May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

NBC (Sun., May 18, and Mon., May 19, 9 p.m. ET)


Network publicity quotes executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. as claiming that this miniseries, based on Homer’s epic poem, is “the most ambitious undertaking in the history of television.” Hey, isn’t that the kind of hubris that lands Odysseus, King of Ithaca, in hot water with the gods after the Greek army conquers Troy? Maybe so, but it is fairly bold to spend $40 million (by Halmi’s estimate) filming an approximately 2,700-year-old classic that many channel surfers will associate with the drudgery of compulsory education. Can it work as popular entertainment? Yes, by Zeus.

True, director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train) had a mélange of acting styles to work with: Anticlea (Irene Papas) is doing heavy Greek tragedy while her son Odysseus (Armand Assante) is doing a middleweight Brando. But there are a few delightful casting touches, particularly Isabella Rossellini as the radiant, gently humorous goddess Athena. Some parts of the story are flat-out ridiculous to the modern viewer: We know Odysseus wants to end the wandering to which the gods have condemned him and hustle home to his wife, Penelope (Greta Scacchi), but is it really such a wretched fate to serve a stretch as love slave to the ravishing Calypso (Vanessa Williams)? Odysseus’s strange interlude in the arms of the bewitching Circe (Bernadette Peters) doesn’t seem like tough duty either, although a man risks being turned into a pig—literally—if he incurs her displeasure. Still, when his dalliances are done, Odysseus has a genuinely moving reunion with Penelope, and it stirs the blood to see him finally rout Eurymachus (Eric Roberts) and the rest of the boorish opportunists who are out to steal his wife and throne. As for the larger-than-life obstacles to Odysseus’s return, the sloppy drunk Cyclops is funny-scary, and the tandem terrors of Scylla (the monster) and Charybdis (the whirlpool) are scary-scary. But these obviously costly items are less estimable than the costumes and production design, which acknowledge the fact that the ancient Greeks—deities excepted—were not on a Hollywood budget.

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