Homer's `Odyssey' Suffers in the Translation (to Tv)

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HOMER'S heroic Odysseus survived the Trojan War, a one-eyed people-eater and even a trip to Hades, but he can't quite survive a big-budget treatment from NBC.

"The Odyssey" (8 p.m. Sunday and Monday on Channel 5) is certainly good looking, as it ought to be, considering that it cost $40 million - $10 million for each of its four hours.

It's packed with stars, headed by Armand Assante as the wandering hero and Greta Scacchi as his faithful wife, Penelope. And, even after more than 2,000 years, this is a great yarn. So what went wrong? Why is "The Odyssey," although intermittently charming and even involving, such a chore to plod through? Part of the blame has to go to director Andrei Konchalovsky, who co-wrote the screenplay (with Christopher Solimine) and apparently couldn't decide whether to make a cheerful comic book, in the style of "Xena: Warrior Princess," or a Greek tragedy. But another big flaw is the performance of Assante, whose Odysseus seems smaller than life, a grumpy, middle-aged man who sometimes looks astonished and/or puzzled by what he sees, but mainly acts as if he has a bad headache. He even looks this way in the slapstick opening scene of "The Odyssey" (found nowhere in Homer's epic poem), in which Penelope gives birth to son Telemachus in "I Love Lucy" fashion. Almost immediately, though, there's a sad farewell as Odysseus gets beeped for the Trojan War. En route, the goddess Athena (Isabella Rossellini, looking believably goddess-like), drops in for a little visit, urging Odysseus to "do battle, become immortal, have your name on the lips of future generations." So he goes, but little does he know he'll be gone, well, forever. At least that's what Poseidon vows after Odysseus - having scored big with that Trojan Horse gag - fails to thank the gods for the victory. In retaliation, the petulant deity sentences Odysseus and crew to "drift on my sea for an eternity." This is all pretty depressing, not to mention bloody, with Assante providing exhausted-sounding voice-over of lines like, "In the seventh year, Achilles, a god among men, was slain." Once the wandering starts, things perk up, for us if not for Odysseus and Co. Sighting an island, the hungry sailors find a cache of cheese and ignore the big footprints that turn out to belong to a Cyclops, a one-eyed monster created delightfully by the Jim Henson shop. (Family-viewing warning: This is a Muppet that snacks on humans, sno-cone style.) Other early stops take Odysseus and his dwindling crew to the home of the wind god (Michael J. Pollard) and to the island of Circe (Bernadette Peters), whose drugged wine turns men into animals - mainly, swine. These episodes are fun, if all too brief. Back at the palace, Penelope is lonely (and one scene in which she th rashes around in the ocean is vaguely R-rated). Odysseus' mother (Irene Pappas) goes her one better: Unable to stand not knowing whether her son is dead or alive, she drowns herself. …