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Former Mindy plays a geisha for two hours

If Mork had taken Mindy back to Ork, the environment on that fictional planet wouldn't have seemed as alien as the one in which we find actress Pam Dawber (alias Mindy) in what may prove to be the summer's weirdest program. American Geisha (CBS, Thursday, 9-11 p.m.) is a kind of ``Beach Blanket Shogun.''

Ms. Dawber has left extraterrestrials behind in this drama based on the experiences of Liza Dalby (name changed to Gillian in the program), an American anthropologist who lived among the geisha in Japan while she was a graduate student.

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Her book, ``Geisha,'' was a fine, straightforward account of a unique experience.

The television show, however, is a muddled, pseudo-philosophical study of one confused girl's search for herself. Yes, she actually says ``I have come to study geisha and to find myself.''

I found myself applauding her supposed ape of a boyfriend, who sneers, ``Oh, come now Gillian, spiritual quests went out in the '70s.''

Tucked in amidst a soap-opera plot involving a love affair with a Kabuki star and a stay in a geisha training center are marvelous shots of Tokyo and Kyoto, plus bits of information about Japanese culture and the geisha tradition. Viewers will quickly learn that geishas are not prostitutes -- they are women trained to flirt, laugh, and entertain men; passion is not meant to occur.

Everybody in the drama speaks in ``meaningful'' maxims and pompous koans.

Dorothy McGuire, as the widow of a Buddhist monk, says things like: ``The strangeness of Japan makes me feel my strangeness has a place.'' And ``You are somewhere -- in a place where there are more questions than answers.''

At one point, the mother of Gillian's Kabuki friend says:

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``Tradition is not like food -- you cannot choose what you will swallow.'' And still another character pontificates:

``You Americans have knowledge but not wisdom, romance but not unselfish love.''

All very well, but in a better script such pearls of wisdom would have been better left unspoken, with the thoughts implied.

``American Geisha,'' directed by Lee Philips from a teleplay by Judith Paige Mitchell, is chock-full of beautiful post-card cinematography -- golden temples, tinkling bells, tea ceremonies.

The several intertwined love stories tend to focus on the conflict of Eastern tradition with modern Western values.

The final tragedy, which I gather is based upon events, seems almost gratuitous.

But amid all the deadly earnest philosophizing, a few moments of sincerely endearing charm do bubble up: Dawber in geisha costume and makeup looking like a little girl playing dress-up. The fascinating shots of Japanese ceremonies.

These alone make the program almost worth watching -- but for two hours?

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