Trying to decide which of two TV movies to watch tonight is as easy as choosing between beauty and the beast.
Beauty is "The Roommate," a savory, exquisitely crafted production for PBS' "American Playhouse" about two freshmen with conflicting personalities who find themselves paired off in a dorm at Northwestern University in 1952. It's on at 8 p.m. on Channel 50, 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15.
The other is "A Masterpiece of Murder" (8 p.m., Channels 4, 36 and 39), an utterly pedestrian comic-mystery whose sole note of distinction is that it is Bob Hope's first TV movie.
It's a dubious distinction, for Hope, after a few minutes of looking like he's going to have fun with the role of a washed-up former flatfoot, winds up just flat. He reads his lines without character or conviction, seemingly bored by the whole undertaking.
And well he might have been. The script by Terry Nation and executive producer Andrew J. Fenady plays like a reject from "Murder, She Wrote"--a mundane, muddled murder story, with the usual gaggle of celebrity suspects and a couple of car chases. Director Charles S. Dubin doesn't help matters with his pokey pacing.
Don Ameche co-stars as a former adversary of Hope's--a one-time thief who went to jail, studied real estate and now is one of the richest men in the world. The movie's opening, contrasting their wildly divergent life styles, is cute, but when the men finally meet and the sparks are supposed to start flying, the only thing that ignites is our disappointment--to think that two old pros can't be better showcased than this.
Far more subtle and far more satisfying is the odd-couple relationship in "The Roommate," based on a short story by John Updike. It was adapted by producer Morton Neal Miller, who earlier performed the same duties on the excellent "American Playhouse" production of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s "Who Am I This Time?"
Like that film, "The Roommate" is full of gentle, wry humor. But there is another element as well, a bittersweet quality that stems from believable characters grappling ruefully with the elusive pursuits of understanding and acceptance.
Lance Guest and Barry Miller are terrific as, respectively, Orson and Hub, the mismatched roommates. Orson is a straight-arrow from South Dakota: He was high school valedictorian, keeps his room in perfect order, goes to church every day and wants to be a doctor, like his father. Hub, on the other hand, is a bohemian from Oregon--the kind who listens to Indian music, chants, eats only vegetables and leaves his history test early, explaining later that "Most of the questions were so insipid I didn't even bother with them."
Their clash provides for a fertile character study, small in scope but rich in detail, slowly paced but finely textured. Nestled in the detail and texture, as sculpted by director Nell Cox, is a keen glimpse of the way people grow: with small steps rather than giant leaps. We witness a young man beginning the transition to adulthood, expanding his view of the world beyond the one his parents had built for him.
Many's the movie that would have us believe such an experience was the turning point in its characters' lives. Not "The Roommate." On the contrary, in a wonderful coda during the end-roll credits, we learn from a telephone conversation 25 years later that the experience Orson and Hub had as roommates did not radically alter the directions they went. Yet the phone call alone is testimony to the indelibility of having made the most of it.