Vulgarity, racism mar fairy tale

TV previews

February 26, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Robert Halmi Sr., the producer famous for turning great literary works like the Bible and "Crime and Punishment" into prime-time mush, has taken on the entire canon of Western fairy tales this time with "The 10th Kingdom," debuting tomorrow night on NBC.

Lord have mercy on our channel changers.

I did not think I'd live to see a mini-series this bloated and self-indulgent. It runs 10 hours, and it cost $50 million to make. Even by network standards, that's a lot.

That $50 million would have paid for two full seasons (44 episodes) of "Homicide: Life on the Street" or a year and a half (33 episodes) of "The West Wing." Instead, we have a five-night miniseries that defines network excess.

There is nothing wrong with the idea behind this mini-series: creating a super fairy tale set in the years after "Happily Ever After" that revisits the characters and re-imagines the European fairy tales many of us grew up on. And Simon Moore, the Englishman who wrote "Gulliver's Travels" for Halmi back in the days before the producer started churning out literary-based mini-series like bad sitcoms, has the imagination to do it. In fact, for about 20 minutes of night one, I thought Moore was actually going to pull it off.

"The 10th Kingdom" is a classic hero quest -- except the hero is a heroine, a young waitress named Virginia (Kimberly Williams), who believes she is destined for a life without excitement. Living with her dull dad (John Larroquette), a put-upon janitor/handyman in an apartment building in New York City, it looks like she might be right.

But, unknown to her, big events are taking place in one of the nine other kingdoms -- parallel universes made up of fantastic creatures and characters from folklore, fairy tale and myth. There has been a prison escape in the fourth kingdom. The Evil Queen (Dianne Wiest) has been freed from her cell in Snow White Prison by a family of evil trolls, and in her first act as a free woman she has turned Prince Wendell, rightful ruler of the kingdom, into a dog.

Riding through Central Park on her bike, Virginia accidentally hits the prince-turned-dog, who has managed to jump realms while fleeing not only the trolls but also a wolf (Scott Cohen), who was once known as Big Bad in Little Red's neck of the woods.

And, so, the journey begins with Virginia, the trolls, the wolf and Wendell all chasing one another and jumping realms.

There are some charming performances, most notably by Cohen as a wolf falling in love with Virginia against all his worse instincts. But some of the choices Halmi has made are so stupid as to be deadly.

For this clunker to have any chance of succeeding commercially, it needs a family audience. Yet, the first half-hour has language that I can't even reproduce in this newspaper because of its vulgarity. For example, the trolls repeatedly utter a curse whenever they are foiled. And they are foiled a lot. Call me a prude, but don't call me Monday to complain when your 8-year-old greets you with the trolls' curse as you wake him for school.

But there is an even larger problem with the trolls. Along with The Evil Queen, they are clearly the bad guys in this tale. The NBC press material describes them as "thuggish" and "decadent."

It goes on to say, "The kingdoms are filled with unforgettable characters who reflect the world as we know it today. The trolls wear leather and dreadlocks, and impoverished Goblins and Dwarves squander their last gold coins on the coveted Jack Rabbit Jackpot and the Kissing Town Casino."

What part of "the world as we know it today" is that supposed to be reflecting? A dangerous underclass?

It gets worse. In addition to the dreadlocks, the trolls also have dark skin -- an inexcusable choice by Halmi and Moore that will give some viewers more than enough cues to read this tale in racist terms.

This is the same NBC that just signed a big-deal agreement with the NAACP saying it was going to be more careful about the images it portrays. Yeah, right.

I don't care if "The 10th Kingdom" does become the hit of the season. For all its $50 million, NBC should still be ashamed.

`10th Kingdom'

When: Tomorrow and Monday, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Wednesday, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.; March 5 from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., and March 6 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: Imaginative concept, stupid execution

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