Bleak drama a refreshing change for TV movies

"The Blackwater Lightship" (8 p.m., CBS) could be the "feel-bad" TV movie of the year. And that's a good thing. With the networks moving toward increasingly inane and inoffensive material, CBS deserves credit for broadcasting an old-fashioned quality drama about illness, death, silences and family secrets featuring solid performances by three generations of fine actresses.

How bleak is "Blackwater"? Let's just say the dying character is the happiest and most well-adjusted of the bunch. Featuring a downbeat hat trick of AIDS, cancer, and Irish Catholic repression as thick as a shillelagh, "Blackwater" dares to explore the notion that not every emotional wall can be surmounted with a hug and a smile and a get-well card. And that's saying a lot for a Hallmark presentation.

Set in a picturesque if moody Irish coastal town, "Blackwater" begins when Helen (Gina McKee, "Notting Hill") receives news that her brother Declan (Keith McErlean) is dying of AIDS. This leaves her with the task of informing her dotty if feisty grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and her estranged mother Lily (Dianne Wiest). A two-time Oscar-winner, Wiest has probably earned herself an Emmy nomination for her performance here.

Declan's decision to spend what may be his last days at his grandmother's cottage inspires passive-aggressive jealousy in Lily. Spending time with her brother in the old house forces Helen to remember, in a series of flashbacks, the summer when Lily "abandoned" them to Granny's care while she nursed her dying husband.

As all three women revisit years of unspoken resentments, "Blackwater" remains smart and honest enough to explore the simple but profound fact that that we can long remain strangers to our "nearest and dearest" relations.

Tonight's other highlights

  • Scheduled on "60 Minutes II" (7 p.m., CBS): Saddam's home movies; an armed police raid on a South Carolina high school; an interview with Larry King.
  • An episode of "The Restaurant" breaks out on "The Apprentice" (7 p.m., NBC).
  • The 32 finalists emerge on "American Idol" (7:30 p.m., Fox).
  • As if to admit that Meredith has been a complete dud, the producers of "The Bachelorette" (7:30 p.m., ABC) bring back Kelly Jo to pose as one of the statuesque Oregonian's "best friends."
  • l A press leak stymies Toby's strategy on "The West Wing" (8 p.m., NBC).
  • The vulgar sitcom "Oliver Beene" (8:30 p.m., Fox) returns.
  • A return to the blackboard jungle on "Celebrity Mole Yucatan" (9 p.m., ABC).

Late night

Cindy Crawford appears on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno hosts Dr. Phil McGraw and Eamon on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).

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