Earthquake isn't the only disaster

Review: `Sweeps' movies like `Aftershock' have one reviewer shouting, `Save me!'

November 13, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

You know what would make me really happy? If Monica from "Touched By An Angel" came up to me right now and said, "David, my boy, your prayers have been answered. You will never have to watch another `sweeps' disaster movie or write a preview of one again. There's only so much mental torture one mortal should have to suffer."

While I'm waiting for Monica to arrive, let me tell you that I have absolutely hit the wall on made-for-TV disaster movies, and "Aftershock: Earthquake in New York," the big-deal CBS miniseries that starts tomorrow night, was the one that put me over the edge.

I would like to say nice things about it, because it features Baltimore's Charles S. Dutton as mayor of New York City in a big-name cast that includes Cicely Tyson, Tom Skerritt and Sharon Lawrence. But seeing such talent wasted on such a stupid story only makes it more maddening. It's like watching Laurence Olivier in "The Betsy."

"Aftershock" opens in sunshine and lets us meet all the players as they go about their business. There's Evie Lincoln (Lisa Nicole Carson, of "Ally McBeal"), the daughter of Mayor Bruce Lincoln (Dutton), in court winning a big case. And there's Emily Lincoln (Tyson), the mayor's mother, in a church basement trying to lead a street thug (Ray J) to salvation. And here's former Fire Chief Thomas Ahearn (Skerritt), who has just resigned from the NYFD in a battle with the mayor. Ahearn's daughter, Christine (Kimberly Warnat), is taking the highly publicized resignation of her father badly. He's not doing too well either.

Nor is Dorie Thorell (Lawrence), who is struggling through the guilt of being at the wheel when her son was injured in an auto accident.

Throw in a ballet dancer, an immigrant cab driver, a surgeon away at a convention and a kid with a limp, and you pretty much have all the major players who haven't been paying enough attention to the underground rumblings that are accompanied by the kind of music we heard every time we saw the shark paddling along underwater in "Jaws."

By the time the quake hits, it is almost a relief, believe me, because at least we're going to get some action.

I know the cast is a metaphor for a multicultural America, and that in these times of culture wars we should find reassurance in the way these characters work together -- reassurance that the conflicts of today will lead to a better America tomorrow.

I like that idea, but I think we can find a more engaging way to say that in our popular culture -- one that doesn't take four hours of special effects excess brought to us by Robert Halmi Sr., Mr. Miniseries Excess himself.

Watch if you must. Me, I'm waiting for Monica.

TV this weekend

What: "New York: A Documentary Film"

When: Tomorrow through Thursday, 9 p.m.-11 p.m.

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

In a nutshell: Love them or hate them, the Burns brothers spin a good yarn.

What: "Aftershock: Earthquake in New York"

When: Tomorrow and Tuesday 9 p.m.-11 p.m.

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In a nutshell: Shake me when it's over.

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