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Friday, November 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
Miniseries rules are irrefutable.
No "Diff'rent Strokes" reunion specials. No dueling biopics of Hitler, Elvis or Jesus Christ. And no disaster epics featuring cities destroyed earlier in the year by another network.
The last law explains why CBS' "Category 6: Day of Destruction," airing 9 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Wednesday, cuts a path of ruin not seen since last week's Democratic debacle.
Starting in Las Vegas, an accumulation of tornadoes, cyclones and hurricanes hopscotches across the map for a quick touchdown in St. Louis and a left-turn rendezvous in Chicago.
Poor Chicago. The nation's No. 3 TV market might have been spared if NBC's earthquake epic "10.5" hadn't used Los Angeles (No. 2), San Francisco (No. 6) and Seattle (No. 12) last May. (The recent feature film "The Day After Tomorrow" further reduced choices with a New York setting).
If the Cubs weren't cursed enough, the Windy City in "Category 6" is a dreary inferno of crummy weather, dim public officials and Nancy McKeon, who stars as an investigative reporter so self-righteously annoying that you'll root for the evil energy conglomerate.
Leftover cities aren't the only issues with which filmmakers must contend. The movie also strives to satisfy the female-skewing audience that typically watches CBS Sunday night movies and to provide a certain number of imbedded network promotions.
It all makes for a strange combination. Barely a minute into Sunday's open, Las Vegas is smacked and the only plausible reason is that it's where CBS' top-rated "CSI" is set.
As the final, fatal ingredient, "Category 6" has high aspirations. Executive producers Robert Sertner and Frank von Zerneck aren't interested in providing the escapist pleasures of a "10.5" or "The Poseidon Adventure."
Instead, expect a brow-furrowing cornucopia of environmental abuse, job cuts, price-rigging, global warming, nuclear energy, gentrification, aging industrial infrastructure, tourist exploitation, computer hackers, workplace sexism, corporate corruption, piggish consumption and infidelity.
She's one of several female types chosen from CBS' multigenerational formula. There's also a pregnant woman, a sulky teenager, an earth-mother crone, a public-relations harlot and a noble domestic goddess married to a philandering energy bureaucrat.
As said bureaucrat, former "Dharma & Greg" star Thomas Gibson delivers a decidedly nonthermal performance. Most of the cast in "Category 6" generates little heat, perhaps because they're busy aiming polemics instead of speaking dialogue.
Under such conditions, the best work comes from actors who aren't required to interact much. Brian Dennehy's crusty weather guru, Dianne Wiest as the Secretary of Energy and Randy Quaid as a slick tornado-tour operator give their roles verve.
Alas, they're not the stars. But lackluster acting doesn't fell "Category 6." The cause is a convoluted script that tries to establish too many subplots and seems ambivalent about its chief reason for existing i.e., bad weather.
Instead of the storm being a central character, it's just a backdrop for a contrived soap opera that could take place in sunshine or rain. The special effects are fun, yet they rarely feel integrated in the way that a stormy sky can signal a dark mood.
The four hours also are very long. As with many two-part miniseries, a viewer probably could watch the second installment Wednesday and not feel stinted, especially since that's when the visceral thrills accelerate.
What this project required was a team equally skilled at big screen whiz-bang and small-screen intimacy. Everyone in "Category 6" complains about the weather; nobody does anything about it.
With only Fox's drama "House" waiting to debut (see Monday's column), here's a quick overview of how the new 2004-2005 series are doing*:
Canceled: "The Benefactor" (ABC); "Clubhouse," "dr. vegas" (CBS); "Hawaii" (NBC); "The Casino," "The Jury," "Method & Red" (Fox); "Studio 7," "Commando Nanny" (The WB).
On hiatus: "Father of the Pride" (NBC).
Full-season order: "Desperate Housewives," "Lost," "Wife Swap" (ABC); "CSI: NY" (CBS); "Joey," "Medical Investigation" (NBC); "Kevin Hill," "Veronica Mars" (UPN); "Blue Collar TV," "Jack & Bobby" (The WB).
Partial-season order: "Rodney," "Complete Savages" (ABC); "The Mountain" (The WB).
Partial-season order means shows from which the network has ordered a few more episodes without making a full-season commitment yet. Any new shows not listed are on the bubble.
Next week, an update on how old favorites are faring and the likely end of "West Wing."
* With thanks to Mediaweek's The Programming Insider.
Kay McFadden: 206-382-8888 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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