"Eastwick," which premieres tonight on ABC, represents a third attempt to turn the 1987 film of the 1984 John Updike novel "The Witches of Eastwick" into a TV show. NBC made a pilot in 1989 and Fox one in 2002 -- and I promise you these are the last dates you'll have to read in this review -- but this is the first to grow from a pilot into a series. It is something less than magical, but it's pleasant and pretty and easy to watch.
In a hamlet "at the edge of New England," three women, each with a yearning burning inside of her, awaken to unsuspected powers after simultaneously wishing on a fountain during a dress-up-as-pilgrims-or-witches fall fair. They are, of course, being nudged together by an unseen hand; there are no coincidences in this sort of story, only the tendrils of supernatural destiny.
Roxie (Rebecca Romijn), a bohemian widow and mother who makes Venus of Willendorf sculptures that nobody likes and who is locally known as that "cradle-robbing slut" -- it's TV's Year of the Cougar, people -- begins to have prophetic dreams. Joanna (Lindsay Price), a shy, lovelorn reporter for the local paper, finds that she can play Jedi mind tricks. And Kat (Jaime Ray Newman), a nurse with a green thumb, a passel of kids and a beer-swilling lout of an unemployed husband (laid off at the candle factory, where he was "in charge of wicks"), makes the Earth move and lightning strike.
Not unrelated to the unfolding of these powers, and the women's new friendship, is the arrival of the mysterious Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross), who has bought a big old mansion on the sea, along with the newspaper, a restaurant and the candle factory. He is, so to speak, a handsome devil, a Satan Santa who knows the women's innermost desires and has, seemingly, come to fulfill them.
"I wish I could meet someone who gets me," says Roxie. "Someone dark and dangerous and exciting who moves here in a cloud of scandal, and everywhere he goes he stirs up sex and trouble." But Kat, with the loutish husband -- a little too bad to be true, in this context -- just wants someone to take care of her for a change.
Of the broadcast networks, ABC has been friendliest in recent years to romantic comedy and to shows built around strong, if often eccentric, women. (It cancels them too, but does try again.) Hocus-pocus aside, "Eastwick" is its new "Men in Trees," a Small-Town Comedy whose characters bond as friends and bumble in and out of love as they reach toward self-realization -- which is not necessarily wholly distinct, in these things, from bumbling into love.
Updike's novel was darker than this series is bound to be -- his witches gave a romantic rival cancer -- and the film itself was rather cruel to Veronica Cartwright, the Gladys Kravitz of the piece, humiliating her repeatedly before killing her off. As if in compensation, Cartwright has been cast here as a good guy -- the town historian and the "kooky aunt" Roxie never had -- although she is attacked by red ants in the pilot's opening minutes and spends most of the rest of it in a coma.
If tonight's opener is not particularly nuanced or subtle -- everyone's character and dilemma is written poster-size, and explained for good measure -- it's still less of a cartoon than the big-name, big-hair, big-screen version (Nicholson, Pfeiffer, Sarandon, Cher). Romijn is not a great actress, but she isn't a bad one, and she's comfortable on screen in a way that makes a viewer comfortable too. And Gross, the star of "Slings & Arrows," the Canadian Shakespeare-festival comedy much admired by this department, is a model of amused understatement as, well, whatever he turns out to be. If nothing else, "Eastwick" gets points for getting him back onto American screens.
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-DLV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)