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Slow Boat To Ararat

Noah's Ark is the kind of miniseries that restores a man's faith.

Before I tuned into NBC's must-see event of May this past week, I was like a blind man, wandering in the desert of ignorance, thirsting for the sweet drink of knowledge, but lacking the calfskin canteen of understanding. It shames me to say this now, but I confess -- I forgot about the power of television to touch men's lives. Wallowing in my own ignorance as a hog wallows in its filth, I believed TV to be a mass of mediocrity -- neither good nor bad, but merely blah.

"A seasoned TV viewer like myself has seen all there is to see," I cynically concluded. "Surely, no TV program can be so fumbling or dreary or awful or laughable to crack my carefully preserved veneer of studied indifference."

Then along comes a show like Noah's Ark, packing a two-night, four-hour punch of fumbling dreariness and laughable awfulness, and my faith in the ability of network TV to burrow down to the nadir of creative endeavor is born anew.

Truly, it is a miracle!

As for stoking my religious faith, I'm afraid Noah's Ark puts up the big goose egg there. In fact, the miniseries joins the likes of "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "The Bible" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" as the kind of overblown Hollywood biblical epic so stripped of spirituality and so steeped in pompous absurdity that instead of forcing you to ponder the majesty of the Lord, they wind up nearly turning you against God and all that He stands for.

After all, would a loving God allow Jon Voight -- playing the part of Noah in tonight's atrocity -- to wander around the entire four-hour production with what looked like a dead raccoon affixed to his scalp? Would a just God, in His mercy, permit actors purportedly portraying a race of people from the Middle East to speak in comically stilted British accents? And what exactly is a supposedly beneficent deity doing, allowing characters in a biblical movie to make like Henny Youngman? Take Lot -- please -- who notes the passing of his recently vaporized wife by quipping, "She always did like to say she was the salt of the earth."

Cripes, they simply don't pull this kind of flim-flammery with the Koran.

Those of you with a passing familiarity with the Bible may be puzzled as to what exactly Lot is doing in a miniseries about Noah, in that Lot doesn't appear on the scene some two chapters and several hundred years after Noah checks into that big ark in the sky. But then, this is TV, after all, and if you go around getting your religious inspiration from Hollywood, well, then you probably think that Jesus cat bears a striking resemblance to Ted Neely.

Still, it might have been thoughtful of the Noah's Ark production team to at least retain some vague affiliation with the biblical narrative beyond just making it a story about a guy, his wife, their layabout sons, a handful of critters and a real big boat. That's the thought that struck me, anyhow, during the scene when Lot and his band of marauding pirates attempt to seize the ark, only to be fended off by Noah and his animal friends.

You know, just like it says in the Bible.

But you can almost forgive the producers of Noah's Ark. They had four hours to fill. Meanwhile, Noah doesn't make his first appearance in Genesis until Chapter 5, verse 28 when Lamech begats him, and he's finished by the end of Chapter 9, right after cursing Canaan. Of course, the Bible had a better editor than did Noah's Ark.

Noah's tale takes up only two pages and change in my copy of the NIV translation of the Bible, most of it made up with action-packed passages like, "The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. Make a foot for it and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks."

Try stretching corkers like that into two nights of sweeps programming. You'll be tricking up scenes where pirates attack the ship, too. And, like the writers of Noah's Ark, you'll still probably throw in a scene where Noah has to explain to his incredulous sons that God's decree to be fruitful and multiply will have to wait until after they're off the boat. And I'm not even going to get into the scene where James Coburn shows up as a peddler who tries to sell Noah and his flood-surviving brood some lovely hats.

That's right. The flood that was supposed to destroy all of the earth, save for Noah, his family and two animals of every kind, managed to spare not only Lot and his marauding band of pirates but James Coburn, too. For his utterly baffling and totally unnecessary performance as the peddler, I'm afraid we'll have to ask Jimmy to give back that Oscar of his. We'd ask F. Murray Abraham to do the same for his portrayal of Lot, but clearly, things are so bad for the F-Man that he probably pawned the Oscar long ago.

The problem here is that the Bible, while a solid moral guidebook on how to go about living your life, doesn't offer much in the way of source material for would-be TV impresarios. The main character doesn't show up until the New Testament, the dialogue is spotty, and the sex scenes -- while initially hot -- cool down considerably right after Song of Solomon.

So where does that leave Noah's Ark? Devoid of anything remotely connected to tenets of any particular religious faith, the miniseries mouths a few vague platitudes about how God has a plan for everything and that you should always be kind to the animals and, if someone should ask you to attend one of those orgies down Sodom way, it's probably a good idea to take a rain check.

"Do you think the animals will still be our friends?" asks one of the characters in a particularly comical British accent, after the flood waters recede.

"Only if we're friends to them," another character responds, with enough solemnity to fool you into thinking something deep might have been said.

All this -- lousy acting, biblical inaccuracies, shallow aphorisms passed off as deeply spiritual pronouncements -- would be bad enough. But it would still only rankle as a half-witted miniseries in a season that's already given us the medulla-impairing treacle of The '60s. Crap begets crap, in other words.

But Noah's Ark is symptomatic of a larger, and more troubling, phenomenon. Miniseries during sweeps month used to mean big, epic productions -- shows like Roots and Holocaust and Lonesome Dove. Networks broke out the checkbook, cleared their schedules of all the offal and gave you a week's worth of some pretty top-notch entertainment.

That's not the case anymore, not when it's cheaper to throw a quickie biblical epic together, with special effects that look like you've filmed some kid's model boat being swamped in the bathtub. Just pick some story at random, superglue the raccoon onto Jon Voight's head and roll camera. Anything to fill out the schedule.

Why? Because dummies like you and me are going to watch anyway.

Case in point: Ratings for Noah's Ark were high enough to boost NBC to an early May sweeps win, crucial for helping the network lure those advertising dollars. Do you think it's really going to bug the kids over at the Peacock that Noah's Ark was almost universally panned? Everyone who watched may have rolled their eyes, but at least those eyeballs were trained on NBC.

And that's the troubling part. Because it only goes downhill from here. Brace yourself for more slapdash specials culled from the pages of the Bible... with the necessary artistic license, of course. You'll thrill to Tom Skerrit in Branded: The Judas Iscariot Story. You'll ooh and aah over The Totally Kick-Ass Adventures of King David. And you'll laugh yourself stupid, thanks to Moses and Abraham, the story of two pillars of Israel who are always bickering... when they're not solving crimes!

It's almost enough to make a man lose his faith. Unless, of course, God can whip up another one of those floods of His...


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