By Terry Kelleher
Updated May 26, 1997 12:00 PM
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THE GARDEN OF REDEMPTION

Showtime (premieres Sun., May 25, 8 p.m. ET)

Grade: C+

No need to look it up. If you want the definition of “versatility,” just study Anthony LaPaglia’s performance in this World War II drama alongside his work in Murder One (see below). Here, LaPaglia plays a priest in a German-occupied village in Italy who goes quietly on his pastoral rounds in the hope that no one will notice the cowardice cloaked by his cassock. Watch the shame on his face turn to anguish as circumstances force him to cooperate with the partisans and eventually risk his life for a brave and trusting woman he loves (Embeth Davidtz from Schindler’s List).

LaPaglia and Davidtz will engage your sympathy so completely that you may forgive the war-picture clichés all around them, including a hissing Nazi commandant (Peter Firth) and a hardbitten bunch of antifascists planning to blow up a bridge in the For Whom the Bell Tolls tradition. But be warned: When the time comes for heroism, this film doesn’t know the meaning of the word “enough.”

MURDER ONE

ABC (Sun., May 25, Mon., May 26, and Thurs., May 29, 9 p.m. ET)

Grade: B+

ABC is packaging and promoting these six hours as a miniseries, but take them for what they are: almost certainly the last half-dozen episodes of a widely praised but low-rated series that never found its niche in two on-and-off seasons. The main story line is a guaranteed grabber, with hotshot lawyer James Wyler (a far more assertive Anthony LaPaglia) representing Clifford Banks (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a vigilante killer of 17 ex-convicts. While Wyler puts on a disturbingly skillful performance in the courtroom (should we be rooting for a sharpie seeking to free an admitted serial murderer on a technicality?), film producer Gary Blondo (John Pleshette) acts as if ownership of the screen rights to Banks’s life entitles him to “creative input” in the defense.

Here are all the makings of a great miniseries—and, unfortunately, more. Written and paced like the serial it was intended to be, Murder One provides an excess of information about law-firm affairs, including Wyler’s intimate one with cocounsel Justine Appleton (Mary McCormack). A second bizarre murder case, though it contains an important surprise, merely overcrowds the docket.

THE THREE LIVES OF KAREN

USA (Wed., May 28, 9 p.m. ET)

Grade: C-

Since this is a drama about a woman with a form of amnesia, it’s what’s in her head that should count, not what’s on her neck. But we keep getting hung up on the heroine’s heart-shaped locket because Karen (Gail O’Grady) fingers it nervously every time she’s under stress—and the stress is virtually nonstop.

Just as she’s preparing to marry Matt (Tim Guinee), Karen learns she has a spouse, Paul (Dennis Boutsikaris), and a daughter, Jessica (Monica Bugajski), from a life that slipped her mind four years ago. Back then she called herself Emily. First, though, she was Cindy. But she forgot that too. At a shrink’s urging, Karen (call her that for short) sets out to uncover the childhood trauma that has resulted in her turning into a serial identity-changer.

As she proved two years ago in ABC’s She Stood Alone: The Tail-hook Scandal, O’Grady (formerly of NYPD Blue) has the acting strength to carry a TV movie, and Boutsikaris (recently a Hollywood weasel in Mario Puzo’s ‘The Last Don’ on CBS) does his usual effective job as a husband who turns out to be more dictatorial than devoted. Still, the film grows implausible and heavy-handed as the psychological detective story unfolds. What’s more, the temporarily jilted Matt has an annoying tendency to snivel when he wants a greater share of Karen’s sadly divided attention. Maybe a new pendant would turn her head.

TODD McFARLANE’S ‘SPAWN’

HBO (Fridays at midnight ET, through June 20)

Grade: C

Executive producer McFarlane, creator of the comic book on which this adult animated series is based, introduces each installment à la Rod Serling. His tag line: “And now Spawn. So turn off your lights.” Leave them on and thank us later.

In the bleak, violent, paranoid world of Spawn (the third of its six half-hour episodes airs on May 30), it seems the only bright color is blood-red—or, in the case of the title character, blood-green. Spawn (voiced by Keith David) is a former government assassin who survived his own murder by striking a hasty deal with the devil. Now he’s a Darth Vader-Batman hybrid, a superhuman soldier drafted into the forces of hell. Spawn makes confused attempts to use his powers for social benefit (wasting Mafia thugs, for example), but a lewd clown (Michael Nicolosi) keeps reminding him that the Man Downstairs calls the shots while a white-bearded sage (Richard Dysart) hints cryptically at the possibility of redemption.

A live-action Spawn movie is due in late summer, but it’s unlikely to surpass the animation in realizing McFarlane’s nightmare vision. How can they top the May 30 scene in which a cyborg hit man rips off a victim’s arm and uses it as a bloody writing implement? No way—we hope.