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Tune In: Fox's 'Night Visions' creepy but pretty dim

Thursday, July 12, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Creepy and occasionally icky, Fox's new anthology series "Night Visions" (8 tonight) seeks to be a modern "Twilight Zone." But laughable narration from meathead rocker Henry Rollins and an overreliance on violent plot twists make the series unworthy of the "Twilight Zone" legacy.

Tonight's first story, "The Passenger List," starts the series with some promise. An airline crash investigator (Aidan Quinn) sees a jet go down and gets to the scene almost immediately. Later, a relative (Kelly Rutherford) of some of the victims starts hitting on him. Then he tries to call his daughter, but her college roommate seems distraught that he'd be asking for her.

Written by series creators Dan Angel and Billy Brown, it's a suspenseful tale with an ending that may surprise viewers who haven't watched enough of this sort of story to figure it out in advance.

Fox originally announced "Night Visions" more than a year ago as a series for its fall 2000 schedule. It got pushed back until now, which essentially means the series is D.O.A. (Angel and Brown are now working on a "Battlestar Galactica" revival for Fox and Sci Fi Channel.)

The demise of "Night Visions" comes as little surprise. I can't imagine an anthology series working in today's television environment. Viewers crave characters they can connect to, and that's something inherently absent from anthology shows.

Certainly no one will be encouraged to tune in by "host" Rollins. He's rigid and humorless and doesn't have much to say anyway, sometimes as little as two sentences before or after each story.

Each episode of "Night Visions" consists of two stories. The show settles into its regular time slot (9 p.m. Thursday) next week.

Tonight's second story, "The Bokor," devolves into a tale of the teen horror flick variety. Samantha Mathis and Jason London play medical students involved in a voodoo curse. There are scenes of a cadaver's forehead being cut into, statements that portend obvious doom (" 'Til death do us part," a woman tells her fiance, so you know that parting will come sooner rather than later) and a twist that is pretty obvious.

A spooky anthology series depends so much on good writing and taut directing, and it's really hit or miss on "Night Visions." Tonight's third story, "Dead Air," by former "Millennium" staff writers Erin Maher and Kay Reindl, spins a fairly suspenseful tale about an arrogant disc jockey (Lou Diamond Phillips). But it relies too heavily on the gross-out factor and the ending is, again, not a surprise.

The night's last story, about a recovering alcoholic (Gil Bellows) who moves his family into a house where a murder occurred 30 years earlier, is just plain disturbing and smacks of too many real-life cases of spousal abuse to count as entertainment in any form.

But watching the show did give me one supernatural power: I have seen the future, and it does not include "Night Visions" on the Fox schedule.

Pop-Up Brady

"The Brady Bunch" has been rerun incessantly since it first aired in prime time in the '60s, but leave it to Nick at Nite to give viewers a new reason to tune in. The show has been popped, as in the word bubbles that popped up on screen during VH1's "Pop Up Video."

Info nuggets with behind-the-scene dirt ("Brady" dad Robert Reed hated slapstick), keen observation (creator Sherwood Schwartz loved alliteration) and other details (Fluffy the cat was never mentioned after the pilot) pop up throughout the half-hour episodes airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m. next week through Aug. 29.

Headline News

While in Atlanta last week, I toured the CNN studios and learned two things: Headline News is not always live, but it soon will be.

In preparation for a revamped Headline News, expected to debut next month, a new studio is nearing completion. I got a glimpse. It's a studio in the round featuring a lot of contoured wood, sort of like the "Dateline NBC" set, but the wood is lighter in color.

Live from Latrobe

Showtime Event Television, a pay-per-view subsidiary of the Showtime premium cable network, will offer coverage of the sold-out Rolling Rock Town Fair 2.0 at the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds as part of a pay-per-view special Aug. 11 at 9 p.m.

The cost will be $19.95 and will include performances by Stone Temple Pilots, Live, Deftones, Tantric and Oleander.

Another opinion

Getting a local TV news executive to speak honestly on the record about the positive attributes of rival stations isn't an easy task. Interesting as it might be to hear their opinions, their reluctance to praise a competitor is certainly understandable.

But when former WPGH news director Tom Burke left town for Fresno, I asked him what he thought about his former competitors in Pittsburgh.

After seeing news broadcasts in other markets while on his job search after his dismissal from WPGH in January, Burke said he has "a greater appreciation for the job the news people are doing in this market. It's better than I thought. They have carved out their niches."

And his favorite?

"I think Channel 4 actually does the best job," Burke said. "Channel 4 has the kind of news operation I'd like to be part of. They're well-rounded. I have tremendous respect for WPXI. They do nothing but hard news and don't deviate from that. No features, no soft stuff. I have to admire them for doing that. Al Blinke will get KDKA rolling. It's too bad what happened to Joe Coscia. He was doing a good job and the newscast looked better and morale was improving."

Burke said he especially appreciates the variety of news included in WTAE's newscasts.

"It's not the constant harping on negative hard news," Burke said. "So what if we see a water skiing squirrel at the end of the newscast? If I watch a newscast for an hour, I'm happy to have that variety. I think viewers really prefer that."

As a viewer, Burke said he also grew to appreciate the Channel 4 personalities, particularly sports anchor Andrew Stockey, who he thinks could easily leap to a larger market.

"He and Wendy Bell are the better examples of the kind of warmth that you must have in a newscast," Burke said. "You can't just read the news, even though that's what some stations prefer. As a viewer, I like some humanity."

Previewing the fall shows

I'm off to Los Angeles tomorrow for the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Critics from across the country will gather to interview network executives, show producers and actors about the new batch of series premiering in a few months.

The good news, judging by the pilot episodes I've seen, is there are few atrocious shows coming. Instead, most of the new series appear to fall somewhere in the mediocre-to-good spectrum.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions to www post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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