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New series review: Eli Stone (ABC)

Attorney Eli Stone has visions, including one of George Michael.

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 31 at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Victor Garber, Loretta Devine, Natasha Henstridge, James Saito, Matt Letsher, with guest appearances by Tom Cavanaugh, George Michael
Created and produced by: Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim

Hard-core "procedural" crime series aren't ABC's style. Or as network entertainment president Stephen McPherson put it to TV critics last summer, "I don't think you're going to see a lot of dark, dark cop dramas or really serious and downtrodden material from us."

The network's new Eli Stone, premiering Thursday after the return of Lost, is largely light, light and up-trodden despite its title character's inoperable medical diagnosis. He has a small brain aneurism, as did his distant, heavy-drinking dad (a small guest shot by former Ed star Tom Cavanaugh). This causes attorney Eli (Jonny Lee Miller) to have cryptic hallucinations, with George Michael's impromptu performances of "Faith" spurring him toward a good deed in the series' opener.

This obviously is a very eventful period for guys named Eli, with the littlest Manning bro and his underdog New York Giants taking on the unbeaten New England Patriots in Sunday's Super Bowl. It's pretty easy to root for both of them, even if the American Academy of Pediatricians has urged ABC to rub out Eli Stone's first episode. That's because it raises questions about a vaccine preservative (given the fictional name of mercuritol) that is suspected of causing autism in a young boy.

Eli's recurring visions prompt him to represent the child's mother in direct opposition to his big, wealthy law firm, which is backing the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the vaccine. ABC now says it will add a disclaimer to the episode while also publicizing the autism Web site of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which sides with the pediatricians' organization.

That all sounds pretty heavy, which Eli Stone really isn't. Thursday's premiere begins in a snowy Himalayan village, where a few sight gags hit the spot before the show shifts back in time to the San Francisco law firm headed by imperious Jordan Wethersby (Victor Garber), whose beauteous daughter, Taylor (Natasha Henstridge), is engaged to Eli.

Narratively speaking, the young lawyer has been "worshipping the holy trinity of Armani, accessories and my personal favorite, ambition." But that's all going to change, thanks to of all people, George Michael.

Eli also has a saucy assistant named Patti (Loretta Devine in scenery-chewing mode) and a Chinese acupuncturist, Dr. Chen (James Saito), who fakes an Oriental accent but otherwise serves as something of a Master Po or Kan to a current-day "Grasshopper."

At its worst, Eli Stone is inspired nonsense. Or maybe many viewers will embrace it as a magical invitation to unfettered idealism, with Eli representing two illegal but otherwise noble and Americanized Hispanic immigrants in next Thursday's episode. (OK, some in Farmer's Branch won't be entranced, although the episode also has Eli throwing out the caveat that, yes, illegal immigration is still a major problem.)

Some of this is too preachy and fantastical. And why is it that Eli's hallucinations -- in the second episode it's a choir singing "Freedom" -- always make an entrance whenever he's making love? Wah-wah-wah.

You could do lots worse, though, and ABC already has with its earlier midseason replacement, Cashmere Mafia. This series has far more relatable characters and a digestible feel-good premise. If Eli Stone lasts long enough, ABC should arrange a crossover episode between its latent do-gooder and crazed Denny Crane of Boston Legal.

That's a vision in itself.

Grade: B

At a loss with Lost

Left to right are -- wait a minute, that's way too much work.

The fourth season's first two episodes of Lost arrived in the mail this week. What to do? Quickly devour them with the understanding that ABC may send a hit team to this residence if a subsequent review breathes a word about just about anything.

It's probably safe to say they're in color, have spoken words and represent one-quarter of eight episodes that were completed before the writers' strike kicked in. There were supposed to be a total of 16 this season. But now there's no chance of completing that many by the presumed May cut-off date for airing new episodes.

Also, Lost will have two more 16-episode seasons -- at least that's the plan -- before calling it a wrap during the 2009-'10 TV season. That would be a grand total of 48 more new hours. And oh yeah, the fourth season launches on Thursday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. (central) after a one-hour appetizer called Lost: Past, Present & Future.

Otherwise TV critics are being strongly urged to "use discretion in reviewing this show by not revealing any plot details that contain 'spoilers.' We also ask that you refrain from discussing the following:

***The Oceanic Six

***Any details about (can't say who's can't say what), or that he even has a (can't say what).


***Who goes with Locke and who goes with Jack.

***Any details about the four strangers/freighter people's back stories/flashbacks."

OK then, my work is pretty much done here. Except to say that Lost is as perplexing as ever, perhaps even more so. And that despite its often maddeningly slow pace, overwrought music and big jumble of characters, it also remains oddly captivating and compelling -- to this viewer at least.

Have a good day.

New series review: In Treatment (HBO)

Blair Underwood and Gabriel Byrne at first are far apart.

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 28 at 8:30 p.m. (central) on HBO. Continuing on weeknights at the same hour
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Diane Wiest, Blair Underwood, Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz, Melissa George, Mia Wasikowska, Michelle Forbes
Produced by: Rodrigo Garcia, Hagai Levi, Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg

HBO may have made a major miscalculation in putting its least compelling patient first in a new five-nights-a-week psycho-drama.

Initial impressions are especially important in television, where most viewers won't come back for more if they're turned off for starters. And In Treatment's opening night head case, a self-absorbed young anesthesiologist named Laura (Melissa George), is easily the worst foot forward in a series that dramatically improves the very next night with the entrance of Blair Underwood as a combative Navy pilot.

First, a little explanation. This is uncharted territory for HBO, which plans to air 45 half-hour episodes of In Treatment in just nine weeks time. Each of its five patients -- actually, Thursdays are reserved for a fractious married couple -- will have nine sessions with psycotherapist Paul Weston (Garbriel Byrne), who himself will get treatment on Fridays. This invites viewers to skip nights whose patients try their patience. Having seen a night's worth of each, I'd personally opt for Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, even though the latter night probably would work better if you've seen all that Weston has been through.

Based on what HBO calls a "hit Israeli series," In Treatment easily could be one mammoth stage play -- or five mini-plays that nonetheless would be the length of Ben-Hur. For the most part it's two talking heads in Weston's informal office, or at Dr. Gina Toll's (Diane Wiest) place on Friday nights.

Byrne's character is largely reactive in Monday's Episode 1, with Laura mostly talking at him. But by Friday he's pro-active, baring himself to the older Gina for the first time since they parted ways 10 years ago as intern and mentor.

"Are you trying to 'shrink' me, Gina?" he asks at one point.

Weston's marriage is increasingly sexless, and his three children can be problematic. In the first five half-hours, only rebellious nine-year-old son Max is briefly glimpsed. Wife Kate (Michelle Forbes) isn't seen at all, but obviously will show up later since HBO lists her in the credits.

Weston also frets about increasingly "losing patience with my patients," which might well be many viewers' inclination toward the aforementioned Laura.

She finally gets around to telling him that he's the one for her, a simple case of "erotic transference" if you will. But Laura first retraces a night in which she walked out on her boyfriend and found herself impulsively seeking sex in a unisex bathroom stall. Alas, a man in a next door urinal began peeing loudly in a way that reminded Laura of her boyfriend.

Turned off, she then tried to turn her anonymous boy toy away. But his member remained at attention, so he demanded a "hand job." It made Laura feel dirty, but she did it.

This doesn't exactly engender empathy. Laura's a boor, frankly, and who really cares what happens to her in the next eight weeks. But then comes Alex (Underwood), whose story is instantly involving.

On a bombing mission over Iraq he hit an assigned target that turned out to be a school. Sixteen children were killed, and radical fundamentalists the world over are calling for his head on a platter.

Alex, who claims to sleep like a guiltless baby, later ran himself into a heart attack while running with a friend. He was clinically dead for 48 hours, and now plans to visit the site of the bombing with a church group. Still, he says, "I'm dying to get back into action."

Underwood plays this character brilliantly, commanding the small screen with a mixture of cocksure arrogance and a barely hinted vulnerability that obviously will come more into play in subsequent sessions.

Wednesday night's patient, a champion would-be Olympic gymnast named Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), is very nearly as interesting. Her arms are in casts after a car hit her bicycle. But did she really want this to happen? Byrne's acting is letter-perfect here. He's tender, insistent and almost in over his head with a teen who's easy to provoke, hard to decipher.

Thursday brings Jake and Amy (Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz). She's a pregnant career woman who's considering an abortion. Her trigger-tempered husband is suspicious of her every move and really no more likeable than Laura. So skipping this night probably wouldn't hurt.

Friday episodes begin with a "Previously on . . ." coda -- or at least the first one does. Getting into Weston's head, and seeing him lose his cool, makes for an intriguing cap-off. He's always felt that Dr. Gina considers him her inferior. And one gets the feeling he's right.

In Treatment is bold, provocative and presents quite a challenge to stay with all the way through. HBO is offering a myriad of ways to watch it, including ready availability for cable subscribers who have the "On Demand" option. It clearly won't be a wild success in league with The Sopranos, or even a mild success on the order of Big Love. But there's much worth watching here, even for those who decide to pick their spots.

Monday -- C
Tuesday -- A
Wednesday -- B-plus
Thursday -- C+
Friday -- A-minus

Fox crushes life out of competitors in runaway week

Paced by the one-two punch of American Idol and the biggest NFC championship audience in 13 years, Fox played Goliath in the latest ratings week while rival networks shot themselves in the foot with their slingshots.

Seldom is a network this dominant in a week without either the Oscars, the World Series or the Super Bowl, which Fox also has coming on Feb. 3rd.

For the week of Jan. 14-20, the once upstart network averaged 24.3 million viewers nationally in prime-time to beat the three-network totals of runnerup CBS, NBC and ABC (23.7 million combined).

Fox also averaged 12.4 million advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds for the week, nearly quadrupling the number for second-place NBC (3.4 million).

Through 17 weeks of the strike-impaired 2007-08 season, Fox is now running a close third in total viewers with an overall average of 9.7 million. Before Idol and the NFC championship kicked in, Fox had been running fourth with an average of 8.8 million viewers.

Of far more import to all four major networks, Fox has jetted from last to first among 18-to-49-year-olds. It had been averaging 4.26 million of 'em, with frontrunning ABC narrowly on top with 4.36 million. In a single week, Fox has upped that number to 4.74 million, with ABC, NBC and CBS now in a three-way tie with averages of 4.27 million apiece.

Sunday's Green Bay Packers-New York Giants Cold War drew 53.9 million viewers, the most since 1995's Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers matchup (56.8 million), according to Nielsen Media Research compilations. The 1982 Cowboys-49ers NFC championship game is still the perhaps unbeatable ratings champ, with 68.7 million viewers. Packers-Giants climbed to third on the all-time list.

Idol, although down from last January's numbers, still averaged an imposing 31.9 million viewers for last week's four hours of audition shows. The next closest non-football attraction, CBS' NCIS, drew 15.8 million viewers in that week.

CBS remains a slight favorite to retain its full-season crown in the total viewers race, with Fox continuing to close in as the season goes on. Among 18-to-49-year-olds, though, it'll be Fox in a trot. The past week made that an ironclad certainty.

Liar liar, should Fox burn in hellfire?

Here's a basic, bare bones query for Fox entertainment chairman Peter Liguori: "In your heart of hearts, are you proud to have The Moment of Truth on your network?

This is, after all, the big-money game show that deploys lie detectors in tandem with questions such as, "While at your current job, have you ever touched a female co-worker inappropriately?"

Or, "Do fat people repulse you?" (Asked by a fat person, of course.)

And for a change of pace, how about an easy one -- "Do you think you will still be married to your husband five years from now?"

Hosted by Mark L. Walberg and already lovingly slathered with "controversy" in Fox promos, Moment of Truth gets a big blastoff Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. (central) following an American Idol audition show. All that's available to TV critics beforehand is a 3 minute, 50 second "preview reel" in which the basics of the show and some of the questions are thrown to us wolves.

A couple of polygraph results also are revealed, but Fox asks in bold, underlined type that they not be revealed beforehand.

Fine, but I'm going to answer one of the questions myself. Namely, "Have you ever stuffed your underwear?"

Um, yes, but only with my ample manhood. It's that kind of show. And no, I conveniently don't have a lie detector readily available.

Tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" during the course of 21 progressively harder questions and you can take home $500 grand. Subtract a priceless amount of dignity, though. But what the hell, happiness is answering "Yes" to this Fox-provided sample question: "As an adult, have you ever peed in a swimming pool?"

The network's incessant on-air promos gleefully raise the question of whether Moment of Truth indeed marks the "end of Western civilization."

Boy, Fox sure hopes so. Because "Boxers or briefs?" is barely a popcorn fart compared to host Walberg asking, "Do you burp/fart in public and blame it on someone else?"

It might be instructive, though, to play a presidential candidate version of Moment of Truth. First they swallow truth serum. Then it goes something like this (with all questions drawn from Fox's 100-count printed sampler):

Hillary Clinton, "Do you love your job more than sex?"

Barack Obama, "Do you think you're better than everyone else because you're hot?"

John Edwards, "Are you currently a member of the Hair Club For Men?"

John McCain, "Did you ever fake it in bed?"

Mike Huckabee, "Have you ever spied on a naked neighbor?"

Rudy Giuliani, "Do you ever feel your spouse is too controlling?"

Mitt Romney, "Did you cheat on any of your tests in school?"

Fred Thompson, "Do you really care about the starving children in Africa?"

All of these questions, of course, should be asked by Chris Matthews, who couldn't possibly tell the truth if asked in turn, "Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk?"

So maybe Moment of Truth does have some practical applications in the win-at-all-costs battle for the Oval Office. Who better to play this game -- and suffer the consequences -- than people who have spent much of their adult lives making things up?

Dwindling supplies of scripted series put the major broadcast networks in various states of disrepair

Running on empty: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Grey's Anatomy are both out of new episodes as the Feb. "sweeps" nears.

Negotiators for striking writers and major studios are set to meet again this week in hopes of ending a walkout that began on Nov. 5 and since has severely dented prime-time TV schedules.

Hopes are high following last week's tentative settlement between directors and studios. But even with a quick resolution, it will be at least until spring before new episodes are ready to roll on established hits such as ABC's Grey's Anatomy and CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The New York Times has a good article and accompanying chart on what's left in the tank at the halfway point of the 2007-08 TV season. As previously noted in these spaces, Fox is by far in the best shape with American Idol, the Feb. 3rd Super Bowl, full-season supplies of its Sunday night cartoons and fewer prime-time hours to program than its rivals.

Here are thumbnail sketches of the haves and have nots in the scripted series realm:

24 is on indefinite hold, and star Kiefer Sutherland was just released from jail Monday (Jan. 21) after serving a 48-day sentence on a DWI conviction.

In its place, though, Fox has new episodes of the action hit Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It's scheduled to run on Mondays until a two-hour March 3rd season finale. Prison Break, serving as Terminator's Monday night running mate, has four new episode left.

The Simpsons, Family Guy, King of the Hill and American Dad all have enough new episode to take Fox into the May "sweeps." House has three unseen episodes remaining, including a post-Super Bowl outing on Feb. 3.

Also in the supply shed: Four new episodes of Bones and two more of the Kelsey Grammer/Patricia Heaton sitcom Back to You.

It's exhausted its supply of new episodes of Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Private Practice and Pushing Daisies. And Ugly Betty will be out of fresh shows after this Thursday's new hour.

Boston Legal still has three first-run episodes available, as does Samantha Who?. Down to two is Brothers & Sisters.

ABC's biggest remaining playing card is Lost, which will begin an eight-episode run on Jan. 31st. The network also has holdover new episodes of drama duds Big Shots, Dirty Sexy Money, Men In Trees and Cashmere Mafia.

On the comedy front, you're welcome to fresh product from According to Jim, Notes From the Underbelly, Carpoolers and Cavemen.

Two of its three CSI hits -- Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami -- are down for the count. But CSI: NY still has two new hours left.

Also out of ammunition: Without A Trace, Numb3rs, The Unit, NCIS and Ghost Whisperer. Crime-driven "procedurals" Cold Case, Criminal Minds and Shark each have one new episode left.

CBS does have a new seven-episode arc of Jericho due on Feb. 12. And on Feb. 4th, midseason returnee The New Adventures of Old Christine will be matched with the premiere of fellow sitcom Welcome to the Captain. Also, the edited broadcast premiere of sister network Showtime's Dexter is set for Feb. 17th.

Out of new laughs are Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory.

Heroes, ER and the first-year drama Life have nothing new to offer. Nor do My Name Is Earl, The Office or 30 Rock. And the network seems to have no interest in burning off any remaining new episodes of Scrubs.

The freshman comedy-drama Chuck is down to two unseen episodes, both airing this Thursday, Jan. 24. Bionic Woman and Journeyman both are out of production and presumed dead.

The Peacock has seven new episodes of Medium remaining, a quartet of first-run Friday Night Lights hours and enough yet-to-be-seen Law & Order episode to last through spring. Its running mate, Law & Order: Criminal Intent is new only if you haven't seen the episodes shown earlier this season on NBC Universal cable arm USA. Law & Order: SVU is fresh out of first-run hours.

Las Vegas will have new episodes through February. And the new drama series Lipstick Jungle is set for a Feb. 7th premiere. There's also the coming-of-age drama Quarterlife, whose Internet mini-episodes will be stitched into one-hour increments, starting on Feb. 18th.

And if you haven't yet seen USA's Monk or Psych, they're coming in March to NBC.

American Idol: Back to the drawling board

American Idol gave America at large yet another Tex-book look at Dallas Wednesday night.

Which meant recurring dust-offs of longhorn cattle, cowboy hats, ranch land and "Texas-sized" hyperbole -- all introduced by the theme song from the Dallas TV series.

Cosmopolitan? Contemporary? Citified? The two-hour audition show mostly steered clear of that during its latest procession of worthy and transparently terrible contestants.

Only one of them, by the way, actually had Dallas listed as a home address. And 24-year-old Angela Reilly isn't going to Hollywood after performing "Baby Love" and then "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" in the company of her professional model husband, who hand-picked them for her.

"They say love is deaf, right?" judge Simon Cowell cracked. No, it's blind, colleague Randy Jackson told him.

A not-so-grand total of 25 identified hopefuls paraded before the judges. Nine were from out-of-state, including climactic show-stopper Renaldo Lapuz of Reno, Nev. (above), who looked like a Musketeer from Fire Island.

The Simon-adoring Lapuz, 44, is 16 years north of Idol's eligible age limit. But he was too good/bad to pass up, and his performance of the supposedly self-written "We're Brothers Forever" had Jackson and judge Paula Abdul dancing along with him while Cowell no doubt correctly predicted, "I have a horrible feeling it's going to be a hit."

Also be assured that Lapuz quickly will find his way to Jay Leno's strike-parched Tonight Show among many other venues. Few, save for the actual participants and their families/friends, will remember anything about the two-hour Dallas audition show except him.

It all began with host Ryan Seacrest wondering whether Idol's first visit to Dallas had drained the area dry by finding Burleson's Kelly Clarkson and making her the show's inaugural champ.

"But is there any more talent?" he wondered. Or is Kelly Clarkson the lone star?" Yep, that's all we got, Bubba. We done shot the wad.

Single mom Jessica Brown, 24, of Longview, got to make the first impression. The onetime meth addict supposedly was saved in part by repeated listenings to Season 4 Idol champ Carrie Underwood's hit single "Jesus, Take the Wheel."

"She got away for a while, but that's OK. God brought her back," said proud momma Cecelia Fleet before her daughter got a gold ticket to Hollywood, one of 10 bestowed on-camera. All in all, 24 are heading West from the Dallas auditions, compared to 29 from the previous night's doings in Philadelphia.

Oak Cliff's Kelton Blackshear, 17, is going to Hollywood, too, but his only exposure came on Fox4's 9 p.m. newscast via reporter Brandon Todd's "Idol Insider" segment, one of many more to come. Todd reported live from a brew house in Arlington, where a crowd had gathered to support 24-year-old Nina Shaw of Burleson, who also was featured on the national Idol telecast. She got her gold ticket despite a "very pageant-like" performance in the words of Abdul.

A Texas-sized crowd gathered outside Texas Stadium in "Texas-sized temperatures" for first-round Idol auditions last August.

The Dallas auditions bracingly lacked the 'tude and bleeped profanity spewed by the city of Brotherly Love. Poor Paul Stafford, 25, of Crosby, couldn't sing a lick. But even Cowell blurted, "What a nice guy" after Stafford graciously left a judging room set up at The W Hotel a month or so after the initial Texas Stadium "cattle call," as Seacrest put it.

Viewers also witnessed the salt-of-the-earth comportment of Saltillo, Miss. farm boy Drew Poppelreiter, who said in a videotaped segment, "My family, they're a hard-workin' buncha rascals."

Poppelreiter is going to Hollywood, too, as is Valiant, OK's Kyle Ensley, 21, a bespectacled Buddy Holly lookalike who also plans to run for public office someday. Nice kid. At least it sure seemed so.

Runnerup to Reno's Renaldo in the train wreck department was sub-hapless Douglas Davidson, 27, of Austin, of whom Cowell said, "I don't want to hear any more of this stupidity."

But Davidson kept singing until two burly Idol security guys escorted him out. Judge Jackson then dubbed Dallas "a weird city."

Seacrest later set up another round of songs sung horridly after priming viewers with, "Welcome back to Texas, home of the Wild Wild West, the land of the cowboy, where men are men."

Then, of course, came a quick series of high-pitched male singers as well as a guy in a dress.

Idol also regaled viewers with a Bastrop, TX teen who's never been kissed at his father's orders and a Lucedale, Miss. weirdo who "peels" off his fingernails and saves them in a cellophane bag.

"I don't know how to react," Seacrest riffed. "Part of me is sick, part of me is scared."

It should be noted that all of this and more seemed to share almost equal time with a series of elongated commercial breaks. Stopwatch technology here at unclebarky.com central says that the breaks consumed 37 minutes, 35 seconds of Idol's two-hour block. And that's not counting several minutes of in-show teases.

In a strike-ravaged season, networks will milk a hot show for all it's worth. And sponsor demand is still sky high for Idol despite a modest downturn in ratings for Tuesday's seventh season opener.

Now it's on to auditions in San Diego after America again learned ad nauseum that "EVERYTHING'S BIGGER IN TEXAS!!!"

So until next time, yee-haw. Sigh.

Coming off a B-flat year, Simon says Idol's back in better voice

Something named Pauley Nipple (right) will be one of the trained animal acts as American Idol and Simon Cowell launch the show's seventh season from Philadelphia Tuesday. Dallas is the next night.

No one talks a better game -- on- or off-camera -- than American Idol's British bulldog.

So this time out, Simon Cowell is judging the last season inferior while selling Idol's imminent seventh edition as solid gold if not platinum.

"I think personally it's one of the strongest years we've had in a long, long time," Cowell says in a teleconference with TV critics. "It is younger, I think the talent is more 'current' and they're more interesting as people. So I go into this season a lot more optimistic than I went in last year. . . You get great years and you get not-so-great years."

Idol's Sanjaya-pocked sixth season eventually took a small dip in the Nielsen ratings, marking the first year-to-year shortfall in the show's groundbreaking, star-making history. But here we go again, beginning with Tuesday's two-hour re-launch from Philadelphia (7 p.m. central) and Wednesday's double-dip from the Dallas auditions.

"This is going to sound really rude. But again, it's a blur," Cowell says of the Dallas leg, which began in the sweltering August heat of Texas Stadium before Cowell and co-judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson listened to selected hopefuls weeks later in the cool, cool, cool of a North Texas hotel room.

He's reasonably sure, however, that impressive teen Baylie Brown of Krum, Texas did not show up in Dallas after wowing him last year at the San Antonio auditions. Cowell dubbed her "Commercial with a Capital C," but Brown faltered in Hollywood after mangling song lyrics in a group performance. Ergo, she didn't make the show's top 24.

"I thought she'd come back this year because I did actually remember her name," Cowell says. "I think she was one who did slip through the cracks and she probably should have made it. But she didn't come back this year unless she changed her name. She's young enough. She can come back again."

The first six years of Idol have yielded two legitimate superstars -- Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood -- and a host of other winners or semi-finalists with notable success stories, particularly Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson.

"We can't guarantee that we'll find a superstar," Cowell says. "We'll do our best, but we're at the mercy of who shows up at the auditions."

Cowell's trademark is the acid-tongued putdown, not the nurturing buck-up. But even he would like a do-over on occasion. Or at least that's what he's spooning during this latest go-around with reporters.

"There are certain times . . . where you're going to hate yourself for what you said at the time. For all I know, their dog had died an hour ago, and they're singing in memory of the dog. You get very bored, and therefore you will say things at times which can get a bit harsh."

But the audition shows are "the secret to our success in a lot of ways because that's the net that seems to catch everyone," Cowell says.

Spare the sharp criticisms of horrid singers and you imperil the entire enterprise. Cowell may view himself as a "little more tolerant," but hopes people "realize that I know what I'm talking about and that it's actually more cruel to lie to someone or give them false expectations rather than tell them the truth."

In a season increasingly hampered by the ongoing writers' strike, Idol may be more potent than ever against mostly repeats and hastily conceived reality concoctions. Cowell figures, however, that "super brands" such as Idol and ABC's Dancing with the Stars (he calls the last season "phenomenal" and "brilliantly produced") will get even stronger with age.

"The minute you become bored of it, or just useless people turn up, then we have a problem," Cowell says. "Where Fox has been incredibly smart on this show is that they've only shown it once a year. I think a lot of other networks would have put it on two or three times a year.

"And we would have lasted three to four years before people got sick to death of this."

Absent dinner, drinks and Hollywood swells, it's just one big golden glob

The Golden Globes had no pickup lines Sunday night.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's 65th annual Golden Globes presentation came and went with all the flash and excitement of a colonoscopy Sunday night. And that's a charitable assessment.

Absent winners, losers, dinner, drinks, fashion statements or even a streaker, the awards were announced at an HFPA press conference televised live by E! and very oddly on NBC.

Fittingly, the first award went to Cate Blanchett as one of several Bob Dylans in I'm Not There. Which of course she wasn't. Here's who else won if you haven't already lapsed into a coma.

E! carried the half-hour presentation live from 8 to 8:30 p.m. (central), with periodic segues to studio host Ryan Seacrest. NBC padded its coverage to a full-hour, meaning that its announcement of the climactic "Best Motion Picture" award (for Atonement) came a half-hour after E! put it out there.

Peacock hosts Billy Bush and Nancy O'Dell, from Access Hollywood, anchored NBC's Golden Globes Winners Special live from a satellite studio. They of course neglected to tell viewers that in reality they were well behind the times. Better to test the "psychic ability" of guest commentator Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly, who was asked to predict the best picture winner. He narrowed it down to a final two that included Atonement. Atta boy.

Karger probably didn't sneak any peeks at the previous E! telecast, but who really cares if he did? It's a helluva situation when the biggest star among a small handful of official press conference presenters is Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight. She sure acted thrilled to be there, though. Ick.

New series review: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)

Steely-eyed scene-stealer "Cameron" of Sarah Connor Chronicles

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 13th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox before moving to regular 8 p.m. Monday slot on Jan. 14th
Starring: Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, Richard T. Jones, Aaron Cash
Produced by: Josh Friedman, John Wirth, Mario Kassar, Andrew Vajna, Joel Michaels

Ex-Terminatorites re-unite and possibly even rejoice. The perplexing "mythology" and visceral wham-bam action are back in a choice slot following Fox's coverage of Sunday's Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants playoff game.

Scheduled at 7 p.m. (central) but subject to any football runover, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles quite possibly has more action than any series pilot in TV history. It's relentless and well-staged, even if The Terminator (Aaron Cash subbing for Arnold Schwarzenegger) just can't seem to shoot straight when it comes to knocking off potential Earth-saver John Connor (Thomas Dekker).

Monday's second episode, at 8 p.m. following the return of Prison Break, is notably calmer on the carnage front. This leaves more time for head-hurting mental gymnastics. In short, what the hell has been going on in the past, present and future?

As you can readily see from the title, this new incarnation resurrects the character of Sarah Connor, who was excised from the last big-screen movie, 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. She otherwise was played by Linda Hamilton in both The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Of that at least we're certain.

Fox's Sarah (Lena Headey) and teen son John are constantly on the move. Mom's not a calming influence. "No one is ever safe," she tells the kid after a heavy-duty action sequence in the opening few minutes.

There are smidgens of levity, though. John cringes at the thought of yet another relocation, but his marching orders are unequivocal: "Half an hour. One bag, plus the guns. I'll make pancakes."

Their next stop is Red Valley, New Mexico, circa 1999. John doesn't like being in a "hick town," but is intrigued by a high school classmate named Cameron (Summer Glau). But wouldn't you know it, the latest substitute teacher turns out to be The Terminator, who unleashes a volley of automatic weapons fire in the classroom. Fox has shortened and "toned down" this scene from the original pilot, but it would have been far better to eliminate it all together. We already get it. No one is ever safe.

The Cameron character, an obvious salute to Terminator franchise creator James Cameron, turns out to be a robot sent from 2027 to protect John and also track down and thwart whoever built a Sky Net computer system that blows up the world at some point down the road.

"In the future you have many friends," Cameron tells John. She/It may in fact turn out to be the savior of the series itself. Cameron is a very intriguing and arresting character capable of knocking The Terminator out of commission (for a couple of minutes at least) and also hitting a deadpan wisecrack out of the park.

In Monday's Episode 2, Cameron finds herself crashing through the front windshield of a traumatized passing motorist during the course of another battle royal.

"Please remain calm," she says with programmed sincerity. OK then, gotta go.

Sarah Connor Chronicles is earmarked for a two-hour, March 3rd season finale. That's a relatively short shelf-life, but certainly time enough to create a tangled web of confusion as to what might happen, what has happened and what could be prevented.

The Sunday night opener is still a rouser, though, with few respites from full-blown crash-bang. Only those addicted to the most violent of video games might deem it somewhat slow-paced. The rest of us are in for a taut, rapid-fire hour of mayhem followed by Monday's comparative but still violence-prone cool-down.

Otherwise there's somethin' happenin' here. What it is ain't exactly clear. There's a man with a gun over there. Tellin' me I got to beware."

Thanks, Buffalo Springfield. You're still right on target.

Grade: B

Miniseries review: Comanche Moon (CBS)

Disparate Texas Rangers Woodrow Call (left) and Gus McCrae (right) flank the fractious Sculls in CBS' Comanche Moon, a 6-hour prequel to author Larry McMurtry's classic Lonesome Dove.

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 13th at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing Tuesday and Wednesday at the same hour on CBS
Starring: Steve Zahn, Karl Urban, Rachel Griffiths, Val Kilmer, Wes Studi, Adam Beach, David Midthunder, Linda Cardellini, Elizabeth Banks, Keith Robinson, Ryan Merriman, Sal Lopez, Joseph Castanon, Josh Berry
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Produced by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana

Topping the deservedly sainted Lonesome Dove is a Mission: Impossible, so let's not put Comanche Moon too much to that test.

All these years later -- 19 to be exact -- the six-hour CBS prequel makes the best of times in which broadcast network budgets have been gnawed to the nub while miniseries are virtually extinct. In that context, Comanche Moon musters enough lustre to easily stand out amid a strike-torn sea of junky reality series, repeats and a handful of scripted midseason series that banked episodes before production screeched to a halt.

Premiering Sunday night and continuing on Tuesday and Wednesday, Comanche Moon looks authentically grimy and feels at least a bit like an epic western. Still, Texas author Larry McMurtry's 1997 extension of his Lonesome Dove saga clearly sags in comparison as both a novel (which I recently read) and as a television "event" that's notably short on star power or truly memorable performances.

CBS' 1989 original, shown in four parts, had perhaps the most towering cast in TV history. Start with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in the respective roles of retired Texas Rangers Gus McRae and Woodrow Call. Add the likes of Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Chris Cooper and Steve Buscemi. Sprinkle with Frederic Forrest, Barry Corbin, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, Glenne Headly and D.B. Sweeney. All of whom rose to the occasion.

Comanche Moon is a comparative bare pantry. Its best-known cast members are Val Kilmer, Rachel Griffiths and Wes Studi. But the director, then and now, is Australian Simon Wincer, who knows his way around Westerns. And perhaps he was more at ease this time around, absent all those well-documented off-screen "creative differences" with the oft-unyielding Duvall.

Whatever their difficulties, Duvall emerged on-screen as one helluva Gus McRae. His successor, Steve Zahn (Happy, Texas), does a very able job of reprising Duvall's voice patterns and overall devil-may-care nature. But he looks a bit slight to be playing Gus, who in Duvall's hands rode majestically tall in the saddle, particularly when galloping away from his beloved Clara Forsythe (Huston and now Linda Cardellini).

Karl Urban (The Chronicles of Riddick) likewise channels Jones in reprising the almost otherworldly stoicism of Woodrow Call. Tapping into his deepest feelings still leaves a dry hole. His relationship with ill-fated prostitute Maggie Tilton (Elizabeth Banks), who bears him a son he refuses to acknowledge, is a case study of repressed human emotion in the face of unrequited longing. The CBS version of Comanche Moon is very faithful to the book in this respect, leaving this viewer with a strong urge to punch Call's lights out.

The basic makeups of McRae and Call come down to the former telling the latter: "I mostly think about love, and you mostly think about war."

But opposites attract, then as now. Except that both men would rather hit the dusty trail than settle for even a reasonable facsimile of stability.

The story begins in the seemingly arctic cold of 1858 Northwest Texas after a brief prequel used to at least partially justify an eventual deadly Comanche raid on Austin. A prequel to a prequel? Just asking.

A small contingent of 10 freezing Texas Rangers is led by eccentric Captain Inish Scull (Val Kilmer), who's fated to suffer mightily -- although not too graphically -- at the hands of the Mexican despot Ahumado (Sal Lopez).

Back at the Scull manse in Austin, his almost savagely promiscuous wife, Inez (Rachel Griffiths), is lately dallying with apprentice Ranger Jake Spoon (Urich and now Ryan Merriman). Griffiths is OK as an amoral tigress, but the character is more of a sketch than fully drawn.

Kickapoo tracker Famous Shoes, vicious malcontent Blue Duck and Comanche chief Buffalo Hump are also key parts of the story.

Bedeviling the Rangers -- and also earning their grudging admiration -- are the remaining Comanche warriors resisting the White Man's vision of a subservient future.

Chief among them is the aging Buffalo Hump (Wes Studi), whom CBS has chosen to present without his enlarged hump. His son, Blue Duck (Adam Beach), is a smoldering cutthroat who rejects the old ways while living only to thieve and kill. They don't get along very well.

All of the Comanche dialogue is subtitled, lending considerable authenticity to the miniseries' many tribal scenes. But the Rangers' fast-moving Kickapoo tracker, Famous Shoes (David Midthunder), speaks in very stilted English. Envisioning Famous Shoes while reading the book and seeing him on-screen is a powerful disconnect. Of all the Comanche Moon characters adapted for television, this is by far the biggest disappointment.

Sunday's Part 1 ends powerfully with the regrouped Comanches heading in a formidable war party toward Austin while the Rangers are still afield. It's a violent raid, but tamed by broadcast TV restraints. Similarly, Inish Scull is treated quite badly by his Mexican captors. But unlike in the book, he's at least not shorn of his eyelids by a skinner named Goyeto. This is the "Eye" network after all.

The TV adaptation expands on the book in one significant way. It continues the relationship between Gus and Clara both before and beyond her marriage to sturdy Nebraska cattleman Bob Allen (Josh Berry). The book distanced them in too big a hurry. But here you'll get more of a romance to hang your hat on.

On the other hand, the CBS version resorts to an odd and unsatisfying bit of mysticism to decide the cruel Ahumado's fate. And vivid Lonesome Dove supporting characters such as Deets (Glover/Keith Robinson) and Pea Eye Parker (Tim Scott/Troy Baker) are largely beside the point in Comanche Moon after much fuller treatments in the book.

You can expect a satisfying finishing kick on Wednesday night, though. Part 3 immediately gallops to seven years hence, with Gus rather joltingly a second-time widower, as he was in the book. Zahn's performance as Gus grows fuller and deeper here, particularly after he rides off by his lonesome in hopes of sorting out all that's befallen him.

Little Newt (Joseph Castanon) also comes into focus as a bright-eyed kid whose father, Woodrow, keeps spitting up the bit. Maggie, now a "respectable" general store worker, also comes into her own as a woman who "can't live without affection."

In the end, fans of McMurtry's most famous western characters should be able to live with Comanche Moon. It's a quality effort that means well, ends well and pretty much holds the fort. And when you're following a legend, that's saying something.

Grade: B+

The Jewish Americans: a great first impression

Early Jewish immigrants gather at a Lower East Side fish market.

Ken Burns gets most of the ink and acclaim among PBS documentarians, but the David Grubin catalogue otherwise is second to none.

His six-hour The Jewish Americans, premiering on Wednesday, Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. (central), looks like another masterpiece of visual and verbal storytelling. And that's judging only from its first two hours. The remaining chapters will air on successive Wednesdays (Jan. 16 and 23), with PBS again the fortunate beneficiary.

Grubin's previous work for public television includes Napoleon, The Secret Life of the Brain, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided and multi-part biographies of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Harry S Truman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt under the esteemed American Experience banner.

His productions invariably are textured quilts in an increasingly threadbare genre. Grubin doesn't get to go on and on like Burns sometimes does, and perhaps he wouldn't care to anyway. But his attention to detail is extraordinary nonetheless. You come away richer for the very human stories he tells. The Jewish Americans is another textbook example, although it certainly never seems like a textbook.

Wednesday's opener, divided into segments titled "They Came to Stay" and "A World of Their Own," charts the dawning of Jewish immigration to America in the 1700s. They mostly came to New York, eventually massing on the city's Lower East Side for a crowded, culture-rich existence that also was marked by crime, disease and unsafe, exploitive "sweat shops."

The worst factory fire in the city's history, in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist company, killed 146 young Jewish workers, 123 of them women. A reporter at the scene witnessed many of them jumping to their deaths as the fire consumed the top three floors of a 10-story building.

"The thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk," the reporter wrote. "Thud, dead. Thud, dead. Thud, dead. Thud, dead. Sixty-two thud, deads."

Interviewees in Wednesday night's premiere include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, playwright Tony Kushner, comedian Sid Caesar, producer/actor Carl Reiner and former Picket Fences co-star Fyvush Finkel, who joyously recalls the exploits of America's first Yiddish theater star, Boris Thomashefsky.

It all makes for a very rich broth, with much more to come on the next two Wednesdays.

Grade: A (for chapter one)

Last call: Comedy Central's The Daily Show and Colbert Report make it a full house in late night

Back in play: Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart re-emerge writer-less.

Jon Stewart wore a stuck-on "writers' strike solidarity unibrow" and Stephen Colbert first appeared in a fake Hasidic beard while shredding documents.

Their phony facial hair, quickly discarded, marked the hosts' only common ground Monday night. Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report otherwise were back in business with strikingly dissimilar approaches to the ongoing impasse between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Stewart went hard after the AMPTP after first re-baptizing his program as just A Daily Show until its writers return. Noting the $1.99 it costs to download an episode of his show on itunes, he mocked the producers' position: "Well, that's not a content charge. That's a shipping and handling charge."

Colbert stayed in character as a mock right-wing blowhard after basking in a prolonged ovation that may have been staged to kill time, but very possibly wasn't.

"I have always been anti-labor, always been anti-union," he declared before showing clips of previous stands against workers' rights. The highlight reel included Colbert's solution to childhood obesity -- "a 19-hour shift at the mills."

During earlier crossover talk with his partner in comedy, Colbert upbraided Stewart for being too polished on his first new Daily Show since Nov. 1 of last year.

"I'm very alarmed by how prepared you seemed," Colbert said. "I will be making a phone call to the Writers' Guild people's council for the preservation of the written word. This will not go unnoted, sir."

"Please don't turn me in," Stewart pleaded.

There's likely no danger of that, as long as Stewart's jokes are at the expense of the AMPTP, to whom he referred as NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association).

Tonight Show host Jay Leno has angered the Guild, which says it will punish him in yet unspecified ways for continuing to write his own monologue jokes. But it's hard to imagine any threats coming Stewart's way, even though he admitted to being perplexed about why Comedy Central's two franchise players were unable to reach separate agreements with the writers in the same way David Letterman's WorldWide Pants company has.

"Are they being arbitrary?" Stewart asked after welcoming decidedly low-key Cornell University labor expert Ron Seeber as his only guest.

He didn't get much of an answer, prompting Stewart to wonder aloud if the Guild might be anti-Semitic.

"Honestly, the whole reason I got into this business is I thought we controlled it," Stewart said after noting his Jewish ancestry.

Whether spontaneous or pre-mediated, he told at least one unfortunate joke that rightly drew a largely cool response from an otherwise spirited studio audience.

"At heart this really is a math problem," Stewart said of differences between the Guild and the AMPTP. Late night talk shows were off the air for about a week after 9/11, he said.

"So if my math is correct, the writers' strike is now nine times worse than Sept. 11th," he concluded. You see, he really does need his writers.

The Colbert Report made far more extensive use of clips, from both previous shows and the presidential campaign trail. The host is still angling to be Republican Mike Huckabee's running mate while twitting Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

"Look at that haunted mansion up there," he said of Hillary's podium entourage of tired-looking old Democrats, including her husband, Wesley Clark and Madeline Albrecht.

Obama's unkempt crowd is no better, he railed, noting a gyrating young dude brandishing arm warmers behind the Illinois senator.

The current leader of the Democrat pack "will not come on my show while this strike is on," Colbert said. But video from an earlier debate showed that Obama is willing to talk to the sinister rulers of Iran and Syria.

"Barack Obama is saying that Stephen Colbert is worse than a terrorist. His words," he thundered.

This of course made Colbert's case as only his posturing alter ego can make it. He's a truth-telling patriot battling the forces of evil unions and eviler Democrats, all of whom claimed to be agents of "change" in a funny compilation clip assembled from Saturday night's debate on ABC.

Colbert took just one clear shot at his own pompous demeanor and anti-union rhetoric. "I don't need my writers," he said. Which bring me to tonight's 'Word,' "

But no "Word" popped up, of course, leaving the host and his nightly segment speechless enroute to the first commercial break.

Both Colbert and Stewart obviously can think on their feet, and much of this will be required of them as their writer-driven shows march on through both the strike and a hotly contested presidential primary season.

Having his own shoot-at-the-mouth character to fall back on makes Colbert better suited for this long haul. Stewart will be harder-pressed to keep his Daily Show rolling. There are only so many simpatico strike jokes in anyone's tank, and he's already said a mouthful.

Returning series review: The Wire (HBO)

Buyouts anybody? Gloom hangs over The Baltimore Sun newsroom.

Television's second most-underappreciated, Baltimore-set drama series begins its final wind-down this weekend.

HBO's concluding fifth season of The Wire (Sunday, 8 p.m. central on HBO) looks like a lock to end its run without ever receiving a best drama series Emmy, let alone even a nomination.

It has highly distinguished company in NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-99), which likewise was never deemed a contender by Emmy voters.

Both series did win Peabody Awards, though. They also share the byline of creator David Simon, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun who grimly sees his city in ways that its Chamber of Commerce never can.

Simon's last 10 episodes of The Wire hit close to his old home. They depict the Sun as increasingly hobbled by buyouts, budget cuts and go-along, get-along suckups. Sound familiar?

None of this sets well with battle-scarred city editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson from Homicide), who wonders why no one seems to be spoiling for a good fight anymore.

"You know what a healthy newsroom is?" he asks mechanically. "It's a magical place where people argue about everything all the time."

By Episode 3 the hammer is falling hard again via a "fresh round of buyouts." Or if you prefer, "a voluntary separation plan."

An executive editor is left to do the dirty work mandated by corporate rajahs lacking the guts to confront the dwindling Sun troops in their dirty old slaughterhouse.

"We are quite simply going to have to find ways to do more with less," says The Wire's designated reaper.

Morale is beaten to a pulp at the cop shop, too. Raises are miniscule. Overtime pay is overdue. Equipment and personnel also have taken a series of heavy hits.

It all prompts self-destructive detective Jimmy McNulty (series linchpin Dominic West) to drink harder than ever while desperately fabricating a serial killer thread in hopes of freeing up more manpower to fight and solve crimes.

Newly elected mayor Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) already has made too many campaign promises, none of which he can fully keep. And on the street, it's still kill or be killed, with baby-faced gang leader Felicia "Snoop" Pearson (played by her ownself) calling the shots and firing some, too.

It's a complex web for the uninitiated and a challenge even for those who have faithfully stuck with The Wire. Given Simon's past inclinations, there's no reason to expect much of anything uplifting. A pot of gold is completely out of the question. Maybe even a spittoon would be asking too much.

Still, The Wire amazes with its gritty attention to detail. It feels so damned real, and from Day One that's been both its blessing and its curse. You don't kick up your feet to watch. Nor do you feel at ease.

In the end -- and now nearing the end -- The Wire wouldn't have lasted beyond its first season on any network other than HBO. Be assured, though, that new audiences will keep finding it. It's too good to ever be entirely forgotten. And there's nothing so bad about that.

New series review: Cashmere Mafia (ABC)

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 6 at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC. Then moves to regular 9 p.m. Wednesday slot
Starring: Lucy Liu, Frances O'Connor, Bonnie Somerville, Miranda Otto, Peter Hermann, Julian Ovenden
Produced by: Darren Star, Kevin Wade, Michael Pressman, Gail Katz, Jeff Rake

ABC's Big Shots, no longer in its longterm plans, presented a quartet of nakedly ambitious male Manhattan CEOs who conspired and drank a lot together in very expensive locales and wardrobes.

The network's Cashmere Mafia simply switches genders while leaving the same open question: Who's going to relate to these people?

Among the show's string-pullers is Darren Star, whose best-known credit is Sex and the City. And even without an over-sexed Samantha, it's hard to see how he's doing much more than repeating himself with this scratch-and-claw soaper centered on four "fabulous, high-powered women."

We begin with a marriage proposal that of course won't make it through even the first episode. A jaunty guy named Jack (guest star Tom Everett Scott) wants willowy Mia (Lucy Liu) to be his lawful wedded wife. She accepts before they're immediately plunged into a winner-take-all battle to become head publisher of a New York-based magazine group. No good can come of this, which you'll see a mile away.

Meanwhile, Caitlin (Bonnie Somerville) finds herself unexpectedly warming to a full-on-the-mouth kiss from office-mate Alicia (Lourdes Benedicto). Something good could come of this.

Career-minded Zoe (Frances O'Connor) still aspires to have it all, but never seems to find enough time for her husband or their two young children.

Rounding out the fab four is Juliet (Miranda Otto), who decides to play hardball with husband Davis (Peter Hermann) after catching him in a too-close-to-home affair. She's withstood previous infidelities because "I hate the alternative more. I don't want to be a single mother, a blind date, a third wheel."

This time, though, Juliet plots to bed a man known to both of them after first telling hubby that her infidelity will be the price of reconciliation. Mia, Zoe and Caitlin couldn't be happier about this strategy. Yay!

Cashmere Mafia is very pretty to look at, and briskly paced, too. But it's hard to see it taking the country by storm, mainly because hardly anyone lives the way Zoe, Caitlin, Mia and Juliet do. Escapism is one thing, but empathy is another. And in that respect, even the perfumed, pampered women of Dynasty still have an edge.

Alexis and Krystle were good for a little high-camp mud-wrestling on occasion. And Sex and the City at least was presented as a comedy.

Not so Cashmere Mafia, whose hard-bargaining, high-living women mostly deserve the kindred spirits of Big Shots. Those guys aren't going to be around, though, after this month's burn-off of unaired episodes. Otherwise they've been canceled -- on grounds of incompatibility.

Grade: C+

Help them make it through their nights

Post-hibernation: Conan and Dave return as bearded laddies.

Does David Letterman know how bad he looks in a beard?

Conan O'Brien, who looks better, also let it grow, let it grow, let it grow during his two-month strike hiatus. That left Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson without any visible signs of inactivity as late night returned to the living Wednesday.

Letterman and O'Brien both quickly called attention to their growth spurts.

"I know what you're thinkin'," Letterman said. "You're thinkin', 'Geez, Dave looks like a cattle drive cook.' "

For the record, that line presumably came from one of Late Show's writers.

"We're gonna start by talking about my beard," O'Brien said. "I grew it out of solidarity for my writers and to prove that I have some testosterone."

For the record, that line presumably was more or less spontaneous.

O'Brien's Late Night is still without its writers, as are Leno's Tonight Show and Kimmel's ABC production. Letterman and his followup act, Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, are the haves in this quintet after Letterman's Worldwide Pants company reached an eleventh hour independent agreement with the Writers Guild of America.

All five hosts quickly got to the nub of the ongoing strike, which shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

"Let's get right to it," Leno began. "A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a bar . . ."

He then stopped short of any punch line, informing his audience that this requires writers and Tonight doesn't have 'em. But what's a lantern-jawed comic going to do after two months of supporting the strike and paying parts of his staff's salaries?

"We had essentially 19 people putting 160 people out of work," Leno said in explaining why he'd returned.

That's a good way of hammering things home. And Leno continued to function gainfully after duly noting that Letterman has a considerable advantage with all those writers back in his corner.

"One man against a monolith," Leno joked before trying out more self-written one-liners that his wife, Mavis, supposedly found funny. How cold is it in Iowa? "It's so cold that Hillary Clinton can actually see Barack Obama's breath breathing down her neck."

He had an entertaining guest in Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who then made a short jaunt to Ferguson's show to tape an appearance for Thursday's Late Late Show. Leno also welcomed celebrity chef Emeril LaGasse, who taught him how to make pepper steak. It all worked pretty much to the host's advantage. He seemed looser and less programmed.

Leno goofing with Emeril and Ferguson as a goofball Prince Charles.

Letterman began with a taped cold open from Hillary, who noted how long he'd been off the air.

"Tonight he's back," she said. "Oh well. All good things come to an end."


Letterman was escorted onstage by leggy chorus girls wearing tuxedo tops and carrying picket signs. After a while, the prevalent strike humor began to grate.

A Top 10 list of strike demands, read by out-of-work writers, clearly failed to resonate with Letterman's studio audience. No. 1 went like this: "Producers must immediately remove their heads from their asses."

Featured guest Robin Williams greeted Letterman as "General Lee" before ably carrying the ball through his two segments. Then came "Hal Gurnee's Network Time Killers" (two bolo artists) and a deadly dull "Know Your Staff" bit. The writers clearly aren't up to speed yet.

O'Brien welcomed guest Bob Saget and an amusing standup comic named Dwayne Perkins. His filler material included two efforts to break his wedding ring desktop spinning record of 41 seconds. But he fell short both times.

"What the hell am I doing?" he asked at one point. "I think we should immediately go back off the air."

But O'Brien's struggles were nothing compared to Kimmel's. He began the show at his desk rather than attempting even a bare-bones monologue.

"I don't even know how much people care," Kimmel said of the issues behind the writers' strike.

He resents picketers trying to stop talent from doing the three network-owned late shows operating without Guild-approved agreements.

"I just think at a certain point you back off a little bit," Kimmel said after noting that some hosts had been paying writers out of their own pockets. "So I'm pissed off. I'll be honest with ya."

Guests Andy Dick and Helio Castroneves were serviceable though hardly exceptional. Kimmel also ran two taped "Great Moments for Which Residual Payments are Made to Our Unemployed Writers." But his heart didn't seem to be in any of this.

Ferguson winged it with no guests, some comedy sketches and an extended monologue which he mostly improvises anyway. Along the way he made some solemn, and quite funny, promises:

"I want to send a message to all the D-list celebrities. You're always welcome here.

"We'll still have Kathy Griffin on, the guy who invented the electric cheese cutter, people who can fart musical notes.

"This show won't change a bit. It will be garbage. I make you this pledge, people of America. We will not improve this show. It will not be funnier. It will not be better."

You don't even need a beard for that.

PBS' Pioneers of Television: See-worthy but not must-see

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in full flower during TV's budding years.

All hail TV's visionaries. Unfortunately, PBS' Pioneers of Television is something of a hail storm.

Its critical lens is seldom in focus, leaving viewers with the overall impression that these royal subjects walked on water when not floating on high. Reverential narration and uncritical remembrances are the paths of least resistance, beginning with Wednesday's one-hour look at vintage sitcoms (7 p.m. central in D-FW on Ch. 13).

Typical is Joyce Randolph's less than revealing comment on Jackie Gleason, who was nothing if not bombastic and self-centered.

"I guess I heard him yell a few times -- but not at Honeymooners people," she says. (For a notably different take on Gleason, see unclebarky.com's account of a January press conference attended by five of the series' participants.)

Randolph is the lone surviving cast member of The Honeymooners, which also starred Gleason, Art Carney and Audrey Meadows. Pioneers' first of four weekly chapters also looks back fondly upon I Love Lucy, Make Room For Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The retrospective includes new interviews with stars Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith, Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie and Jim Nabors. Their reminiscences are chopped into mostly parsley-sized sound bites. I Love Lucy, all of whose principals are deceased, is bequeathed to Barbara Eden, who guest-starred as an ingenue.

"They were perfect together," she says of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, whose on-screen chemistry masked a volatile real-life marriage.

Next Wednesday's chapter, "Late Night," chronicles the achievements of Tonight Show hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, all of whom are deceased.

The three of them "looked into the dark -- and saw the light," according to the oft over-cooked narration.

Jay Leno gracelessly never mentioned Carson in his first Tonight Show monologue as its new host. He's since regretted that omission and now is more than willing to act as Tonight's historian du jour.

"He never wanted to be the fanciest, the flashiest," Leno says of Carson. "Ya know, he was always the classiest."

That's about as deep as it gets.

Current-day interviewees also include Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen, Jonathan Winters, Dick Cavett, Phyllis Diller, Regis Philbin and Arsenio Hall, who says, "I didn't want Johnny's audience. I wanted the children of his audience."

Cavett, who likewise competed against Carson, still sees Paar as "the most interesting personality the screen has ever seen."

Pioneers of Television also will relive the formative years of variety hours (Jan. 16) and game shows (Jan. 23).

The series is interesting as a last roundup of old-timers who had first-hand experiences with shows that shaped an infant medium. There's little depth or probing, though. We're left with an archaeological dig, but in a sandbox.

Grade: B-minus