Good mystery lost in so-so miniseries

`Living with Dead' is rather flat

TV Preview

April 27, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Living with the Dead, a four-hour miniseries starring Ted Danson and "inspired" by the life of medium James Van Praagh, is the kind of made-for-TV movie that used to flood the networks during sweeps ratings periods.

With major stars, a topic linked to an ongoing front-page story, some sensationalism and a big budget, the multi-night presentations often added up to something worth getting excited about - once upon a time. Since the maturation of cable in the 1990s, though, I'm not so sure it's as successful. The "big event," sweeps, formula-film feels as though it has done a lot of shrinking lately. While there is nothing awful about this version of it, there is also nothing great about it, either. Mostly, Living with the Dead left me cold.

Besides Danson, who plays Van Praagh, the other stars are Academy Award-winners Mary Steenburgen (Danson's real-life wife) and Jack Palance. Queen Latifah, Michael Moriarty and Diane Ladd are also on board in supporting roles. Palance plays Van Praagh's father, Allan, while Steenburgen plays Detective Karen Condrin, a police investigator who works with Van Praagh to solve the case of several boys who have gone missing.

There is a pretty good two-hour made-for-TV movie hiding in this CBS miniseries involving the whodunit aspect of the missing kids. Night 2 (Tuesday) mainly tells that story, and it's a heck of a lot better than Night 1 (tomorrow), which starts out with Van Praagh as a child and reveals all the terrible things priests, nuns, classmates and others said and did to him whenever little James innocently repeated what those who had crossed over were saying to him.

Poor James. His parents weren't much help, either. Mom (Diane Ladd) told him to pray that those on the other side would stop talking to him, while Dad told him it was a bunch of hooey and time for him to shape up. And when Palance sticks that scrunched-up duffel bag of a mug in your little-boy face and tells you to buck up, it's something you try to do. But you know how it is with those pesky spirits: blab, blab, blab, blab, blab.

(OK, I admit it, I'm not a true believer in mediums. I guess I'm skeptical about how vocal those on the other side seem to get during sweeps ratings periods. And before you denounce me, wait to see how many TV mediums this month claim to hear from Bonnie Lee Bakley, actor Robert Blake's late wife.)

The sensationalistic, ripped-from-the-headlines aspect of Living with the Dead involves a Catholic priest emerging as the prime suspect in the disappearance of the boys. The show does its very best to exploit the real-life scandal involving Catholic priests as serial rapists of boys. In fact, Night 2's suspense of will-they-catch-the-killer-before-he/she -kills-again feeds incessantly upon it.

In the end, the most important thing about a multi-night sweeps production like this is the performance of the big-name star. Danson does OK, but not great.

I think Danson is trying to suggest a distracted, ill-at-ease, otherworldliness to Van Praagh. But from the ill-fitting short-sleeve dress shirts to the geeky way he moves, what Danson mainly creates is a nerd.

There's nothing wrong with that, if that is his take on Van Praagh, but to me it plays like a second-rate imitation of Russell Crowe's schizophrenic John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. I'm not criticizing the actor's strategy, just the uninspired execution.

Miniseries

What: Living with the Dead

When: Tomorrow and Tuesday night at 9

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: Ted Danson plays a medium in this not very well-done production.

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