The May sweeps period is quite literally one for the books. The final barrage of high-gloss programming before the summer doldrums boasts miniseries adaptations of three best-selling fiction writers. Better yet, none is named Judith Krantz, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon.
Each of the first three Sundays of the ratings month, which begins Thursday and extends through May 22, will feature the opening installment of a two-parter.
Peter Benchley, who turned “Jaws” into an industry, is back in the water with NBC’s “The Beast” on Sunday and Monday. William Peterson and Karen Silas star in the fable of a giant squid that terrorizes a seaside community. It’s astonishing how little effort has been made to change the plotting from “Jaws.” Nevertheless, it’s a grand popcorn adventure.
Dominick Dunne’s “A Season in Purgatory,” a tale of murder and deceit among a Kennedy-like family, takes center stage on CBS May 5 and 7. Brian Dennehy, Bonnie Bedelia, Blair Brown, Patrick Dempsey and Sherilyn Fenn head an impressive ensemble; the saga deals with a brutal murder by a well-connected youngster and the cover-up that haunts the lives of his prominent family and friends over several decades.
“Dead Man’s Walk,” which is not to be confused with the big-screen “Dead Man Walking,” is ABC’s big event for May. The latest mining of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” mother lode is set for May 12-13. This five-hour prequel introduces Woodrow Call and Gus McRae as young adventurers who join the Texas Rangers. Johnny Lee Miller and David Arquette play Call and McRae, respectively. Bigger names include Brian Dennehy (again), Edward James Olmos, F. Murray Abraham and Keith Carradine. Unlike some of the other “Lonesome Dove” productions, McMurtry participated in this project.
The final week of the sweeps also will have a two-parter. The fact-based “Every Knee Shall Bow: The Siege at Ruby Ridge” is a dramatization of the controversial government siege of the stronghold of an anti-government clan in Idaho. Starring Randy Quaid, Laura Dern and Diane Ladd, it airs on CBS May 19 and 21.
The May sweeps is one of the year’s three monthlong periods of intense ratings measurement that are used by local stations to set advertising rates. So it’s incumbent on networks to draw the biggest audiences possible for their affiliates by offering enticing programs. This sweeps month will bring the customary array of movies, almost evenly split between big-screen flicks and telemovies.
Some of the theatricals will be familiar to those TV watchers who never visit theaters. Fox shoots for ratings gold on April 30 with “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Back-to-back knockoffs of vintage TV series are set for May 4 and 5. On May 4, ABC throws out “Dragnet.” The following night, “The Fugitive” shows up on NBC.
Former TV stars who made the jump to movies will be prominent. Ted Danson and Will Smith play opposite Whoopi Goldberg in “Made in America” on NBC April 27. Fox, which doesn’t generally air movies on Sunday, makes an exception on Mother’s Day, May 12, with Robin Williams as “Mrs. Doubtfire.” “Cheers” bartender Woody Harrelson stars opposite Wesley Snipes in “White Men Can’t Jump” on ABC May 9. Burt Reynolds tops the marquee in “Cop and a Half” on NBC May 25.
Snipes is back on ABC May 16 in “Passenger 57,” one of a multitude of action-adventure offerings during the sweeps. ABC’s movie agenda gets off to an explosive start on April 25 with “Lethal Weapon III,” and NBC has Jean-Claude van Damme in “Hard Target” on May 18.
Tom Cruise fans can look forward to a double dip. “A Few Good Men,” in which he stars opposite Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore, is set for May 12 on NBC. On May 19, Cruise will be on ABC in “The Firm.”
ABC will try to capitalize on Sandra Bullock’s audience magnetism with a film she made before she became a headliner, “Love Potion No. 9,” on May 18.
CBS, which anchors Sundays with “60 Minutes,” will have more “Grumpy Old Men” on April 28.
Abusive and troubled relationships will be all over the dial. ABC will counter the NBC miniseries “The Beast” on April 28 with the most provocatively titled film of the sweeps, “She Woke Up Pregnant.” Michelle Greene stars as a wife and mother who discovers she is going to have a baby long after her husband has had an effective vasectomy.
John Ritter is a father with a history of violence toward his wife and children in “Unforgivable” on CBS April 30.
Jennie Garth has a fatal attraction to a married man with whom she has a brief fling in ABC’s “An Unfinished Affair” on May 5.
Fred Savage, who has grown out of his “Wonder Years,” is a campus heartthrob who likes to play rough with his girlfriends in “No One Would Tell” on NBC May 6. The same night on ABC, Marilu Henner is the mother of a teen accused of rape in “My Son Is Innocent.”
Melissa Joan Hart, better known as Nickelodeon’s Clarissa, steps out of character to be a teen vamp who gets her boyfriend to commit murder in “Twisted Desire” on NBC May 13.
Sharon Lawrence, a positive role model on “NYPD Blue,” also tries a change of pace in NBC’s “A Friend’s Betrayal” on May 19. Lawrence plays a woman who beds her best friend’s teen-age son.
“The Stepford Husbands” on CBS May 14 is the flip side of the old theatrical movie. This time it’s the women who want to remake their spouses.
Recent history’s ultimate dysfunctional relationship, Prince Charles and Princess Di, is at the heart of “Princess in Love” on CBS May 15.
It isn’t only lovers who can turn treacherous, according to “The People Next Door” on CBS, date to be announced. Faye Dunaway and Nicollette Sheridan top the bill in the story of neighbors who are child snatchers.
The closest to a warm love story is “Our Son the Matchmaker” on CBS May 8. In searching for a child she gave up for adoption, a woman played by Ann Jillian also is reunited with a lover from her past.
“Angel Flight Down” on ABC April 29 is a fact-based story of a mercy mission that almost ends in tragedy. “Tornado!” on Fox May 7 is self-explanatory. “Thrill,” on NBC May 20, is “Speed” on a roller coaster.
For fans of warm and cuddly, there is “Born Free: A New Adventure” on ABC April 27.
Also making comebacks are three familiar titles from TV history. “The Rockford Files” has its latest revival on CBS on Thursday; “Wiseguy” resurfaces on ABC May 2, and the next generation of “Dr. Who” launches on Fox May 14.