It's a crime. NBC's "The Little Match Girl," airing tonight at 8 on Channels 4, 36 and 39, almost succeeds in the impossible: making the irresistible youngest of "The Cosby Show" progeny, Keshia Knight Pulliam, resistible.
Disguised beyond recognition is Hans Christian Andersen's delicate tale of a street urchin who dies on a snowy street, seeing visions in the flames of the matches she can't sell.
Instead, the Andersen-"inspired" TV version (Maryedith Burrell wrote the teleplay) offers Pulliam in a '20s setting as Molly, a mysterious homeless child, well scrubbed, perfectly coiffed and fetchingly dressed. Her mission: to bring happiness to the rich-but-messed-up Dutton family.
Oldest son Joe Dutton (Jim Metzler) owns a liberal newspaper and writes negative editorials about his insensitive father Haywood (William Daniels). Dad hasn't spoken to Joe for five years, because Protestant Joe married Mary Margaret (Hallie Foote), a Catholic Irish girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
Neville (William Youmans) is the dissolute youngest Dutton, who brings orphan Molly home for the holidays in order to get a rise out of his family. Daughter Lindsay (Robyn Stevan) is spoiled and selfish. Rue McClanahan ("Golden Girls") plays Frances, the mother of them all, a nice but melancholy lady.
John Rhys-Davies, as the villainous police chief Murphy, prefers to keep the father-son feud going for mercenary reasons.
Lots of poor people get evicted from their homes on Christmas Eve, there's a thwarted murder attempt, a sidewalk Santa, a nosy gossip columnist, a mob scene, and Mary Margaret goes into labor on Dad's porch on Christmas Eve.
What's a little match girl to do?
What Pulliam does is smile that beautiful smile and mysteriously strike a few matches. (This looks far too attractive. Parents, be warned.) She looks as if she could do more if given half a chance, but she is oddly peripheral.
"Brideshead Revisited" director Michael Lindsay-Hogg seems at a loss here. He gives too many of the actors equal time, with disastrous results: Everyone appears to be starring in his or her own movie.
Daniels hasn't left "St. Elsewhere" far enough behind him, Metzler has moments of great intensity--unfortunately--and Youmans is a tortured Gatsby with overtones of Jack Nicholson.