8-11 p.m., Saturday, May 26
Hallmark Channel

If all that stands between Los Angeles and mass death by virulent plague is Tiffani Thiessen, my money's on the plague -- particularly if Eric Roberts is our mayor and Faye Dunaway our governor.

I mean, could the "three-hour movie event" titled "Pandemic" have assembled a less credible team to battle a viral scourge that seems to claim the lives of its victims in mere hours -- from first cough to final breath? This is what happens when a network whose name is synonymous with greeting cards tries to craft an end-of-the-world project. It's the cinematic equivalent of "Weather is beautiful, feeling a bit out of sorts."

Given the Hallmark Channel identity, this production tends to leave the impression that a dire threat to the populace of a major metropolitan city is alarming but, you know, nothing to incite a panic over. One unleashed virus can ruin your whole day, but it doesn't have to screw up the entire week. It's a message we all can take to heart.

Penned by former TV Academy president Bryce Zabel and his wife, Jackie, "Pandemic" isn't quite a real disaster flick, or even an incredible simulation. It depicts a germ crisis on fast-forward, eliciting practically no sense of time and scope despite regular updates flashed onscreen. The illness that is depicted seems to have a peculiar onset and symptomatic progression, with coughing, sweating and vomiting blood all moving to death near-instantaneously. And given that this is Los Angeles, it seems that the most immediate concern is what might become of all of the iPods in the event of biblical-scale fatalities.

The scenario as detailed here begins with a Patient Zero in Australia: a surfer infected by an unseen airborne killer that already is killing seagulls. The next day, the guy gets on a plane from Sydney to Los Angeles despite already appearing pale, sweating and on the verge of collapse. The craft is barely in the air when he convulses and dies. Word floats to the ground that this fatality of a young hunk is all kinds of weird, and the Centers for Disease Control swings immediately into action. That's right: They start talking really fast. A quarantine of the passengers is issued, they're hustled off with little explanation, and one guy escaped the net. Of course, he's also the first one to cough, sweat, spew red stuff and die.

Thiessen portrays a can-do CDC epidemiologist with an instinctive knowledge of just what to do: Toss every imaginable scenario against the wall and hope one sticks. French Stewart is a CDC doc who is essentially bulldozed by his colleague. Roberts, as Mayor Dellasandro, grits his teeth a lot and issues proclamations. Dunaway, who plays Gov. Schaefer, seems to worry more about how it's all going to look at the next governor's ball until the seriousness of the situation really kicks in. Then begins the in-fighting and over-the-top machinations. Should they quarantine the entire city? Where can they get a vaccine? Is it bird flu? Rabbit flu? One flu over the cuckoo's nest?

So it goes in "Pandemic," which is one of those telefilms that feels the need to nudge you in the ribs all the time to spell out what's going on, like the slow-motion hyper-focus whenever anyone contaminates another with a handshake. Armand Mastroianni's direction tends toward the overly indulgent and obvious, while the production itself works feverishly (so to speak) to impart a sense of chaos that seems too often manufactured. By the end, you're left wondering why this seemed like a better idea than going out on Saturday night.

Hallmark Channel
RHI Entertainment, Silverstar Limited and Larry Levinson Prods.
Director: Armand Mastroianni
Executive producers: Robert Halmi Jr., Larry Levinson
Producers: James Wilberger, Kyle Clark
Teleplay: Bryce Zabel, Jackie Zabel
Director of photography: Amit Bhattacharya
Production designer: Jonathan Carlson
Editor: Jennifer Jean Cacavas
Music: Kevin Kiner
Casting: Penny Perry, Amy Reece
Kayla Martin: Tiffani Thiessen
Troy Whitlock: Vincent Spano
Carl Ratner: French Stewart
Sorkosky: Bob Gunton
Mayor Richard Dellasandro: Eric Roberts
Gov. Lillian Schaefer: Faye Dunaway
Edward Vicente: Michael Massee
Ito: Clyde Kusatsu
Kenneth Friedlander: Bruce Boxleitner
Jack Hendler: Robert Curtis Brown
Kathryn Hadorn: Renee Taylor
Melissa Lo: Tamlyn Tomita