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Turn of the year -- with no end in sight

Both strikers' kids and sympathetic stars (Marg Helgenberger, Matt Perry) have signed on as the walkout hits the eight-week mark.

It's going to get very interesting in the coming weeks. Neither the Writers Guild of America or the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers seems to be blinking on the eve of a New Year that so far is without any scheduled bargaining sessions.

There's plenty of newly scheduled programming, though. Here are some Frequently Asked Questions about the strike and its impact on you, the viewer.

Who holds the upper hand?
Right now it's not the writers. Broadcast networks in particular seem ready, willing and even eager to see how well they'll do with a mix of unscripted reality concoctions, holdover new episodes of some scripted series, awards shows, big-ticket sports programming and a few "events" (CBS' six-hour Commanche Moon miniseries for one).

They'll be carefully measuring any reduced ratings against the lower costs of strike-proof programming such as Celebrity Apprentice, assorted quiz shows and an early return of Big Brother. For the past 10 days, NBC has been bragging about having "more new stuff" than its broadcast rivals, beginning with The Biggest Loser: Couples on New Year's night followed by a double-run of new Law & Order episodes on Jan. 2nd.

What's the deal with the late night talk shows?
All of the broadcast entries will resume with new shows on Jan. 2nd, but the playing field will be tilted in favor of CBS. Its Late Show with David Letterman and Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson both reached eleventh-hour agreements with the Writers Guild Friday.

Their principal rivals, NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live, will have to wing it without their writers. How so? Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, Inc., owns both of the CBS late nighters. This eventually sparked a hard-won separate agreement between the Guild and the two shows that wear the Pants in television's fractious late night family. Meanwhile, Leno and the others remain at the mercy of the hardline networks that own their programs.

Letterman and Ferguson also should benefit from comparatively rich guest lists. A-list actors and even Pauly Shore are being strongly lobbied to honor Guild picket lines outside the NBC and ABC late night shows. On the other hand, they're now encouraged to visit Dave or Craig. This could be the difference between Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts on the Late Show and Digby Dregs and his Plate-Spinning Chimpanzees on the Tonight Show.

On the other hand, there's nothing to stop Jay from inviting actually intelligent book authors and other deep-thinkers to his couch. Yeah, like he's gonna do that.

Comedy Central's late night entries, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, will be even harder-pressed without their writers when they return on Jan. 7th. But both hosts are highly adept ad libbers -- or at least we're led to believe they are. Now they'll be put to the test.

Texas Rangers Gus McRae and Woodrow Call in CBS' Commanche Moon prequel and the ruling class of Fox's American Idol.

Which network is best prepared to withstand a strike for the rest of this season?
Without a doubt, Fox. It has college football's Bowl Championship Series in the first week of January. Then American Idol checks in on Jan. 15th for its seventh annual steamrolling run to the climactic May "sweeps."

Fox also has the Super Bowl this year, as well as seven fewer prime-time hours a week to program. Idoltakes care of two nights and the longstanding Saturday night lineup of COPS and America's Most Wanted is unaffected by the strike. Sunday's cartoon foursome also should be good to go with mostly first -run episodes. Long lead times for overseas animation mean that this season's scripts are already completed.

But wait, there's more. Fox has two proven, plug-in reality performers in Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Don't Forget the Lyrics!. And its flashy new midseason scripted series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, has received a saturation promotional campaign enroute to a Sunday, Jan. 13th sneak preview. It then will be paired on Monday nights with holdover new episodes of Prison Break. But PB's future beyond this season looks decidedly dim, with plans for any further North Texas production out of sight and likely out of mind.

What else is coming soon that viewers can watch with heads held high?

***There's no time like the present to give NBC's Friday Night Lights a chance. It returns with new episodes on Jan. 4th and has enough left to make it through early February. Unless ratings really pick up, that likely will be it. The Peacock also has new episodes of Medium ready to go on Jan. 7th.

***PBS starts its four-part Pioneers of Television series on Jan. 2nd, with weekly one-hour installments running through Jan. 23rd. The network also will launch its ambitious three-part The Jewish Americans on Jan. 9th.

***HBO begins its fifth and concluding season of The Wire on Jan. 6th. Storylines will focus on "the media's role in addressing -- or failing to address -- the fundamental political, economic and social realities depicted over the course of the series," says HBO. You can be that won't be pretty.

***ABC's new Sex and the City-ish Cashmere Mafia also gets underway on Jan. 6th, with Lucy Liu among a quartet of "sexy, ambitious" Manhattan career women.

***CBS presents its six-hour Lonesome Dove prequel, Commanche Moon, on Jan. 13th. Steve Zahn and Karl Urban respectively play younger rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. But the show-stopper may be Rachel Griffiths as tart, man-eating Inez Scull.

***On Jan. 20th, The Disney Channel at last gets around to premiering High School Musical: The Music In You, a documentary on the staging of its cash cow by Fort Worth high schools Western Hills and Arlington Heights.

***HBO begins its serial soap In Treatment on Jan. 28th, with five episodes a week for a scheduled nine-week. Garbriel Byrne stars as psychotherapist Paul Weston, who of course is more than a bit messed up himself.

***Last but not least, Lost will return to ABC on Jan. 31st with at least eight new episodes.


Year in review: Top 10 prime-time series

A warhorse shows some giddyup; Friday Night Lights still brings it.

Few if any will entirely agree with this year-end list of prime-time's best weekly series. That's as it should be, and your comments are welcome. Links are included to all of the shows' official web sites.

10. Life (NBC) -- It's a familiar premise: wrongly convicted cop is sent to the slammer and emerges as a flawed, free man. But Damian Lewis' quirky lead performance is multi-layered and thoroughly compelling. His new partner, played by former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Sarah Shahi, adds both sharp byplay and considerable eye appeal.

9. Dan Rather Reports (HDNet) -- His oddly belated lawsuit against CBS has rightly been ridiculed. At age 76, though, Rather is still going strong at what he does best -- reporting from the field. Substantive, one-hour dispatches on topics of genuine worth are no longer welcome at the big broadcast networks. But HDNet owner Mark Cuban has given Rather a redemptive opportunity to shine in his sunset years. Those who urged him to hang it up -- myself included -- misjudged Rather's resiliency and resolve. Against all odds, his best work is in the here and now.

8. Mad Men (AMC) -- Set in 1960, here's a series that blows smoke figuratively and literally. Former Sopranos writer/producer Matthew Weiner had this premise in mind for a decade, but couldn't find a buyer. Thankfully he finally sold AMC on the cigartettes-and-booze-fueled exploits of cocksure Madison Avenue advertisers. Jon Hamm leads the pack as adman Don Draper, a dapper womanizer who's always eager to set sale. Sold.

7. 30 Rock (NBC) -- Tina Fey never spares herself in this daft, deft look at the innards of a high-maintenance network TV show. Her Liz Lemon is constantly at the belittling mercy of swaggering, scene-stealing Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) The ensemble cast, which also includes Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski, is more than good enough to keep this ball rolling. But guest shots by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Edie Falco and David Schwimmer make Rock all the more merrier.

6. The Office (NBC) -- The British original seemed impossible to replicate, but NBC has made The Office its own and then some. Steve Carell continues to excel as noxious bossman Michael Scott. His bane is also his boon -- a many-splendored collection of underlings. Whether sucking up or saving face, they're the indispensable rock, paper, scissors of dysfunctional Dunder Mifflin.

5. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) -- Larry David separated from wife Cheryl while embracing the hurricane-displaced Black family in an eventful, energetic and very funny Season 6. This show definitely hasn't lost its Curb appeal, even though David now will agonize off-camera for months on end before deciding whether to re-up for another 10 episodes. For faithful viewers it's an easy response. More, more!

4. Dexter (Showtime) -- Season 2 remained on the cutting edge, with Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) caught between the advances of both special agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine) and dragon lady Lila (Jaime Murray). Will the real Bay City Butcher sign in please? Dexter gave that possibility some serious thought before opting to stay at large as a serial killer with a code. This gripping drama isn't for everyone, but it definitely slices through conventionality in its portrayal of an anti-hero unlike any other. Whatever you think of his character, Hall is sensationally good.

3. The Sopranos (HBO) -- Didn't like the ending, and upon further review, still don't. Let's not forget what The Sopranos brought to the table, though. Its final season mostly crackled, with the usual superior performances and writing from actors James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, and creator David Chase. I'd still like to see a big-screen movie someday, and no one should discount that possibility at some point down the road. For now it's curtains on an extraordinary achievement that deserves this end-of-the-year curtain call.

2. Friday Night LIghts (NBC) -- Still struggling in the ratings, this made-in-Austin drama otherwise soars on the strength of its emotional storylines and superb ensemble cast. It has it both ways. Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), are prime-time's most consistently interesting married couple. And the high schoolers in small-town Dillon, TX are more real by far than any other teen grouping on broadcast or cable TV. Football action is in much shorter supply in this second season as NBC strives to recruit larger audiences. Alas, it may be too late for that, but Lights still has enough pre-strike new episodes in the can to fill all of January (beginning on the 4th) and at least the first Friday in February.

1. Damages (FX) -- Glenn Close drove the drama on a freshman series that never loosened its grip. Her heart-of-darkness litigator, Patty Hewes, laid steel traps for both Enron-ian CEO Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) and members of her own law firm. An overriding, season-long murder mystery had new recruit Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) at its epicenter. Her life unraveled and regrouped in a series of flashbacks while the shrewish Hewes kept tightening screws. Damages also had the year's best supporting performance by Zeljko Ivanek as Frobisher's many-shaded attorney, Ray Fiske. It all ended with the resolution of one mystery and the launching of more dark intrigue for planned Seasons 2 and 3. A stellar achievement in acting, directing, cinematography and story continuity, Damages clearly belongs at the head of the 2007 class.

Documentary review: The True Story of Charlie Wilson (The History Channel)

Come listen to this story about a -- deep breath -- "womanizing, boozing, Cowboy congressman from Texas" who deployed a glamorous Houston socialite and an accomplished belly dancer to seduce support for rag-tag Afghan rebels fighting with archaic "Davy Crockett rifles" to rid their country of the mighty invading Soviet Army.

Sounds like it would make a helluva Hollywood movie, and by now you probably know they've made one. Charlie Wilson's War, opening Friday, Dec. 21st, shouldn't be seen without at some point seeing The True Story of Charlie Wilson on The History Channel (Saturday, Dec. 22nd from 7 to 9 p.m. central).

They go together like Jack and Coke, each weaving a tale that just seems way too preposterous to be the stone cold sober truth. That's what makes it such a good story.

History Channel's two-hour documentary has the advantage of first-hand, current-day interviews with the real Wilson and bosomy buddy Joanne Herring, respectively played in the Mike Nichols-directed film by Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

The genuine article, now 74, doesn't look anything like Hanks. But he sure sounds a lot like under-shirted cartoon Texan Hank Hill, voiced by Mike Judge in Fox's King of the Hill.

"I had the world's longest mid-life crisis," Wilson tells the camera. "My wife says it's still going on."

To hear him talk, his wife might as well be Peg Hill. Other than voice patterns, though, the only thing Charlie really shares with Hank is the oft-cartoonish nature of his adventures.

Wilson got into politics as a teenager after a neighbor killed his beloved dog, Teddy, by putting glass shards in his food. It seems that Teddy had been trespassing next door. The crum-bum avenger turned out to be an elected official whom young Charlie then avidly campaigned against. He took his "dog killer" message into the black community, which then helped to narrowly defeat the incumbent's bid for re-election.

This hooked Charlie on politics, and eventually led to his election to Congress in 1972 as Texas' Second District representative. Already known as "Good Time Charlie," he hired a staff of young beauties who were dubbed "Charlie's Angels."

Wilson's true calling came while he sat in a Caesar's Palace hot tub surrounded by an assortment of well-appointed young women. Somehow he found time to watch Dan Rather's famed "Gunga Dan" report from Afghanistan, where he had gone undercover with hopelessly outgunned rebels fighting to drive "Red Army" forces from their homeland.

Quickly hooked on their cause, Wilson eventually teamed up with the Red-hating Herring, who otherwise specialized in throwing really good parties guaranteed to make friends and influence people. They soon had another ally in maverick CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the big-screen movie. All three became obsessed with funneling arms to the Afghan rebels by any means necessary.

This included a trip to Egypt with belly dancer Carol Shannon, also interviewed in the History Channel documentary. Her seductive performance for the Egyptian defense minister supposedly persuaded him to make a covert weapons deal.

It keeps getting better -- and/or odder. Wilson is caught up in a cocaine scandal stemming from his eventful night at Caesar's Palace. Did he or didn't he inhale? Charges eventually were dropped for lack of evidence, and the current-day Wilson isn't about to elaborate any further.

"Nobody knows but me, and I'm not sayin'," he tells History Channel.

Wilson later got drunk and was involved in a hit-and-run accident in which luckily no one was hurt. But he covered it up rather than risk missing a plane to Paris, where powerful House subcommittee chairman Doc Long (Ned Beatty in the movie) was to be wined, dined and persuaded to secretly free up big money for the Mujahadeen freedom fighters.

One snag leads to another. And at two hours, the History Channel's version is a bit too redundant. It's also sometimes hard to separate reenactments from actual vintage footage. An opening disclaimer says the documentary "contains scenes that have been dramatized with special attention given to historical accuracy."

Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for Charlie Wilson's War, also is a major interviewee in History Channel's companion piece. He considers Wilson a hero of his times and rejects any notion that he's at least indirectly responsible for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. A "bunch of twisted (expletives)" are the culprits, says Sorkin.

Wilson himself says the Afghan freedom fighters will "never get the kind of credit they deserve." He also agrees that "we left a vacuum (in Afghanistan), and the vacuum was filled by the Taliban and al qaeda."

This is a fascinating story of seized opportunities, devilish derring-do, comical mishaps and the virtual collapse of Communism and the Cold War within a year after the Soviet Army slunk out of Afghanistan in February, 1989.

"Charlie did it," several eyewitnesses say at documentary's end.

That's probably too simple a verdict, but he sure had a big hand in one of history's biggest overthrows. At least a pat on the back is due him. Or maybe an ovation.

Grade: B+

Stewart, Colbert join late night returnees; Celebrity Apprentice makes another date -- again

Too late for the Jan. 3rd Iowa caucuses but better late than never, both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report will resume production on Jan. 7th without their writing staffs.

"We continue to hold out hope for a swift resolution to the current stalemate that will enable the shows to be complete again," Comedy Central said in a statement.

Hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of course were cheekier about it.

"We would like to return to work with our writers," they said jointly. "If we cannot we would like to express our ambivalence, but without our writers we are unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence."

NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O'Brien earlier announced Jan. 2nd returns, as did ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live. There's still no official word on whether CBS' Late Show with David Letterman will be joining them on that night.

Meanwhile, NBC's Celebrity Apprentice continues to play chicken with TV listings editors.

On Wednesday, the Peacock announced that Donald Trump's once consequential competition would premiere on Jan. 10th instead of the originally announced Jan. 3rd.

On Thursday, NBC announced that the Jan. 10th date is inoperative, and Celebrity Apprentice in fact will premiere on Jan. 3rd after all.

Maybe on Friday the network can announce, "We've got a bunch of idiots running this network, but you've probably already figured that out."

New series review: Duel (ABC)

ESPN's Mike Greenberg hosts ABC's surprisingly cerebral Duel.

Premiering: Monday, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Hosted by: Mike Greenberg
Produced by: Gail Berman, Lloyd Braun

It's been a good, long while since any new network game show risked being too smart for the room.

ABC's Duel could have that problem. Its contestants laugh and cry, but they'd better not kiss their brains goodbye during this cerebral buildup to a winner-takes-all giant jackpot at the end of a six-episode arc.

Here's a sample question from Monday's 90-minute premiere: "What do Scoville units measure?"

And another: "How long does it take light to travel from the sun to the earth?"

In each round, two contestants fight for the right to move on after putting their chips on one or more of four possible answers. Even the rules are a bit complex, but hang in there. This is an ingenious, taut, suspenseful game that already will build to a jackpot of $205,000 by the end of Monday's curtain-raiser.

Host Mike Greenberg, from ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning show, is a smooth facilitator who keeps viewers in the groove after an initial learning curve. He even pulls off the semi-ceremonial introduction of "Chip Girls" Olivia and Jennifer, both attired in cocktail dresses.

Otherwise the only transparently cheap device in Duel is the occasional smack-talk between contestants. As when prim, conservatively dressed "Internet" censor Sue Mullan of Seattle picks ATM tech Marco Berrios as her first opponent from among three possibilities.

"I got my street smarts growin' up in the hood," he brags. Which prompts Sue to choose him because "he seems like kinda all brawn, no brains."

Marco's reaction: "That wasn't nice. Now bring it, baby. I got you."

There are 24 prospective contestants, and six episodes building to a Sunday grand finale after ABC skips Saturday night. Duel's executive producers, Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun, respectively are the former entertainment presidents of Fox and ABC. Now they front BermanBraun productions, and this is their first big sale -- and possibly big score.

Duel deploys the usual "after the break" interruptions to build suspense. It also embeds an ad within the show for Diet Pepsi Max, a sponsor of both the on-air broadcast and an online version of the game.

NBC is counter-programming Duel with its week-long Clash of the Choirs competition, which wasn't available for review. The winner in that battle is anyone's guess, as are the answers to many of Duel's consistently challenging questions.

Monday's first and only contestant "Shootout," which automatically eliminates one of them, hinges on the color of President Bush's eyes. Are they blue, brown, green or hazel?

The loser gripes, "I'm a Democrat, dammit."

On to the next round.

Grade: B+

Play ball: Leno, O'Brien returning to work as strike goes on

Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien soon will be winging it without writers, NBC announced Monday.

The hosts have agreed to return to their respective late night shows on Jan. 2nd after sitting it out for two months of repeats during the ongoing writers' strike. David Letterman is likely to join them, but CBS hasn't made an official announcement yet.

Rick Ludwin, NBC's executive vice president of late night and prime-time series, noted in a statement that Johnny Carson "reluctantly" returned to the Tonight Show during the 1988 writers' strike.

"Both Jay and Conan have supported their writers . . . and will continue to support them," he said. "However, there are hundreds of people who will be able to return to work as a result of Jay's and Conan's decision."

O'Brien and Leno later issued their own statements.

O'Brien, far more expansive, said his choices were "either go back to work and keep my staff employed or stay dark and allow 80 people, many of whom have worked for me for 14 years, to lose their jobs. If my show were entirely scripted I would have no choice. But the truth is that shows like mine are hybrids, with both written and non-written content. An unwritten version of Late Night, though not desirable, is possible -- and no one has to be fired."

O'Brien said he would underscore his support of the show's writers when he returns to NBC.

"Of course, my show will not be as good," he said. "In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible. My sincerest hope is that all of my writers are back soon, working under a contract that provides them everything they deserve."

Leno said in part: "Now that the talks have broken down and there are no further negotiations scheduled, I feel it's my responsibility to get my 100 non-writing staff . . . back to work. We fully support our writers and I think they understand my decision."

No guests have been announced yet for either Leno's Tonight or O'Brien's Late Night.

Raggedy Andy -- Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale (HBO)

Extra-special Extras stars Ricky Gervais and Ashley Jensen..

A big, 80-minute last gasp of Extras leaves ample room for what the series has never really dabbled in. That would be poignancy.

Star/co-creator Ricky Gervais, who earlier birthed and fronted The Office, has heretofore been soft only in his marshmallow-y midsection. Now he adds other soft touches in Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale (Sunday, Dec. 16th, 8 p.m. central).

This all could have ended very darkly, with fame-seeking Andy Millman (Gervais) succumbing on all fours while his faithful friend and companion, Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen), ended up destitute after wasting her time with him. Instead we get closure of a different sort after the show's reliably dark comedy gets sugared to taste with pathos.

The lump-in-the-throat moments largely go to Jensen's hard-pressed Maggie, who steals the finale with a performance that's both huggable and indomitable. Extras is fresh off two Golden Globe nominations for best comedy series and Gervais' lead acting. But they blew it in not recognizing Jensen, who greatly helps to make Extras exceptional.

The series began in fall 2005, with Andy and Maggie shlepping along as bit players in star-driven movies. But he hit fool's gold in Season 2 as the catchphrase-spouting star of an insipid sitcom titled When the Whistle Blows. Now Andy's begun to chafe at the thought of being forever remembered for saying, "You 'avin' a laugh?" Besides, the toy likenesses of his character, Ray Stokes, aren't selling well at all during the holiday season.

"I want to be associated with credible stuff," Andy tells an on-the-make agent before dropping inept but loyal Darren Lamb (Extras co-creator Darren Lamb).

Maggie continues to take whatever menial acting jobs are offered. But she finally balks when Clive Owen, playing himself, finds her unacceptable in the role of a common whore.

"I wouldn't pay for that," he sniffs in her presence, recommending that the character be pelted with dung. Maggie dodges that bullet by walking off the set, swearing off acting and hunkering down miserably in a barely inhabitable one-room apartment. Her travails become deeply moving.

Andy's master thespian dreams aren't panning out either. Still, he becomes pompous and unkind, even to Maggie. His new, real-life catchphrase, "Life is cruel," comes from the heart of a new-found darkness. He's undeterred when told, "Fame is a mask that eats into the face."

The episode also features guest appearances by George Michael, Gordon Ramsay and David ("Dr. Who") Tennant, all playing themselves. Throughout Extras, Gervais has persuaded big-name personages to act insufferable while playing themselves. This time, though, even the bombastic Ramsay isn't as odious as Andy's become.

His Waterloo is Britain's version of Big Brother, whose celebrity edition of course is a haven for has-beens. Maggie watches it raptly, still hoping that Andy will return to the living rather than flush himself down fame and fortune's toilet bowl.

This is where Gervais had to make a choice. Would he end Extras by lighting a candle or by extinguishing all that had gone before? Let's just say that true-blue Maggie Jacobs deserves the ending awaiting her. Not that Andy Millman will ever really deserve her. Such is life, even as Extras calls it a wrap.

Grade: A

Idol's head Brit wants no part of "Brit"

Idol exec. producer Nigel Lythgoe and ever-dazed Britney Spears

Another window of opportunity has at least temporarily closed for the sad spectacle known as Britney Spears. American Idol doesn't want her in its upcoming seventh season as either a performer or celebrity "mentor."

"I would have had Britney Spears last year for sure," the show's executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe, said in a teleconference with TV critics Thursday. "Britney at this moment in time I don't think is well enough to do anything. And I think she needs looking after rather than pushing herself in front of a camera . . . She needs taking care of right now."

Idol obviously will do quite well without her when the Fox mega-hit returns on Jan. 15th. But Lythgoe's dismissal of Spears spiced a one-hour session that didn't exactly hum with quotable quotes. Lythgoe is too canny to cough up too much. But here a few other munchies:

***Dallas was one of seven cities hosting auditions this year, but San Diego "by far" yielded the best talent. Philadelphia will be "one of the first cities" shown on-camera. Otherwise "we're still editing" the order of appearances, Lythgoe says.

***Tone-deaf goofballs with no chance of going to Hollywood again will get heavy exposure in the early going. It's the "cirque du lack-of-talent" in Lythgoe's view. "It's all part of the fun at the fair."

***Some hopefuls, including three that Lythgoe expects to make the final 12, played instruments during their vocals. That may be the end of it, but "we're open-minded at the moment," he said. "We're not closing the door on it."

***Idol "got carried away" with celebrity mentors last season, and didn't spend enough time on the backgrounds of contestants, he says. That will be remedied.

***Judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson remain "childish, pitiful, the same as every year." And that's reassuring to see, Lythgoe says. "I wouldn't dream of changing any one of them."

***The show's "biggest jerkwad," a term introduced by a Chicago critic, was "the kid who made all the allegations about Paula," says Lythgoe. "It was just a whole sort of nasty bit." He's referring to Corey Clark, who told ABC's 20/20 that he had an affair with Abdul during the course of Idol's second season. Fox supposedly investigated the matter, and turned up nothing.

***Fifth season champ Taylor Hicks "brought a performance and fun to the table in a year where I think America may have made a mistake," Lythgoe says. "Because (Chris) Daughtry was really the musical star of that year . . . But mistakes are made."

***Idol has a resident psychotherapist who briefly counsels contestants after they've been cut from the show. Essentially they're told, "It's only a television show," says Lythgoe.

***He says that three of the new season's "absolutely brilliant" contenders are 16-and-17-year-olds. Hmm, one of Lythgoe's big favorites last season was 16-year-old Baylie Brown of Krum, TX, who made it to Hollywood but got bounced after forgetting lyrics during a preliminary round. Cowell called her "Commercial with a Capital C." Surely she tried again.

***Four Idol alum, Daughtry, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson (in a duet with Reba McEntire) are among the latest Grammy Award nominees. Lythgoe says that's nice, but "we are only a television program, and a great way to show your face to America."

Hulu? Who knew?

Have you hulu'd yet?

Probably not. The new service is barely brand new, but it's already a treasure trove.

Backed by NBC Universal and News Corporation (parent company of Fox), hulu.com is the must-see Web site of the year for TV-philes of all ages. You'll have to register and get a password first. That could take a day or two, or longer.

After that, there is such a thing as a free lunch. Hulu's eclectic list of programming choices, in just its very formative stages, ranges from Hill Street Blues to Family Guy, from Doogie Howser, M.D. to Scrubs.

The time travels are the most tantalizing. For no charge, you can dial up the complete premiere episodes and more of Emmy caliber series such as Hill Street, Doogie, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Miami Vice, The Practice, St. Elsewhere, WKRP in Cincinnati, Remington Steele, Picket Fences and even the original Lorne Greene-fronted Battlestar Galactica.

For some reason, the 1992 CBS dog Tequila & Bonetti also is on the menu. But whatever your tastes, all shows play with crystal clear precision with only brief commercial interruptions. The quality is infinitely better than most youtube entries.

Hulu also lets you catch up on an array of ongoing series. For now, all of them are either Fox or NBC Universal properties, including Heroes, House, The Office, Prison Break, Friday Night Lights, etc., etc.

Oddly excluded in the current mix is Fox's Mad TV. But fans of Saturday Night Live can munch on 398 different clips as of this writing.

The current hulu menu lists 158 titles, including a handful of movies such as Sideways and October Sky. Some early commenters complain that the movies are edited for content, which would be a dumb thing to do if true.

You'll find far more to like than dislike about hulu, though. It makes a too-good-to-be-true first impression, and that's an understatement.

We'll close with a brief sample clip to demonstrate the clarity of videos. (You also can go to the Above the Fold page on unclebarky.com to see one of hulu's Hill Street excerpts.)

New series review -- Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants (The CW)

Texas pageant pairs: Ada & Christan vs. Hollis & Gina.

Premiering: Wednesday, Dec. 12th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Hosted by: Shanna Moakler
Starring: 11 mother-daughter combos
Created by: Laurie Girion

Imagine the heartbreak of being judged deficient at your very first "de-sashing ceremony."

Not only that, but you'll have to cut your own sash. With a scissors. On national television.

In that case, be happy you're only on The CW, where ratings smashes are not applicable. Unfortunately, though, Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants is a harbinger of what's coming in a strike-damaged season that soon will be pimpled with an array of reruns and cheaply produced reality hours.

Crowned, which CW is promoting with the slogan "Competition's a bitch," pairs up 11 mother-daughter combos in pursuit of a $100,000 grand prize. One of them is dumb enough to come up with the name "Silent But Deadly" for their team. Judge Carson Kressley, segueing from Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, is quick to point out the obvious. What a gas, gas, gas this is going to be.

Two of the teams are Texas-connected. Mother Ada and daughter Christan are from Dallas. They're also instantly unlikable after the punk kid declares, "I'm gonna get what I want, and if you don't like it, don't bother me."

They later dub themselves "Hot & Not," a not so subtle slap at ol' momma.

Making a far better first impression, both with judges and viewers, are Fort Worth's Gina and her daughter, Hollis, who's now living in New York City. They're the self-titled "Dream Gals," and they sing a halfway cute little ditty together.

"God bless Texas," says Kressley.

Your host, who's also a judge, is former 1995 Miss USA Shanna Moakler. She most recently washed out in Week 2 of last year's third edition of Dancing with the Stars.

"We're celebrating what it means to be a modern beauty, where spirit, intelligence and heart are as meaningful as a pretty face," she tells the excited contestants before they burst into the show's "Pageant House" to eat, drink and gush.

Catty-catty, snipe-snipe quickly kicks in, though. Vying with Ada and Christan for the most despicable duo are New Mexico's Andrea and Amanda, a k a "The Reigning A's."

Add a hyphen and a "hole" after the "A" and you've got somethin', ladies.

The 11 couples eventually gather at a small, nondescript theater to make first impressions before judges Kressley, Moakler and Cynthia Garrett, described as a "TV personality."

Kressley clearly will have to carry the ball here. But the best he can muster in the early going is a patently obvious riff after the "Tomboy Queens" strut their stuff.

"I identify with that name -- at least the Queen part," he says.

The first "de-sashing" proceeds limply, with judges repeating "You're safe" until a preview DVD sent to TV critics ends with two couples still hanging in the balance. They just don't trust us vermin.

Crowned is supposed to continue for seven more weeks beyond Wednesday's premiere. Then a Jan. 30th finale will leave one triumphant couple with sashes still proudly in place. Hang in there, "Silent But Deadly."

Grade: D

Movie review -- Oprah Winfrey Presents: Mitch Albom's For One More Day

That's my boy: Ellen Burstyn tries to buck up Michael Imperioli.

First off, there haven't been this many egos in a TV title since Cher managed to mention herself twice in a 1998 tribute to her late ex-husband, Sonny Bono. It went by the name of Sonny & Me: Cher Remembers.

ABC's Oprah Winfrey Presents: Mitch Albom's For One More Day is a collaboration of a best-selling author and someone who makes best-selling authors with her periodic "Book Club" pronouncements. Winfrey's enthusiastic endorsement of Barack Obama also could make her a kingmaker in the Democratic presidential race. But that book hasn't been written yet.

One More Day -- we'll go to shorthand now -- is another of Albom's heart-tugging looks at the human condition. Premiering Sunday, Dec. 9th at 8 p.m. (central), it's also the weakest ABC adaptation of Alborn's three publishing triumphs.

The network's Tuesdays with Morrie, which starred the late Jack Lemmon, deservedly won an Emmy in 2000 as the season's best made-for-TV movie. The Five People You Meet In Heaven, with Jon Voight, premiered in 2004 to less acclaim. But it was still a worthy, inspiring film.

Michael Imperioli, who also co-starred in Five People, is center-stage this time as an alcohol-addled, suicidal former major league baseball player.

Chick Benetto (Imperioli), busily swirling down the drain, is first seen buying a six-pack on a stormy night. Despondent at not being invited to his daughter's wedding, he drives none-too-steadily to small-town Pepperville's little league baseball field. A car wreck impedes his progress, but a bloodied Chick makes it to the ballyard and puts a gun to his head before sighting his long-dead momma, Posey (Ellen Burstyn), wandering near the outfield grass.

This cues a relentless series of time travels to Chick's formative years, with Imperioli's son, Vadim, making his film acting debut as Chick-adee. The kid's hard-driving dad, Len (Scott Cohen), is determined to turn Chick into a star baseball player.

"You can be a momma's boy or you can be a daddy's boy," the old man lectures. "But ya can't be both. Ya got that?"

This leaves Chick pretty clenched up throughout a life that takes him all the way to the 1973 World Series as a backup catcher for the New York Mets. But a knee injury ends his ballplaying career while Chick's wayward dad slides in and out of the picture.

He's also disappointed his devoted mom (played as a younger woman by Samantha Mathis), who had wanted Chick to finish college rather than drop out to play ball. Their strained relationship gradually thaws to a breakthough, courtesy of mom's magical appearance just when Chick is at his lowest.

"What happened to you?" she asks, as if she didn't know. "Are you in any pain?"

"I haven't been so good, ma," he concedes.

Preachments abound down the homestretch of a film that means well but doesn't wear particularly well. Its ending is too abrupt, and it's no surprise at all to learn that ______ actually is ________.

The older Imperioli and Burstyn give it a good try in their scenes together. But it's not enough to redeem this transparent blend of A Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life.

Instead the syrup rises to the top, making One More Day the gooiest and least satisfying of Albom's three sentimental journeys.

Grade: B-minus

Documentary review: 1968 (The History Channel)

The guy on the right is Tom Brokaw. Or is it?

Bruce Springsteen remembers himself as a "faux hippie." Arlo Guthrie (pictured above) now prefers the company of whiskey to pot. And Tom Brokaw learned some time ago that you can't get a two-hour documentary on a broadcast network anymore.

Pretty much retired from active duty with NBC News, Brokaw seems more than content to report 1968 (Sunday, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. central) for The History Channel. An offshoot of his current bestseller Boom!, it gives him a chance to stretch out and go the way of other broadcast news deities such as Ted Koppel and Dan Rather.

They're lately cable guys, too, and why not? Whatever you think of Rather, he's doing some of his best work ever on HDNet. Few are seeing it, but at least Rather can take comfort in knowing he can still do it. Koppel's exemplary documentaries for The Discovery Channel likewise are keeping his head held high.

Brokaw, 67, was a 28-year-old TV reporter in '68. He was also a square, man, as he readily admits.

Sporting a coat, tie and short-clipped hair, "I was the freak," Brokaw says of his long-ago visit to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, then the epicenter of the counter-culture movement.

1968 just wouldn't quit when it came to stunning, epochal events.

Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago became a bloody battleground between cops and hippies. The Tet offensive in Vietnam shook America's belief in the winnability of the war. Richard Nixon was elected president. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos brandished "black power" salutes while receiving their Olympic medals. The Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon.

Brokaw reprises it all in capable fashion, interviewing both celebrities and commoners in the process. He clearly revels in the company of Guthrie, who sings a few verses from "Alice's Restaurant" while Brokaw grins like a kid at an Xbox expo.

Springsteen tells him that the music of the 1960s is "in my body. It's in my soul. It will never leave."

He eventually met the troubadour of those times, Bob Dylan, who told him, "If there's anything I can ever do for you . . ."

"Anything you can ever do for me? It's been done," Springsteen says almost reverentially.

Other notables interviewed for 1968 include James Taylor, Tommie Smothers, Andrew Young, Michelle Phillips, Jon Stewart, Mark Rudd and former Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, who was at Robert F. Kennedy's side when assassin Sirhan Sirhan ended his life on the same night he triumphed in California's Democratic presidential primary.

Johnson belatedly wrestled the pistol from Sirhan. And on the following morning, he discovered that he still had it in his suitcoat pocket. Now that's an anecdote.

The documentary also uses the music of the times, still unequalled as a mood-setter. Nothing even remotely like 1968 has rolled this way since. It was by no means a very good year. And many who experienced it, including yours truly as a U.S. Marine, are still wondering and debating what shape it's left us in.

Grade: B

Holiday punch: TNT's The Closer re-opens for a Christmas special

Meet the parents: The Closer does Christmas, murders included.

The most-watched series in basic cable history celebrates the Christmas season Monday night by mixing a double homicide with a missing Perry Como CD.

That's the way The Closer rolls in a new two-hour special (7 p.m. central) saved for the holidays by TNT.

It's no small event in the cable firmament. The Sept. 10th "summer season finale" of The Closer drew 9.2 million viewers in breaking its old ratings record. Monday's Christmas show will be the last new episode of the series until next summer, when Season 4 is due.

Subtitled "Next of Kin," Closer begins at home, with Deputy police chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) none-too-happily helping to trim a Christmas tree with live-in boyfriend/FBI agent Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney). Making their place more Christmas-y is supposed to increase its sales appeal, but Johnson grouses, "I do not like it when I'm ordered to be festive."

"Just hand me the damn angel," Howard retorts before topping the tree.

A bank robbery and attendant double homicide soon intercede, complete with blood-spattered candy cane decorations at the crime scene. But the episode also is spiked with a fair amount of comedy as Johnson and Howard trail a suspect to her hometown of Atlanta.

Her parents, gruff Clay (Barry Corbin) and the very Christmas-y Willie Ray (Frances Sternhagen), had hoped that their prodigal daughter really wanted to spend an unfettered holiday with them. But that's not in the cards, and all concerned wind up in the elder Johnsons' big-as-a-house RV for a hasty trip back to L.A. with fugitive in tow. Someone's hidden Clay's beloved Como disc, though, and he understandably can't get into Christmas without it.

The episode loses some of its muscle tone in time. There's really no need to go on for as long as it does. Sedgwick's always a joy, though, even as a Grinch. And Corbin shines as brightly as his newly shaved pate. The Lamesa,Texas native and former Northern Exposure regular also has a key scene down the homestretch of the Coen brothers' acclaimed No Country for Old Men. It's good to see him gainfully employed again in worthy roles.

The Closer ends up spooning a little Christmas sap, but just a little. For the most part it's an unconventional holiday outing, complete with closing shootout. Enjoy.

Grade: B+