LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - This is what happens to
an original series at ABC when its mercurial entertainment
president Stephen McPherson doesn't like it: It gets put on
hold for more than a year, trimmed from six episodes to four
and then buried deep within the bowels of television Siberia.
That's what they call it when you air Saturday nights at 10
in August. It simply wouldn't be possible for a broadcast
network to more effectively guarantee that a series be viewed
exclusively by close friends and family members of the
production team, unless they cut the national signal and
screened it instead on someone's front porch.
But this, alas, is the fate that has befallen "Masters of
Science Fiction," and the shame of it is that from the looks of
the first two hour-long installments, the network is
appallingly firing a fatal bullet through an anthology project
of genuine artistic vision. The problem is, it apparently
doesn't track as nearly shallow enough for the suits whose job
it is to prevent pretty much anything that's unique and
imaginative from accidentally leaking out to the public.
But hey, as long as there's room in sweeps for such
literary masterpieces as "National Bingo Night" and "Shaq's Big
Challenge," ABC should remain safely insulated from most
programming that could somehow be construed as brainier than
your average speed-dating mixer. Imagine the same guy whose
network boasts such MENSA candidates as "The Bachelor" and
"Wife Swap" referring to a show that dramatizes short stories
by such legendary writers as Harlan Ellison and Robert A.
Heinlein as "very uneven" and "a little bit problematic."
That's how McPherson described "Masters" in justifying his
slicing it down and burning it off. And by comparison, this
would make "According to Jim" . . . what? A bellwether of
consistency? A landmark comedic achievement?
There surely are times when it's ridiculously easy to feel
like we've crossed over into "The Twilight Zone," isn't it? As
it happens, this idea is particularly apt given how "Masters of
Science Fiction" (not to be confused with Showtime's
exceptional "Masters of Horror," which might or might not see a
third season) pays homage to that Rod Serling classic.
Co-produced by Starz Media and incorporating the computerized
voice of iconic physicist Stephen Hawking as our unseen host,
the four-parter (two other installments were inexplicably
killed) finds such distinguished writers as Oscar nominee
Michael Tolkin and Howard Fast and short stories from directors
including Mark Rydell, also an Oscar nominee. And the
ingenious, irascible Ellison adapted his own material in a
teleplay for the short story "The Discarded" that airs August
First up on Saturday is "A Clean Escape," with a teleplay
by Sam Egan and direction from Rydell. Oh, and by the way, it
just so happens that it stars Judy Davis and Sam Waterston
(Oscar nominees both) in the futuristic John Kessel tale about
a dying doctor (Davis) who goes to great lengths to uncover why
a patient of hers (Waterston) can't remember the past 25 years
of his life. It's smart and twisty and intense and superbly
performed, with Rydell's directorial work lifting the piece to
a whole other level. The second, "The Awakening" (with Michael
Petroni both scripting and directing from a Fast short story,
airing August 11) features Terry O'Quinn ("Lost") and Elisabeth
Rohm in a superb hour that blends wartime drama with paranormal
undertones to great unsettling effect.
Anne Heche and Malcolm McDowell co-star in the third
episode, "Jerry Was a Man," airing August 18 and adapted by
writer-director Tolkin from the Heinlein tale. The Ellison
contribution -- boasting the acting talents of a couple of
greats named John Hurt and Brian Dennehy -- closes out a
provocative, rich, lavishly produced, sharply performed quartet
that ABC has seen fit to disdainfully conceal rather than
proudly celebrate. But let them trim so much as a minute from
the end of "Dancing With the Stars" and we'd never hear the end
of it as the audience rose up in spastic rage.