You know the formula: Heroine travels to exotic place, meets hunky man of ambiguous character, tangles with woman of unambiguously wicked character, reluctantly accepts aid from hunky guy, until at last! bosoms heave, sweat beads, and hunk and heroine live happily ever after.
Powered by such steam, Harlequin Romances sold $242 million worth of paperbacks in North America last year. Come October, CBS hopes to seduce that enormous, mostly female readership when it pits four Harlequin-based TV movies (Treacherous Beauties, Another Woman, A Change of Place, and Broken Lullaby) against NFL football on Sunday afternoons. ''People who don't like Harlequins haven't read them in the past 40 years,'' says producer Susan Minas. ''This is Jane Austen. This is Wuthering Heights. What is The Piano but a form of Harlequin romance?''
Yet on location in Toronto, the first film, Beauties, seems more like Dynasty meets Romancing the Stone. At a posh party scene, Dynasty alum Emma Samms looks just like her old, soapy self in a clingy blue gown. She plays Anne Marie, an intrepid photojournalist. ''My character's a very modern woman,'' she insists. Fellow Dynasty vet Catherine Oxenberg, dressed in a pink sequined confection that hugs every curve, offers no apologies for her character, the dagger-eyed Simone: ''I get to be the rich, spoiled, deceitful, manipulative, controlling, bitchy woman, as usual. This sort of role is really high camp.''
Unlike the women in Dynasty (or The Piano, for that matter), the new Harlequin heroines may find themselves in the center of the action. In various scenes, Samms gets swept down a river, flees poachers' bullets, and leaps into a helicopter snapping photos all the while. Improbable? ''It's an hour and a half of pure escapism,'' she explains. Bruce Greenwood (St. Elsewhere), who plays Samms' love interest, puts it another way: ''You know the frothy part of a cappuccino? That's how light this movie is.''
CBS hopes light will make right with its Sunday afternoon counterprogramming. After being jilted by the NFL, the network could use a happy ending in the arms of Harlequin's loving female fans.