The major TV networks recently unveiled their fall schedules and, as usual, they look suspiciously like preceeding seasons (young adult sitcoms, police and legal dramas). But this doesn't mean the 1999–2000 season will be without surprises. As the millennium approaches, TV movie producers have suddenly discovered Jesus Christ. No fewer than two major productions are under way. Both may air as early as next fall.

The first is certain to generate controversy: NBC will air what it promises to be a “humanized” portrait of the Virgin Mary. What does this mean? According to network press notes, “she is perhaps one of the most controversial and misunderstood figures in all of Christianity,” and so this portrait will attempt to show how “she shares the concerns of every mother.”

One can surmise that the producers will exercise a certain amount of poetic license. And another unusual twist: The movie entitled “Mary and Jesus” will be produced by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of John F. Kennedy.

Meanwhile, CBS will produce a four-hour miniseries on the life of Jesus, with the actor Jeremy Sisto — who appeared in NBC's recent miniseries, “The 60s” — in the title role. Gary Oldman will play Pontius Pilate, and Jacqueline Bisset will portray Mary. What do we know about this? Very little, but it appears likely that CBS will attempt to produce a “period” piece as opposed to a particularly detailed portrait of Christ or spirituality. Production notes also suggest that the minis-eries will delve into Jesus' relationships.

What follows is a brief look at some programs of interest to viewers this month:


Stealing Time: The New Science of Aging (PBS, 8–11 p.m.; all times listed are Eastern): This program is one of public television's major “events” of the month exploring new scientific advances in how people age and why. The executive producer, John Rubin, explains that certain research indicates that “we can, in fact, keep ourselves mentally sharp into our 90s and beyond. … Scientists have spent decades observing and describing how we get old. But only in the last few years have they gotten to the point where they can actually do something about it.” Rubin himself brings a considerable depth of journalistic and scientific accomplishment to this venture: He received a Ph.D. in cognitive science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has produced numerous specials for National Geographic. In some of the findings reported during these three hours, Rubin insists that no scientists are “talking about extending life at any cost, stretching out years of decline. The new science of aging will extend the number of healthy, vibrant, joyous years while at the same time shortening the period of decline at the end of life.”

Over these three hours, a number of scientists are interviewed, and the result is one of TV's more thoughtful treatments of the subject. Whether it is 100% pro-life on end-of-life issues is for the viewer to decide.

SUNDAYS, June 6, 13, 20, 27

Celebrate the Century (CNN, all 9–10 p.m.): CNN's exhaustive, though hardly complete, 10-part series on the century kicks into high gear in June, covering the years 1946 through 1989. Catholic viewers will be disappointed, in part, because as virtually every others series on the vast subject of the 20th century, this one tends overwhelmingly toward the securlar, ignoring (or giving short-shrift) to important developments in the Church, in particular, or Christianity, in general. Nonetheless, this is solid series that gives viewers a broad, if somewhat corsetted, look back at our own century. Episode 6 (June 6) covers the years 1954–61, and ends with the launch of Sputnik. Episode 7 (June 13) looks at what CNN calls “the most tumultuous” period of the 20th century — a statement those who lived through the '30s may take exception to. Episode 8 (June 20) ends with the seizure of the hostages in Tehran. Finally, Episode 9 (June 27) follows the events of the '80s, and ends with the transformation of the Soviet Union. The CNN series concludes in early July.

June 14–17, 21, 28

People's Century (PBS, 9–11 p.m.): And lest we forget, PBS's look-back at the century kicks into high gear this month too. The structure of “People's Century” is markedly different from CNN's, which is strictly chronological. While CNN embraces macro-history, PBS is content with micro-history —the “ordinary” people who changed the course of history. On Monday, June 14, “People's” looks at two years — 1948 and 1968 — contrasting radically different cultures and lifestyles. On Tuesday, June 15, the years 1945 (the harnessing of nuclear power) and '59 (the growth of consumerism) are contrasted.


Father Aposteli (EWTN, 11 a.m.): Father Andrew Aposteli explores the Beatitudes, in an eight-step quest to holiness. This program also initiated a compelling series in May on Padre Pio, the recently beatified Franciscan Capuchin priest who received the stigmata in 1918. It was one of ETWN's major series of the spring and, one hopes, will be reprised shortly.


Great Performances (PBS: 8 p.m.): This wonderful PBS series ofers The Making of Turandotat the Forbidden City” in this unusual presentation of the Puccini opera. It will be produced by famed Chinese film director Zhang Yimou.


Pinehurst: Stories of Good Times and Great Golf (PBS: 8 p.m. Check local listing, as the airdates could vary city to city.) Here's something a little off-beat, and certainly appropriate, for the summer months. Only golfers, arguably, will be interested in this special, butPinehurst itself — one of the world's most beautiful courses — holds its own unique appeals. The course was built in the North Carolina sandhills in 1895, and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame). The course itself had a rich history (Annie Oakley ran the club's gun club), and the golfing, of course, has been superlative.

Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday.