Ellen Gray: 'Steel Magnolias' remake debuts on Lifetime


* STEEL MAGNOLIAS. 9 p.m. Sunday, Lifetime.

WHEN I first heard Lifetime was remaking "Steel Magnolias," a movie I happily left behind in the theater in 1989 and hadn't rewatched all the way through until this week, I thought: Why bother?

I vaguely remembered the star-studded original, perhaps a little unfairly, as an over-the-top, Southern-fried weepfest. But plenty of other women loved it, and probably wouldn't take kindly to anyone messing with it.

It's a good thing, then, that Lifetime wasn't messing around with just anyone.

Produced by Oscar winners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ("Chicago"), Lifetime's "Steel Magnolias" is less movie-style remake than theater-style revival, with a screenplay by Sally Robinson - who shares writing credit with Robert Harling, who wrote the original play and screenplay - that's slightly updated for, as one character puts it, the "age of Facebook."

It boasts its own impressive cast of actresses, this time African-American: Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Philadelphia's Jill Scott, Adepero Oduye and Condola Rashad, Phylicia's Tony-nominated daughter, portrays Shelby, the character whose story was inspired by Harling's sister.

Maybe it's her theater training, but Rashad's Shelby reminded me less of the pre-"Pretty Woman" Julia Roberts - who was nominated for an Oscar for the role - than of Emily in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," that other story of love and death in a tight-knit community. And it's her performance that finally helped me see "Steel Magnolias" with fresh eyes.

Which is what you hope for in any revival.

It's not that the players in one version are better than another, but it's possible that some of the casting in this new "Magnolias" is more on point, with Oduye, for instance, proving a far less distracting Annelle than Daryl Hannah's ugly-duckling version with the bad specs and hideous hair.

And while I yield to no one in my love for Sally Field, I appreciated the slightly acerbic note Queen Latifah occasionally brings to M'Lynn, Shelby's mother.

On the other hand, Scott's Truvy couldn't look less like Dolly Parton, but they're both equally convincing in their belief that there's no such thing as "natural beauty."

Only one "Steel Magnolias," though, can claim Julius Erving. Yes, that's Dr. J in the small (but very tall) role of the minister, a part that Harling took for himself in the original movie.

If you want to do your own compare-and-contrast, Netflix has the original available for streaming. I found it maybe a little better than I'd remembered, but it also felt a bit padded, as if Harling's play had been expanded to the point where the story was serving the actors, rather than the actors the story.

Downsizing to television not only doesn't hurt "Steel Magnolias" - it may have brought it into better focus.


Also Sunday

* Not every revival was meant to be.

The second (and final) season of "Upstairs, Downstairs" - the continuation of the long-running 1970s series to which "Downton Abbey" also clearly owes so much - launches on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic" (9 p.m. Sunday, WHYY 12) with an episode that adds a couple of new characters.

One's upstairs - Sir Hallam's strong-minded Aunt Blanche, played by "ER's" Alex Kingston - and one downstairs - a new maid, Beryl (Laura Haddock) who has strong opinions of her own.

Whether or not the success of "Downton" hurt the new version in the ratings in Britain, the illness of Jean Marsh, who co-created the original series and played Rose in both versions, undeniably did damage. Marsh, who suffered a stroke last year, only appears in a few brief scenes, leaving only the address 165 Eaton Place for continuity.

This final season - it was canceled by the BBC earlier this year - deals with the period before World War II when Britain's leaders, eager to keep the peace, tried to find a way to come to terms with Hitler. Things aren't much prettier at Eaton Place, where Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard) and Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) are headed for trouble, too. Frankly, it's a dispiriting season and I won't miss the show nearly as much as I'll miss Blake Ritson's charming turn as Sir Hallam's royal friend, the Duke of Kent.

* Way back in 1999, Fox's Philly-born "reality" guru, Mike Darnell had a dream: He wanted to crash an old 727 in California's Mojave Desert and film it for a special that probably would've left ratings for his infamous "When Animals Attack" and "Alien Autopsy" shows in the dust.

I always thought cooler heads at Fox prevailed, but according to the New York Post, it was the Federal Aviation Administration that put the kibosh on that one.

Which could explain why the deliberate downing of a 727 that kicks off a new season of Discovery's "Curiosity" at 9 p.m. Sunday takes place in a different desert, outside Mexicali, Mexico.

"Four years of meticulous planning" preceded this particular scientific experiment, which involved having a crew fly the plane till it was well over an unpopulated area, then parachute out while a smaller plane followed it, controlling the crash by remote control.

Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

NASA tried something like this in 1984 but ended up with a fireball that pretty much destroyed most of the scientific data it had hoped to obtain.

The argument the people working with "Curiosity" make is that they need data like this to improve passenger safety and maybe eventually there'll be a sequel that discusses that data in detail - and shows some evidence that the airlines are paying attention.

Among the early conclusions: You might be better off not getting upgraded to first class. And that "bracing" position that there's barely enough room to do in most coach seats? It might keep you a little safer in a crash than sitting upright would.

For now, though, "Curiosity: Plane Crash" is mostly just a cool TV show about exactly what goes into crashing a huge plane without killing anyone.

I have to think Darnell would be happy with that.


Contact Ellen Gray at graye@phillynews.com or 215-854-5950. Follow her on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.