Actors anchor gender-bending HBO drama

Saturday, March 15, 2003

What if your spouse of 25 years suddenly announced that he felt like a woman trapped inside a man's body? And that he wanted to go to his job at the tractor factory wearing earrings and cheap perfume? What would you say when he started wearing thrift-shop dresses that Tootsie wouldn't have been caught dead in? Chances are, you wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry. And that pretty much sums up my response to the 2003 cable drama "Normal" (9 p.m. Sunday, HBO).

Memorable performances by Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson are the ballast that keeps this earnest production from descending into farce. Set in the Corn Belt, "Normal" opens at Roy (Wilkinson) and Irma (Lange) Applewood's 25th wedding anniversary party at a local Rotary Club.

After Tom faints at the festivities, the couple enter therapy with their caring but starchy minister. There, Roy drops the bomb about his lifelong feelings of sexual dysfunction. Irma's gradual acceptance of her husband's transformation unfolds against a highly mannered backdrop of middle-American repression. Corny 1940s tunes are used to accentuate the utterly square nature of the Applewoods' existence.

It doesn't take long for this depiction of tight-lipped Americana to seem both condescending and unnecessary. But even Lange's laconic character gets in a few zingers. "Frankly, honey, there's no way you're a woman," she observes. "Only a man could be this selfish." Ultimately, only the intimate scenes between Lange and Wilkinson redeem this odd little movie.

Today's highlights

Today's series

A video-obsessed teen on "Touched by an Angel" (7 p.m., CBS) ... A teacher's love triangle ends in murder on "Law & Order" (7 p.m., NBC). ... On back-to-back episodes of "Cops" (Fox), shoplifting (7 p.m.), joy-riding (7:30 p.m.) ... Potholes and penny-pinchers on "The District" (8 p.m., CBS) ... A plastic surgeon's wife vanishes on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (8 p.m., NBC). ... John Walsh is host of "America's Most Wanted" (8 p.m., Fox) ... Military wives become targets for murder on "The Agency" (9 p.m., CBS).