We watch... so you don't have to.

Goodnight, "Moon"

Tricky bastards, them guys at HBO.

Every couple of months or so, the pay-TV service owned by the evil Time-Warner conglomerate will have what it magnanimously bills as a Free Preview Weekend. And HBO will roll out all its finery -- original movies, Hollywood blockbusters, big name flicks with big time stars you can't see anywhere else.

The goal of the Free Preview Weekend is to get hard-working men and women to shell out the extra $10 a month to subscribe to HBO. And the intent is pure treachery.

Because after the money has been shelled out and the new subscribers have been signed up and everyone's ready to bask in the warm, loving glow of HBO and its galaxy of stars, HBO locks its original movies and Hollywood blockbusters down in the basement and resumes its continuous broadcasts of "Weekend at Bernie's II" and "C.H.U.D."

Con men call it the bait-and-switch. At HBO, it's called Thursday night's programming.

But in the Free Preview Weekend that wrapped up this past Sunday, HBO may have sunk to its dirtiest trick yet to fool unsuspecting couch potatoes into ponying up even more for cable each month. The evil Time-Warner minions used a tactic so cruel, so devious, so inhuman that I'm almost certain it violates some portion of the Geneva Accords.

HBO aired what could have been the best two hours of television this season.

Sunday marked the debut of From the Earth to the Moon, an ambitious 12-part mini-series that chronicles the Apollo space program. The show was produced by Tom Hanks -- who, if he keeps this pace up, may yet make people forget that his big came break came wearing a dress on an inane early-80s sitcom -- and Imagine Entertainment. It cost a cool $68 million.

And, if the first two episodes are anything to go by, From the Earth to the Moon is gripping, entertaining and perhaps even achingly good.

You know those speeches in the Emmys... the ones that Barbara Walters or Bryant Gumbel or Linda Ellerbee always give about how television has the power to entertain, enlighten, even uplift the human spirit, as everyone else in the audience is just rolling their eyes while waiting to see who wins Best Writing in a Variety Show or Special? Well, From the Earth to the Moon got off to such a powerful start that it may well live up to that previously empty platitude.

The show boasts some strong writing, some solid performances and a compelling story. But most importantly, you can tell that Hanks and the rest of the show's crew have a deep and abiding passion for the story of America's race to the moon. It's a passion that charges through From the Earth to the Moon. No detail of the space program is too minute to share with the viewer. The producers care about the subject so much that they refuse to dumb it down.

Try finding that kind of quality on network television, where the notion of a "TV Event" is warmed-over schlock like "The Last Don" or, if you're watching Fox, grainy surveillance camera footage of thieves sticking up Gas 'N Gulps.

The remaining 10 episodes of From the Earth to the Moon will air over the next five Sundays, two episodes a night. As soon as the end credits rolled on Part Two -- a harrowing account of the Apollo One disaster -- I immediately began looking forward to Part Three.

Which is when I knew HBO had its hooks in me. Because if I want to see the rest of From the Earth to the Moon, I'm going to have to part with some of my cold, hard cash and subscribe to the pay-TV service.

Tricky bastards, them guys at HBO.

And even though the thought of departing with one extra dime just to watch more TV is hateful to me -- the airwaves belong to the people, Man! -- I just might do it. Because "From the Earth to the Moon" is so good, I may not even mind the higher cable bill nor the realization that I am enriching Time-Warner.

Hell, maybe I won't even mind that 17th repeat of "Weekend at Bernie's II."



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