Hardy Fare

Regrettable Decisions: Jodhi May and Ciaran Hinds in Casterbridge.Photo: Tony Russell

As if a sober and respectful adaptation of an earnest and leisurely nineteenth-century novel could still compete for eyes and ears in a twenty-first-century entertainment environment engineered to entice instead the sex-crazed, the violence junkies, and the attention-deficit-disordered—as if even the oil companies hadn’t bailed on public television’s Masterpiece Theatre because nobody seems to care anymore about character as destiny versus the British class system—here without apology are three more hours of Thomas Hardy moping about old Wessex, looking in vain for a laugh.

The Mayor of Casterbridge (Sunday, August 17; 8 to 11 p.m.; A&E) was the first of Hardy’s mature novels, published in 1886, five years before Tess of the D’Urbervilles, nine before Jude the Obscure. Its first chapter must have been a shock even to Victorians accustomed to melodramatic contrivance. No sooner did we meet the unhappy Michael Henchard, a hay trusser looking for work in the early 1800s, than we had to sit down and get drunk with him, under a tent at a county fair with a bunch of Hardy rustics, after which he auctioned off his wife and child for £5 to a passing sailor. He would regret this transaction the next day, too late to retrieve them, and swear off booze for the next twenty years. But in starting over again from scratch, unencumbered, he would also get what he wished for.

Getting what you wish for in a Thomas Hardy novel is not a good idea. The bachelor Henchard, full of aggressive ambition, upwardly mobilizes to wealth, property, status, and political clout. He is a recognizable variation on a nineteenth-century type, the social climber as romantic hero, who wills himself to superimpose a larger meaning on his ordinary life by risking all, who overreaches and self-destructs. He differs from the sensitive norm in that his inwardness is self-lacerating, not self-pitying; such inner consciousness as he is capable of consists entirely of guilt. Naturally, when his ex-wife, Susan, shows up twenty years later, Henchard will marry her all over again, even though he promised to wed another woman, the well-fixed Lucetta.

“It is not a pretty picture, but it is an absorbing television movie.”

More quickly than he rose in the rude world, Henchard will now plummet, until, after many reproachful women have died, he ends up as a day laborer in the generous employ of the upstart Farfrae, a young Scotsman whom he had earlier hired to help him with a crop problem. It is not a pretty picture, but it is an absorbing television movie, with a ferocious Ciarán Hinds as Henchard; a noble Juliet Aubrey as his off-again, on-again wife, Susan; Jodhi May hurrying over from Daniel Deronda to suffer as Elizabeth-Jane; pretty Polly Walker, fresh from Lorna Doone, as Lucetta; and James Purefoy as Farfrae, a little too nice and not as hard to read as he seemed in the novel. David Thacker directs with stately zest, causing the years to roll by like the horses on a carousel. It’s all very retro. Think how Henchard, and Thomas Hardy, too, might have been rehabilitated, if only the Fab Five had cast a queer eye on his hair, nest, fridge, and chitchat.

When the interesting parts dried up in Hollywood, Rosanna Arquette began to wonder just what women over 40 were supposed to do in a cinema culture geared to bunny hugs and teen vamps. So, in the hallowed name of the actress who one day just walked away from the degrading business, she shouldered a camera and went trolling for wisdom. Searching for Debra Winger (Monday, August 18; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; Showtime) is the meandering result. With the wondrous likes of Jane Fonda, Teri Garr, Whoopi Goldberg, Melanie Griffith, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Frances McDormand, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave, Meg Ryan, Sharon Stone, JoBeth Williams, Alfre Woodard, and, an hour into the proceedings, the mesmerizing Winger herself, Arquette discusses kids, careers, art, passion, guilt, nudity, and what male producers are really thinking about when they look at you during an audition. I’m not persuaded that Salma Hayek, Julianna Margulies, Julia Ormond, and Martha Plimpton are old enough for this film. Ally Sheedy? But this uncertainty argues Arquette’s point. These are women, as Holly Hunter says of Susan Sarandon, Barbara Hershey, Meryl Streep, and Jessica Lange, who are “dangerous and sexual and take great risks”—who own their own bodies.

America Undercover: Latin Kings: A Street Gang Story (August 14; 9:30 to 10:45 p.m.; HBO) is Jon Alpert’s yearlong look at two-time felon Antonio “King Tone” Fernandez and his Puerto Rican street gang as they try to remake themselves and their image into a sort of social-service agency. At least one district attorney is unconvinced, no matter what King Tone’s radical lawyer, Ron Kuby, has to say on the subject. And by the end of the film, Tone is going back to jail.

The Cheetah Girls (August 15; 8 to 10 p.m.; Disney Channel), with Raven, Sabrina Bryan, Adrienne Bailon, and Kiely Williams, follows a New York singing group trying to win a talent show and a recording deal. Based on the books by Deborah Gregory, with Lynn Whitfield as Raven’s mother.

Anatomy of a Scene: American Splendor (August 17; 7 to 7:30 p.m.; Sundance) looks at the moment in the movie about the comic-book artist Harvey Pekar when Harvey (Paul Giamatti) first meets Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis)—and thinks about graphic art turned into film.

Red Water (August 17; 8 to 10 p.m.; TBS), with Lou Diamond Phillips as a Louisiana riverboat captain and Kristy Swanson as his scientist ex-wife, seems about to blame some of the carnage that occurs in this movie on an oil company as well as a bull shark, but then retreats to blaming Coolio and a gang of treasure-hunting cutthroats. This is less a shark than a chicken.

Nefertiti Resurrected (August 17; 9 to 11 p.m.; Discovery) follows Dr. Joann Fletcher into a side chamber of tomb KV35 in the royal burial ground at Luxor to think about a mummy’s wig and what it might say about bygone Nubians. Could it have belonged to the queen they tried to erase from all the murals in ancient Egypt? So much for premature monotheism.

I Love the ’70s (August 18 through 22; 9 to 11 p.m.; VH1) devotes an hour to each year of the Me Decade, from platform shoes to Dirty Harry to Deep Throat to Pink Floyd to Patricia Hearst to Squeaky Fromme to Peter Frampton to Annie Hall to The Incredible Hulk to the Village People, plus Jimmy Carter’s mad rabbit.

Hardy Fare