Idiot Box: In Your Dreams, Monica

An early promo spot for Cleopatra (ABC; Sunday, May 23, and Monday, May 24) was specially tailored to be aired during Monica Lewinsky’s chat with Barbara Walters (“When she was only 20 … she seduced the most powerful leader in the world,” it announced). Monica is no Cleopatra, of course. She might act like she has her own country, but she doesn’t really, just a small media empire. Nor does she have to render anything unto Caesar. Think of Cleopatra, then, as Monica with great makeup and armed forces. This mini-series, in turn, can be thought of as a dream of the Monica that we (and she) desired but didn’t get. But even the dream falls short: Leonor Varela’s Cleopatra is hardly more enthralling than a Beverly Hills 90210 princess. This isn’t so bad when she’s with Timothy Dalton’s captivatingly jocular Caesar–though she can’t quite hold her own, as when Caesar waxes Solomonic about the vanity of forgotten ancient kings and Cleopatra can only stare quizzically, as if to say, “Like, whatever, dude.” (Hello, Monica!) But when she takes up with Billy Zane’s Marc Antony, there’s no longer any there there. Cleopatra, the ur-Rules girl, knows how to make a man commit (unlike Monica), but in choosing her mates, she selfishly neglects to take our pleasure into account. Watch Part 1; you’ll get enough lavish spectacle and Timothy Dalton to last you a while.

Speaking of The Rules, a guy named Geoffrey Chaucer was putting some heavy thought into the battle of the sexes round about 1380. HBO is debuting a perversely quirky anthology of animations of his Canterbury Tales on Thursday, May 26. Watch the mildly bawdy “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and you’ll find out exactly what women want.

A Lesson Before Dying (HBO; debuts Saturday, May 22), based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, is sort of a cross between Native Son and Dead Man Walking, but without that ambiguous guilt factor to muck up the moral equation. Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer), a young black man in 1948 Louisiana, has been framed for murder by the local white establishment. So, it’s a shameless tearjerker masquerading as a weighty historical drama, right? Well, not exactly. The real drama is how a black middle-class schoolteacher, Grant (Don Cheadle), gets recruited by his impoverished neighbors and relatives to teach Jefferson that he is a man, so he can die on his own terms. OK, so it’s a Bildungsroman in which a sophisticated atheist comes to reconnect with his roots by saving a noble savage from having to die thinking he is an animal, right? Well, we’re getting closer, but let’s not oversimplify. After Grant answers the call, he must moderate between a corrupt justice system, a church he doesn’t believe in, a family that’s a bit intimidated by his brains, and his own upwardly mobile relativism. Ah, so it’s a liberal family-values movie. Well, sort of, but watch it anyway for the outstanding performances, including a tour de force by Cicely Tyson. And who can really argue with the gentle rapprochement that is acheived by the end? As a utopian vision, it’s much more gratifying than what you’d get from, say, the Disney people.