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Hercules Groks ABC’s

I am – Hercules!!
A surprising network series full of big ideas and unafraid to get dark and weird, ABC’s new “Masters of Science Fiction” anthology is considerably more fun than most of those color “Outer Limits” and “Twilight Zone” episodes produced subsequent to Rod Serling’s demise. The first episode, airing tonight, stars the great Judy Davis and Sam Waterston but stands as the least satisfying of the series. Based on a story by John Kessel, “A Clean Escape” was directed by Mark Rydell (“On Golden Pond”) from a teleplay by Sam Egan (“Northern Exposure”) and depicts a man whose brain has not been able to create new memories in years. A highly accessible story, it is ultimately undone by an anticlimactic denouement but fascinates nonetheless as its hour of twists unspool. Next week’s “The Awakening” was adapted and directed by Michael Petroni (“Till Human Voices Wake Us”) from Howard Fast’s short story “The General Zapped …” The only episode not set decades in the future, it’s about what happens after something extraterrestrial smacks into the Iraqi desert. Terry O’Quinn (“Lost”) is typically compelling as a retired military UFO expert; gorgeous Elizabeth Rohm (Kate the cop on “Angel”) plays the Air Force officer sent to pull him out of retirement. William B. Davis (“The X-Files”) plays a too-paranoid U.S. president and a “Crimson Tide”/”2010”/”Day The Earth Stood Still” vibe comes to manifest. It’s all a bit familiar and the president’s impulsiveness is hard to swallow, but it’s well-paced and I can’t say my interest flagged. “Jerry Was A Man,” the third episode, is easily the best of the lot, a black and occasionally moving comedy based on the Robert Heinlein short story about an intellect-enhanced animal. (In the episode it’s the tale of a replicant’s bid for human rights.) It was adapted and directed by Michael Tolkin, who in 1991 wrote and directed a brilliant Mimi Rogers movie titled “The Rapture.” Anne Heche and Malcolm McDowell play out some spectacularly witty moments in “Jerry,” and they’re backed by a boatload of admirably restrained (Canadian?) supporting players I mostly fail to recognize. I love the guy who plays the title role, love the guys who play the lawyers, love the girl who plays the lead judge. It saddens now that Tolkin hasn’t directed more over the last couple of decades. Be warned though that some critics didn’t seem to care so much for “Jerry,” so you might not either. The final episode, “The Discarded,” was directed by Jonathan Frakes (“Star Trek: Insurrection,” “Clockstoppers”) from a teleplay co-written by Harlan Ellison (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and Josh Olson (“A History of Violence”), based on Ellison’s 1959 short story. It’s perhaps too eccentric in detail for many tastes, but solid and sophisticated entertainment at its core. It’s also the most Ellison-y thing I’ve seen on film to date, which means – among other things – some of its many gags feel a little moldy and it telegraphs some of its points too aggressively. Brian Dennehy is so good here he manages to upstage even the amazing John Hurt. Every episode is narrated by Stephen Hawking’s voice machine! But what matters Herc’s opinion? Entertainment Weekly gives it a “B” and says:
… There's real juice in this …
The Associated Press says:
… In some ways, this is pretty amazing stuff … This is just the kind of thing that charges the imaginations of 14-year-old boys, or of older boys who sit at home on Saturday nights, phasars [sic] at the ready.
The New York Daily News says:
For the next four weeks, ABC presents its best new series in more than a year: an ambitious, artistic, refreshingly intelligent anthology series … Tonight's opener, "A Clean Escape," is a brilliant duel of wits between an Army psychiatrist (Judy Davis) and a forgetful patient (Sam Waterston), set 24 years in the future. …
The Los Angeles Times says:
… "Uneven" is not wrong. They are all over the place. The worst are undone by their own earnestness and the explicitness with which the dialogue presents the issues that the action should embody. Least successful is tonight's opener …
Variety says:
… uneven … in this collection of adapted short stories, one is quite good, another's better than OK, and two are fairly lousy … Saving the best for last … is the quite good "The Discarded," telling the story of a group of misfits banished into space aboard what amounts to a huge floating prison. The ever-mercurial Harlan Ellison adapted his short story along with Josh Olson, and it showcases the kind of rich, detailed material that packs a surprising amount of character development into an hour, buoyed by John Hurt and Brian Dennehy …
The Hollywood Reporter says:
… an anthology project of genuine artistic vision. … a provocative, rich, lavishly produced, sharply performed quartet …
10 p.m. Saturday. ABC.

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