The Balkans body count was again rising.
A funnel-shaped tornado was on the move, too. It was the media, en route to twister-ravaged Oklahoma from Littleton, Colo.
And on the heels of this mayhem, some viewers here Tuesday night witnessed a display of mentally challenged newscasting by KCAL, KTLA and KTTV that was simply boggling. Again buckling under the pressure of ratings sweeps, all three stations blew off their 10 p.m. newscasts to follow a renegade camper on the lam from police, and were present for the late-night finale, a shootout that killed the gun-waving driver in Lake Elsinore after his two passengers had surrendered.
With television's sinkhole of muck and disorder ever deepening, this is an ideal time to escape from small expectations to greater ones.
Charles Dickens, too, was interested in legal machinery and crime, at least as a commentary on social evil, and his novels are abundant with British dungeons and the prisoners who filled and fled them. If he were living today, instead of in the 19th century, perhaps he'd be writing about choppers chasing coppers chasing a menacing mug named Abel Magwitch, a pursuit crossing the marsh country where this escaped convict's terrifying encounter with the little orphan Pip Pirrip gives Dickens' "Great Expectations" a jump-start.
Not quite that when this irresistible tale airs in two parts on "Masterpiece Theatre." Yet it's thoroughly enjoyable, as those durable Victorians--that dear boy, Pip; his unattainable true love, Estella; and Miss Havisham, the chalky old madwoman who injures them both--rise again from the gray, dewy mists in a new "Great Expectations" that is something to build a pair of nights around.
This latest rendering of the novel arrives from England a year after Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow glammed it on the big screen as Pip and Estella in contemporary Florida and New York City, and 53 years after the greatest of all "Great Expectations," the film directed by David Lean, first played in theaters.
In between have come numerous translations of the novel on both the big and little screens, including a 1981 marathon from the BBC that ran--and ran and ran--five hours, with the late Joan Hickson playing Miss Havisham before achieving much better results on TV years later as Miss Marple.
The chance meeting between young Pip (Gabriel Thomson) and the fleeing felon Magwitch (Bernard Hill, the ship captain who sank in "Titanic" before Leonardo DiCaprio did) is a pivotal moment in "Great Expectations." As is that vindictive, spinster shut-in, Miss Havisham (Charlotte Rampling), summoning the working-class boy to her gloomy, dilapidated mansion to meet her ward, Estella (Gemma Gregory), a beautiful but coldhearted young girl whom she is raising to mirror her own hatred of males.
Getting stiffed at the altar by her fiance years earlier turned Miss Havisham against all men, and she is training Estella as the perfect surrogate to make them pay. In present times, Estella would be blasting guys with hot lead, as Sondra Locke did to the rapists who teed her off in "Sudden Impact." Instead, Dickens has Miss Havisham teach Estella to tantalize males with her stunning beauty, then torment them with her iciness, using as practice poor, hopelessly smitten Pip, whose worship of her will endure indefinitely.
Meanwhile, an anonymous benefactor, who Pip assumes is Miss Havisham, grants him a generous stipend that makes him "a young fellow of great expectations." So off he goes to London so that he can rise from blacksmith's apprentice to gentleman and at last acquire the trappings that he hopes will make him worthy of Estella and "awaken the heart within her that was mute." Fat chance.
What he acquires, especially, is arrogance, his descent into snobdom and fopdom teaching him ultimately that social class can be corrupting and that wealth and fine manners are trivial compared with integrity and depth of character.
Ever a work in progress, Pip the young fellow is played strikingly well by Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower in a recent A&E miniseries), whose performance effortlessly mingles tenderness and strength. Gruffudd is persuasive, without lapsing into caricature, as Pip the awed, innocent bumpkin hoping to crack the class barrier under guidance from Mr. Jaggers (Ian McDiarmid), a cynical lawyer who decorates his London office with the heads of hanged clients. When he does crack it, becoming a London dandy, Pip doesn't wear his new status gracefully.
Gruffudd is equally strong as a wiser, sadder Pip whose illusions are ultimately put to rest by events following the reappearance of that rogue from his past, Magwitch.