IMPACT. 9 p.m. Sunday and June 28, Channel 6.

DISASTER MOVIES were once a guilty pleasure of mine.

I mean, who doesn't enjoy seeing the Statue of Liberty toppled and the Golden Gate Bridge twisted and broken, even as somewhere in the Midwest, a plucky child escapes death?

Lately, though, depictions of the end of the world as we know it have become so regular and so predictable I have to wonder if they're not being entirely generated by computers, whose machine dreams will go on long after the History Channel's "Life After People" has become a reality show.

Once presented, however cheesily, as major events, shows like ABC's two-part "Impact," which airs for the next two Sundays (9 p.m., Channel 6), are now treated as the summer afterthoughts they seem to be: barely scripted programming built for an international audience and employing actors who generally deserve better.

Oh, Oscar-winner James Cromwell ("Babe," "24") does his best as the whiny, agoraphobic grandfather to the two plucky children of "Impact," whose widowed scientist father ("JAG's" David James Elliott) gets called in to save the world from the encroaching moon.

But it's a thankless job, even when Cromwell gets to pilot a flying car "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"-style, thanks to a disruption in gravity.

Natasha Henstridge, of the ABC-canceled "Eli Stone," plays another scientist, a love interest for Elliott's character - who obviously can't be expected to deal with a crisis like this without one - while Steven Culp, whose own ABC character, "Desperate Housewives' " Rex, was canceled with extreme prejudice, is stuck playing an almost entirely clueless president.

(If only "Impact's" President Edward Taylor had seen Morgan Freeman in "Deep Impact" - or Bill Pullman in "Independence Day" - he might have known what's expected of a disaster-movie president.)

ABC is asking critics not to reveal major plot points, lest anyone who's ever stepped inside a darkened theater recognize them and try to outrun the danger. (Or just decide to wait for NBC's similar-sounding "Meteor," even now hurtling toward us and expected to make contact on July 12 and 19.)

My advice for this season of fear? Stay calm. Keep your loved ones close. And your channel-changer even closer.

'Poirot' returns

After a bracing few weeks in Sweden with Kenneth Branagh's moody "Wallander," PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!" returns to more familiar ground Sunday with a new Hercule Poirot mystery, the first of "Six by Agatha."

And though WHYY (Channel 12) has, somewhat mysteriously, scheduled a rerun of another "Mystery!" - an episode of "Foyle's War" - in "Masterpiece's" usual spot, the new Poirot will play at 10:30 p.m.

The leap from the grittiness of Henning Mankell's "Wallander" to the coziness of Christie's Poirot may seem like a large one, but not perhaps to Branagh, who in January spoke about his affinity for the prolific writer.

"I live in a place called Sunninghill, which is near, around the corner, from where Agatha Christie used to live, and my local train station, when I go into London, I get the train from Sunningdale to Waterloo, which is about 45 minutes. And Sunningdale is where she disappeared from when she went missing. And so I have a soft spot for her. And for David Suchet's Poirot," Branagh said.

"Cat Among the Pigeons," which premieres Sunday, finds Suchet beginning his third decade as the fussy Belgian detective.

(By contrast, the latest series of Christie's Miss Marple stories, which begin on "Masterpiece" July 5, will feature yet another actress - "Cranford's" Julia McKenzie - as the sharp-eyed spinster.)

Asked by an old friend (Harriet Walter) to help solve a small problem at the exclusive girls' boarding school where she's headmistress, Poirot finds himself well-positioned when, as would seem inevitable, members of the school's faculty start dropping like flies.

Walter's one of those actresses you could expect to see nearly every week in one BBC production or another - moviegoers may remember her from "Sense and Sensibility" - but to me she'll always be the love of Lord Peter Wimsey's life, Harriet Vane.

Suchet works just as regularly as Walter on non-Christie projects, but is bound to be best remembered for the smug-but-twinkly Poirot, who, like the man who plays him, remains, after all these years, at the height of his powers. *

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