Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Marison Nichols

An international love story reduced to teeny-bopper sensationalism, "The Princess and the Marine" should have been a perfect sweeps entry full of romance, intrigue and danger. But anyone who has followed this complicated courtship via newsmags and press clippings will quickly realize that NBC has put aside the intricacies and settled instead for a simple fable targeted to the Britney Spears set.

An international love story reduced to teeny-bopper sensationalism, “The Princess and the Marine” should have been a perfect sweeps entry full of romance, intrigue and danger. But anyone who has followed this complicated courtship via newsmags and press clippings will quickly realize that NBC has put aside the intricacies and settled instead for a simple fable targeted to the Britney Spears set. The elements are definitely ripe for a multi-layered telepic; this one’s execution, however, is all wrong.

When it made headlines last year, the almost unbelievable tale of a Bahranian heiress who gave up her future in order to marry an American was followed by a vocal majority who were hoping the sweethearts would avoid prosecution. That support was due to reports that she would be killed by some of her male relatives, who have apparently become dishonored by her actions.

Death threats aside, a rebellious spirit defines Meriam-Al Khalifa (Marisol Nichols), a defiant 17-year-old who is enraged that her parents have arranged her marriage to a family friend. A brave girl with a foolish streak, she deals with the situation by calling up strangers in order to talk through her feelings.

One of her distressed calls is placed to Lance Corporal Trucker , a party-boy Marine who convinces friend and comrade Jason Johnson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) to tag along to a local mall, where Meriam has planned to meet them in secret.

There, she falls instantly for Jason, a devout Mormon who immediately returns the sentiment, and they spend all of their free time — he’s stationed there for two years — talking on the phone, longing for one another and plotting their next tryst.

After Jason finds out that Meriam is royalty, he starts in earnest to maneuver their escape, but not before her family intimidates her with threats of abandonment. Her strict mother (Luck Hari) commands Meriam to cut off contact with the soldier, while her best friends constantly warn the couple about imminent trouble.

After none-too-elaborate planning — Jason picks Meriam up outside her mansion one evening for an airport getaway — and a risky move involving forged documents and I.D. badges, they board a plane and land in Chicago, where they are quickly arrested and separated.

They are eventually reunited after a helpful INS agent helps her to apply for political asylum, though Jason is stripped of his rank. Their case has not yet been heard.

Director Mike Robe has made “Princess” very easy to digest, replacing confusion, fear and anxiety with stolen kisses and trips to the food court. (The behavior is almost too Westernized considering it takes place in the Middle East.) The result is a mixed blessing: Project is simple and comfortable but misses out on the serious inspection of religion and legal wrangling.

As for the perfs, Nichols is believable enough as Meriam, while Gosselaar is as strong and stoic as journalists have made him out to be. But the roles, as written by scenarist Ronni Kern, are much too uncomplicated to be taken that seriously, especially since the possibility of prison — even murder — continues to looms large.

It’s instantly noticeable that convenient sets in Los Angeles and Palm Springs stand in for Bahrain, a move which hogties production designer Curtis Schnell’s ability to make this an authentic-looking production. He tries a little too hard to displace reality by filling the background with, of all things, a lot of camels.

The Princess and the Marine

NBC; Sun., Feb. 18; 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles and Palm Springs by Proud Mary Entertainment and Stephanie Germain Prods. in association with Columbia TriStar Television. Executive producers, Mary L. Aloe, Tom Colbert, Stephanie Germain; producer, Preston Fischer; director, Mike Robe; writer, Ronni Kern.

Crew

Camera, Ed Pei; production designer, Curtis Schnell; editor, Sabrina Plisco-Morris; music, Laura Karpman; casting, Reuben Cannon. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast

Jason Johnson - Mark-Paul Gosselaar Meriam Al-Khalifa - Marisol Nichols Trucker - Keith Robinson Smitty - Dave Power
With: Atossa Leoni, Alexis Lopez, Navi Rawat, Luck Hari, Dale Johnson.

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