality where a few pass through the exacting test with something like dignity or scruple. This is character instead of combat, and harder to get on film. On the other hand, the advantage of artful fiction over cinéma vérité is that good writers can improve any story. On the third hand, the hand we have been dealt here, Jenifer’s story, was already improved into a docudrama several years ago with such wisecracking actresses as the Sisters Karamazov. I don’t remember that TV movie as being superior to this documentary. Nor do I remember it as less affecting, either. In both cases, we are left hoping that we would behave as well as they did.

Glenn Close is to be admired for letting us compare her to Katharine Hepburn in the altogether unnecessary remake of The Lion in Winter (Sunday, May 23; 7:30 to 10 p.m.; Showtime). And since Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the few roles in which she seemed to be trying to ingratiate herself with the audience—her Academy Award was at least as much for being lovable as it was for being queenly—Close comes off just fine. As Henry II in the noisy reprise, a white-bearded Patrick Stewart opens up in his full-throttle Star Trek Holodeck parallel-universe mode, and appears to be having as much fun as Peter O’Toole did in the original, certainly more fun than O’Toole has as Priam in the ridiculous new Troy. As Richard the Lion-Hearted, Eleanor’s personal favorite to replace Henry on the throne of England, Anthony Howard is too much of a ruffian, a kind of soccer hooligan, to remind us of Anthony Hopkins. As King Philip II of France, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is petulant, whereas Timothy Dalton was flummoxed. And as the beauteous Alais, Philip’s sister and Henry’s mistress, betrothed to Richard but mad about his dad, Julia Vysotsky gets to take off her clothes because she’s on premium cable.

“As historical pageants go, The Lion in Winter is less insulting than Troy.”

None of this matters much. As historical pageants go, it’s less insulting than Troy, which decided that it could somehow do better than Homer, the best sportswriter in the old Greek leagues. Ideally, Winter should have been played if not for music-hall slapstick, then perhaps as a sort of Freudian-Pinteresque nursery farce—James Goldman wasn’t Shakespeare—with Henry’s rude sons as the Primal Horde. Showtime’s version starts out as if intending such insouciance, but the soufflé soon falls to solemn pancake dough.

They talk and talk and talk in Scott Turow’s Reversible Errors (Sunday, May 23, and Tuesday, May 25; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS), which is why it takes two nights to televise the courtroom novel. But surprisingly little happens except yak. As is often the case with Turow, the wrong man is in prison, a barbaric death penalty needs to be appealed, there are as many lawyers not to be trusted as there are you’d want to hire, and the cops have their own contradictory agendas. In this instance, a triple murder involving airline tickets, drug deals, and insurance salesmen has advanced several political careers, even if the real culprit won’t be discovered for seven long years, until one half of the cast talks the other half into believing the confession of the person who actually did the killing.

Even so, the equally awful truth about how a wrongful conviction and a dreadful punishment came about will remain covered up. Meanwhile, Tom Selleck is a homicide detective who never seems to recover from having been dumped by Monica Potter, who not only got a better offer but also stopped being blonde, while William H. Macy is a corporate lawyer who has been in love with Felicity Huffman ever since he used to work in the D.A.’s office and she was a judge, which she no longer is because she took bribes. Aside from the talkiness, the real problem with Reversible Errors is that not only the erstwhile Magnum but also Monica, William H., and Felicity, too, left their sense of humor in Hawaii.

Living Spirits