Talking animals and slowly developing plot lines hamper the premiere.

For about 30 minutes, Stephen King’s new miniseries had me in the palm of its spooky, skeletal hand.

Then the talking anteater showed up.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some basics.

“Kingdom Hospital” began life not as a King novel, but as a 1994 Danish miniseries written and directed by Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark”).

Two years later, when the first four of 13 episodes were released as a theatrical movie, “The Kingdom,” admiring reviewers described it as darkly comic, an agreeably horrifying cross between “ER” and “Twin Peaks.”

King and Richard Dooling wrote the screenplay for the American version, which begins this week with a two-hour installment, to be followed by 11 weekly one-hour episodes (10 p.m. EST Wednesdays, starting March 10) and a two-hour conclusion. ABC sent out the opener for screening. And its first half-hour, as I said, is pretty terrific.

We’re in familiar King territory, with a Maine hospital that – wouldn’t you know it? – is built on cursed ground, the site of a 19th-century mill fire that incinerated most of the factory’s child laborers.

This prologue is related through wonderfully sepulchral narration and scenes of an industrial inferno that bring to mind William Blake’s “dark satanic mills.” The vaporous opening credits (designed by the same outfit that did the ones for “Six Feet Under”) and the haunting tune that accompanies them (“Worry About You,” by the rock group Ivy) maintain the mood.

Outwardly, the modern-day hospital where Drs. Hook (Andrew McCarthy), Stegman (Bruce Davison) and James (Ed Begley Jr.) work is all clean lines and reflective surfaces. It suffers, however, from a variety of symptoms that might be termed King’s disease, including sudden power failures, inexplicable elevator malfunctions and regular visitations by wailing ghosts.

This none-too-reassuring institution is about to open its doors to artist Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman), who is struck down by a hit-and-run driver and left mute and paralyzed.

Lying on the ground and waiting for someone to help him, the artist is visited by a creature out of one of his own paintings: a giant, hideously fanged anteater. And this is where the plot, attempting to be blackly comic, gets silly.

The anteater – which, it must be said, is a dandy piece of animatronic wizardry – begins talking to the artist. I have nothing against talking animals, but if an anteater can’t do better than “Ants-olutely delish!” it should probably keep quiet.

It soon becomes apparent that the anteater and a number of other animals and humans, living and dead, are spirits who are linked in some way to both the hospital and Peter. But the development of this plot line is so plodding that the shivers and smiles give way to yawns.

The same is true of the relationships among the doctors, who quibble and quarrel to little effect.

Sure, Stegman is so vile that you figure he’s not going to die a natural death, and Hook is the kind of amiable smart-aleck who’ll probably survive any number of close calls. But most of what they say and do in the first two hours isn’t intrinsically interesting – and if it’s just a set-up for an apocalyptic ending, that ending is awfully far away.

Though she’s a holdover from the Danish version, Mrs. Druse (Diane Ladd), a patient with psychic powers, comes off as a tired King cliche. A more novel concept borrowed from von Trier, a Greek chorus in the persons of two hospital kitchen aides with Down syndrome (Jennifer Cunningham, Brandon Bauer), also falls flat.

Some of King’s lighter touches work better. Rickman’s accident echoes the one that badly mangled the author in 1999, right down to the dog-distracted driver. There’s a visual nod to “Carrie” in the opening scene, and even a character named Carrie von Trier.

The ghostly apparitions are more subtle and hence more unsettling than in some previous King miniseries. And that superlatively spooky narration returns periodically to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

In fact, there’s just enough that’s creepy, comic or cool about “Kingdom Hospital” to make me want to try it again next week.

But if the anteater doesn’t get some better dialogue, I’m gone.

Ants-olutely.



Short takes:

-Richard Schickel’s “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin” (8 p.m. EST Wednesday, repeated 12:30 a.m., TCM) combines biography and film retrospective in a seamless production that’s well worth its 135-minute running time.

The film historian is lyrical about Chaplin’s virtues and clear-eyed about his faults. Woody Allen, Marcel Marceau, Martin Scorsese and many others contribute interesting comments, but the film clips – from the iconic to the rarely seen, including home movies from as late as the 1970s – have an unmatched eloquence.

The Schickel film kicks off TCM’s monthlong Chaplin festival, featuring 11 full-length movies, 36 classic shorts and 10 half-hour documentaries by contemporary directors. For more information, visit www.turnerclassicmovies.com.

-If you think TV just hasn’t been the same since the demise of “Married … with Children,” the creator of that famous Fox comedy has a treat for you: “The Help” (9:30 p.m. EST Friday, WB), a broad-as-a-barn new sitcom with David Faustino (“Married …”), Mindy Cohn (“The Facts of Life”), Tori Spelling (“Beverly Hills, 90210”) and Antonio Sabato Jr. (“Melrose Place”).

It’s all about the Ridgeways, a family of rich twits who employ a wisecracking cook, a studly chauffeur, a preening personal trainer, a nubile nanny and other walking cliches. I found watching the pilot as much fun as filling out Form 1040, but I never got the appeal of “Married …,” either.



STEPHEN KING’S KINGDOM HOSPITAL

9 p.m. EST Wednesday

ABC



E-mail: jweintraubjournalsentinel.com.



(c) 2004, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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AP-NY-03-01-04 0620EST



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