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Miniseries puts Ted Danson in unreal murder mystery

Friday, April 26, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Judging by the commercials for CBS's four-hour miniseries "Living with the Dead" (9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday), it's easy to assume star Ted Danson is not among the living. He looks positively cadaverous.

But -- surprise! -- he's alive. An ashen Danson merely sees dead people in this preposterous, molasses-paced program. Think of it as "Crossing Over: The Miniseries."

Instead of John Edward, "famed medium" James Van Praagh conjured this tale for his best-selling novel, "Talking to Heaven." CBS changed the title, no doubt to avoid anything too religious (heaven forbid).

Danson plays the grown-up James, who reflects back on his childhood when he realizes his power to talk to the dead. The scenes of young James have a stark believability about them, but by the time Mary Steenburgen (Danson's real-life wife) arrives in his adulthood as a police detective who easily believes James' ability, "Living with the Dead" gets loony.

After a start that's rooted in some sort of reality, "Living With the Dead" becomes a supernatural murder mystery as James and the detective try to figure out who's killing teen-age boys by burying them alive.

This depressing story could have made a creepy episode of "The X-Files" -- and maybe at some point it did -- but as a drawn-out miniseries there are too many children-in-jeopardy scenes. Maybe CBS is going for the coveted masochist demographic.

Danson, besides looking ill throughout the program, overdoes the gaping mouth, I-can't-believe-what-I'm-seeing thing. He's also the most apologetic psychic ever, constantly saying "sorry" for his impolite conversations with ghosts no one else can see.

Soon he'll owe an apology to anyone who sits through this miniseries.

'The Gathering Storm' (8 p.m. tomorrow, HBO)

An intriguing snapshot of Winston Churchill (Albert Finney) from 1934 to the start of World War II, "The Gathering Storm" shows the political games played in England as Germany armed itself for war.

It's a riveting, intimate sliver of an oncoming, epic conflict that's almost Merchant-Ivory in feel (minus most of the frustrating repression).

Directed by Richard Loncraine ("Band of Brothers," "Richard III"), the film depicts 60-year-old Churchill as both a benevolent dictator to his staff and a husband who realizes how much he loves and needs his wife, Clemmie (Vanessa Redgrave), only after she leaves on a four-month voyage.

Before then, he's overly caught up in international affairs and salvaging what he thinks is the twilight of his career.

"My dear, I'm trying to save India from Mr. Gandhi and his gang of subversive Hindus, to save British Imperial power from a disastrous eclipse and to save the Tory party from an act of shame and dishonor," Churchill blusters early in the film.

Finney's commitment to the character is so complete, the actor quickly disappears. Only the cigar-smoking, dry-witted Churchill remains. As good as he is at ordering around his devoted butler, Finney's performance is equally as skillful in scenes of touching devotion with Redgrave's patient Clemmie.

Churchill's children aren't particularly well developed, but the story isn't about them. It does, however, include Churchill's dealings with political allies, including one played by recent Oscar winner Jim Broadbent ("Iris," "Moulin Rouge"), and a foreign service officer (Linus Roache) who provides Churchill with secret information that fuels his prescient rants against Germany's military buildup.

Anyone expecting a World War II movie will be disappointed. "The Gathering Storm" ends just as the war begins, but it's a fascinating character study about one of the pivotal figures in 20th-century history.

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

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