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Television Review

NBC's 'In the Beginning' Races Along to the End

November 11, 2000|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the invention of film through the mid-'60s, filmmakers regularly took inspiration from one of the most action-packed adventure books of all time: the Bible.

On Sunday and Monday, NBC returns to that staple with the two-part "In the Beginning," focusing on such Old Testament stories as Abraham, Sarah and their miracle son Isaac; Jacob and the tests of his love for Rachel; Joseph and his coat of many colors; and, of course, Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, climaxing with God's delivery of the Ten Commandments.

Kevin Connor and John Goldsmith--the project's director and writer, respectively--previously worked together on NBC's "Mary, Mother of Jesus." Here, they aim for, and sometimes achieve, an epic quality that taps into our nostalgia for such films as "The Ten Commandments" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Yet to fit so many stories into the three hours between commercials, Connor and Goldsmith must barrel along without pausing for such niceties as plot or character development. And, since they can't build organically into the big moments, they toss special effects onto the screen, hoping technology will pass for majesty.

Familiar faces--including those of Martin Landau, Jacqueline Bisset, Diana Rigg and Billy Campbell--come and go at breathtaking speed, often aging in the blink of an eye as makeup accrues to indicate the passage of time. Sometimes, it's like watching time-lapse photography.

Bottom line: Don't expect too many Charlton Heston moments.

Still, these stories can't be dimmed. Lessons in faith, they depict families striving toward a more perfect love for one another and for God, even as they get tripped up by jealousy, trickery and anger.

Landau turns in the most commanding performance as Abraham, who rekindles his followers' belief with a speech so impassioned that you may be tempted to chime in with your own "Amen." As Joseph, Eddie Cibrian, the hunky fireman on NBC's "Third Watch," keeps an electric charge of cockiness crackling through his performance, and when the movie finds opportunity to show off his well-muscled torso, he generates a sexual buzz as well. Campbell, who brings such aching honesty to his work on ABC's "Once and Again," lends that quality to Moses--though what the part really calls for is Heston-like grandeur.

Meanwhile, the sets, costumes and makeup are always fun to look at, since they seem like art and history books sprung to life. Scenes set in Egypt are particularly diverting, what with all of the people sporting headdresses and dramatically outlined eyes, while walking among colossally ornamented palaces and temples.

*

* Part 1 of "In the Beginning" airs Sunday, 9-11 p.m., on NBC, followed by Part 2 on Monday, 8-10 p.m. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children).

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