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MINISERIES IS A DISASTER FOR CBS

"Category 6: Day of Destruction" * (out of four)

9 p.m. Sunday, Channel 4

"ER" episode "Time of Death" *** 1/2 (out of four)

10 p.m. today, Channel 2

The Buffalo Bills come to the rescue Sunday, saving most of Western New York from a disaster of epic proportions, the CBS miniseries, "Category 6: Day of Destruction" (9 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Wednesday, WIVB-TV).

The Bills game with the New England Patriots, the once-beaten defending Super Bowl champs (8:30 p.m. Sunday, Channel 2 and ESPN), should destroy the only miniseries premiering during the November sweeps in the Nielsen ratings.

Despite a cast that includes Nancy McKeon, Thomas Gibson, Brian Dennehy, Randy Quaid and Dianne Wiest, "Category 6" is a hack job in more ways than one.

It focuses on a potentially devastating storm that will result from the collision of three enormous weather systems over Chicago. At the same time, a hacker is trying to make a statement and has brought down the electrical grid so no one knows what's going on.

If you've seen any disaster miniseries, you know what's going on. There are power struggles between reporters and their bosses, the government and electric companies, teenagers and their parents and entertainment and logic.

You just have to hope the unintentionally funny moments and dialogue and the special-effects make this trip worthwhile.

I can't vouch for the special-effects because the tape supplied by CBS didn't include them. But they better be awesome to overcome the tedious plot, some stereotypical casting and wooden characters.

McKeon stars as Amy Harkin, a crusading television reporter with a very pregnant sister-in-law and a brother who flies a weather plane and is above all the drama below. Amy believes in her news audience, telling one reluctant source worried about the electrical system that serves Chicago and the region: "Don't underestimate the collective intelligence."

Gibson is Mitch Benson, the chief of operations at Midwest Electric with several personal crises, some of his own making. Quaid is a semi-deranged storm chaser, nicknamed "Tornado Tommy," who gives some perplexed Asian tourists an up-close and personal look of weather systems spiced with commentary.

"That's the storm Gods," says Quaid. "They're saying, "Come watch us play.' "

Unlike most of the miniseries, Quaid is supposed to be funny. I think.

Dennehy is Andy Goodman, the retiring chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service's storm prediction center. Andy is trying to live down a mistake years ago that taught him a lesson: "What makes a great forecaster?" he asks. "Instinct."

I should have listened to my instinct, which was to avoid this disaster at all cost.

It can't even be saved by a flood of humor, much of it unintentional. All the Canadian accents from the actors laughably tell you that this miniseries was made on the cheap. Quaid gets a funny scene that looks like an homage to "Dr. Strangelove." And Dennehy delivers a classic line about a dog in Duluth that I won't spoil for you.

Dennehy, who has a Tony Award in his trophy case, assuredly is doing this for the paycheck, along with everyone else. That certainly has to explain the participation of Wiest, who owns an Academy Award. Playing a principled U.S. secretary of energy, she is just about the only actor who escapes with her dignity intact.

I'll leave it to Don Paul to determine the logic of the weather scenarios being played out, but reporter Harkin's protection and defense of a journalistic source and the resolution of the Benson family crises are ridiculous and unconvincing. And even worse after a four-hour investment, they don't pack any emotional punch.

CBS better hope that Harkin is right and it hasn't underestimated the collective intelligence of the audience. Because as entertainment, "Category 6" is in a category all by itself.

Speaking of crises, Ray Liotta gives NBC's "ER" (10 tonight, WGRZ-TV) an infusion of star power in a strong episode, "Time of Death," shot in real time.

Liotta stars as Charlie Metcalf, a former artist and construction worker who ruined his life with one terrible misstep after a family tragedy, landed in jail and lost everything important to him, including his son's love.

The care the alcoholic drifter is given by a team of doctors, whose job doesn't include judging the patient, is exemplary. Nearing death, Metcalf's life flashes before him and causes him to lament his choices. Along the way, he has a surprising impact on a normally detached doctor, who learns something about himself.

"ER" certainly needs a national transfusion now that "Without a Trace" on CBS defeats it regularly. But last week, the hospital drama won the local battle by a slim margin and this exceptional episode should be another ratings winner.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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