Stories by Irwin Shaw, Henry Miller, Carson McCullers make literate drama

TELEVISION

August 17, 1991|By STEVE MCKERROW

There are not many occasions when the word "literary" can be applied accurately and affectionately to television programming. But what a nice exception is the HBO Showcase series "Women & Men 2," premiering on the premium cable network at 9 p.m. tomorrow.

In part that is because the trilogy of half-hour set pieces has been drawn from short stories by Irwin Shaw, Carson McCullers and Henry Miller.

But more than that, this second edition of the series (the first was seen a year ago) has the texture of a "good read," with meticulous attention to background detail and an involving theme that draws the viewer into intimacy with the characters.

In TV terms, very little actually happens in the three dramas, "Return to Kansas City" (based on Shaw), "Domestic Dilemma" (based on McCullers) and "Mara" (based on Miller). Instead, the action is mental and emotional, addressing the perpetual question of what it is that draws men to women.

In "Return to Kansas City," for example, Matt Dillon is a young boxer with a wife (Kyra Sedgwick), a baby and a pretty clear

vision of his future. He'll pick his bouts carefully for a couple years, make a name for himself and eventually get a title shot.

Ah, but his wife is homesick for her native Kansas City and complains "there's nothing to do in New York." She's urging him to take a bout with world champ Joey Patrick in exchange for the big purse, even though, Mr. Dillon says, "he's not the one who'll end up in the emergency room."

With a nicely done late '30s setting, the story throbs with sexual barter, although by cable standards there is nothing very graphic to be seen.

In "Domestic Dilemma," Andie MacDowell is the wife whose alcoholic depression holds husband Ray Liotta in thrall, while simultaneously creating the desire to take his young children and leave.

Set in the early 1950s, the drama nicely, if somewhat sadly, captures a time before there was enlightened treatment for such emotional disorders.

Finally, "Mara" recounts the apparently autobiographical Miller story in which he encounters a fetching Parisian prostitute and is perhaps the first man ever to treat her nicely -- that is, until the seemingly inevitable sexual transaction.

Scott Glenn, who looks as if he's lived several lives already, is the appropriately sallow writer and Juliette Binoche, who looks a little like Leslie Caron, is the girl.

While the three pieces all have different directing and production teams, it is interesting to note that food is used as a symbol for sensuality in each drama. In "Return to Kansas City," the cooking of steak and eggs is the backdrop of a tense argument, in "Domestic Dilemma" the sizzling of chops in a fry pan seems to underscore the tension, and in "Mara" Glenn's description of his coq au vin dinner to the famished Binoche is like a lewd proposal.

A nice saxophone-dominated score by Marvin Hamlisch, including a multitude of period recordings, adds to the satisfying texture of "Women & Men 2."

*

A TOUGH, TOUGH TOWN -- Also premiering on cable this weekend -- on the basic cable TBS service -- is a new season of "National Geographic Explorer," with new host Robert ("Spenser for Hire") Urich.

Among the reports in this week's show (at 9 p.m. tomorrow) is a visit to Hogan's Alley, a town near Quantico, Va., whose mayor says, surprisingly calmly, "We have a bank robbery about once every two weeks."

Actually, the mayor is an instructor and the community is a realistic set for the training of FBI agents. Part of the FBI Academy, it is a place where future agents are posed with a variety of "practicals," enactments of crimes to which they must react.

The bullets are not live, and the bad guys and girls are just actors. But members of a class which is followed through its training say it feels like the real thing.

What's more, adds one, "the rest of the U.S. should be happy there is a Hogan's Alley for us to make mistakes in."

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