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Some Ideas Are Best Left in TV’s Past--Like These Two

Dueling ghosts.

That’s what viewers get when those two-parters “Larry McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo” and “The Invaders” clash Sunday and Tuesday nights.

On CBS, “Streets of Laredo” brushes cobwebs from Capt. Woodrow Call, the fabled Texas ranger of a previous McMurtry book who was so ably personified by Tommy Lee Jones in the cow-punching “Lonesome Dove” of 1989 and so forgettably by Jon Voight in a feeble 1993 sequel, “Return to Lonesome Dove.” Getting the assignment this time is James Garner.

“The Invaders” has reposed with wormy cadavers even longer, as Fox is giving its ‘90s twist to an ABC science-fiction series of the late 1960s in which Roy Thinnes each week sought to persuade his fellow citizens that Earth had been infiltrated by humanlike aliens bent on conquest. He was ignored. Scott Bakula now has this thankless task, although Thinnes resurfaces briefly to slap him on the back and cheer him on.

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As dramas, both of these are minuses, but at least “The Invaders” has the benefit of being so searingly inept that you can have fun with it.

Not so the ponderous, over-steamed “Streets of Laredo,” which, in addition to lumbering across five hours, provides the goriest chunk of prime time in years, much of the graphic carnage being pointless even in a story purporting to symbolize rampant predation in the Old West.

There’s something of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” in the gathering of geezers that wheeze their way through much of “Streets of Laredo,” with Garner’s former Texas ranger, wearing a bird’s nest for a beard and dragging along on creaky legs, seeking to earn a fat paycheck from the railroad by tracking down a young, blond Mexican train robber whose taste for blood exceeds his lust for loot.

“Who’s ever doin’ it is doin’ it fer the killin,’ not the robbin,’ ” Call twangs about Joey Garza (Alexis Cruz), who icily slaughters gringos just for the sadistic heck of it.

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Also in on the pursuit, ultimately, is Call’s aging yes-man, Pee Eye Parker (Sam Shepard), whose wife (Sissy Spacek) is a former prostitute once kept captive by a cross-eyed outlaw who still ravages the countryside, burning his victims the way you’d like to torch parts of this script that Diana Ossana and McMurtry adapted from the latter’s book.

Meanwhile, a racist Texas sheriff crosses into Mexico to torment Joey’s mother (Sonia Braga)--perhaps because she somehow has a Brazilian accent--and famed hanging Judge Roy Bean (Ned Beatty) sits on his front porch contemplating his whiskers.

On this vast landscape, where violence and amorality are so prevalent that lawmen and the lawless coalesce, only Randy Quaid’s dark-humored turn as murderous bad guy John Wesley Hardin resonates with authority. Garner surely doesn’t. Capt. Call is said to be so fearsome that the mere sound of his name mortifies those within earshot, yet Garner, although a good actor, seems not to have it in him to play ruthless. Even his growls have rounded edges.

Bogged by the story’s bigness, moreover, director Joseph Sargent has Call and Joey inching toward their inevitable violent clash like a couple of glaciers. Instead of suspense, there’s interminable slowness punctuated by body counts.

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“The Invaders” conducts its own body count, constantly tallying the humanoid forms that are really aliens. David Vincent (Thinnes) knew the score almost three decades ago, and has been tracking this “invasion” ever since. And now it falls to ex-con Nolan Woods (Bakula) to warn the planet. His allies are his young son, Kyle (Mario Yedidia), and physician Ellen Garza (Elizabeth Pena)--no relation to “Laredo’s” Joey Garza--whose fiance was murdered by one of “them.”

Secretly one of “them” is Jerry Thayer (Richard Thomas), owner of a lonely desert truck stop where he lives with Kyle and Woods’ ex-wife, Amanda (DeLane Matthews), who is so thick that she hasn’t a clue about her husband or the odd-acting tourists who drop in for a bite.

The aliens have two things in common: They like steak and eggs (go figure) and hate clean air. Thus, their maniacal plan is to somehow make Earth perfect for themselves by seeing that our ecosystem is destroyed.

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Yet will no one accept the truth that Woods preaches? The stubbornly unenlightened crowd includes a brick of a cop (Terence Knox) who rejects Woods’ pleas to read the journal that Vincent has written describing his odyssey: “There are times when it seems so hopeless, when I realize how much I’ve lost and how lonely this self-imposed mission of mine is. Am I deluding myself? Is our species so bent on self-destruction that we’re beyond redemption? Am I naive to have faith in my fellow man?”

If this is his gift to literature, no wonder he’s kept himself hidden all these years and away from the critics.

Things to watch for in this saga (written by James Dott and directed by Paul Shapiro), in addition to more readings of Vincent’s turgid journal:

* Aliens so turned on by dirt and pollution that they get the shakes when inhaling carbon monoxide and other gases.

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* Aliens rendering their victims unconscious by attaching a disgusting rubber thing to their faces and then sticking a needle through it.

* Kyle pulling his father out of an alien-induced fog by getting him to sing a childhood song.

Things get really loopy, however, when Richard Belzer appears sporadically as a radio commentator spewing invectives across the airwaves.

The original “Invaders” was one of a bunch of 1960s and 1970s “chase” series inspired by that huge hit “The Fugitive,” each having its own Richard Kimble surface at a different locale each week, either pursuing or being pursued by characters up to no good. None was more vivid than “The Immortal,” which ran on ABC 25 years ago. Its hero was a race car driver on the lam from strange types who wanted to steal his blood because its antibodies gave immortality. A little transfusion--was it so much to ask? Pretty stupefying.

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Yet “The Invaders” II is where buffoonery gets really serious. Aliens ruining our ecosystem? An even more insidious thought: Aliens take over Earth by writing TV stories that destroy our minds.

* “Streets of Laredo” airs 8-11 p.m. Sunday and 9-11 p.m. Tuesday on CBS (Channel 2). “The Invaders” airs 8-10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday on Fox (Channel 11).


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