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by James Arnold

Survival of the Fittest

Lone Star
Phenomenon
Moll Flanders
Independence Day
The Phantom
The New Season


Phenomenon
stars Kyra Sedgwick (left) as the supportive girlfriend of John Travolta, an auto mechanic whose life takes a mystifying turn on his 37th birthday.
LONE STAR (A-3, R) is the sleeper of the summer. Writer-director John Sayles (The Secret of Roan Inish) offers a fresh, complex, contemporary western set on the Tex-Mex border. Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), working under the shadow of his deceased, legendary sheriff-father, Buddy, pursues a 40-year-old murder investigation.

The Sam/Buddy relationship and the unraveling mystery are only part of an ingenious tapestry. Buddy was imperfect, both as authority and father, but he's a step up from the previous sheriff, the racist and corrupt Charley Wade. (Buddy and Charley are played in flashback, with sizzling good vs. evil charisma, by Matthew McConaughey and Kris Kristofferson.)

Sam also has a frustrated, long-standing love for Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), with overtones of Romeo and Juliet. The cultural entanglements and the parent-child tensions are explored with subtlety.

Lone Star is wickedly satisfying, offering melodrama, romance and violence. A plot twist forces Sam and Pilar to make moral choices. Rare quality adult movie; Oscar-level dialogue; recommended for mature viewers.

INDEPENDENCE DAY (A-3, PG-13): Aliens in a gigantic spacecraft set off the biggest explosions of the summer, taking out American icons like the Capitol and White House before the good guys rally. It's an awesome $70 million spectacle, provided by the makers of Stargate, mostly emulating the 1970's disaster movies with doomed urban crowds running in panic from computer-generated flying debris.

The heroes include (shock) the American president (Bill Pullman, with his voice in a Clint Eastwood growl) leading the big attack; Will Smith, as a hot-dog Marine flyer; and Jeff Goldblum, as a cool computer-math genius who outsmarts the invaders with Windows 95. Superficial and cornball but energetic entertainment, contributes to U.F.O. fantasies and government duplicity myths; satisfactory for older children and adults.

PHENOMENON (A-3, PG): John Travolta is a nice-guy garage mechanic in a small town who is "visited" on his birthday by a bright light that knocks him over and then seems to give him super powers. He speed-reads books, picks up languages in minutes, solves technical problems. He also develops ESP and senses earthquakes before they happen.

This is the ordinary-person-becomes-smart movie. How do people react? Is the hero better off? And what caused the miracle? God? Little green guys from space? Forrest Gump's feather?

This effort by director Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping) offers genial characters (played by Robert Duvall, Kyra Sedgwick and Forest Whitaker) but slips into clichés. The mystery is explained in a way meant to be positive--the potential of the human mind and spirit. But it's clumsily prepared and ends as a disappointment. Blurred but modestly enjoyable feel-good whimsy; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.

THE PHANTOM (A-2, PG): The oldest and one of the most beloved comic-book superheroes emerges in movies for the first time in 40 years in this modest, open-to-kids adventure. The script pays homage to all the traditions of "the ghost who walks" strip and retains the flavor of a 1930's movie serial without spoiling it with campy satire. Director Simon Wincer (Free Willy) keeps the action flowing without modernizing the romance or the genre violence.

Billy Zane and Kristy Swanson play with zest and 1930's earnestness. He's the man in the purple body suit, the latest in a 400-year dynasty of jungle-ruling Phantoms, and she's "spoiled, beautiful" socialite adventuress Diana Palmer. Neither is an easy mark for villains, including Treat Williams, splendid as a capitalist-fascist-mob guy who wants to rule the world. Quaint but delightful; genre violence; O.K. for most kids and adults.

MOLL FLANDERS (A-3, PG-13): Daniel Defoe's classic abused heroine, representing all the exploited women of 18th-century Europe, gets a makeover in this new Moll, produced and shot by Pen Densham in Ireland. Robin Wright, spunky and luminous in the title role, falls in love only once but profoundly, and has only one child but overcomes huge odds to find and keep her.

Although her trials in wicked, male-dominated London are grim and daunting, Moll refuses to be a victim. Despite some gratuitously rotten characters who happen to be religious, her story is a search for truth and love amid hardship. Stockard Channing is great as a despicable madam, and Morgan Freeman and John Lynch are fine as the best men in Moll's painful odyssey. Uplifting saga from a time worse than our own; adult material; satisfactory for mature viewers.

THE NEW SEASON: Not even thinking about cable, there are now six broadcast networks offering 64 comedies and 37 one-hour dramas every week, plus eight TV news magazines, plus a few hours of movies and miscellaneous items.

Out of 42 new shows last year, only 10 survived, four of those by switching to new networks. Hardly any could be dignified with the term "hit," at least in any sense approaching ER or Friends of the year before. The four majors (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) are wheeling out 30 more new ones this fall, plus 10 more by the still fledgling networks, Paramount (UPN) and Warner (WB), which are expanding to three nights.

There was a real shortage of family-friendliness last year, as network geniuses went for the young audience. Friends clones went quickly--too much raunch and playing down to the perceived irreverent taste of the audience.

But advertisers have mellowed, and this year they say again that they will offer a better range of choices: fewer abrasive shows and more conservative, play-it-safe programs.

Most Catholics don't expect stern moral values in every show but want sensitivity used in handling issues such as abortion, premarital sex, clergy, nuns or Catholic ethnic groups. If we're displeased, it's usually at the comedies or soaps for pushing the outrageous. Commercial TV isn't the right medium for profundity, but it can offer at times joy or heartbreak.

So what's new? Many will be delighted at another reincarnation of Bill Cosby in a new series (CBS, Mondays). It's based on a British hit about a feisty 60-year-old adjusting to unwanted retirement. Phylicia Rashad will be his wife, Doug E. Doug a nephew and the gifted Madeline Kahn a doubtlessly eccentric neighbor. Cos has always been funny without being raunchy. Can the undoubted sitcom king of the 1980's find the right combination again? The buzz is that Cosby, with 44 episodes guaranteed, will beat the odds this time.

One potential time-slot hit--sandwiched between existing favorites where distracted viewers are unlikely to click the remote--is Suddenly Susan (Brooke Shields sitcom), which is replacing Caroline in the City (Lea Thompson sitcom) in the coveted NBC hole between Seinfeld and ER. The other is Spin City (ABC), with Michael J. Fox as a comic deputy mayor of New York, hammocked on Tuesdays between Home Improvement and NYPD Blue. (Ironically, NBC has moved Caroline over to be Spin's competition.)

One trend is certainly the paranormal (X-Files influence), covering the whole spectrum from angels and ghosts to aliens, vampires and people with superhuman gifts. (Consider this a nod to the human hunger for the sacred.) Another is "teacher" shows, especially teachers confronting hard-to-reach kids (such as Dangerous Minds, with Annie Potts in the Michelle Pfeiffer role). It's an upbeat but often-recycled TV genre.

Without considering cable or PBS, this is how each evening shapes up in the coming months:

Sunday: CBS moves Touched by an Angel into Angela Lansbury's old spot after 60 Minutes. The competition is Superman (ABC), Third Rock From the Sun (NBC) and the indefatigable Simpsons (Fox). Fox also moves X-Files in from its niche on Fridays to scuttle the Sunday movies on the other channels.

Monday is trash night on Fox, with Melrose Place kicking off. Aside from the perennial NFL football (ABC), the adult competition will be Cosby and Ink (a newsroom comedy with Ted Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen) on CBS. No more Fresh Prince. Young audience long shots: Jeff Foxworthy and Mr. Rhodes (longhaired comic Tom Rhodes doing the teacher bit) on NBC.

Tuesday: It will be intriguing to see how Angel spinoff Home of the Brave (CBS) will work against the reworked Roseanne (ABC) and newly moved Mad About You (NBC). Frasier still carries on. For Disney-owned ABC, Michael J. Fox's Spin City, produced by Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties, Brooklyn Bridge), will be a formidable lead-in for multi-Emmy winner NYPD Blue.

Wednesday: The exceptions to sitcoms are Fox's solid Party of Five and NBC's reliable Law & Order. Will Gen-X legend Molly Ringwald in Townies (pals in small-town New England) fill the gap for ABC between Ellen and Grace Under Fire? On the male side, ABC's Drew Carey squares off against two comedies that would like to be considered daring (don't count on it): Steven Bochco's Public Morals (CBS) and NBC's Men Behaving Badly.

Thursday: ABC's critically respected High Incident and Murder One escape the axe but face NBC's ratings monsters Seinfeld and ER. Bring out the VCR's again. A possible option here is Moloney (CBS), with Peter Strauss as a police psychologist. But then I also liked JoBeth Williams in the now-deceased The Client.

Friday: There are lots of long-running personal favorites for everybody, from Dave's World (CBS) and NBC's Unsolved Mysteries to ABC's 20/20 and NBC's very classy Homicide. Fox's paranormal Millennium (by X-Files creator Chris Carter) will debut in the X slot opposite CBS's cheery Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Scott Bakula in a series about a husband-wife detective team). ABC will pursue babysitters with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (based on the Archie Comics character) and Clueless (based on the movie about Beverly Hills teens).

Saturday: Dr. Quinn will remain queen of the slowest TV night, but the later hours are stirring. ABC brings in Coach (in its ninth year) to pave the way for a Latino-oriented law-firm comedy, Common Law, featuring Greg Giraldo. (The network has been picketed by Latinos in the recent past.) For adults, the heady and talented creators of thirtysomething will offer Relativity (ABC) with Kimberly Williams (the bride of Father of the Bride). CBS replaces Angel with Early Edition, a fond fantasy for journalists in which an editor (Kyle Chandler) has the power to read tomorrow's headlines and tries to help those affected.

Let's face it, the headlines for most of these shows will often involve the word "canceled."

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