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Back from the brink: ABC's Bob Woodruff at last can tell his story

Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas were supposed to lead ABC into a new era of newscasting. His near-fatal war injuries and her unplanned pregnancy led the network on a back-to-the-future path to ABC World News with Charles Gibson. It's been an undeniably good retro-fit.

Vargas now is back with 20/20 and Woodruff thankfully is very much back among the living. His triumphant return to ABC comes after more than a year of recuperation from a Jan. 29, 2006 roadside bombing attack in Iraq that obliterated part of his skull and put him in a coma for 36 days. To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports (Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. central) tells both his story and those of U.S. soldiers with similar injuries.

Completed over the weekend, the one-hour special had a press screening in New York Monday but otherwise was unavailable for preview. Woodruff also took questions publicly for the first time and appeared on Tuesday's edition of ABC's Good Morning America.

"I want to get back to journalism," he told Diane Sawyer.

"Any form?" she asked.

"Any form."

Woodruff had to start almost from scratch, re-learning how to talk and how to relate to his four children. GMA played a touching clip Tuesday of his twin six-year-old daughters, Claire and Nora, teaching him how to say "belt buckle" while dad wore Mickey Mouse ears in bed.

A 3-D scan of Woodruff's bomb-battered skull and the recuperating newsman with his two oldest children, Cathryn, 13, and Mack, 15.
All photos from ABC News

In another clip shown on GMA, Woodruff's son, Mack, recalled the day his dad in a sense returned to the living.

"My baby sitter walked into my room while I was sleeping and she woke me up and said my dad was on the other phone and wanted to talk to me," Mack said. "I picked up the phone and like a lot of it was gibberish. But it was him on the other line and that's all that really mattered to me, was that he was alive and talking."

The Tuesday night program documents Woodruff's long recovery but also marks his return to ABC as an inquisitive journalist. He interviews Secretary of Veteran's Affairs Jim Nicholson, asking him whether the VA can adequately care for the many injured servicemen returning from Iraq.

Woodruff also travels to Comfort, Texas, hometown of brain-injured Army Sgt. Michael Boothby. As ABC describes it in a news release, he "watches Boothby's condition quickly deteriorate as he awaits the arrival of the paperwork that would allow him to continue his treatment."

Woodruff's future duties at ABC News are under discussion. But at Monday's Q&A in New York, ABC News president David Westin said they will not include any return trips to Iraq.

"I will not send him," Westin said. "It just would not make sense . . . It would be the height of recklessness, from my point of view, to allow Bob Woodruff to go back to Iraq."

Woodruff, 45, and his wife, Lee, have co-authored a book on their experiences titled In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing. It's being published Tuesday in tandem with ABC's prime-time account.

Sunday's stately Oscars: Without a pulse or a pause that refreshed?

Host Ellen DeGeneres opened in off-red and later emerged with an Oscar fanny pack to aid winners with no place to put their statues.

Let's try two takes for Sunday's 79th annual Oscar-cast.

Take 1: Blah, blah, blah. Not the passing parade of acceptance speeches but the show itself. It was so blah that even victorious Al Gore seemed almost dynamic.

Take 2: The Oscars finally gave America what it hadn't had in way too long -- a dignified if de-magnetized respite from Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears. Hooray for this side of Hollywood. It's about time.

It's easy to see both sides, although ABC's three hour, 51 minute ceremony (23 minutes longer than last year's) definitely had a power outage when it came to memorable moments.

Yeah, it was nice to see director Martin Scorsese at last get a statue near show's end. But it's a pretty tame affair when tongues are left to wag about best supporting actor Alan Arkin's decision to put his Oscar on the floor before fixedly reading his acceptance speech from a piece of folded paper.

That's because the Academy decided to mimic the Golden Globes in going podium-less. Victors instead had to stand before a naked mike that left them with no place to rest either their elbows or their Oscars. Some fumbled a bit, but Arkin must have been the first winner to floor his hardware.

On the other hand -- and some winners could have used three of them -- the Oscars aren't supposed to be a three-ring goof-fest. You don't want to be stiff as a board, but maybe the pendulum had swung too far in recent years with hosts that treated the assembled nominees as balloons at a midway dart game.

Host Ellen DeGeneres definitely didn't do that. She began the night with a gentle, up-with-people monologue that celebrated the diverse, international field of nominees. That came just after an extended opening film pictured many of them informally if not always interestingly.

Rather than parody their movies, DeGeneres pretty much sang the nominees' praises, complete with a gospel choir that tried to raise the roof with a refrain of "Celebrate, Sing Hallelu." Actually, it kind of cleansed the palate on a night without a single joke about Spears or Smith, who even went unmentioned during the traditional film montage of the year in Hollywood deaths.

The host twitted nominees as nervous wrecks but also made it clear she was thrilled to be among them. Her jokes aimed to please, particularly when DeGeneres noted that Jennifer Hudson had a nomination for Dreamgirls even though viewers didn't vote her an American Idol winner.

"Al Gore's here," she then added. "People did vote for him."

Gore and Hudson both wound up winners, which was hardly surprising. The night's only semi-stunner, in the major categories, was Arkin's victory over favored Eddie Murphy in the best supporting actor competition. Murphy would have been the first former Saturday Night Live cast member to win the big screen's big one.

Another SNL-trained thespian, Will Ferrell, kicked off the night's only extended spoof. His hair still in an Afro -- for a role as an American Basketball Association player/coach -- Ferrell lamented in song that a funnyman's big box office movies are never rewarded with Oscar nominations. Fellow outcast Jack Black soon joined him before Ferrell's Talladega Nights co-star, John C. Reilly, made it a threesome onstage. It was an OK bit, with all three men vowing to someday take Helen Mirren home with them.

The night's most photographed attendee, Jack Nicholson, probably can still take home just about anybody he desires. On this night he was chunky and bald for a role as a terminal cancer patient in the movie The Bucket List, in which he's co-starring with Morgan Freeman.

Nicholson and old pal Diane Keaton present the Best Picture Oscar.

DeGeneres said she was thrilled that Nicholson appeared to be having a good time. Her own time on camera seemed minimal compared to other hosts. But she had one more funny bit amid Oscar's stately procession through filmed tributes and "these five incredibly depressing movies," as presenter Jerry Seinfeld described the documentary feature category won by Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

As she did while hosting the Emmys, DeGeneres toured the celebrity-studded audience. This time she had bigger game -- Clint Eastwood. And he played along very amiably when she asked him to pose for a picture that would be perfect for her myspace page. DeGeneres then enlisted Steven Spielberg to snap it, but wasn't satisfied with his first one.

"Could you make it a little more even on both sides?" she asked a guy who if nothing else knows how to frame a shot.

Eastwood later stumbled a bit through his tribute to composer Ennio Morricone, the night's honorary Oscar recipient. "I should've worn my glasses," he said.

Morricone gave his acceptance speech in Italian, with Eastwood acting as translator. It was less than riveting.

Jennifer Hudson and Martin Scorsese were happy together.

The home stretch -- and who didn't need a stretch by then? -- retained some buoyancy with Scorsese's long overdue win and a terrific performance of a Dreamgirls medley by Hudson, Beyonce and Anika Noni Rose.

"I cannot believe this. Look what God can do," Hudson had said in her earlier acceptance speech.

"Could you double-check the envelope?" said Scorsese at the start of his.

So much for fireworks. This was a tame Oscar-cast, all right. But was it lame as well? After more than two weeks of Anna Nicole Smith and a Britney Spears chaser, I'm OK with a little boredom in the service of dignity. Cut. print.

New series review: The Black Donnellys (NBC)

Getting their Irish up: the four Donnellys and titular head Tommy.

Premiering: Monday (Feb. 26), 9 p.m. central, 10 eastern on NBC
Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Thomas Guiry, Billy Lush, Michael Stahl-David, Olivia Wilde, Keith Nobbs, Kate Mulgrew
Produced by: Paul Haggis, Bobby Moresco

Like a fine Irish stew in the making, The Black Donnellys needs time to find its flavor.

But time isn't on the side of seriously sober serial dramas -- at least not this season. So NBC's Hell's Kitchen-set crime saga likely will have a fight on its hands as the Peacock's Monday night replacement for the audience-rejected Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Donnellys' premiere episode is a jumble at times, with swerving narration from the jailed "Joey Ice Cream" (Keith Nobbs) used and sometimes abused as a storytelling technique. Keep watching, though. NBC sent the first five hours for review, giving TV critics ample opportunity to settle in while the show settles down. Stay with it and you'll get to know one of the season's most compelling new characters. He's Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker), a hurting, harrowing, heart-in-the-right-place anti-hero.

Tommy's lifelong guilt over a childhood mishap has cast him as a protective shield whose lot in life is to keep his three brothers among the living.

It's a lot to ask when your oldest sibling, Jimmy (Thomas Guiry), is a drunken junkie and borderline despot. Younger brother Kevin (Billy Lush) also is addicted -- to gambling. And the baby of the family, heartthrob Sean (Michael Stahl-David), turns out to be an easy mark for thugs with lessons to teach. Their home base is the Donnelly family bar, which is oddly lacking in customers other than the four brothers and an earlier unincarcerated Joey.

When away from a beer tap, the boys aim to please and protect their widowed mother, Helen (Kate Mulgrew from Star Trek: Voyager). She's a pistol herself, particularly with her two younger sons.

Black Donnellys has superior bloodlines. Co-executive producer and creator Paul Haggis directed last year's Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. Sandwiched around that film are his screenplays for Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima.

Haggis' Black Donnellys collaborator, Bobby Moresco, also worked with him on Crash and Million Dollar Baby. And in 1996, the two co-created CBS' EZ Streets, an exemplary crime drama that never found enough viewers to sustain it.

Black Donnellys, inspired by Moresco's formative years in a tough New York neighborhood, is anything but a spoonful of sugar. The series' opening words -- "So where are the bodies?" -- prompt the jailed Joey Ice Cream to weave a back-and-forth tale of hard-won brotherly love mixed with killings, beatings and thievery.

There's also a prototypical bar fight -- at a wake no less. Accompanied by a jaunty Irish tune, the fists start flying after Joey observes, "The Irish have always been victims of negative stereotyping. People think we're all drunks and brawlers. And sometimes that gets you so mad all you want to do is get drunk and punch somebody."

The narrative gets to be too much. It sometimes seems as though Joey is auditioning for Last Comic Standing rather than playing ball with his jail cell interrogaters. But future episodes scale him back, with Joey primarily used to sum up the action from previous episodes. Think of him as a colorful, prison orange substitute for prime-time's standard "Previously on . . ." stage-setters.

We quickly learn there's very bad blood between the Irish and the Italians, and the Irish and the Irish. Everybody wants a cut, and some are willing to cut off the toes and fingers of welshers. Principal among them is the chilling "Dokey" Farrell (Peter Greene), whose constant companion is an ax. Dokey and Tommy Donnelly are going to be antagonists, with matters heating to a boil in Episode 3.

Also in this mix is Jenny Reilly (Olivia Wilde), whose brutalizing husband remains both missing and unseen through the initial five episodes. Jenny's the love of Tommy's life, but can he ever have her? The acts he commits in defense of his brothers have made her afraid to get too close.

The series deftly paints Tommy into corners, prompting a painful series of lies and betrayals. In a sense he's doing what's right, but the cost of living keeps rising. Tommy is a Boy Scout with dried blood on his troop insignia, an amalgam of Michael and Sonny Corleone, hold the Fredo.

Black Donnellys initially was earmarked for ER's Thursday slot, but the venerable medical drama's Nielsen ratings were too good to give way. Plan B finds the show in a much tougher spot. Near the end, hardly anyone was watching Studio 60, which will make it doubly tough for this oft-grim serial to recruit viewers almost from scratch.

In the end, it's all together too likely that Black Donnellys will find it difficult to escape one of its weekly cautionary quotes. Such as this one at the outset of Episode 3: "To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart."

Hey, whatever happened to the luck of the Irish? That's what this show needs and deserves.

Grade (for the first five episodes): A-

Oscars: We see a lot of new faces -- especially on the old faces

Coming soon to an Oscar pool near you -- the 79th annual Academy Awards with first-time host Ellen DeGeneres.

Assisted by ABC and Nielsen Media Research, we're going to warm you up with some fun facts and figures. But first the particulars.

The annual Barbara Walters warmup show is on Sunday, Feb. 25 at 6 p.m. (central time), with Babs welcoming DeGeneres, Eddie Murphy, Helen Mirren and Jennifer Hudson. Then comes the sycophantic red carpet arrival show at 7 p.m., followed by the marathon ceremony itself at 7:30 p.m. It's all on ABC.

For a tidy, printable list of this year's many and varied nominees, go here. For a list of who won last year -- because of course you've already largely forgotten -- go here. And for Uncle Barky's review, return to this space on Monday. Otherwise here's some finger food guaranteed to please your palate.

***Last year's Oscar-cast, hosted by Jon Stewart, drew 38.9 million viewers. That's a very nice-sized audience, but it also was one of the smallest in the last two decades.

The all-time low, since Nielsen Media Research began tabulating total viewers in 1974, came in 2003 when Chicago was voted Best Picture. But the 2003 Oscars (33 million viewers) shared the stage with Peter Jennings' periodic break-ins for Iraq war updates. Clearly the country had other things on its mind than Hollywood glitz and glamor.

***Oscar's biggest audience -- 55.2 million -- was in 1998, when Titanic won. Other than the Chicago shortfall, last year's ceremony had the lowest viewer turnout since 1987, when 37.2 million watched Platoon win for Best Picture.

***Sample Stewart joke from last year: "A lot of people say that this town is too liberal, out of touch with mainstream America, an atheistic pleasure dome, a modern-day, beachfront Sodom and Gomorrah, a moral black hole where innocence is obliterated in an endless orgy of sexual gratification and greed. I don't really have a joke here. I just thought you should know a lot of people are saying that."

***The cost of a 30-second commercial on Sunday's Oscars is an estimate $1.7 million, up a bit from Nielsen's official average of $1,646,800
for last year's show. The Super Bowl is the annual league leader, with a half-minute spot costing $2.6 million for the Feb. 4 game between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. A decade ago, you could buy an Oscar ad for a measly $850 grand.

***Does a big advertising campaign help a film's Oscar chances? Maybe yes, maybe no. From January to November of last year, $40.26 million was spent promoting The Departed, one of the five Best Picture nominees. But no money at all was spent during that period on Letters From Iwo Jima, which also is nominated. According to Nielsen, the three other Best Picture hopefuls spent this much: Babel ($16.4 million); Queen ($14.6 million); Little Miss Sunshine ($11.9 million).

***Finally, announced presenters Sunday night include Tom Cruise and ex-wife Nicole Kidman (separately); Ben Affleck and ex-fiancee Jennifer Lopez (separately); Steve Carell, George Clooney, Cameron Diaz, Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks, Diane Keaton, Tobey Maguire, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Reese Witherspoon.

How many of them will run afoul of Joan and Missy Rivers? Then again, how many of you have the TV Guide Channel?

Review: The 1/2 Hour News Hour (Fox News Channel)

Presenting President Limbaugh, circa 2009. Photo: Fox News Channel


Dig that crazy conservative humor.

But seriously, folks, punchlines from the right also have every right to be seen, heard and evaluated objectively. This brings us to The 1/2 Hour News Hour, the first of two specials developed by 24 executive producer Joel Surnow. He couldn't sell them to the Fox broadcasting network, but Fox News Channel probably is a better venue anyway. Show time is 9 p.m. (central time) on Sunday (Feb. 18), with a repeat at the same hour next Sunday. Episode 2 is scheduled for March 4th.

1/2 News Hour makes its political leanings known in a finger snap. It's Jan. 21, 2009, and Rush Limbaugh is the newly sworn-in president after defeating Howard Dean. The real-life Limbaugh does his own honors here, promising "four years or more of commander-in-chief excellence." After all, "the grownups are back in charge."

His vice president is another star conservative player, Ann Coulter. She also appears in the flesh, ordering all right-thinking Americans viewers to watch 1/2 Hour News Hour or else. "If you don't, we'll invade your countries, kill your leaders and convert you to Christianity."

That'd be funny if it weren't so uncomfortably chilling. But 1/2 Hour News Hour does have its moments, with fake news anchors Kurt McNally and Jennifer Lange (Kurt Long, Jenn Robertson) offering an amalgam of The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment and maybe even a smidgen of Real Time with Bill Maher.

Every joke is greeted warmly by what appears to be a mix of actual studio audience laughter and artificial canned additives. Among the targets: Air America, the ACLU (in two very heavy-handed fake commercials), actor/activist Ed Begley, Jr. (an announced guest who never makes it), liberal-leaning children's books and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

The Obama segment is both juvenile and sometimes quite on the mark. His imagined new Barack Obama Magazine is shortened to BO in a mockery of Oprah Winfrey's self-important O monthly. Cover stories include "A Life in Politics: My 18-Month Journey." And if you subscribe now, you'll get a free "Don't Tell Mama, I'm for Obama" t-shirt.

The show also welcomes shifty t-shirt salesman "Lenny Varnadou," whose big seller is an image of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, with the slogan "No Fat Chicks." Thud, that's a reference to the millions facing starvation under his oppressive regime.

Faring better is phony "game show host/climatologist" Dr. Samuel Pinkner. He has a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon method of tying any social ill -- including Britney Spears without panties -- to global warming.

It all ends with a climactic, childish swipe at Begley, who's said to now be in prison and at the mercy of rival inmate gangs.

1/2 Hour News Hour is better than that at least some of the time. It's a safe bet that Al Gore and John Kerry won't be laughing. But it's easy to imagine Obama allowing himself a private grin or two. If so, good for him.

Grade: C+

Review: News War (PBS)

It's hard not to damn PBS' News War -- even when praising it.

Tuesday night's launch of this four-part Frontline series cogently dissects the Valerie Plame leak investigation and what it could mean to the future of independent, unfettered journalism.

Yeah, like that's going to get people to watch.

This first hour (at 9 p.m. on KERA-TV in Dallas) also intelligently revisits a 35-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that continues to weigh heavily on the public's right to know vs. a journalist's right to protect confidential sources.

Wow, be still my heart.

Sorry, but no amount of coaxing is likely to bring many viewers to this table. Way too many Americans now see the media as rabid vultures, duplicitous ax-grinders or just plain dupes. And the ongoing, ludicrously overplayed coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's sudden death isn't helping matters.

News War does have an air of importance, though, not that it feels self-important. Tuesday's Part One certainly elevates the profession to a far higher calling than Entertainment Tonight's continuing canonization of Smith's last boyfriend, Howard K. Stern.

There's plenty of meat here, with former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman as point man. His efforts will continue on Feb. 20 and 27th, and on March 27, when News War will cease fire after training its sights on media around the globe.

Bergman, whom Al Pacino played in the acclaimed feature film The Insider, is a ringwise, no B.S. guy who both knows the players and can get them to talk.

The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, for one, admits falling head over heels for the Bush administration's WMD-fueled sale of the war in Iraq.

"I was totally wrong," he says. "I think I dropped the ball here. I should've pushed much, much harder."

A Frontline documentary, as Bergman notes, also fell for the idea that Saddam Hussein's "smoking gun" easily could become a "mushroom cloud," as then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice so effectively put it.

This is all prelude to "Plamegate" and its ongoing trials and recriminations. A review copy of News War sent late last month will be updated to reflect recent developments, including the high-profile testimony of Meet the Press host Tim Russert.

Part 3 of News War, not yet available for preview, looks at the mounting pressures on newspapers to turn Wall Street-pleasing profits. Bergman also will examine the changing face of news in times when a New York University study says that a majority of Americans under 25 catch up on current events via The Daily Show and/or the Internet.

Realistically, hardly anyone under 25 is likely to take the News War plunge. For old-school newsies, though, it's a chocolate-covered power bar. Tastes good and has plenty of fiber, too.

Grade: A-minus

Grammys go long, stay on track

Trouper Robyn Troup, 18, of Houston, has her "My Grammy Moment" with Justin Timberlake and without any wardrobe malfunctions.

Television's best and brightest awards show takes the longest time to hand out the least hardware.

That would be Sunday night's performance-rich 49th annual Grammys on CBS, where just 11 acceptance speeches were made in three-and-a-half hours. Now that's entertainment. And you can always go here to revisit all those other winners whose names flashed briefly on the bottoms of home screens.

The show went on and on without becoming a drag. It helps not to have a wisecracking host when you have so many recording artists willing to promenade before their peers. The Grammys are the place to play your hardest, whether you're Chris Brown ramping it way up for "Run It" or The Police reuniting at show's start for a rousing "Roxanne."

The politically charged Dixie Chicks officially were the night's biggest victors, taking home four of Grammy's on-camera awards while also performing "Not Ready to Make Nice." But 18-year-old Robyn Troup of Houston may have gained the most by winning the show's American Idol-esque "My Grammy Moment" contest. It launched her onstage to confidently sing "Ain't No Sunshine" and "My Love" with Justin Timberlake. So how did Idol miss this kid?

This was a night when even Lionel Richie sounded damn fine singing one of his old chestnuts, "Hello." Then Christina Aguilera tore it up with James Brown's "It's A Man's World."

Mary J. Blige had her pipes smokin' again while John Legend, John Mayer and newcomer Corinne Bailey Rae were terrific both together and apart.

OK, you're getting all this from a lowly TV critic whose musical expertise isn't what brought me to this party. But the Grammys definitely have come a long way since being threatened by Dick Clark's made-for-TV American Music Awards. They're now far more in touch, in tune and invigorating from a performance standpoint.

Anybody wanna give me an earful on that?

Down and dirty: Lost's Josh "Sawyer" Holloway back for more murk

Josh Holloway on Lost and at a press conference promoting ABC's longest-lost show. It returns Wednesday (Feb. 7) in a later time slot.

PASADENA, Calif. -- Muddied, bloodied and altogether torn up, Lost's James "Sawyer" Ford is part anti-hero, part dirt bag. Which side of him wins out is one of the show's more intriguing big questions.

"We all have a Sawyer in us that's dying to get out," says Josh Holloway, the actor who plays him. "Trust me, I'm sure you all can scowl pretty hard when you need to."

On this day, though, he's eminently agreeable. Co-stars such as Evangeline Lilly and Matthew Fox are more intent on fleeing a mass of TV critics after taking the stage during a 14-headed, mid-January interview session. Not so Holloway, who patiently entertains questions in a hotel foyer by day and at that night's ABC "All-Star Party."

He'll also be a featured attraction on Wednesday's resumption of Lost after a three-month layoff. Sixteen consecutive new episodes are promised at a new, later hour (9 p.m. central, 10 eastern). For more particulars, see an earlier story on the TV Press Tour page.

Holloway, a former pretty boy model, has spent much of this season in a cage on "The Others' " island, where he's been beaten and dirt-laden. It can kind of wear on a dude.

"I actually caught the wardrobe guy draggin' my jeans across the parkin' lot," Holloway says. "He told me they weren't 'readin' good' on camera. You don't feel very sexy when you come in at five in the morning and you're nice and clean and you go in a trailer and you come out destroyed! I go to the makeup trailer to get destroyed. I grew up with three brothers, so I love a good physical scene. But it does work on your psyche, constantly getting beat down. As an actor you're trying to live the part, so I go home moping a bit."

In real life, he's married to Indonesia-born Yessica Kumala, to whom he proposed in Hawaii while making the Lost pilot in March 2004. They were married in October of that year but Holloway, 37, has admitted that he almost broke off their engagement in favor of playing the field as a newborn TV sex symbol.

"She gets a 'Free Kiss' card every time that I get to kiss somebody on screen," Holloway says. "She's got like seven now . . . But we're very much in love. She knows how I feel about her."

Last fall's abbreviated arc of six episodes included a mud-caked love scene between Sawyer and Lilly's Kate Austen. He calls the actress "Evie," but says it was no Garden of Eden. Their impassioned coupling "even made me a little uncomfortable," Holloway says. But it played convincingly on-screen, "which just means I did my job."

At play and at work: Holloway with wife Yessica Kumala and in serious disrepair on Lost, which returns with a cleaner break.

Wednesday's resumption finds Sawyer and Kate at last freed of their cages and on the run while Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) decides whether to save the life of The Others' enigmatic leader, Ben Linus (Michael Emerson). Not to give away too much, but the show's creators are intent on reuniting the cast on their main island after an early, heavy focus on Sawyer, Kate and Jack.

Significant steps are taken in that direction Wednesday while viewers also will get a flashback look at how the mysterious Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) got hooked up with The Others. Sawyer also drops a few more impromptu nicknames. Besides the oft-used "Freckles" (for Kate), they included "Sheena" and "Cheech."

"I would love to take credit for that," Holloway says. "But every single one of those are written beforehand."

Co-executive producer Damon Lindelof says Lost will devote part of an upcoming episode to the origins of Sawyer's "nickname addiction. It will be dealt with head-on."

Producers also are charting an exit strategy for the show, in concert with ABC executives. In short, they don't want to stay too long at the party.

"J.K. Rowling has announced that there are going to be seven Harry Potter books," says co-executive producer Carlton Cuse. "And it gives everybody a sort of feeling of certainty that that story is driving towards a conclusion."

ABC and the producers similarly plan to make a public announcement after Lost's end point is agreed on, Cuse promises.

"Time flies when you're having fun," Holloway says. "But that's been a discussion since the get-go. The producers really believe in the integrity of the show . . . To me, in five years it should be done."

Lost is still less than one-third of the way through its third season, and Holloway says he's given up on trying to deduce how it all will end. He knows what he doesn't want, though.

"If it's all in our heads or somebody's dreaming and we're all dead, I'm gonna be pissed off," he says.

Super Bowl XLI, etc.: X lasting impressions

Oprah and Dave: Ultimate Odd Couple watch Lovie, profess love.

I. The day's best spot lasted just 10 seconds and was a closely guarded secret. So you might have missed David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey snuggle-bugging during the first half of Super Bowl XLI.

"You want the Bears and I want the Colts, but we both win because we're in love," Dave said in extreme closeup while stuffing his yap with chips.

The camera then pulled back to reveal Oprah sitting next to him on a utilitarian brown love seat.

"Honey, don't talk with your mouth full," she good-naturedly admonished him.

"Oh, sorry," he said as the Late Show with David Letterman logo popped into view.

Oprah wore a No. 54 Brian Urlacher jersey with Dave displaying Peyton Manning's No. 18. CBS says the spot was covertly filmed on Jan. 24 at Late Show's Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan. Letterman had baited and ridiculed Winfrey to no avail until she finally appeared on the Dec. 1, 2005 Late Show, marking her first appearance with him in 16 years.

Dave graduated from Ball State University in Indiana and Oprah originates from Chicago.

II. Credit Prince with having game. He energetically performed his halftime show under duress in a pouring rain, finishing it off with Purple Rain. Not sure if he was really playing the guitar, and he might have been lip syncing, too. Still, he carried it off pretty seamlessly in the midst of pyrotechnics that seemed damned dangerous under such conditions. His hair never gave an inch, though.

III. Budweiser made the biggest commercial investment with eight different 30-second spots. Favorite: The wedding day bit in which guys thirsting for Bud hire a fast-talking auctioneer to speed up the marriage ceremony. "Do I hear an 'I do, I do?' Do I hear an I do?' "

Another ad likely will have more lasting impact, though. Fist bumps are out, face slaps are in, it instructed the youthful drinkers of America before hitting them with a rapid-fire how-to manual of open-palmed socks to the kissser. Man, glad I'm not living in a boy's dorm. Here's a good place to relive all the Super Bowl spots, or any you might have missed

Rex Grossman's gaffes included botched snaps and interceptions.

IV. CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms too often seemed a step slow Sunday. They were in early denial about the rain, which helped cause a couple of quick turnovers. But you might have thought it was a beautiful day until Simms finally acknowledged he'd been wrong in saying that "the rain would not be a factor in the game."

As an oft-opinionated, former Super Bowl winning QB, Simms should have lashed Bears signal-caller Rex Grossman for handing a close game to the Colts with two very poorly thrown interceptions in the fourth quarter. Alas, both announcers seemed loathe to point out the obvious until Bears fans long since had stopped throwing bricks through their TV sets. Namely, that Grossman plain and simply buried the Bears just after it seemed they had seized the momentum.

V. Simms did get off a cheeky one-liner after CBS cameras captured David Spade and Patrick Warburton watching the game from the stands and in the rain. They're co-starring in the network's new Rules of Engagement sitcom, which premieres Monday.

"If the show was a hit already, they'd be in a suite," Simms said.

VI. Nantz contributed a fun anecdote about Colts coach Tony Dungy, who makes it a point of not raising his voice and never swearing. But the team's longtime PR director once caught Dungy verbally agreeing to appear on Fox's The Best Damn Sports Show Period, Nantz related. So much for four-letter words.

Coach Dungy and Colts owner James Irsay put God on their side.

VII. OK, maybe Grossman didn't have a prayer. But did God really care who won the Super Bowl? Colts owner James Irsay and Coach Dungy both put the Supreme Being in their huddle during post-game victory remarks.

Irsay proclaimed, "I know that God has looked after us on this journey." And Dungy said he told the team, "This is going to be a storm. The Lord doesn't always bring you directly through." He also credited the Colts with "doing it the Lord's way."

Good Lord, isn't that laying it on just a bit thick?

VIII. Those godaddy.com commercials aren't inventive, cute or daring. They're just sleazy and tiresome. The latest, played three times Sunday, included glimpses of wild partying by the company's marketing division. Go away, godaddy. Ya bore us.

IX. CBS tried to put some oomph in Katie Couric's Evening News ratings with promotional spots in which she talked up a series of reports about good Americans doing great things. Nice sentiment, but b-o-o-o-ring.

X. The network's pre-and post-game show quartet included two quarterbacks, Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason, who played in Super Bowls without ever getting victory rings. Esiason had bragging rights on the pre-game picks, though. He said the Colts would win 31-17. Actual final outcome: 29-17 in favor of Indianapolis. Score!!!

New series review: Rules of Engagement (CBS)

David Spade plays the middleman in this quintet-essential sitcom

Premiering: Monday (Feb. 5) at 8:30 p.m. central (9:30 eastern) on CBS
Starring: Patrick Warburton, Megyn Price, David Spade, Oliver Hudson, Bianca Kajlich
Produced by: Tom Hertz, Jack Giarraputo, Doug Robinson

The actor who played "Puddy" on Seinfeld is always worth at least a few rolls in the sitcom hay.

His name is Patrick Warburton, and he's back as a deadpanning big lug of a married man on CBS' new Rules of Engagement. It's not bad, not great and a lot like Fox's pre-existing 'Til Death with Brad Garrett. Also, oddly enough, it's temporarily replacing Old Christine, whose star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, dated Puddy while playing Elaine Benes on Seinfeld

Rules begins with a pretty unassailable truism. "When you're single, you're exactly as happy as you are," it says in a printed prologue. "When you're married, you can only be as happy as the least happy person in the relationship." Think about it.

Warburton's character, a Jeff with no last name, is married to Audrey (Megyn Price from Grounded for Life). Both have more or less settled into a childless, less than live-wire relationship.

"Actually, we've sort of wrapped up the sex portion of the marriage," says Jeff. "It's been replaced by Letterman."

Also please welcome the newly engaged Adam and Jennifer (Oliver Huston, Bianca Kajlich), and commitment-phobic Russell (David Spade). Frankly it's getting nigh unto impossible to buy Spade as a stone cold chick magnet. But he's still playing a character who has no trouble bedding room temp IQ knockouts for less than a one-night stand if he can help it.

Monday's premiere finds Adam worried about falling into the same marriage gulch as Jeff. As Rules' sometimes painfully earnest straight man, he's mostly on the receiving end of laconic knockdown punches from the other two men in this show's life.

Next week's episode is built around Jeff's secret "birthday deal" with his wife, who does something special with him every year he gets older. Of course Adam wants the same arrangement, but starts to fear that Jennifer in turn might demand something too kinky from him. It's all pretty labored, playing like a very poor man's Seinfeld episode. Two crummy potty jokes further underscore that impression.

A third half-hour finds Jeff ham-handedly hitting on 24-year-old women in hopes he can replicate Russell's "shallow, sex-based relationships built on lies." Jeff's wife gives him permission to try it just this once, convinced he'll make an ass of himself. Then she starts to worry. She needn't have.

Rules of Engagement isn't as good as Old Christine but rises above The Class. It has a chance to fit in nicely, if unexceptionally, in CBS' traditionally mounted, laugh track-juiced Monday night comedy lineup.

Warburton's the main attraction, laying down a steady downbeat of beat-down. It's still easy to grin and bear him. But Spade? Not quite so much anymore.

Grade: C+