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"Masters of Science Fiction" too artistic for ABC

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 25.

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.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter