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An explosive beginning to 21st season of American Experience

Strathairn as Oppenheimer and the real deal. PBS photos

The father of the World War II era atomic bomb was a "frail, frequently sick" pantywaist as a kid, never had a date at Harvard and was derided after the fact by President Truman as "that crybaby scientist."

These dichotomies between the man and the so-called "Manhattan Project" he headed are compellingly revisited in PBS' The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The two-hour film premieres Monday, Jan. 26th at 8 p.m. (central) on KERA/Ch. 13, opening the 21st season of American Experience with a decidedly big bang.

Filmmaker David Grubin (RFK, Truman, Napoleon) effectively deploys David Strathairn as Oppenheimer in scenes from a nearly four-week courtroom hearing that ended in the revocation of his national security clearance. Strathairn already is accustomed to chain-smoking his way through a period piece after playing Edward R. Murrow in 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck, for which he received an Oscar nomination.

Oppenheimer's testimony, taken verbatim from the hearing, is intercut with the improbable life story of a man who was both wracked by self-loathing and teeming with arrogance.

"He just skipped being a boy," writer Patricia J. McMillan says of Oppenheimer's lost youth, during which schoolmates nicknamed him "Booby" Oppenheimer.

He over-compensated as an adult, browbeating and belittling his students after earning national renown as a theoretical physicist. His best friends were social activists, some of them members of the Communist Party. That became a major problem for him during the post- World War II "Red Scare" fueled by Communist-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin.

The PBS film tells of the constant government scrutiny of Oppenheimer, even while he headed the all-consuming U.S. effort to beat Germany to the atomic bomb punch at the height of World War II. His activities were closely watched, and in some cases wiretapped. It's an amazing story, strange but all too chillingly true.

The bomb that Oppenheimer and his charges perfected was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, a second bomb left much of Nagasaki in ruins.

Post World War II, the arms race escalated while Oppenheimer became increasingly morose over what he had wrought. But the Soviet Union's advances left him vulnerable to his past ties. Calling for a halt to nuclear weaponry was no way to win friends and influence people. Instead it put Oppenheimer on a hot seat before the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities before he later underwent his own trial. In the end he was deemed a "loyal citizen" whose previous Communist "sympathies" nevertheless made him untrustworthy.

Oppenheimer died in 1967 at age 62. His old insecurities returned as he receded from public view. American Experience vividly recaptures his troubled life amid far more troubling times. Figuratively and literally, a cloud seemed to hang over everything.


TNT's Trust Me not as good as advertised

Tom Cavanaugh and Eric McCormack pair up in TNT's Trust Me.

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Eric McCormack, Tom Cavanaugh, Monica Potter, Griffin Dunne, Sarah Clarke, Mike Damus, Geoffrey Arend
Produced by: Greer Shephard, Michael M. Robin, Hunt Baldwin, John Coveny

A shorthand review of "Not terrible" won't send products flying off shelves or sell a TV show that's all about salesmanship.

Nor does its underachieving title, Trust Me, make for much of a hook.

The above TNT artwork is inspired, though. And the network also has positioned Trust Me to succeed by slotting Monday's premiere (9 p.m. central) after a new episode of its most bankable hit, The Closer. So there's that.

Viewers may not instantly be sold, though, on a present-time series about advertising that's set in Chicago and so far lacks Mad Men's delicious devotion to its characters' personal lives.

Nary a cigarette or hard liquor drink are consumed either. The ad men of Trust Me instead mainline Starbucks coffee, one of several real-life products placed in the series' first two episodes. Fast-forwarding must be defeated by any means necessary in today's decaffeinated advertising climate.

Trust Me otherwise prominently displays two familiar TV stars, Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and Tom Cavanaugh (Ed).

Cavanaugh gets only a first name, Conner. McCormack gets a fuller moniker, Mason McGuire. And the series' main female character, Sarah Krajicek-Hunter (Monica Potter), gets the full tongue-twisting monty. There's no rhyme or reason to this, but whatever.

Mason and Conner are longtime writing partners at Rothman Green & Mohr, where an internal battle instantly brews over who's going to get the Arc Mobile cell phone account.

Cavanaugh of course plays the motor-mouth. His Conner essentially is a gibberish-spouting basket case who's occasionally capable of spitting out a halfway decent product tagline. "Shut up, willya?" would be a good one for him.

McCormack again plays the straighter-laced guy, enduring Conner in much the same way he weathered Sean Hayes' histrionics on Will & Grace. His new character has a wife and kids, but Mason's life away from the workplace is basically beside the point in Trust Me's first two episodes.

Monday's premiere also features a guest stint by Life on Mars star Jason O'Mara, who plays bombastic creative director Stu Hoffman. He livens things up, but not for long. Let's just say that job stress can be a killer.

More durable is Griffin Dunne as constantly fretting ad team supervisor Tony Mink. A couple of wise ass junior ad men, Hector and Tom (Geoffrey Arend and Mike Damus), are reminiscent of the unkempt underlings on NBC's 30 Rock.

Trust Me is rich in banter, but so far too skimpy otherwise. It strives for poignancy, especially at the end of Episode 2. But the accompanying acoustic guitar music might as well be a ring tone. Where's the "there" to these characters?

McCormack's Mason otherwise wears pretty well in the scenes where he's blessedly freed from his frenetic partner's verbiage. But that's not necessarily a good thing for a show relying so heavily on their byplay -- during which Cavanaugh predictably chews scenery as though he were in a hot dog eating competition.

Maybe Trust Me will find its way in due time. Mad Men instantly registered as something very special. These Chicago guys still seem to be quite a way from making the sale.


True story: Fox's Lie to Me looks like a keeper

Tim Roth might be a bit afraid you won't like him in Lie to Me.

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Tim Roth, Kelli Williams, Monica Raymund, Brendan Hines
Produced by: Brian Grazer, Samuel Baum, David Nevins, Steven Maeda

But what if they've only got gas?

Fox's new Lie to Me is solidly entertaining while at the same time more than a wee bit preposterous. Its crime-solving centerpiece, veteran big-screen villain Tim Roth as "deception expert" Dr. Cal Lightman, takes everyone and everything at face value. A telltale lip-tightening in one of the corner pockets signifies contempt. And deceit can be as simple as an involuntary shoulder shrug.

Wednesday's premiere episode is likely to achieve liftoff in a plum time slot following American Idol. It begins niftily with Lightman teaching a class on how body language always tells all. First he nails a church bomber in a videotaped interrogation. Side-by-side pictures of Simon Cowell and George W. Bush are then used to illustrate contempt.

"These expressions are universal," Lightman assures his students and viewers at home. "The emotion looks the same whether you're a suburban housewife or a suicide bomber. The truth is written on all our faces."

CBS already is catching crooks the not-so-old fashioned way in Numb3rs, Eleventh Hour and the season's biggest new hit, The Mentalist. Fox's Bones also trades on this turf. "Procedural" crime series have proliferated to the point where you've gotta have a gimmick to make a new sale. Elementary fistfights and car chases have become rarer than a commercial break that plays at the same volume as the program it interrupts. Wheels still turn, but mostly in craniums.

Lie to Me cracks two cases for starters. A 16-year-old boy has been jailed in the murder of his comely female school teacher. Were his actions premeditated, or did he do it at all? Also, a veteran congressman set to become chairman of the House Ethics Committee is accused of frequenting a pay-for-play sex club. But maybe there's more to this than meets the eye -- or the eyebrow.

Lightman of course can be a bit eccentric and occasionally brusque. The laws of latter day prime-time TV dictate that he have an attractive female partner to keep him in line. She's Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams), who has both a sweet tooth and a lippy lip.

"You think I'm naive just because I don't share your twisted view of the world," Foster tells Lightman, who's undeterred.

Other members of the team are lead researcher Eli Loker (Brendan Hines), who has a little 'tude to him, and new recruit Ria Torres (Monica Raymund), plucked from an airport security post because she tested off the charts as a human lie detector.

Roth retains his English accent for his first outing as a small-screen leading man. He nicely underplays Lightman while also pumping plenty of life into him.

The character's deductive abilities are drawn from the real-life "scientific discoveries" of Dr. Paul Edkman, who's a consultant on the series. But all involved would be lying if they claimed not to be stretching more than a little.

Whatever the liberties taken, Lie to Me is a brisk, easily digested whodunit that looks like a long-distance runner. Prime-time already is teeming with crime-solving teams, but another pretty good one won't hurt.


Oh happy daze: Lost returns Wednesday

All 13 of the above figure prominently in Season 5's bag of tricks.

Add "Shotgun Willie" to Lost's already abundantly intricate obstacle course.

Let the record show that Willie Nelson's heretofore less than hallowed 1973 ditty is spinning on a turntable during the opening minutes of Wednesday's two-hour return engagement on ABC. (8 to 10 p.m. central).

Putting needle to vinyl is -- sorry, that would be a step too far. But here's what he/she hears before the LP starts skipping: "Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear. Bitin' on a bullet, pullin' out all of his hair. Shotgun Willie's got all of his family there. Well, you can't make a record . . ."

Well, you can't make this stuff up either. But of course you can go quietly insane trying to deduce what the deuce it all means. They'd just better not reprise Roger Miller's "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" in any way, shape or form. Imagine what might be read into that.

The first three hours of Lost's 17-episode Season 5 again prove to be both maddeningly involving and prone to dawdling. But the show's creators remain in no particular rush. They'll still have 31 episodes to go after this week's double dip and next Wednesday's single hour.

Through it all, there's always the temptation to declare, "I'm out." Millions already have made that choice, judging from Lost's season-by-season viewer attrition. But at last count, roughly 11.5 million hopelessly devoted fans are still trying to navigate the show's weekly hurdles in hopes that its planned May 2010 finish line will merit all this exertion. The brain's already starting to burst at the seams, but better that than throwing the old IQ for another loss with another non-taxing time-waster.

Lost signed off last season with a closing shot of John Locke/Jeremy Bentham (Terry O'Quinn) in a casket while a very frayed Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) tried to digest what duplicitous Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) had just decreed.

A return trip to the island is the only way to save those left behind, Jack was told. But all members of the so-called "Oceanic 6" must make the redemptive journey, along with the newly deceased Locke/Bentham. Otherwise it's no go, and all for naught.

Daniel Faraday's a key ingredient; "Shotgun Willie's" an appetizer.

Lost doesn't stay too long in any one place during Season 5's opening three hours. The first segment, subtitled "Because You Left," puts last season's mysterious, blinding white light into perspective, particularly for Locke during flashbacks to his continued island wanderings. For him the central question has become, "When am I?"

Physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) also takes on added import. His past activities were of major import. And his message to one of the island escapees sends that tortured soul on a search that obviously will prove to be only the beginning of new travails.

Some of Lost's early season revelations count for more than just another little drop in its bucket. At other times, though, the series loses its grip a bit. Hour 2's continuing mainland misadventures of Hugo "Hurley" Reyes (Jorge Garcia) strain credulity, even for Lost. They include his brief meeting -- imaginary or otherwise -- with a character left for dead in a previous season.

Ageless island denizen Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) is back, too, emerging in a big way to further muddle things as Locke's time-traveling guidance counselor.

"Richard's always been here," the still perplexing Juliet Burke (Elizabeth Mitchell) tells Locke in next week's Episode 3.

"How old is Richard?" Locke wonders.

"Old," says Juliet.

Although he's still arguably Lost's central character and leading man, Jack Shephard is borderline inconsequential as the show re-baits its hook. He'll no doubt be back in play in bigger ways as this season unfolds. In the first three hours, though even the ever-caustic Miles Straume (Ken Leung) has a bit more to say and do. His swashbuckling tongue is almost a match for that of James "Sawyer" Ford (Josh Holloway), who reliably keeps the nicknames and insults coming.

Amid all the uncertainty, it seems certain that Lost eventually will put the "Oceanic 6" and Locke back on the island they left behind three years ago. After all, time is of the essence, as you'll hear at the end of Wednesday's Episode 2.

But on Lost's new season, time also is the essence. Never more so than now. Or then. Or who knows when.

GRADE: A-minus

Here's ABC's scene-setter:

Three's company in Showtime's United States of Tara

Tara Gregson and her three disparate "alts"; star Toni Collette
Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 18th at 9 p.m. central on Showtime
Starring: Toni Collette, John Corbett, Brie Larson, Keir Gilchrist, Rosemarie DeWitt
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Diablo Cody, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Alexa Junge

Who are you? Who, who, who, who?

Discombobulated Tara Gregson really wants to know in a new Showtime series that finds her Hulk-ing out when under duress.

Instead of turning green and bulky, she becomes one of three distinctly different "alts." The show is United States of Tara, the star is Toni Collette and the execution is so-so in what creator Diablo Cody (Juno) describes as a "sensitive, humorous, humanist" approach to Dissociative Identity Disorder.

It all gets rolling on Sunday at 9 p.m. central, with 12 half-hour episodes making up Season One.

Cody is the series' creative engine -- she wrote the first three episodes plus two others -- but Steven Spielberg understandably gets first billing among the five executive producers. It's his first associate with Showtime, providing further evidence that the network is getting ever closer to HBO in the series programming realm. Press materials quote Spielberg saying of Showtime: "They have brought bold new concepts and shows to television and their audiences have responded."

Tara is suitably bold, even if Sybil of course comes to mind. So does the notion that Collette is channeling some of the many faces of Tracey Ulmann. In the first four episodes, she morphs into "T" the mouthy female teen, Buck the beer-swilling male redneck and Alice the throwback '50s housewife. It's no wonder that snippy daughter Kate yearns for normalcy. "Why can't mom be manic-depressive just like all the other moms?" she laments.

Basically Tara has gone off medication at the advice of her dowdy looking therapist, Dr. Ocean (Valerie Mahaffey). It's supposed to be a means of getting in touch with whatever makes her lose touch. But T and Buck invariably raise hell and leave messes while Alice resorts to old-school disciplinary measures such as trying to wash her nubile young daughter's mouth out with soap.

"Having multiple personalities is like hosting a kegger in your brain," Tara observes at the start of Episode 2. "Only you're passed out cold while everyone else is just trashing the joint."

Husband Max (Northern Exposure's still-resilient John Corbett) has become remarkably accustomed to all of this. He and Tara have been married for close to 20 years, with no end in sight to her constant changes in appearance. It's getting harder for him to resist the sexual advances of T and Alice, though. This in turn worries Tara, who's thinking that Max might prefer one of the alts to her. Life was lots simpler during TV's Leave It to Beaver days/daze.

The Gregsons, who live in fictional Overland Park, Kansas (yes, there is such a place), also have an only son named Marshall (Keir Gilchrist). He's a geek-ish art film fanatic whose adolescence seems to closely approximate Woody Allen's.

Marshall wears ties to high school and appears to have a crush on a male classmate who invites him to join what turns out to be a right-wing evangelical theater company. Meanwhile, Kate tries to get away from it all by becoming a waitress at a chain restaurant whose young, by-the-book manager is a full-blown creep.

Both of these companion storylines seem stretched thin from the start. Kate wants to escape, but why would she choose such a soul-sucking job. Marshall supposedly wants to "infiltrate" the theater group, but it all seems mightily contrived.

Collette's performance(s) are suitably eye-opening, although the Betty Crocker-like Alice so far is much more interesting than the others. Buck in fact seems more like a worn-out Saturday Night Live caricature than a personality within whom Tara would take refuge.

As the show evolves, one or more of these alts may slowly dissolve -- or take over entirely. For Max's sake, let's hope it's not Buck. That might create more identity issues for him than "him."



Sunday is a night of no small import for both Showtime and HBO, which are going head-to-head with original series programming.

Showtime is returning both The L Word for its sixth and final season (8 p.m.) and Secret Diary of a Call Girl for its second (9:30 p.m.)

HBO will counter with the third season of Big Love (8 p.m.) and the second for Flight of the Conchords (9 p.m.).

Beast of burden: New A&E series a bad vehicle for game Swayze

Patrick Swayze stars in The Beast, whose aim is off.

Just about everyone probably knows by now that Patrick Swayze continues to stare death in the face while battling pancreatic cancer.

In that context it's hard to imagine him making it all the way through 13 episodes of The Beast, which recently completed filming of its first season on A&E.

Thursday night's premiere episode (9 p.m. central) looks as though it would have been hell to film for a healthy man. Set in what looks to be a sub-freezing, very cheerless Chicago, it confusingly and sometimes flat-out incomprehensibly sketches a world of undercover cops and the thugs they hope to dupe.

Swayze plays the very edgy Charles Barker, who may or may not have gone over to the dark side while in the service of the FBI. His protege is rookie agent Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel), who pledges allegiance to his mentor while also fighting off doubts about him.

"He looks at you and sees himself 20 years ago," Dove is told by a superior. "Does that scare you? 'Cause it should."

Swayze's performance isn't the problem. He's convincingly intense, whether barking out orders to Dove or shooting himself in the shoulder during next week's Episode 2 as a very odd means to bring a drug ring to an end. Barker has the hollowed, haunted look of an anti-hero at rope's end. And given Swayze's real-life circumstances, that may not be much of a stretch.

Fimmel on the other hand seems hopelessly devoted to replicating every last mannerism of the late James Dean. The former star of the since defunct WB network's Tarzan comes off as laughably deranged rather than emotionally vulnerable. His scenes with a girl he likes -- Lindsay Pulsipher as law student Rose Lawrence -- are more creepy than awkward. They cry out for a restraining order rather than her patient understanding of a monosyllabic guy who won't say what he does or who he is. Of this he's certain, though: let's meet for a drink.

Both lead actors are in the service of wildly implausible, unstitched storytelling. Plot threads seem beside the point in The Beast, which instead veers and wobbles from one determinedly dark scene to another.

In the end, the basic fabric is threadbare. All of which leaves Swayze giving perhaps the performance of his life in a series that keeps falling apart around him.

GRADE: C-minus

Ricardo Montalban deplanes at age 88

Ricardo Montalban, one of television's first and still foremost Latino stars, died Wednesday in Los Angeles after a long illness.

His place in the pop culture firmament has long been cemented on three fronts.

***He played white-suited, benevolent dictator Mr. Roarke on ABC's Fantasy Island

***During the height of his Fantasy Island fame, he muscled up as the malevolent Khan Noonien Singh in 1982's Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

***He endorsed the Chrysler Cordoba and its "soft Corinthian leather" in a series of suave, smooth, inimitable TV commercials.

Above all, he was a helluva good guy. Everyone who ever met him said so. Myself included.

We'll play Ricardo Montalban off with two clips.

The first is a Fantasy Island "mini-sode" in which Mr. Roarke conducts the first ever "Miss Fantasy Island Beauty Pageant" with assurances that guest star Maureen McCormick of The Brady Bunch will wear the crown.

The second is Montalban taking viewers for a ride in one of those tank-sized Cordobas during days when American automakers still ruled the road.

"I am not a numbuh!" Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan calls it a night

Patrick McCoohan, original star of The Prisoner, is dead at age 80.

The 1968 British-made series lasted just 17 episodes on CBS, but its lore lives on. McGoohan's highly vexed lead character was known only as "Number 6." He detested that, as you'll see from this very evocative clip.

PBS at last plays for laughs in six-hour comedy opus

Honeymooners Ralph and Alice Kramden; host Billy Crystal.

But seriously folks, PBS usually isn't that much fun.

Its nightly national menu long has been mostly straight-faced, leaving it to local stations such as KERA-TV (Channel 13) to gift viewers with weekend helpings of British comedies. That will change, for three consecutive Wednesdays at least, with Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, billed by PBS as a "six-hour comedy epic."

I'd rather call it a laugh tract. Har dee hoo hah. The first two chapters air tonight (Wed., Jan. 14th, 7 to 9 p.m. central) opposite two hours of Fox's all-powerful American Idol, which must be somebody's idea of a bad joke. But Make 'Em Laugh should do all right in the ratings anyway, particularly among viewers old enough to remember Jonathan Winters in his prime or The Goldbergs.

Billy Crystal hosts -- but only briefly at the start of each one-hour segment. Amy Sedaris narrates, and does quite a bit of it. You'll otherwise hear from a wealth of comics, "most of them massively depressed, bitter and angry," Crystal says with no small degree of truth.

The 100 or so talking heads, most of whom were interviewed specifically for Make 'Em Laugh, share the screen with a wide variety of well-chosen clips. It all makes for a Ken Burns-ian approach, but without any violin music or long-winded preachments. OK, maybe Jack Benny will be shown playing the violin sometime during Hours 3 to 6. I've only seen the opening two.

We begin with an hour devoted to "Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses?: Nerds, Jerks & Oddballs." Prominently featured are groundbreaking silent film star Harold Lloyd; the early Bob Hope ("a pompous coward trying to win the girl with the wisecrack," says Sedaris); Phyllis Diller; Andy Kaufman; Cheech & Chong; Steve Martin; Woody Allen and the wildly improvisational Winters, who's ordered to "Do something with a stick" during an appearance on Jack Paar's old Tonight Show.

Allen is credited by some with turning milquetoasts into chick magnets after his vintage standup routines became hot tickets on college campuses. Hugh Hefner, an early fan of Allen's, says that's probably a myth. Then he adds, "What he does has always given me a woody." Good one, old man.

Wednesday's second hour ("Honey, I'm Home! Breadwinners and Homemakers") looks at some of TV's landscape-changing sitcoms, including The Goldbergs, The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Cosby Show, I Love Lucy, All In the Family, Roseanne and Seinfeld.

Simpsons creator Matt Groening notes that his favorite character on Leave It to Beaver, sandbagging Eddie Haskell, "just made me vibrate every time he was on-screen." By design then, Bart Simpson is "the son of Eddie Haskell," Groening says.

Roseanne Barr and Bill Cosby aren't much fun at all, though.

Barr, in a new interview, says that her namesake sitcom "pretty much documented the destruction of the working class, and that's what I always wanted it to do."

Cosby, in an archival clip, says of All In The Family and Archie Bunker: "The man himself became a hero to too many Americans for his shortsightedness, his tunnel vision. And I'm really a believer that that show never taught or tried to teach anybody anything."

He has a point, but it would have been good to get a rebuttal from All In The Family creator Norman Lear, who's newly interviewed for Make 'Em Laugh. We do, however, get another look at Sammy Davis Jr.'s famed guest appearance on All In the Family, which ended with him planting a kiss on Archie's sour mug.

The second hour's Seinfeld segment comes and goes with nary a glimpse of Michael Richards or his Kramer character. That seems more than coincidental in light of Richards' now infamous, racially volatile comedy club riff. Whatever the reason for Richards' omission, the impression is that PBS timidly considered him unfit for human consumption. Which is sad.

Next Wednesday's two hours are subtitled "Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts" and "When I'm Bad, I'm Better: The Groundbreakers." And on Wednesday, Jan. 28th, Make 'Em Laugh wraps with "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: The Wiseguys" and "Sock It to Me?:" Satire and Parody."

Not everyone or everything is included, of course. And some of the reported exclusions, most notably Ernie Kovacs, seem just plain ignorant. Then again, this might have something to do with the serious business of obtaining clips at affordable costs.

Oh well, comedy isn't pretty but at least PBS at last is taking a pie in the face. Enjoy the show.


Party on: Golden Globes again serve their purpose

Winning hands for Paul Giamatti and Tina Fey. NBC photos

No one's counting at ABC, CBS or Fox. That's because all three networks pitched shutouts at Sunday night's liquor-enhanced Golden Globes handouts.

Of course HBO won big again, toting home seven of the 11 TV Globes, with its John Adams miniseries gifted with an armload of four.
Host network NBC fired back with three for 30 Rock while AMC's Mad Men was voted best drama series.

So even if they're constantly derided as freeloading, star-struck sycophants, the blokes at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association pretty much got it right -- at least in the lowly TV categories. And now on to some of the sights and sounds that made for another night to dismember, er, remember:

Hollywood babble-on -- Two-time winner Kate Winslet looked great in a smashing, sleeveless black gown. But man, did she carry on, especially after getting a second Globe late in the ceremony for her performance in Revolutionary Road opposite fellow nominee but non-winner Leonardo DiCaprio.

Sally Field and Halle Berry, semi-infamous as drama queens at the Oscars, can rest a bit easier now that Winslet's out-flanked them with lines like, "Leo, I'm so happy I can stand up here and tell you how much I've loved you. And how much I've loved you for 13 years."

All dogs go to heaven -- Mickey Rourke, who won for The Wrestler, had been self-destructing for many years before making an improbable comeback.

"This has been a very long road back for me," he acknowledged before thanking his dogs among others for helping turn it around for him. "Sometimes when a man's alone, that's all you got is your dog," he said.

Cheeky monkey -- Ricky Gervais took to the stage with beer in hand to present a film clip after noting that "it detracts from the credibility of any awards show, me not being nominated."

But he took credit for Winslet's earlier win for The Reader, in which she plays a former concentration camp guard.

"I told ya, do a holocaust movie, the awards come," he said, referring to an episode of his HBO series Extras in which Winslet did just that in search of an Oscar.

He should have stopped right there, but instead added, "The trouble is with holocaust films, there's never any gag reel on the DVDs." That's not a wise line under any circumstances. But particularly not when director Steven Spielberg is in the house to receive the career Cecil B. DeMille Award for his body of films, including Schindler's List.

Gervais then recovered nicely by mocking his failed campaign on behalf of his movie Ghost Town: "It's the last time I have sex with 200 middle-aged journalists. It was horrible, really . . . Europeans with wispy beards. The men were worse."

And furthermore . . . Kate Winslet is still talking. HFPA photo

Borat splat -- Presenter Sacha Baron Cohen got an unaccountably cool reaction to his concluding joke on how "this recession is affecting everyone, even celebrities." So much so that "even Madonna has had to get rid of one of her personal assistants. Our thoughts go out to you, Guy Ritchie."

Clunk. It was as if he'd dipped his member into Winslet's champagne flute. Who know there was that much fake love in the house for either Madonna or her ex-Guy.

What's he doing there? -- Tom Brokaw pulled an Anderson Cooper by popping in to introduce a clip for Frost & Nixon after noting he'd covered the Watergate hearings.

Blow by blow -- Presenter Colin Farrell, who later won an acting Globe for In Bruges, had the sniffles while presenting a film clip.

"I've got a cold," he explained. "It's not the other thing that it used to be."

Soon after, a notably trimmed-down Seth Rogen said he wished it was the '80s so he could be doing cocaine with Mickey Rourke instead of just getting drunk with him.

Memo to "composer, singer and social activist" Sting -- Lose the beard. And quit dying your hair.

Rock rhymes with Barack -- Tracy Morgan accepted 30 Rock's Globe for best comedy series after explaining, "Tina Fey and I had an agreement that if Barack Obama won, I would speak for the show from now on. I'm the face of post-racial America."

Co-star Alec Baldwin later coaxed him to say, "Jeff Zucker, my boy. Holler at me, JZ."

The chairman of NBC Universal instead smiled inscrutably from his dinner table.

Suck it to me -- Tina Fey, voted best comedy series actress for 30 Rock, said she's learned that "If you ever start to feel too good about yourself, they have this thing called the Internet."

She then named a trio of her detractors, telling each of them, "You can suck it."

That seems like a good way to end. Here's the clip:

Jack in a box: 24 returns to re-save the world

Jack assumes the position before a Senate investigative committee, but is soon back on the streets with tough FBI agent Renee Walker.

Here we go again, even if it's been a longer wait than planned.

The U.S. government once more is compromised from within, as is the FBI in the face of terrorist threats to just about everything. Caught in these pincers, yet another new president talks a tough game while constantly wondering what the hell else can go wrong.

Brows furrow, jaws clench and smiles are in shorter supply than digital converter box coupons. Sounds like another typical holiday for 24 and Jack Bauer as Season 7 barges into view with a two-part, four-hour, Sunday-Monday launch (7 to 9 p.m. central both nights).

We begin with a violent, broad daylight abduction of the pudgy chief of the government's infrastructure security system for the Homeland Security's Firewall Project. That's a mouthful, but it boils down to this: A reprogrammed little "CIP device" gives terrorists control of all commercial airlines flights among many other things. And that's not good.

Meanwhile, an uncommonly suit-and-tied Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) is having to put up with an early morning congressional committee hearing headed by an officious senator named Blaine Meyer (Kurtwood Smith from That '70s Show). His interrogation methods -- namely torture -- are being investigated, but Jack is unrepentant and even a little saucy. He resents, for instance, the "smug look" on Sen. Meyer's face. When saving the world, you do what's necessary, says Jack. "I simply adapted."

Season 6 of 24, which ended way back in May 2007 before the writers' strike intervened, ran into criticism for its depictions of torture as a necessary and effective means of getting terrorists to talk. Season 7 conducts something of a seminar on this subject during Sunday's opening two hours. But it seems pretty obvious where the show still stands.

In a somewhat labored scene Sunday night, an FBI driver tells Jack that the Senate committee shouldn't have been so rough on him. But Jack says he's fair game because "we've done so many secret things over the years in the name of protecting this country, we've created two worlds -- ours and the people we've promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth. Then they can decide how far they want to let us go."

This little sermonette might hold a bit more water if Jack hadn't effectively threatened a scumbag with torture just a bit earlier while under the close eye of comely FBI agent Renee Walker (a strong 24 debut by Annie Wersching). She's a bit aghast at first , but eventually resorts to her own strong-armed tactics in Monday night's Hour 4.

As always, it's all for the greater good. And most 24 fans probably aren't thinking too deeply about any of this anyhow All that's wanted is a slam-bang good show with an ever-changing variety of semi-plausible twists and turns. For better or worse, this isn't a debating society. It's freakin' 24.

Some of the early dialogue can be a bit torturous, too. As when agent Walker barks, "Hey, look, Jack, I read your file. I know you have a propensity for not trusting people."

Real people don't talk that way. It's likewise a groaner when 24's first woman president, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), informs an aide that "grief is a luxury I can't afford right now."

She's referring to the recent death of her son and the growing mental instability of First Gentleman Henry Taylor (Colm Feore), who remains convinced it wasn't a suicide.

By the way, if you're counting, this is 24's sixth U.S. president since the show premiered in November, 2001. We briefly pause to picture all of them in order of succession.

24's presidents -- Top from left: David Palmer, John Keeler, Charles Logan. Bottom from left: Wayne Palmer, Noah Daniels, Allison Taylor

Presidents David Palmer, now deceased, and Charles Logan, still under house arrest somewhere, likewise had highly problematic, unhinged spouses. On 24 it's seldom enough to vex a president with the imminent demise of the free world. You also have to have a near-lumatic sleeping next to you in the White House bedroom.

Sunday's return engagement also marks the re-appearance of onetime CTU agent Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), who seemingly died in Jack's arms midway through Season 5. 24 executive producer Howard Gordon, in a form letter to TV critics, says, "Taking some creative license that we hope our fans will appreciation, we've resurrected one of the show's most beloved characters."

Well, maybe not beloved. But Tony definitely added some zing to the show, and does so again in a buzz-cut that suggests he's gone over to the dark side. We'll leave it at that, save to say that Sunday's second hour ends with Jack demanding of Tony, "What happened to you? What the hell happened to you?" It's a helluva hook.

Former CTU agents Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) and Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) also are back with Jack, but in altered states. You'll have to wait until Monday's third hour (10 to 11 a.m.) to see how they've adapted to all the decay from within and without.

Janeane Garofalo re-enters, too. As computer whiz Janis Gold, she's essentially the FBI's version of the always harried Chloe. Both provide welcome little specks of humor, as does Jack when he says, "This is gonna hurt" before flooring a hot-wired car while on its floorboards. A hail of bullets and a flying leap from a parking garage ensue. That's entertainment.

All in all, 24 is off to another typically rousing start, with the fate of innocents abroad and at home in the balance. Those who watched November's placeholder 24: Redemption movie or its repeat last Sunday know that fictional Sangala, Africa also figures into Season 7's tangled web. Will President Taylor save its civilians from further mass genocide at the hands of a blackmailing warlord? Or might she knuckle under to the dictums of yet another hardballing chief of staff (Bob Gunton as Ethan Kanin), who tells Madame prez: "A superpower has to act first and foremost in its own best interests."

President-elect Barack Obama might find all of this to be welcome escapist viewing. His real-life presidency will be beset with myriad problems from Day One. But it presumably won't ever get as bad as on 24, where America's unofficial Secretary of Homeland Kick-Ass still can't get a moment's peace.


FX's Damages returns in killer form

Glenn Close as Patty Hewes won last year's Best Actress Emmy.

Intelligent, evolving, week-to-week puzzlers are prize commodities in today's TV market. But as with Lost, it's easy to get lost if you're a virgin viewer of FX's Damages.

Even those who devoured its first season might find themselves a bit disoriented as Season 2 begins Wednesday night (9 p.m. central) with two bangs from a pistol held by avenging young attorney Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). Who's on the receiving end -- and why?

Damages briefly baits this hook before time-traveling to "6 Months Earlier." It's a carryover device from Season 1, which enticingly jockeyed back and forth before mostly unraveling the mystery behind the murder of Parsons' fiance.

Patience is required, as is careful attention. Based on viewing the new season's first three episodes, Damages again is both coherent and challenging. Missing one of its new round of 13 episodes won't work in your favor. If you're in, stay in. The rewards are more than sufficient.

Parsons' nemesis again is Manhattan litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), with whom she served as an apprentice partner last season. She's still with the firm, but also plotting to bring Hewes' down as part of an FBI undercover operation. Why? Because she firmly believes that her boss tried to have her killed.

Last season left crooked Enron-ish billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) seemingly dead at the hands of a disgruntled former employee robbed of his pension benefits. But Frobisher lives on in a hospital sick bed, with Danson sporting a snow white beard for his character's second coming. Even so, he's pretty peripheral in the early going. Instead the big new character of note is Daniel Purcell (William Hurt), a half-cocked chemist who has half a mind to strike back at a corrupt energy company.

Purcell also has a previous relationship with Hewes, both personal and professional. Hurt and Close likewise have partnered before -- in 1983's The Big Chill. Their reunion in Damages is triggered by a murder in Episode 2. Being more specific would be giving too much away. Let's just say that Hurt is really good here, particularly in an Episode 3 scene where he's interrogated by a very skilled, soft-spoken detective while Hewes keeps her guard up.

Also joining the cast is Timothy Olyphant (straight shootin' Seth Bullock from Deadwood) as a grieving widower attending counseling sessions with Parsons. Of course he's mysterious, too, with Episode 2 providing a brief look at his darker side.

Damages takes a little while to firm its grip. And it winds back as many as 17 years in doing so. But most of the meat is in its six-month trip back to the present, where Parsons tells her unseen prey, "I lied, too," before pumping those two pistol shots.

Your continued attention is strongly recommended.


Fear Is Real -- add moronic and stupefying

13 -- Fear is Real: the CW artwork is as sorry as the show.

One of the pithier observations in reality show history comes from a 23-year-old marketing and product specialist named Kelly.

"This just sucks," she says from the confines of a hammered-shut and buried wooden coffin during Wednesday's climactic "Execution Ceremony" on The CW's new 13 -- Fear Is Real.

Yeah, kinda. And perhaps needless to say, the show blows. Fear Is Real (7 p.m. central) has a dirt-cheap look, an antiquated Blair Witch hook and a piddling grand prize of $66,666 for the last contestant standing among 13 lambs to the pseudo slaughter.

Among them is the well-pierced Cody of Austin, whose occupation supposedly is "ghosthunter." At least that's what it says on-screen. In printed CW press materials, the burly 22-year-old is reduced to a mere student whose hobbies are "longboarding, partying, going to shows, playing bass and watching people." He'll go far.

Fear Is Real's only virtue is in transporting its 13 specimens by bus to a dirty, abandoned cabin instead of the usual stretch limo rides to a generic L.A. mansion. This at least provides a change of scenery -- and considerable cost savings -- during an otherwise painfully dumb series with less suspense than the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland.

An unseen taskmaster called "The Mastermind" grouchily orders these dupes around. In Wednesday's premiere they're paired off in six teams, with Cody volunteering to stay behind by himself in hopes that Casper the Friendly Ghost might drop in.

The teams are sent into the woods, where six members suddenly and inexplicably find themselves bound and gagged. Most of the women already specialize in being scared of their own shadows, so this can be quite unsettling for them. The last captive to be rescued faces elimination along with his or her team partner. But Capture the Flag has more chills.

Fear Is Real also includes a little wooden "Death Box" whose bearer can be a secret killer or something. All of this is almost too much for 24-year-old model/hairstylist Lauren, who emotes, "I seriously feel like I'm gonna puke and cry and just like have a heart attack all at the same time --- if that's even possible."

Well said, even if viewers of Fear Is Real may only find themselves wanting to vomit -- preferably on a CW programming executive.


Scrubs good as ever, Homeland Security a dud in ABC's new Tuesday pairing

Scenes from ABC's Scrubs and Homeland Security USA.

No amounts of ominous-sounding or pulse-pounding music can make ABC's new Homeland Security USA much more than a crashing bore.

But then comes Scrubs in its first and last season on ABC. Thanks, we needed that.

Homeland Security gets the leadoff spot (7 p.m. central) in ABC's totally revamped Tuesday lineup. It's from producer Arnold Shapiro, whose much-parodied but long-running Rescue 911 kept host William Shatner before the viewing public in times when it didn't yet seem like he was on TV endlessly.

There's no host for Homeland Security, which instead has abundant off-camera narration from a guy whose name is Phillip Crowley, but who sounds like Bill Kurtis. Things get desperate in a hurry when the men and woman safeguarding our country from terrorists stop and detain a buxom, cleavage-brandishing lass at LAX.

"Something seems amiss with this Swiss Miss," we're told before authorities dig into her luggage and find a bunch of belly dancing costumes. Obviously she's a clear and present danger lacking the proper papers. So we're strung along with snippets that take viewers way to deep into tonight's opening hour.

"Without a work visa, will Nora be dancing in America anytime soon?" the narrator wonders.

Then the plot thickens when she gets hungry: "Nora's belly may be her livelihood, but right now it's a little empty."

What to do? An officer whips up a Cup of Noodles brand repast while Nora gets grilled on why she's here and whether her motives in fact are "that of a tourist."

Homeland Security otherwise bounces around rather aimlessly, dangling a series of other little story lines that too often carry littler weight. The premiere episode's biggest bust nets a cache of cocaine with a street value of $786,000.

"This is your car on drugs," an officer more or less jokes. A booty of little barbecued bats from Thailand also is confiscated before the delicacy is sent on its way.

The producers likely have packed as much wallop as they can into Tuesday's impression-setting first of 13 episodes ordered by ABC. The upside: If this as scary or eye-popping as it gets, then we all should feel very safe and secure. Still, lulling viewers to sleep probably isn't quite what the network has in mind.

Scrubs turns up next, though, and ABC plans to air back-to-back new episodes all the way through this month and next. The appointed hour is 8 to 9 p.m. central. A one-hour series finale has been filmed, but a Scrubs spinoff without star Zach Braff and creator Bill Lawrence could materialize if the ratings on ABC are magically beyond mediocre. That would be very un-Scrubs-ish, though, and perhaps ill-advised at this late point.

NBC had canceled Scrubs after all but killing it with off-on scheduling patterns and umpteen time slots. Then ABC stepped in not entirely out of altruism. The series is produced by ABC Studios, and more episodes offer extra padding in the syndication market.

Tonight's first of two episodes, subtitled "My Jerks," introduces guest star Courteney Cox as new chief of medicine Taylor Maddox while also fleshing out new interns named Ed (Aziz Ansari), Denise (Eliza Coupe) and Katie (Betsy Beutler). There's also "Jimmy the Overly Touchy Orderly" (Taran Killam), which turns out to be a nice touch in short bursts.

Scrubs is all about short bursts of out-of-body humor and very occasional dabs of poignancy. Tuesday's second episode, "My Last Words," manages to take itself fairly seriously in the final minutes of a dying man's life. This always seems a bit like Mad magazine drifting into a Reader's Digest coma. But Scrubs still carries it off even after J.D. and Turk (Braff and Donald Faison) first relate a vision of the afterlife that segues from a dip in a milkshake pool to longing gazes at a Cloud of Lesbians.

Scrubs' official afterlife is yet to come. But this has always been a near-infinitely better comedy than its Nielsen ratings and lack of awards suggest. The closing credits for tonight's My Jerks" episode include a little riff on that sore spot. To which Scrubs is certainly entitled.

Homeland Security USA -- C-minus
Scrubs -- A-minus

ABC's new True Beauty plays tricks on Dallas magician's assistant among others

True Beauty field includes Julia Anderson of Dallas. ABC photo

Oh behave. Ashton Kutcher's latest reality concoction, ABC's True Beauty, includes 23-year-old Julia Anderson of Dallas among its 10 duped hotties.

Premiering Monday at 9 p.m. (central), the one-hour competition series supposedly tricks its subjects into thinking they're being judged solely by their bods. But no. Arbiters Vanessa Minnillo, Cheryl Tiegs and Nole Marin also will be looking for at least scattered evidence of inner beauty. The overall winner, after eight scheduled episodes, gets $100 grand plus his or her picture in People's annual "100 Most Beautiful People" issue.

Anderson, described as a "magician's assistant" in ABC publicity materials, also is the former Miss Grapevine 2008 and Miss Teen Texas 2002. But her earlier crown was forfeited after Anderson was arrested outside an apartment complex and charged with public intoxication. She said it wasn't her fault, but that's life.

Review copies of True Beauty weren't available. But in ABC promotional clips, Kutcher summons all the wisdom at his command in deducing that "good looking people immediately assume that they are of a different sort of echelon of being than the rest of us . . . Good looking people get a lot of things for free."

Kutcher then comments on each of the 10 contestants while sifting through their glamour shots. "Beauty queen, just beauty queen," he says of Anderson. "Pageant gal. Va-va voom."

Anderson's skin-deep ABC bio reveals that "while her tan comes easy, she must get eyelash extensions every two weeks . . . And while she admits to being a hypocrite at times, she insists it is a quality not a weakness . . . She is convinced that America will love her." Clearly.

Kutcher's behind-the-camera TV credits include MTV's Punk'd and The WB/CW's Beauty and the Geek, both of which worked. But he's lately had a trio of bombs -- NBC's The Real Wedding Crashers, ABC's Miss Guided and this season's earlier Opportunity Knocks, which ABC kayoed after just three episodes.

CBS' new Game Show In My Head, which premiered Saturday with former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan at the controls, also is from Kutcher's production company. Dare to be great.