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New series review: Dirt (FX)

Courteney Cox is dead-eyed Hollywood muckraker Lucy Spiller in FX's Dirt. Her star shooter, Don Konkey (Ian Hart), is way off-center.

Premiering: Tuesday night, Jan. 2nd (9 central, 10 eastern) on FX
Starring: Courteney Cox, Ian Hart, Josh Stewart, Laura Allen, Jeffrey Nordling, Shannyn Sossamon, Rick Fox, Alexandra Breckenridge, Timothy Bottoms, Grant Show, Carly Pope, Will McCormack
Created by: Matthew Carnahan

Hooray for Hollywood? Slam on the brakes, shift into reverse and out come the horrid of Hollywood in FX's Dirt. It's the biggest slap at Tinseltown since Fox's ahead-of-its-time Action, which started and stopped in fall 1999.

Dirt star Courteney Cox is the first female protagonist in the network's signature line of provocative dramas. The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Lucky and Over There put flawed, combustible men at the hearts of their darkness. Cox's Lucy Spiller, editor-in-chief of Drrt and Now magazines, stalks her prey with a ruthlessness reminiscent of Faye Dunaway's aggressively amoral Diana Christensen in Network.

A scene from Dirt's third episode gets us a bit ahead of ourselves but illustrates the point. Lucy's chief assassin, a schizophrenic photographer named Don Konkey (Ian Hart), has just returned with a money shot of a Christian pop star who burned her face while freebasing heroin.

"She said it was like touching God," Don dishes, causing his boss to quiver down below.

"She actually said that? I think I just came a little," says Lucy, who otherwise favors a small electronic device or an occasional human boy toy.

In video press materials, Cox touts Dirt as deliciously "salacious. This is FX . . . It fits in with their other shows."

Cox's 10 seasons on Friends rendered her fair game for the ravenous paparazzi, even more so after she and husband David Arquette had their first child. So Dirt in part is payback, although its so far merciless portrait of Hollywood hardly prompts sympathy for either side.

The show's Drrt magazine (that's not a misprint) and its sister publication, Now, count on the weening ambitions of your basic celebrity commodity. Tuesday night's premiere introduces an easy mark in actor Holt McLaren (Josh Stewart), who's lately made a string of big-screen bombs. His wife, Julia Mallory, (Laura Allen), is faring better at the moment as the star of both a hit sitcom and a just released feature. So Holt is easily reeled in, divulging the pregnancy of actress Kira Klay (Shannyn Sossamon) in return for a puff piece on him in Now.

Events take a tragic turn, though, prompting Holt to feel a semblance of remorse until Lucy and Don treat him to a little video of what his wife's been up to lately.

"You can give your dirt to Don whenever," Lucy then tells her hollow-eyed fish-on-a-hook. "Just make sure it comes in regularly."

Dirt occasionally drops a real-life Hollywood name ("Mr. Clooney") or show (Dancing with the Stars). But it so far is cutting too close to Hollywood's rotten core to induce any cameos from stars playing themselves. Entourage this isn't.

Not even the Los Angeles Lakers want their their name to be used. So former Laker Rick Fox wears his old team's colors but plays for the L.A. Rock under the name of Prince Tyreese. He's a sleazeball, too, an erstwhile family man photographed au naturel in a hot tub with a tart. The pics are then used to blackmail him.

Cox's Lucy is under the gun, too. Her magazines' overbearing publisher, Brent Barrow (Jeffrey Nordling), thinks she wants his job. On the contrary, she says. "I like to get dirty."

Boss of bosses Gibson Horne (Timothy Bottoms) simply wants cost cuts. "Or so help me I will bury you."

It can all be more than a little overbearing. Cox strives to be super-steely, but summons a stricken look whenever someone tells her she's soulless. Neither demeanor is entirely convincing yet, but she seems to be settling in as the show goes on.

Ian Hart as crazed Don Konkey is Dirt's most intriguing character. His best friend, a cat with cancer, isn't around long enough to get its equity card. Don then channels a beauteous imaginary friend whose identity won't be given away here. Meanwhile, he'll do just about anything to get the shots that Lucy demands. That includes lopping off a piece of his pinky.

Later episodes will introduce Mariette Hartley as Lucy's "exacting" mother, Dorothy. Lucy also has a younger gay brother, Leo (Will McCormack), first seen in Episode 3.

Those who think the absolute worst of Hollywood will find much to like in Dirt. None of its characters can be accused of being honorable or decent. Instead it truly is a land of make believe populated with liars and cutthroats. This is a show where Lucy prepares her staff for the kill by showing video of sharks eating their siblings in the womb.

But that's not until Episode 3. In Dirt's case, it means the best is yet to come.

Grade: B

James Brown: Prisoner of Love

Even in jail he felt good -- like he knew that he should.

"If I saw you, brother, I'd hug you," James Brown told me by telephone from the State Park Correctional Center in Columbia, S.C.

Likely he didn't really mean it. But it's nice to have that lasting memory of the "Godfather of Soul," who's being laid to rest this week after a hard-driving life that in 1988 found him on smoking tire rims after leading police on a two-state car chase.

That's why he was in prison when we spoke in March 1989. Serving the third month of a later commuted six-year term, Brown talked in passing about an upcoming Legends of Rock 'n' Roll TV special that had been taped less than a month before his sentencing. But the business end of the interview quickly gave way to how he felt about being behind bars and on the receiving end of numerous jokes at his expense.

"They've treated me great since I'm in here," Brown said. "The one thing is, I needed a rest from all the labor I've been doing. The first two or three days I got here, I slept. Look, we do get tired. If you don't rest, you break down. I've had some time to really put myself together."

Just the night before he'd watched Eddie Murphy lampoon him in a CBS special titled What's Alan Watching? Murphy, newly hot again in the feature film Dreamgirls, had concocted a bogus movie, Soul on the Rocks. Its star, "the hardest working man in prison," performed "It's a Man's World" in a shower room full of inmates.

Murphy also played a crackpot fan protesting Brown's imprisonment.

"James Brown is the man that placed Sirhan Sirhan at the Grassy Knoll," the fan asserted. But such unassailable truths of course wouldn't be printed in "white-dominated" newspapers.

"I loved it," Brown said. "There's a lot of things that can come out in jokes. I love America . . . I'm talking to my wife about different things. I'm a colorblind man. I want to be that way. How can you love God if you don't love your brother?"

Reports that drug abuse led to his incarceration "are a problem that the press started," he contended. But he rebooted a few minutes later. "Any news is good, as long as they spell the name right. I remember Nixon went through Watergate. I know it was hard times for them, too."

Brown otherwise yearned to be onstage again, where he planned to resume his rightful place as "the hardest-working man in show business" no matter what toll it took on him.

"Why can't I perform for an hour-and-a-half or two hours a night?" he asked. "I don't mind working. I thank God for it. I thank my fans. I have a duty to humanity. My organization's very sharp, very clean, very well-dressed.

"It's going to be reality when I get to that bandstand. I'm going to give them their honest day's money's worth again. Believe me, you're going to see something fantastic."

He was paroled in February 1991 after spending a little over two years behind bars. But James Brown was a guy who knew how to make up for lost time. He did so until the end.

Kyle Howard finally sticks it in TBS' My Boys

Jordana Spiro and Kyle Howard air it out on TBS cable's My Boys

Kyle Howard's won-loss record wasn't getting him anywhere fast in Hollywood. At age 28, he'd already slogged through a quintet of quickly canceled TV series, beginning with 1998's The Love Boat: The Next Wave.

But he kept working, guest-starring and believing that few producers blame the actor for a series that doesn't stick.

"Because if that's the case, I'm screwed," Howard says during a recent stop in Dallas.

At the time he didn't know the fate of TBS cable's well-received My Boys, in which he plays a Chicago sportswriter moving within the orbit of series star Jordana Spiro. Now he's having a particularly happy holiday season after TBS announced it had ordered nine more episodes of its first unscripted comedy series. The last of the show's initial 13 episodes premieres Thursday (Dec. 28) at 9 p.m. central time. My Boys then is scheduled to return in the summer.

Howard's character, Bobby Newman, had a start-stop romance with Spiro's PJ Franklin before they went all platonic. She's likewise a sportswriter who covers the Cubs, plays poker, collects sports cards and drinks beer.

"At the same time she's sexy and beautiful and 'girly' in her own way," Howard adds.

In real life, he prefers the company of a woman who's willing to go to third base, but doesn't necessarily know the intricacies of a pitcher's earned run average.

"I'm not like a big sports guy myself. For the real guy's guy, maybe PJ is the perfect girl. But I'd probably fall somewhere in between. I don't want a girl that's like an idiot. You had mentioned Paris Hilton . . ."

"Thanks for confirming that for me," his interviewer interjects.

"I don't think that's a secret to anyone," Howard rejoins, wisely foreclosing any future opportunity to go Parisian.

His favorite sport is surfing. Some girlfriends have waved him off.

"I'd sit down and watch a surfing video and she'd be so bored. It'd be like, 'I don't get it. Every wave looks the same. Why do you even watch this?' But for me it's like super-interesting. Then we'd go shopping and she'll want to spend, like, $1,200 on a handbag. And I'm like, 'I don't get it.' It must be basic differences in wiring. You've kind of got to just meet in the middle."

Howard's character in My Boys is more straight-ahead and serious-minded than any he's ever played.

"I love to be the goofy best friend or the sort of nerdy guy or the dumb stoner guy," he says. "This is as normal as I've been in anything."

Besides that quickly capsized new version of Love Boat, he's been a regular on Opposite Sex, Grosse Pointe, Run of the House and Related, none of which lived to see a second season. Howard also has guest-starred on a wide variety of successful TV series, including Friends, CSI: Crime Series Investigation, Nip/Tuck, The Drew Carey Show, Providence and Boston Public.

"At times it's been a frustration. But at the same time I feel lucky to stay busy," he says. "I've grown so used to it that it's almost normal to me. It doesn't necessarily freak me out that much when a pilot doesn't get picked up or a series gets canceled. Of course I'd love to have a little job security for a few years."

It's now looking as though he'll finally have that. And although first impressions can be misleading, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

TV year in review: Top 10 developments of 2006

Emmitt Smith put his feet to good use on Dancing with the Stars. Rush Limbaugh put his foot in his mouth by ragging on Michael J. Fox.

Men behaved badly and a woman went where mostly men had gone before. New networks rose from the ashes of others. And an NFL great repositioned himself as a footloose "Sir Shimmy." Let's unwind by rewinding through the top 10 national TV happenings from an eventful 2006.

10. Michael J. Fox's campaign ad in support of stem cell research drew fire from Rush Limbaugh, who told his radio listeners that the Parkinson's-afflicted actor appeared to be putting on an act for the cameras. Limbaugh later backtracked and more or less apologized. Even some of his longtime acolytes thought he had gone too far.

9. Broadcast networks went coo-coo for serial dramas last fall before quickly becoming serial killers. Only NBC's Heroes broke out as a bonafide hit while a raft of others dug death valleys in the Nielsen ratings. Gone and already largely forgotten are CBS' Smith, NBC's Kidnapped, ABC's Day Break, The Nine and Six Degrees and the new CW's Runaway.

8. ABC's ratings rich Dancing with the Stars crowned an unlikely champion in Emmitt Smith, who teamed with pro partner Cheryl Burke to floor 10 other couples. They ranged from utterly inept Tucker Carlson to country singer Sara Evans, who quit the show in mid-rumba while in the throes of a nasty divorce.

7. NBC harkened back to its mid-1980s glory years by pouring forth a wealth of high-quality dramas and comedies. Even more impressively, the Peacock has shown patience with ratings-starved newcomers such as Friday Night Lights, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock, all of which have received full-season orders. 30 Rock is newly a part of NBC's rebuilt Thursday night, which also houses three other Emmy-caliber comedies -- The Office, My Name Is Earl and Scrubs. Add ER, which in its 13th season has been a pleasant surprise both creatively and in the ratings.

Michigan J. Frog's out of the TV biz but Dan Rather is still punching.

6. UPN and The WB folded their tents and shipped some of their better received series over to The CW, which debuted in September without Michigan J. Fox in tow. This gave Fox an excuse to launch MyNetworkTV, a prime-time vehicle for inexpensive English telenovelas starring the likes of Morgan Fairchild, Bo Derek and Tatum O'Neal. Neither new venture has set the world on fire. Instead they're still rubbing two twigs together.

5. Deducing he was no longer wanted, Dan Rather abruptly left CBS News and then surprisingly joined forces with Mark Cuban's HDNet as the man in charge of the weekly Dan Rather Reports. The one-hour program premiered on Nov. 14 and is still a well-kept secret to most. But the 75-year-old Texas troubleshooter is back in the saddle and being given free rein.

4. TV sometimes seemed to be going nothing but net in 2006, with numerous networks greatly expanding their broadbrand reaches. NBC.com, the best broadcast network site, is prime territory for viewers looking to catch up on complete episodes of their favorite series at any time of day or night. The net also is where canceled shows expire anew via web-exclusive death marches. CBS' partnership with you.tube.com and Google's purchase of the site for an eye-popping $1.65 billion were further evidence that conventional tube viewing could be heading the way of print newspapers.

O.J. Simpson and Michael Richards created their own storms.

3. Fox announced plans to give O.J. Simpson's new book a big push with a pair of late November specials titled If I Did It, Here's How It Happened. Universal condemnation, including from Fox star players Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera, then prompted the network to cancel both the specials and the book. It was a colossally dumb idea all-around. Or as Fox boss of bosses Rupert Murdoch put it in a rare public statement, "an ill-considered project."

2. Seinfeld star Michael Richards forever altered his image for the worse with a profane racial tirade at a California comedy club. Caught on video by TMZ.com, it made Richards look like a closet Klan member just as the sixth season DVD of Seinfeld was being released. Damage control interviews on Late Show with David Letterman and Jesse Jackson's radio show seemingly were of little help to the once beloved Cosmo Kramer. Possible silver lining: Jackson's concerted campaign to stop people of all colors from using the n-word. It's about time.

Woman of the year: CBS had its eye trained on Katie Couric.

1. A massive promotional blitz preceded Katie Couric's post-Labor Day debut as anchor of the storied CBS Evening News. Marking the first time a woman had soloed in "The Chair," her first flight drew more than 13 million viewers in decimating the competition. Audience levels since have dropped to half that level as Couric seeks to make good on CBS' $15 million yearly investment in her. The year ends with her in third place.

Meanwhile, Meredith Vieira slid seamlessly from The View into Couric's old Today job while Charles Gibson took the helm at ABC's World News. That easily makes NBC's Brian Williams the dean of network news anchors after barely two years of service.

New series review: Identity (NBC)

Penn temporarily shucks Teller to be a big-money game show host.

Torn between two worlds, NBC launches another rags to riches game show Monday night in hopes of amortizing its high-quality contingent of new scripted shows.

At one end of the teeter-totter are Deal or No Deal, 1 vs. 100 and the new Identity, premiering Monday (at 8 p.m. central) and then scheduled to run an hour earlier on Tuesday through Friday. The first two are cost-efficient ratings successes despite their big-money dangles.

NBC also is home to four character-driven, Emmy caliber freshmen series. Heroes, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Friday Night LIghts and 30 Rock have all been picked up for full seasons. But only Heroes is drawing big crowds, and all four series cost far more to make than NBC's games people play.

Maybe it's not a question of which faction wins out, though. If NBC can make enough money on quizzes then maybe it can afford to stick longer with its critically acclaimed loss leaders. Anyway, it's enough to make one pull for Identity, a ramped-up version of To Tell the Truth in which contestants try to divine who's who among 12 "Strangers."

Penn Jillette is NBC's latest fish-out-of-water host, joining Howie Mandel and Bob Saget as a new generation's Bob Barkers. The Peacock is big on known commodities as game show emcees. Fox tried a no-name Brit earlier this season on The Rich List. It went down after just one episode, meaning its host shall remain nameless.

NBC publicity materials note that Deal or No Deal was launched in exactly the same way last December. The consecutive night strategy worked beautifully in that case, or suitcase if you prefer. Not mentioned is last spring's Celebrity Cooking Showdown, which was supposed to run five nights in a row. Wretched ratings instead prompted NBC to shut down its stoves after just three episodes.

Monday's premiere of Identity features another of those standard issue, jump-up-and-down, panic-stricken, oh-my-God contestants. This one is called Nicci Guzik, and she's from Streamwood, Ill.

"This show is about snap judgments," proclaims Jillette before the game's 12 posers are introduced via a light show and music that otherwise would never be played in your home. Nicci can win half a million bucks if she can correctly identify, one-by-one, a sushi chef, alligator wrestler, bouncer, opera singer, fitness model, break dancer, CSI investigator, kidney donor, Vegas showgirl, the world's fastest man, the creator of Spider Man and the youngest of the bunch.

The first correct ID is worth $1,000, and Identity's early degrees of difficulty aren't too daunting. In other words, it's about as tough as separating The Village People from a group of accountants.

Not to give too much away, but just about anybody should recognize Stan Lee as the creator of Spider Man. Nicci is up to this challenge, but only after Jillette drops a big, fat hint.

As in Deal or No Deal, contestants eventually are joined onstage by a threesome of friends and/or family. This turns out to be a pretty dull group of Nicci's husband, father-in-law and mother-in-law, who at least brings Jillette a home-baked pecan pie.

Identity also borrows from 1 vs. 100, which in turn borrowed from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Contestants are given three figurative crutches. They can miss one ID and keep playing. They can consult a group of three behavioral experts. And they can have an occupation narrowed down to three possibilities.

Most of the "Strangers" stare stonily from pedestals, particularly the women. Meanwhile, Jillette seems to have a good time varying his tagline. Instead of "Open the case," it's "Is that your identity?" As the money builds up, so do his pregnant pauses. "Is. That. Your. Identity?" Something like that.

It's hard to know whether any of this will work. Identity isn't as fast-paced as Deal or No Deal or 1 vs. 100. Nor does the studio audience seem as involved, although NBC can always fix that in the editing room.

Finally, as hosts go, Jillette definitely is no Howie Mandel.

Yes, it's come to that.

Grade: C

Golden Globes: No longer a laugh

Golden Globe best actress nominees Helen Mirren and America Ferrera: Each in their own way has both style and substance.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe nominations are out, and you can see the full list here. This time there'll be no jokes about their validity because, frankly, the choices in TV categories mostly aren't too bad.

In fact they're better than we've been getting lately from those bumblers at the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences, the ones who hand out the Emmys. The HFPA's relative handful of nominators have been clearer-eyed in recent years, even if we still don't know who the hell most of these people are.

The biggest loser in this year's TV mix is HBO's much-lauded The Sopranos, which has a lone nomination for Edie Falco in the best drama actress category. Remember, though, the Emmy people ignored Falco altogether.

Another HBO darling, Deadwood, came up completely empty, but the premium cable network's freshman series Big Love deservedly made the cut in the best drama series division. Bill Paxton, who plays the show's lead polygamist, also is cited. Oddly, though, the actresses who play his three wives got no love at all. I would have substituted either Jeanne Tripplehorn or Chloe Sevigny for Patricia Arquette of NBC's Medium.

Two other new series also broke through in a big way. NBC's Heroes and ABC's Ugly Betty respectively are finalists in the drama and comedy series categories. Betty star America Ferrera got a lead actress nomination and fan fave Masi Oka rightfully is in the best supporting actor hunt.

Esteemed thespian Helen Mirren is all over the place. She's competing against herself as the nominated star of both PBS' Prime Suspect: The Final Act and HBO's Elizabeth I, with the productions also cited in the best miniseries/made-for-TV movie category.

On the big-screen, Mirren has a nomination for The Queen, a finalist in the best motion picture/drama category as well. Can she be crowned twice as Elizabeths of different eras? It's certainly possible.

Showtime, longtime Avis to HBO's Hertz, made a good deal of noise with four nominations for Weeds and one apiece for Dexter and Sleeper Cell: American Terror. That's a strong half-dozen nods in the series categories, where HBO had just five. That's got to be the first time Showtime has outpointed HBO in anything.

The movies and miniseries categories again largely belonged to HBO, though, with the HFPA having the good sense to nominate several strong performances in the network's Tsunami, The Aftermath, whose second part won't even premiere until this Sunday. Those advance screener copies sometimes really pay off.

NBC Universal already has locked up a Globe for best actor in a TV comedy series or musical. The Peacock's broadcast network has four of the five nominations, including Alec Baldwin for the new 30 Rock. And the fifth goes to perennial Tony Shalhoub of USA's
, which NBC Universal owns.

NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which really could use a boost, got just one nomination for Sarah Paulson's performance. Unjustly ignored was the show's Matt Perry, whose consolation prize is a nod for TNT's The Ron Clark Story.

CBS got just one nomination, for Julia Louis-Dreyfus in The New Adventures of Old Christine. Its three major broadcast rivals comparatively cleaned house. ABC led the way with 11, followed by NBC (9) and Fox (3).

The awards ceremony is Jan. 15 on NBC.

We wish you a Mondo Christmas

Perhaps you like your holidays shaken and stirred a bit. If so, yule be very entertained Thursday night (Dec. 14) with The Office's one-hour Christmas show and then the guest star-soaked, still vibrant Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special.

First up is NBC's best comedy (7 p.m. central, 8 eastern), with ever-callow Michael Scott (Steve Carell) grief-stricken over girlfriend Carol's (Nancy Walls) easy decision to dump him.

"I'd like everyone's attention. Christmas is canceled," he tells his resilient Dunder-Mifflin staff, which lately has been divided but not yet conquered by a corporate-mandated merger.

Suckup newbie Andy (guest star Ed Helms) seizes the opportunity to take Michael to Benihana, where they get blitzed on sake-spiked Nagasakis. Meanwhile, warring office parties are making everyone even more crazy. Persnickety Angela (Angela Kinsey) insists on going through the proper party planning committee channels for her prim, proper Nutcracker-themed get-together. But receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) and newcomer Karen (guest star Rashida Jones) are promoting their own renegade margarita/karaoke throwdown.

Subtitled "A Benihana Christmas," it's another inspired Office episode. But aren't they all? Oh what fun it is to finally hear Angela kick out the jams on "The Little Drummer Boy" while sycophant Dwight (Rainn Wilson) provides the ba-rum-bum-bum-bum downbeat.

There's something about that song. David Bowie and Bing Crosby oddly put it out there on his last Christmas special in 1977. And a breast-plated Grace Jones gives "Drummer Boy" a decidedly different interpretation during Pee-wee's 1988 Christmas show, which lives again Thursday on the "Adult Swim" arm of Cartoon Network (9:30 central, 10:30 eastern).

The Saturday morning Playhouse series is still the hippest in the history of CBS. And Pee-wee's one-hour holiday extravaganza remains a sight to behold. Guest stars galore drop in and out, including a slim, lightly bearded Magic Johnson and a very butch looking k.d. lang in a contrasting royal blue cowgirl skirt and shirt. You also can spot then unknowns Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson as regular characters Cowboy Curtis and Reba the Mail Lady. Furthermore, Conky the Robot sometimes was voiced by Gregory Harrison.

The show's running gags are the rock-hard, brick-shaped fruitcakes Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) keeps getting as unwanted gifts. He'll eventually put them to good use, but not before a wealth of guest stars zip through. Besides the aforementioned, they include Cher, Little Richard, Oprah Winfrey, Dinah Shore, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers and Charo. Only Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello stay for a spell. They're stuck making Christmas cards until taskmaster Pee-wee finally relents.

Most of the special effects are still impressive nearly two decades after they first knocked our socks off. This is a Christmas show that definitely knows how to be merry, bright -- and mondo. Nothing since has been anything quite like it.

Rene Syler's next chapters: New book, life-changing surgery

Let her good times roll. Ex-Dallas anchor Rene Syler begins anew.

CBS News' official press release had been served sunny side up. Rene Syler would be leaving The Early Show to "pursue other media opportunities."

The hard-boiled reality is another version of the same old TV story. Syler got word late last week that her time was up on the No. 3-rated program. The news came as she prepared to face another crossroads. On Jan. 9, the 43-year-old former Dallas anchor will undergo a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy rather than live in constant fear of breast cancer, for which she's at high risk. She had been preparing a story on her impending surgery, with CBS News management approval. Instead her last day with Early Show will be on Dec. 22nd. No one said life is fair.

"They called me in and told me, 'We've been thinking and we want to go in another direction,' " Syler says in a telephone interview with unclebarky.com. "I'm really kind of surprised myself at how well I'm handling all of this. I've just come to realize that these things happen. I've been in television for almost 20 years, and what are you gonna do?

"New management comes in and they have new ideas. You pick up the playbook and you try your best. And if it doesn't work, you move on . . . It's a little bit tough, because you try to be a good soldier. Still, there are times when you're sitting in your office, and your self-esteem is a bit battered."

She joined Early Show in October 2002 after anchoring and reporting for five years at CBS11. Before that she spent five years at Belo8, where Syler met her husband, Buff Parham.

They now have two children, daughter Casey, 10, and son Cole, 8. She's determined to stay in their lives. That's why Syler is having her breasts removed in a three-and-a-half-hour procedure that will require followup surgery four to six months later. She made the decision after some agonizing soul-searching with her doctor. Her work with the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation also played a role. At its annual "Race for the Cure," she has seen many women running in memory of others who died of breast cancer.

"I can't do that, and I don't want to do that," Syler says. " I have a young family, a family that needs me. And the thought of leaving my children and my husband when I could actually do something . . . Yes, it's radical, no doubt about it. But it's a price I'm willing to pay so I can reduce that risk."

Both of her parents had breast cancer, and in 2003 Syler was diagnosed with atypical ductal hypoplasia, in which cells in the ducts of the breast "grow rapidly and not in a uniform fashion," she explains.

Her risks of getting breast cancer have been almost off the charts since then, even after surgery that she describes as "very scarring and disfiguring." Yearly biopsies and mammograms have been required ever since.

"They're very painful and the recovery was very difficult," she says. "When my doctor told me I'd never have to have another biopsy, another mammogram or MRI, that's very appealing to me. Right now there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about breast cancer -- several times. So it's been tough, and I would like to do something real and substantial to reduce that risk."

Syler's other priority is her first book, Good Enough Mother, scheduled to be published in March. It's intended to rebut the super mom syndrome. One of her sounding boards has been CBS11 anchor- reporter Ginger Allen, who's also the mother of two young children. Allen had felt guilty about working overtime on Halloween and missing out on her kids' trick or treating.

"We had a conversation about it, and she was so stressed," Syler remembers. "I explained to her that my whole philosophy was that I didn't have to be perfect as a parent. I just had to be good enough. My kids are going to be fine, upstanding citizens, even if I'm not perfect."

Her TV days, now something of a TV daze, at least temporarily will end in just two weeks time. Syler says she has no idea whether her three Early Show colleagues, Harry Smith, Hannah Storm and Julie Chen (wife of CBS Corporation president Leslie Moonves), will survive whatever makeover is coming.

"I don't think they would tell me. I'm pretty much out of the loop now," she says. "You go through something like this and you think, 'God, I'm never gonna work again.' You feel horrible. But here's the difference between Rene at 33 and Rene at 43. I want to take it easy for just a second. I want to jump off the treadmill. I have a lot of diverse interests, and writing this book has been incredibly liberating. The words couldn't get out of me fast enough, and I want to see if I can turn it into a screenplay. But yes, I think of myself as a TV person, so I'm sure at some point I'll be back in TV."

Perhaps her road will lead back to a Dallas anchoring position. Syler says she's open to that, but her son and daughter might not be.

"They're getting older. They're not going to be willing to uproot again and again. Right now I think I'm going to chill a bit. The example I want to show my kids is that your character is not about who you are when times are good. It's when times are tough. They've heard me talking about my surgery. But what's so great about being a kid is they then say, 'OK, can we get some ice cream now?'

"They're so resilient. they just hop around and always think everything is going to be OK. I have to be careful about the cues I leave for them, so they think that I'm not afraid. I'm not going to let them see that, because they don't need it. The big thing is they can't imagine their lives without their mommy.

"And that's why I'm going to do this."

Bush under fire: Network newscasts make it plain in coverage of Iraq Study Group's report

The broadcast networks' three flagship newscasts posted their anchors in Washington Wednesday for some sobering show and tell on the war in Iraq.

It reinforced both the importance of the day's news and the imprint of America's dinner hour newscasts. Cable news obviously is more immediate, as is the Internet. But for a solid meal and a civil conversation, keep turning to the NBC Nightly News, the CBS Evening News or ABC's World News.

They're still simply the best at distilling and imparting information that really matters. Antiquated they're not. Fair and balanced they try to be. If that's a revelation, then that's a shame. Too many people dismiss their relevance in an information age that increasingly feeds on crap. Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric resolutely want us to eat our vegetables.

Yes, Couric has tried to mix in a little cotton candy since taking over the Evening News in early September. But none of these newscasts are even remotely guilty of substance abuse. They've left that to the local newscasts and cable's growing legions of news blowhards and provocateurs.

Topic A on Wednesday's network newscasts was the long-awaited release of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report to President Bush and the nation. It wasn't pretty, and the anchors certainly didn't try to make it so.

The report "read a bit like a report card on the Bush administration's conduct of the war," Gibson said at the top. "And the marks were not good."

Williams labeled it a "grim assessment" while Couric began with the news that 10 more U.S. soldiers had died in Iraq on Wednesday. She then personalized the report's potential import: "With each death, with every passing day, so many of us ask, 'Is there any way out of this nightmare?' "

The Study Group's co-chairmen, Republican James A. Baker III and Democrat Lee Hamilton, provided plenty to chew on in both their public remarks and during individual interviews with all three anchors.

Baker hit one nail squarely on the head. The Iraqi people "have been liberated from the nightmare of a tyrannical order, only to face the nightmare of brutal violence," he said at Wednesday's official presentation.

More than two-thirds of each newscast was spent on the report's findings, recommendations and reactions to same. U.S. troops in Baghdad weighed in, as did citizens back home. Baker, for his part, was bluntest during his interview with Couric.

The newly installed Iraqi government must know that "we could bug out of there" if chaos continues, he said. "We have a damned difficult situation on our hands, and we need to deal with it."

CBS analyst Bob Schieffer, still a force on the Evening News, made the boldest prediction of how Bush will react to the Study Group's tough love proposals.

"You're going to see American troop levels begin to be cut next year," he told Couric. "The President's going to do that. Will it work? Who knows? But I think at this point he really has no other choice."

Wednesday's newscasts differed strikingly from one another only in the way they ended.

NBC's Williams briefly interviewed largely overlooked Republican congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, who championed the idea of forming a bipartisan group to look long and hard at Iraq.

"So you feel good today?" Williams ask rhetorically. Yes, he did.

CBS ended with reporter Cynthia Bowers' interview of a tearful Illinois mother whose son was killed in Iraq two months after his unit had been scheduled to leave.

ABC's Gibson tried a little peace on earth, closing with a shot of the just-lit White House Christmas tree.

When he covered Congress, "I always loved the lighting of the tree," he told viewers. "Political arguments are forgotten. All members of Congress joining in the joys of the season."

Yes, the three network newscasts have their faults. On Wednesday, none of them were readily apparent. Content-wise, their best days are still in the here and now. Every once in a while we should give them credit for that rather than always writing their obits.

Soap duds? MyNetworkTV lathers up anew

Your TV probably hasn't found MyNetworkTV yet. For the most part, neither has mine. Still, the fledging, Fox-owned enterprise is slogging forward with two more English language telenovelas after Desire and Fashion House pooped out as scheduled Tuesday night.

The idea is to foment foamy, cost-efficient, serial entertainment that runs non-stop five days a week for a 65-episode arc. It doesn't have to do a big rating to be profitable. And so far the ratings have been teenier than a teacup bra or Paris Hilton's book collection. Choose one.

The better of the two newcomers -- OK, the less worse -- is Wicked Wicked Games (premiering Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. central on KDFI/Ch. 27 in Dallas-Forth, puff-puff). It stars a shot-through-gauze Tatum O'Neal as cackling avenger Blythe Spencer. In an upcoming episode she'll declare, "I will smack that smirk right off of your face!"

In the first episode she mostly plots the ruin of race track owner Theodore Crawford (Clive Robertson), who had the temerity to dump her 25 years ago. Her vassal is Cain-like twin son Aaron (Jack Krizmanich), who's sent to infiltrate Crawford's empire.

"I want Theodore Crawford's head stuffed and mounted on my wall," mom instructs.

Aaron, disguised as Daniel Karol, quickly seduces Theo's babe-alicious daughter, Brooke Crawford (Kate French), first seen on the beach in considerable splendor. French, who's making her TV acting debut, has a resume that perfectly suits the demands of this role. She's a model, both of her parents were models and her step-father is a fashion photographer. All that's required of her is to look good. This she knows how to do.

Also in the mix is Able-like Josh Spencer (David Smith), a goodly ER doctor who's duped into being Aaron's stooge. The apple of his eye is Theo Crawford's oldest daughter, Emma (Jessie Ward), who's a "sucker for classic literature," namely Hawthorne. Are we having fun yet?

O'Neal, who's a long, long way from that 1973 Oscar for Paper Moon, has a big, broad go of it, particular when talking to herself on a computer cam. But there's some class afoot. Robertson, as Theo, is a classically trained British thespian with a degree from the Oxford School of Business. His acting in Wicked, Wicked Games actually is pretty wicked good. One wonders how it came to this for him, but maybe he'll get noticed and eventually be sent up to the big leagues.

MyNetworkTV also is offering Watch Over Me, which follows at 8 p.m. central. Little me watched the first episode. It beat a poke in the eye, but in a photo finish.

The hero here is jaunty Jack Porter (Todd Cahoon), an ex-Special Forces operative who's now driving a cab. He's still haunted by the death of the only woman he ever loved. But Jack soon meets Julia Rivera (Dayanara Torres), the well-kept fiancee of ruthless tycoon Michael Krieger (Marc Menard).

"I felt something today between us, and you did, too," he tells Julia.

Snore, Jack eventually becomes Michael's bodyguard after saving his daughter from a kidnapping in a terribly choreographed action scene. This sets up a triangle, with Jack spread-eagled between his duties and his desires. Dynasty vet Catherine Oxenberg and her real-life husband, Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers) co-star as Michael's chief aide and "top assassin."

Both melodramas will be going against mostly reruns in December. Then again, America at large is going to be otherwise occupied with various Christmas preparations and parties. Wicked Wicked Games at least has a little holiday punch to it, and a better promotional campaign, too. Says a pitchman, "Revenge is a dish best served -- crazy." Pass the ham.

Grades: Wicked Wicked Games -- C; Watch Over Me -- D