A&E sleuths make stylish return

The mystery series "Nero Wolfe" (7 p.m., Sunday, A&E;) returns for a second season with a two-hour episode. Maury Chaykin stars as Wolf, the rich, eccentric private eye with an expansive taste for books, fine wines, good food and the cultivation of sensual orchids. His dapper sidekick Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton) does most of the legwork while Wolf stays home supervising the chef. Bill Smitrovich ("The Practice") also stars as Inspector Cramer, a sleuth who doesn't always approve of Archie's methods.

Based on a series of 73 novels written by Rex Stout, "Wolfe" features the snappy dialogue and handsome haberdashery of late 1940s detective movies. "Wolfe" occasionally deviates from its Bogart-era look to create a visually dazzling world of its own. In tonight's episode, Archie attends a poetry reading in an apartment right out of the early 1970s, and he later teams up with an exotic dancer whose outfits would not seem out of place in an "Austin Powers" movie. Smart, stylish television.

l How dismal is "The Pilot's Wife" (8 p.m., Sunday, CBS)? It begins with a plane crash and goes downhill from there. Based on the best-selling novel by Anita Shreve, "Wife" stars the capable Christine Lahti as Kathryn Lyons. One dreary morning at her picturesque seaside home she is awakened by a visit from Robert Hart (Campbell Scott), an investigator and representative of the pilot's union. She knows as soon as he rings the door that her husband Jack (John Heard) is dead. Hart informs her that his plane exploded off the coast of Ireland

If Jack's death (and his daughter's bratty reaction) weren't bad enough, Kathryn learns that Jack may have had something to do with his plane's explosion. At this point, "Wife" lurches from the unbearable to the unbelievable. Kathryn escapes the invasion of FBI agents and hordes of tabloid reporters to embark on a one-woman investigation of the crash and of her husband's shadowy past. It would be unfair to give too much away here, but take my word for it, Jack (seen in many flashbacks) picked up more than frequent flier miles along the way.

Was Jack a criminal? An adulterer? A two-timer? A liar? A cad? A bad dad? Will Kathryn learn that she is a victim? That her marriage was a sham? That she had been used and abused by a no good rotten man? I'll give you one hint. The novel "A Pilot's Wife" was an "Oprah Book Club" selection. You do the math.

Tonight's highlights

� George C. Scott and Peter Gallagher star in the 1996 television movie "Titanic" (6 p.m., Lifetime). Not exactly James Cameron, but it does take four hours to sink.

� Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise star in the 1988 drama "Rain Man" (7 p.m., NBC).

� Scheduled on "48 Hours" (8 p.m., CBS): An update report on the Martha Moxley murder case.

� Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche star in the 1997 thriller "Volcano" (8 p.m., ABC).

� Melina Kanakaredes appears on "Mad TV" (10 p.m., Fox).


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