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On the Tube: Humor and adventure heat up ABC's 'Arabian Nights'

Friday, April 28, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Huh. Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Robert Halmi Sr. -- known for increasingly awful NBC miniseries set in verdant, vaguely European lands featuring characters on a quest (see: "10th Kingdom," "The Legend of the Magical Leprechauns," etc.) -- actually stretches with "Arabian Nights," and viewers are the beneficiaries.

Gone is the pastoral European countryside. The tiresome quest theme has been retired.

Instead, the four-hour "Arabian Nights" takes a short story approach with tales of adventure and humor. They're good stories and it's not always obvious where each one is going.

"Arabian Nights" begins with the Sultan Schariar (Dougray Scott) threatening to kill his new wife, Scheherazade (Mili Avital), because of a previous bad marriage. To stall him, Scheherazade tells stories.

There's the tale of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Aladdin and the magic lamp, the beggar who becomes Sultan and the story of the three brothers.

It's a nice mix of humor and adventure, morality tales and special effects sequences. Actually, Halmi's trademark visual effects are pretty restrained in "Arabian Nights." They're limited -- both in the sense of few and in the sense that they're not that good -- to dragons in Part One, a magic carpet ride in Part Two and actor John Leguizamo, who has a dual role as the overweight Ring Genie and the tall, wispy Lamp Genie.

Leguizamo's characters give "Arabian Nights" an energy infusion in the tale of Aladdin, played by nimble Jason Scott Lee. But the most entertaining story is a "Weekend at Bernie's"-type tale of Bacbac (Alexi Sayle), who dies. No one wants to take responsibility for Bacbac's death, and his body gets passed around until his demise is finally revealed in a courtroom.

Throughout "Arabian Nights," Scheherazade goes to an old storyteller for advice on concocting her yarns. He tells her, "The audience must be hooked in the first moments otherwise I've lost them." The producers of "Arabian Nights" could have used that advice on their previous projects, but this one has a hook.

It's confusing at first as Schariar's memories of his first wife come back slowly, but by the end of Part One, the Sultan's back story makes sense.

The old storyteller also tells Scheherazade, "You must leave your audience wanting more." As with most Halmi miniseries, that isn't accomplished to great effect in "Arabian Nights." Two hours might not have been enough time to tell the story, but four hours is too much of a pretty good thing.

"Arabian Nights" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. and Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

"The X-Files" (9 p.m. Sunday, Fox)

Die, "X-Files," die!

This show needs to end its run before it further diminishes the memory of good episodes from a few seasons back, but Sunday's "Hollywood A.D." proves one thing: series star David Duchovny is an excellent writer.

He may be arrogant, he may have a nasty penchant for belittling his co-workers, but the guy can write. He also directed this funny outing that finds Mulder (Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating the death of a '60s radical in a church basement.

During their investigation they're accompanied by a Hollywood producer who refers to Scully's look as "Jodie Foster's foster child on a Payless budget." The producer wants to make a movie based loosely on their exploits. Naturally, the film twists things -- Cigarette Smoking Man becomes the Cigarette Smoking Pontiff who rules an army of zombies.

It's a clever send-up of Hollywood's lowest common denominator thinking and at the same time tweaks "The X-Files." In the movie within the show, there are inside jokes with the casting of Duchovny's friend, Garry Shandling, as the movie Mulder, and Duchovny's wife, Tea Leoni, as the ready-for-her-close-up Scully.

Duchovny pulls off the difficult task of juggling a classic "X-Files" tale with Hollywood hijinks. He also wrote several nice Scully-questions-her-faith scenes for Anderson, which is more than she did for him in her recent writing/directorial debut.

Despite rumors about their "complicated" working relationship, Duchovny the director brings out Anderson's giddy side. She's much less dour than usual, laughing and smiling in a way that's not what viewers expect from Dana Scully.

And that may be the pitfall of having actors write for themselves: the characters become more like the actor and less like the character. That was clearly the case in Anderson's recent episode.

In "Hollywood A.D.," Duchovny keeps Mulder pretty much in check, but Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) comes across as much looser than usual. And then there's Scully's giggling.

Duchovny also gives the episode a coda that feels superfluous and unnecessary.

Nitpicks aside, it's an entertaining "X-Files" hour, especially when the focus is on movie making (pay close attention to the background in the scene where Shandling and Duchovny discuss whether Mulder dresses to the left or right).

That "The X-Files" must turn to slapstick humor to produce a brilliant episode only confirms my original impression: This show needs to end.

Die, "X-Files," die!

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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