HBO prides itself on not being mere television: You know -- it's...HBO! Which is great when ''it'' is a series like ''The Sopranos'' or a sitcom like ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'' or a yummily hambone TV movie like ''The Gathering Storm.'' But what about the current scenario: Those series are on hiatus; the flagship drama is season 3 of ''Six Feet Under,'' the comedy is the new ''Real Time With Bill Maher,'' and the TV movie is an earnest effort about a man who tells the guys down at the factory, ''I'm a female born in a man's body''? These are the weeks when HBO subscribers start pulling out their checkbooks to tote up just how much entertainment they're getting for their money.
Certainly, Bad Sight of the Week (as the British critic Clive James used to say in his TV reviews) is ''In the Bedroom'''s Tom Wilkinson dressed as a frumpy, cross-gendered woman in Normal. Jane Anderson has adapted and directed her own play ''Looking for Normal,'' and I don't care if she tells me this is how Midwestern middle-aged men have come out to their wives about wanting a sex change -- it's not believable as drama for more than three minutes.
Jessica Lange is dithery-dandy as Wilkinson's alternately baffled and angry wife, but Wilkinson's role is unplayable. What salt-of-the-earth laborer, having decided after 25 years of marriage that it's time he put on earrings and a housedress, would just wake up one day and splash perfume behind his ears as a way of announcing to his work buddies that he's turning femme? ''Normal'' makes a poignant situation ludicrous -- indeed, insulting to heartland transgendered folk.