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SO LET IT BE WRITTEN, SO LET IT BE DULL.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

If you're going to produce an epic miniseries, you can't go wrong with the Bible as source material. There's spectacle, there's violence, there's sex, there's uplift - you can pretend you're being high-minded as opposed to all that other trash on TV - and you don't have to pay through the nose for the rights to the book. Audiences know the stories backward and forward, so they can settle in and expect a comfortable, surprise-free chunk of entertainment product.

``In the Beginning'' doesn't quite get it, though. In its four hours, it rushes through all the high points in the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus. This listlessly episodic, Cliffs Notes approach smushes most of the life out of the characters and ensures that the drama quotient is perilously low. And this, despite the stentorian performances of the ``all-star'' cast, each member of which is only around for anywhere from five minutes to a half-hour. What is it about biblical raiment that inspires such ponderously awful acting? Everyone here is either leadenly earnest or over-the-top, frequently veering awkwardly between the two points.

Martin Landau kicks things off as Abraham, thunderously telling his tribe the story of Creation, rendered via cheesy special effects, and travelogue and nature video footage. He then relates the tale of Adam and Eve - Sendhil Ramamurthy and Terri Seymour play their characters hilariously blankly, suggesting God didn't get around to inventing facial expressions until the 10th or 11th day.

Landau himself seems to be reprising his turn as Bela Lugosi bellowing his way through Ed Wood's ``Glen or Glenda.'' Jacqueline Bisset plays Sarah, Abe's schizophrenic wife - in one scene, she's begging him to take a concubine; a couple ofscenes later, she's a veritable harpy, banishing the woman from the encampment - and she's the first performer to fall victim to the production's bizarro aging makeup: She looks older when she's having her baby than when her son is fully grown (elsewhere, characters sometimes look significantly older than their parents).

Later, we get to the story of Jacob (Frederick Weller) and Esau, where Jacob swiped his more hirsute brother's blessing (only one per family was the rule, apparently) from their father Isaac - he wrapped some fur on his arm, which his blinded dad rubbed and was thereby convinced Jacob was Esau. It always seemed dubious in the telling, but seeing it played out looks even dodgier. Anyway, Jacob starts guilt-tripping and flees, enduring a rough time of it for a while, encountering a guy who scams him into working for him for 14 years gratis, but ends up with the gal of his dreams and scams the scammer out of some livestock. The point of this story always eluded me in Sunday School, except that maybe God has a soft spot in his heart for grifters.

Part 1, Sunday, ends with the beginning of Joseph (Eddie Cibrian, who tries to outblank Adam and Eve), whose good fortune irks his brothers, who sell him into slavery. Part 2 picks up Monday with Joseph an upwardly mobile slave in Egypt, winning favor with his owners, and the story is staged as a West Hollywood burlesque, with bronze-chested guards, Pharaohs in thick eye makeup taking a liking to Joseph (one gives him a ring) and dressing him up in a dopey little wig, gynephobia aplenty, swarthy prisoners befriending one another and acting so ham-fisted you wonder how director Kevin Conner ever found work in the first place.

Things don't improve much with ``Once and Again's'' ultra-WASP, Billy Campbell, as Moses, the Hebrew who led his people out of Egypt. The plagues are occasion for more special effects, as is, of course, the parting of the Red Sea, all of which was managed far more spectacularly in ``The Prince of Egypt'' or even the old ``Ten Commandments.''

What ``In the Beginning'' intended to prove is anyone's guess. All of the stories contained herein have been rendered with greater passion and care elsewhere, and the occasional lip service characters pay to God seems like tossed-off afterthoughts. Only the most die-hard yet undemanding of believers will find anything praiseworthy here. Fans of camp, however, will be in heaven.

Disney could have used a 'Miracle' for this remake

Patty Duke won an Oscar in 1962 for playing the young Helen Keller in ``The Miracle Worker'' (Anne Bancroft, likewise, took home a trophy for playing her teacher, Annie Sullivan). The film adaptation of the play (actually, ``Playhouse 90'' did it first, five years earlier, on TV) was affecting because of its performances and because director Arthur Penn refused to exploit the story's more obvious sentimental impulses.

Put the story in the hands of ``The Wonderful World of Disney'' folks, and all bets are off. The main problem lies in the performances. Obviously, playing a blind and deaf person has undone many an adult actor, but Hallie Kate Eisenberg, she of the ubiquitous, cutesy cola commercials, is just not up to the challenge, wandering about, arms outstretched and eyes willfully blank like an elfin robot.

But Eisenberg is hardly the only underachieving thespian here. Southern accents are sometimes risible, as is a German accent - even Alison Elliott, who gives the only credible performance as Annie Sullivan, finds her Irish accent wavering from time to time. Even David Strathairn, as reliable and solid a character actor as a film could want, seems to be phoning it in as Helen's father.

For the uninitiated, the story is pure uplift - Helen, blind and deaf from the ravages of disease at an early age, is an undisciplined little hellion; her parents write a prestigious doctor for assistance. Annie, a formerly blind orphan herself, is dispatched to aid the Kellers, who find her tough-love teaching methods unorthodox. ``I will not have my house turned into a circus,'' sputters Strathairn obtusely, even though the family has never figured out to keep the breakables away from little Helen and has plenty of splintered glass and porcelain to show for it. Eventually, love and enlightenment triumph.

Except it all plays pretty artificially - without Elliott's commitment to her performance, it's hard to imagine this evoking any emotion from viewers at all. Everything else, from the score to the set and costume design, is blandly pleasant. The only way this bromide of a production could feel more medicinal - even if it's a placebo - is if it came in convenient caplet form.

- D.K.

``THE MIRACLE WORKER''

What: ``Wonderful World of Disney''-fication of the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan.

The stars: Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Alison Elliott, David Strathairn, Kate Greenhouse.

Where: KABC (Channel 7).

When: 7 p.m. Sunday.

Our rating: Two stars

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Billy Campbell of ABC's ``Once and Again'' takes a biblical turn as Moses in NBC's miniseries ``In the Beginning,'' airing Sunday and Monday nights. At right, Abraham (Martin Landau) is given an impossible mission - sacrificing his son - during a scene from ``In the Beginning.''

(3) Annie Sullivan (Alison Elliott) urgently coaxes her blind and deaf student, Helen Keller (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), to understand the word for ``water'' in ``The Miracle Worker.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Nov 11, 2000
Words:1190
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