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Bring on the Worms! 

What's new on the boob tube this week

The first Dune miniseries put me to sleep, despite the occasional appearance of a giant killer worm. Yes, the worms were cool -- a terrifying combination of a phallus (the long body) and a vagina (the gaping mouth). But it simply wasn't worth wading through the endless exposition to get to them. The sci-fi window dressing couldn't conceal the fact that this was little more than a talky soap opera about warring families, albeit warring families with spectacularly weird wardrobes.

The follow-up, Frank Herbert's Children of Dune (Sunday, March 16, Sci Fi), has a lot more spice. Maybe that's because it has a lot more Spice -- the worm-created substance that allows interstellar space travel. The Spice is now controlled by Paul Atreides (Alec Newman), who deposed the corrupt emperor in the last miniseries and assumed the throne of Dune. Now everyone's gunning for him, most notably Princess Wensicia (Susan Sarandon), the deposed emperor's daughter. "He who controls the Spice controls the universe," she hisses, her evil vibe only slightly undercut by a crown that looks like a TV antenna.

The new miniseries is also a talky soap opera, but a dazzling talky soap opera. The transformed Paul is a compelling central figure -- an all-powerful ruler who's tortured by the direction his revolution has taken. And this time, the Dune universe is fully imagined. Sci Fi has spared no expense on the sets and special effects, from the vast interiors to the strange beings to the whizzing spacecraft. The cinematography bathes everything in golden light and gives Dune the feel of a beautiful dream.

I never thought I'd say this after Survivor and Fear Factor, but: Bring on the worms!

Final Justice

Friday, March 14 (Lifetime)

Erin Brockovich describes her new series as "real stories about real women who get real justice." It sounds real cheesy, but Final Justice truly is an inspiring look at women who triumph over the rapists and murderers who would victimize them.

The segments are powerfully produced, with a mix of archival footage and dramatic re-enactments. On the other hand, if you haven't single-handedly tracked down a perp and had a federal law named after yourself, Final Justice is apt to make you feel like an underachiever.

Mafia Doctor

Sunday, March 16 (CBS)

In this TV movie, an Italian kid named Frank (Danny Nucci) becomes entranced by the mobsters in his Jersey neighborhood. Frank dreams of becoming a doctor, but instead gets mixed up with a Mafia don named Nicola (Paul Sorvino). Nicola makes Frank an offer: He'll front the cash for medical school if Frank agrees to be the "family" doctor. To sweeten the deal, Nicola promises not to kill Frank's father if he accepts.

CBS claims that Mafia Doctor is inspired by actual events. Hmmm. Maybe there was a Mafia doctor in a similar situation, but it's hard to believe his life was so rich in TV-movie elements: the choice between the good father and the evil surrogate father, the rivalry with his best friend over a girl, etc. Nevertheless, Mafia Doctor has an appealing wise-guy swagger, thanks to the fine cast. Sorvino is especially authoritative, even with spaghetti strands hanging out of his mouth. He pulls off the Brando-esque feat of communicating menace without so much as raising his voice.

Then there's the irresistible irony of watching a life-saver try to operate in the midst of life-takers. When Frank is scheduled to operate on one of Nicola's enemies, the boss lets it be known that he "don' wan' da guy ta get up offa da table." Frank mulls it over and finally disobeys, only to hear an unusual rebuke for a doctor who's just completed a successful operation: "Ya screwed up!"

Normal

Sunday, March 16 (HBO)

Roy (Tom Wilkinson) and Irma (Jessica Lange) are a typical couple from rural Illinois. Their seemingly perfect marriage has fallen into a rut, so they visit the local minister for counseling. Out of the blue, the beefy Roy announces, "I was born in the wrong body. I'm a woman. I've known it all my life."

Watching Lange's reaction to this bombshell, you realize that Normal will not be an exploitation movie, but a sophisticated portrait of a marriage. A lesser actress would scream and carry on. Lange only laughs nervously, as a shell-shocked person might do in real life. The screaming and carrying on come later, when the news sinks in and she sees her world coming to an end. "There's no way you could be a woman," Irma yells at Roy. "Only a man could be this selfish!"

But it's not selfishness, as Irma comes to see. Roy really does feel like a woman, and his decision to change into one requires a certain kind of courage. Taking a deep breath, he reports to his job at the tractor factory wearing an earring. He swallows hormones and moves to the soprano section of the church choir. Irma is forced to ponder an esoteric question: Who is "Roy"? And is this still him -- the person she's always loved -- even though he's physically transformed?

Irma's inclined to believe it is the same old Roy, but the town is less accepting. Roy walks back to his truck after buying women's clothes and finds "YOU ARE NOT NORMAL" scribbled on the door. But he is normal, at least if you accept the film's definition of the term: the state in which a person feels most comfortable.

Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn

Monday-Thursday Comedy Central)

Quinn's new series is a more aggressive Politically Incorrect. He and his comedian friends sit on couches chewing over current events and hot-button issues. The commentators are as nasty as they wanna be, and usually nastier than you want them to be. Last week's debut episode hit rock bottom within seconds, allowing the guests to tee off on retarded people sentenced to death.

On the other hand, the show's format -- comedians topping one another -- is bound to yield its share of zingers. My favorite moment from last week was Greg Giraldi's answer to the question "Do kids become more violent when they see violence in the media?" "Kids go out and see Keanu Reeves movies all the time," Giraldi replied, "and they don't go out and become crappy actors."

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