At the start of The Ten Commandments (Monday & Tuesday, 8 p.m., ABC), a narrator intones: "Moses is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike." For ABC, that must have sounded like can't-miss demographics. But this new Ten Commandments is as kitschy as the 1956 version, and I suspect it will be reviled by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike.
Moses (Dougray Scott) is a sandal-wearing sourpuss with a penchant for would-be profundities: "When a man has not mastered his temper, he will find a quarrel anywhere." (Do tell.) On one of his many long trudges through the desert, he has a vision of God, whose baritone voice sounds suspiciously like that of the movie's narrator. God impresses Moses with a few supernatural tricks, but He fails to impress us. Does He really think audiences raised on Star Wars and The Matrix will be wowed by a few puffs of dry-ice fog?
Moses' encounter with God makes him even more insufferable. He affects a Jesus beard and hairdo and, with a fanatical gleam in his eye, orders Pharaoh to set the Jewish slaves free or else.
The fanatical gleam turns the movie from kitschy to creepy. ABC surely didn't intend a critique of religious extremism, but they've warped the biblical tale by transferring it from the realm of myth to the realm of psychological realism. That allows us to judge Moses in modern terms - and, post-9/11, we can't help squirming as a man presides over mass murder because "God told him to." Couldn't he skip the slaying of the firstborn and just sneak the slaves out of Egypt under cover of dry-ice fog?
Back on Campus
Saturday, 9 pm (ABC Family)
In this new reality series, a group of parents attend college with their kids. They live with them, party with them and attend classes with them. They also look like fools with them.
No one comes out of "Back on Campus" with dignity intact. The students become objects of derision at dorm parties, and the parents embarrass themselves with every word that comes out of their mouths. "My son," one dad says, "is a lot more smarter than I am."
If you watch "Back on Campus," you're a lot more dumber than I thought you were.
10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America
Sunday-Thursday, 8 pm (History Channel)
This ambitious series features 10 documentaries, each spotlighting an event that triggered seismic shifts in the United States. The History Channel sent me all 10, starting with the 17th-century Pequot War \\and progressing through the 18th-century Shays' Rebellion, the 19th-century Homestead Strike and the 20th century Elvis Presley phenomenon. My hand briefly hovered over the Pequot War DVD before heading straight for the Elvis episode.
And what an episode! Everybody knows Elvis could sing, but not everybody understands his impact on America's political and cultural landscape. The documentary (airing Thursday, April 13) calls his September 1956 appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" a tipping point. 1950s America considered itself content, with sexual energy, generational tension and racial resentment more or less repressed. Then came Elvis. He sang like a black man, shocking the segregationists. And he beamed raw sex into American living rooms, shocking Mom and Dad. After seeing Elvis, the youth of America had their own agenda, one that led directly to the upheavals of the 1960s.
Could the Pequot War have been anywhere near this thrilling?
Robert Ludlam's Covert One: The Hades Factor
Sunday, 8 pm (CBS)
In last month's Time Bomb, CBS gave us terrorists threatening to blow up a football stadium. In Robert Ludlam's Covert One, they give us terrorists threatening to wipe out the entire country with a deadly virus.
It's getting to the point where America has more to fear from CBS TV movies than it does from real terrorists.
Monday, 8 pm (WHA)
"The Boy in the Bubble" tells the sad story of David Vetter, born in 1971 with no immune system. Doctors had the bright idea of temporarily sealing him in a plastic isolator while they searched for a cure. But - oops - they couldn't find a cure, meaning that David had to grow up in the bubble.
This wasn't a bad thing for the doctors, who now had their very own lab rat to ride to fame and fortune. But it was a bad thing for David, who was consigned to a less-than-human existence for his 12-year lifespan. He stared forlornly out of his isolator, denied his parents' touch. "One, two, three, four, I can't take this anymore!" he shouted.
"The Boy in the Bubble" explores the ethical dimension of David's situation. Were the doctors boldly exploring new medical frontiers, or were they conducting a bizarre experiment worthy of Dr. Frankenstein? One commentator puts it best: "The desire to test technology, to see what is possible, has to be tempered by a very deep respect for our need to be human."