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"Just Jay and Oprah, speaking titan to titan"

Jimmy Kimmel's on fire when it comes to dissing and dissecting NBC's late night horror show.

On Thursday's Jimmy Kimmel Live, he rebutted Jay Leno's contention -- on that day's interview with Oprah Winfrey -- that Kimmel had "sucker-punched" him during a "10 at 10" segment in which Kimmel took the opportunity to mock Leno.

Kimmel's side of it is that Leno asked him to do the segment after enjoying Kimmel's impersonation of him. But the producers of The Jay Leno Show supposedly didn't want to talk about Leno's re-taking of The Tonight Show from Conan O'Brien. Instead, in a run-through of questions, Kimmel was asked to discourse on topics such as his "favorite junk food."

Kimmel instead took matters into his own hands while Leno stuck to the script.

"Ya know, at one time he was a comedian," Kimmel said of Leno on his ABC show. "But he stood there and he just kind of read through the questions like a robot."

Then Leno "rats me out" on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Kimmel said. "That's a sucker punch right there."

It's all in the not-to-be-missed clip below, which also includes excerpts from Kimmel's Jay Leno Show appearance and Leno's response when Winfrey asked him about it. Whammo.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand spews, spurts and somehow makes it work

Spartacus staves off a sub-human in the dreaded "Pit."

Premiering: Friday, Jan. 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on Starz
Starring: Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless, John Hannah, Peter Mensah, Manu Bennett, Viva Blanca, Craig Prker, Jai Courtney, Erin Cummings, Nick E. Tarabay, Antonio Te Maioho, Lesley-Ann Brandt
Produced by: Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Steven S. Deknight, Grady Hall, Joshua Donen

Sand? Not so much. Blood? Oh yeah. Barrels of it.

The new Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand is awash in the red stuff, whether it's splattering onto the screen, spewing from mouths or coursing from various severed veins and appendages.

Add very hard-core language, full frontal nudity (both male and female) and copious grime/gore. Then stir in a vivid, increasingly compelling storyline and you've got an industrial strength adult series that's probably best-watched from a man cave.

Some women might also be avid partakers. But the overall target audience for such fare is men with an abundant appetite for down-and-dirty, all-out mayhem mixed with boobs, butts and an occasional dick. Mixed Martial Arts fans unite. This one's got sex-ploits, too. And even before its premiere, Starz already has renewed it for a second season.

For better or worse, Spartacus is wholly unlike anything ever seen on the small screen. Kirk Douglas, who originally played the role, might well hate this decidedly un-Old Hollywood version. It makes HBO's often-graphic Rome series seem like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And the X-rated expletives, from Romans and gladiators alike, might cause even Tony Soprano and his boys to blush.

Veteran blood-spiller Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Darkman) prepped for this project 15 years ago by helming Xena: Warrior Princess, which brought Lucy Lawless to prominence in the title role.

Lawless is back in costume -- and also showing much more than the syndicated Xena permitted -- as the willful Lucretia, wife of gladiator tournament impressario Batiatus (John Hannah).

Central to his plans is Spartacus (Andy Whitfield), the much-tormented warrior who initially signed on to fight the nefarious Gedi. Balking at contrary orders from Roman commander Glaber (Craig Parker), he eventually is separated from his beauteous wife Sura (Erin Cummings) and sentenced to a kill-or-be-killed life of gladiator-dom. In the premiere episode's climactic sequence, one combatant has both of his legs sliced off, causing him to crawl on the remaining stumps before being mercifully stabbed in the back.

The first four episodes made available for review unfold a tale that gains resonance amid all the horrid goings-on. The suffering is stark, the combat visceral, the longings palpable. Spartacus verges on becoming an animal but still trusts that he'll someday be reunited with his wife. That's what keeps him going, and also makes the excesses bearable in this reliably gruesome, starkly realistic depiction of man's unbridled inhumanity to man.

Spartacus has one close friend among the apprentice gladiators. He's blonde, good-natured Varro (Jim Courtney), who also longs to see his wife again.

Meanwhile, the alpha male of the gladiator fraternity, Crixus The Undefeated (Manu Bennett), strives to make Spartacus' life miserable. He's joined in this endeavor by the equally haughty Barca The Beast of Carthage (Antonio Te Maioho). All involved take their orders from head gladiator trainer Doctore (Peter Mensah), who has the personality of a famished cobra.

The week-to-week goings-on invariably find room for both graphic violence and steamy sex. This includes the sight of Varro having a mandated coupling for the public amusement of party-goers, one of whom bets heavily that he won't "last another 20 strokes."

Episode 4, subtitled "The Thing in the Pit," finds a shamed Spartacus in a filthy subterranean combat zone, fighting for his life against an assortment of perverse, flesh-crawling, barely human opponents. It's both incredibly violent -- and amazingly well-staged.

Beneath all this beats a heart. Both gratuitous and galvanizing, Spartacus: Blood and Sand turns out to be more than meets the eye in many respects. That's no small tribute to both Raimi and the actors, who clearly earn their pay after signing all those nudity clauses and then risking personal injury as well.

So all in all, bloody well done. And served raw, too.


Leno returning to saddle, Conan hitting the beach

Jay Leno on what he thought was his last Tonight Show and Conan O'Brien hosting his first. Leno will return to Tonight on March 1st after the Olympics. O'Brien will be out and about. Photos: Ed Bark

It's over, save for the parting shots Conan O'Brien will be taking on his last two Tonights.

NBC announced a resolution to its ongoing late night nightmare Thursday, with O'Brien released from his NBC contract and free "to pursue other opportunities" after Sept. 1, 2010, the two parties said in a joint statement. O'Brien's last Tonight Show will be on Friday, Jan. 22nd, with scheduled guests Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell and Neil Young.

Jay Leno, pushed into prime-time after O'Brien took over Tonight, will return as the show's host on March 1st after NBC's telecasts of the Winter Olympics from Vancouver.

O'Brien had refused to go along with NBC's latest gambit, a proposal to move The Tonight Show back a half-hour to accommodate a preceding late night show hosted by Leno. He said it would irreparably damage the Tonight franchise.

Thursday's terse, three-paragraph O'Brien statement had no quotes from NBC's brass. A seven-paragraph release on Leno's return -- and Jimmy Fallon keeping his 11:30 p.m. (central) timeslot -- included an enthusiastic booster shot from NBC Universal Television Entertainment President Jeff Gaspin.

"We're pleased that Jay is returning to host the franchise that he helmed brilliantly and successfully for many years," Gaspin said. "He is an enormous talent, a consummate professional and one of the hardest-working performers on television."

NBC's Olympics telecasts begin on Feb. 12th with the opening ceremonies. From Jan. 25 until that date, Tonight will be in repeats, although there's no official word on whose repeats they'll be -- O'Brien's or Leno's.

O'Brien presumably will have just one broadcast network suitor in the late night arena -- Fox. Its executives praised his talent during a presentation last week at the Television Critics Association "press tour" in Pasadena.

ABC executives have said they're happy with the ratings performances of Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel. So that door seems closed.

Leno's cost-efficient prime-time show increasingly was under threat of preemptions by NBC affiliate stations whose late night local newscasts had suffered sharp ratings drops in many markets. Leno had left Tonight after the May 29th show, with O'Brien stepping in on June 1st.

Fearing a repeat of the Jay Leno/David Letterman late night imbroglio in the early 1990s, NBC had promised O'Brien the Tonight Show five years earlier rather than risk losing him to a rival network. The Peacock then belatedly decided to try to have it both ways, giving Leno an unprecedented Monday-Friday show that led directly into late night local newscasts and premiered on Sept. 14th.

Both Leno and O'Brien enjoyed big ratings in the very early going, but that quickly dissipated. Leno's prime-time show settled into a valley of puny returns, beaten even by the likes of ABC's Conveyor Belt of Love. O'Brien has been running a distant second in total viewers to CBS' Late Show with David Letterman, whom Leno dominated for more than a decade.

NBC Universal president/CEO Jeff Zucker and David Letterman

This entire late night mess has been orchestrated by NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker, who has been a virtual Pontius Pilate of late. Instead it fell to Gaspin to address TV critics at the network's Jan. 10th press tour day.

To his credit, Gaspin answered any and all questions with often impressive candor under the circumstances. Zucker was nowhere to be seen in a jam-packed Pasadena hotel ballroom.

Zucker continues to fail upward with what seems to be an amazing ease. His lone genuine achievement at the NBC broadcast network was helming the Today Show back to ratings dominance as its boy wonder executive producer.

Some also credit Zucker with greatly enhancing the value of NBC's cable properties, most notably the USA, Syfy and Bravo networks. They've continued to churn out hits while the once prestigious NBC broadcast arm languishes in fourth place with scant hope of burrowing out in the near future.

Zucker has "led" NBC into this prime-time ditch, and also is responsible for the disastrous hiring of former NBC programming head Ben Silverman. Meanwhile, NBC is losing money on its most potent attraction (Sunday Night Football), will lose an acknowledged $200 million on the Olympics and has just one current prime-time attraction -- The Biggest Loser -- that can even be considered a modest hit.

Post-Leno -- at least in terms of his prime-time show -- the Peacock will be puttying its 9 p.m. (central) hour after the Olympics with two Law & Order hours, an expanded Dateline NBC, the new scripted series Parenthood and The Marriage Ref, a comedy panel show produced by Jerry Seinfeld.

Otherwise the network's long-term plans are a renewed effort to attract top-shelf producers of scripted dramas and comedies, with J.J. Abrams (Lost) and David E. Kelley (Boston Legal) already developing news series for next fall. In other words, back to basics -- again.

Leno has been the primary punching bag throughout most of NBC's embarrassing unscripted soap opera, with the lecherous Letterman pounding away at him night after night. But the audience responded tepidly on Wednesday's Late Show when Letterman said that Leno is getting back into shape for The Tonight Show by "spending an hour a day working on the chinmaster."

Leno has thrown some effective return punches, telling viewers Wednesday night, "You know the best way to get Letterman to ignore you? Marry him."

I much prefer O'Brien's comedy to Leno's. Still, he didn't ask to be evicted from The Tonight Show after a long and successful run in the No. 1 spot. That was NBC's and Zucker's doing. So Leno complied and eventually died with a prime-time hour that mostly limped along lamely.

Leno could have manned up and walked the plank rather than force O'Brien's hand. But it's seemingly not in his makeup to refuse a job offer. What if he had said, "Ya know something, Conan deserves a chance to make his own way on The Tonight Show. He shouldn't have to be my followup act for a second time. So thanks but no thanks. I've had a helluva run, and it's time to try something else."

Of course there was no chance of that happening. And from Leno's perspective, why should he bow out after the pendulum swung back his way again?

There's no guarantee that Leno can return to his past ratings glory opposite Letterman. Maybe he's badly damaged goods at this point. But restoring him to Tonight is a safer bet -- short-term at least -- than taking a continued chance on O'Brien.

Speaking of the conquering hero, O'Brien can do little wrong at the moment. He took a principled stand by saying enough is enough -- even though he'll have enough walkaway money (reportedly in excess of $30 million) to tide him over for a while.

O'Brien can't be blamed for wanting to escape Leno's shadow. He's been a second banana at NBC for the last 17 years. Even The Tonight Show reins came with the unexpected price of following Leno in the Peacock pecking order. And that again would have been the case had he agreed to take Tonight deeper into the night for the first time in the storied show's history.

I'd like to see Fox re-enter the late night wars with O'Brien at the helm, presumably at 10 p.m. (central). He's a far better fit for the network's younger audience appeal than Leno ever would be. And if Fox's affiliate stations can be persuaded to give up their late night newscasts (which mostly are throwaways anyway), then O'Brien could get a half-hour jump on both Leno and Letterman. That would be a savory turnabout for him.

In the end, O'Brien's reign as Tonight host easily will be the briefest in the show's history -- from June 1st to the Jan. 22nd denouement. And NBC's handling of matters seems sure to go down as one of the biggest bungles in TV history.

You never really know, though. A year from now, Leno might again be riding high in the late night wars while NBC restores some badly needed luster to its prime-time lineup with a few quality hits.

Anything can happen in television, as this chapter so clearly shows. Or to put it another way, a Zucker is born every minute. And for now at least, this one has taken incompetence to new heights.

ABC's The Deep End lawyers up without making much of a case

Rookie lawyers sink or swim in The Deep End. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 21st at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Matt Long, Billy Zane, Leah Pipes, Clancy Brown, Tina Majorino, Norbert Leo Butz, Ben Lawson, Mehcad Brooks, Nicole Ari Parker, Rosa Pasquarella
Produced by: David Hemingson, Jan Nash

The shorthand description is "Grey's Anatomy in a law firm," with five incoming practitioners jockeying for position.

But ABC had far more pop and zing with the dearly departed Boston Legal, which makes The Deep End seem both shallow and in over its head.

Early episodes were mostly filmed in Dallas last fall, but the series is set in L.A. That's why you'll see recurring stock shots of mountains and beaches in Thursday's premiere, which precedes a new episode of Grey's.

There are many characters to digest here, even though one of them, first year associate Malcolm Bennet (Mehcad Brooks from HBO's True Blood), is only fleetingly introduced amid the rapid rush of events at the haughty Sterling law firm.

The four other newcomers, all striving to stick to the wall, are idealistic Dylan Hewitt (Matt Long), opportunistic Beth Branford (Leah Pipes), womanizing Liam Priory (Ben Lawson) and mouse-ish Addy Fisher (Tina Majorino).

Their whipcracker -- and designated "Prince of Darkness" -- is hard-hearted, self-absorbed Cliff Huddle (Billy Zane sporting a shaved head), whose authority is threatened by the return of firm namesake Hart Sterling (Clancy Brown), who's been off tending to his ill wife.

Huddle's married -- but not happily so -- to firm partner Susan Oppenheimer (Nicole Ann Parker). Deep End also includes a "mentor" named Rowdy Kaiser (Leo Butz) and an unnamed paralegal (Rosa Pasquarella) whose extracurricular activities are key to the soap opera-ish aspects of the series.

Much of the dialogue is punchy and brisk, even if real people don't really talk the way Beth does in explaining the lay of the land to Dylan.

"We're first-years," she tells him. "Grunts. Doormats. Newbies. Barely worth a partner's time. Yet expected to perform flawlessly."

Dylan performs pretty flawlessly on his opening pro bono case, which unfortunately isn't all that compelling. He represents a young woman fighting for custody of her six-year-old son after her husband's sudden death from an aneurism. Battling her is the dead man's mom.

Viewers otherwise will learn that Liam isn't circumcised and Beth isn't circumspect in telling Addy about this. Meanwhile, Zane's Cliff Huddle dependably blusters and sneers, telling Dylan at one point to "leave before I set you on fire."

In the early going at least, Deep End is pretty much all over the place, veering from snarky to moderately sappy without making any of the principal characters resonate. Who really cares if any of them succeed? That's a key question when you're asking for a weekly investment.

Maybe this so far unwieldly mix will mesh in future episodes. Still, first impressions are key to the longevity of any drama or comedy series. And Deep End doesn't seem to be dispensing any overriding reasons to keep watching.


CW's Life Unexpected is another one of life's little disappointments

Britt Robertson stars as wayward Lux in CW's Life Unexpected.

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 18th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Britt Robertson, Shiri Appleby, Krostoffer Polaha, Kerr Smith, Autin Basis, Reggie Austin
Produced by: Liz Tigelaar, Janet Leahy

Foster kid Lux has led an abusive, hard knocks life, although you'd hardly know it from the cool wardrobe she sports.

A cute blonde street urchin from the pages of an Urban Outfitter catalogue, she arrives at the doorstep of her perplexed bar-owning dad, who thinks she's selling cookies.

"I'm not a Girl Scout," Lux assures him. "I'm kind of comprised of half your gene pool. I'm your daughter."

Dad's wearing a "MILF: Does the body good" t-shirt to underscore his basic irresponsibility. In fact, everything about The CW's new Life Unexpected seems a little too precious, contrived and/or sappy to seem even remotely real. You'll find more grit in a McDonald's milkshake.

Lux, played by Britt Robertson, is nearing 16 and seeking emancipation from foster care so that she can live with her similarly situated buds in a Portland, Oregon pad. Her biological parents are Nate "Baze" Bazile (Kristoffer Polaha) and Cate Cassidy (Shiri Appleby), a well-known morning radio deejay who has an intimate relationship with her on-air partner, Ryan Thomas (Kerr Smith).

Nate and Cate conceived Lux in his mom's mini-van while the Spin Doctors provided mood music on a high school prom night. What Lux wants from the both of them is signed permanent release forms that will allow her to live on her own and out of the reach of all those "incompetent grownups."

Complications and guilt ensue, of course. Nate bonds with Lux over a youtube viewing session while Cate renounces her latter day determination to keep pushing people away. Sometimes the dialogue groans louder than a rusty gate in a cheap horror movie. This is particularly true in next Monday's Episode 2, when Cate tells Nate, "The only thing between us is the lingering smell of your Axe body spray."

The music grates as well, interceding insistently, constantly and usually comically. When Lux gets miffed and feels rejected, a moony guy with a milquetoast voice sings, "One foot in the grave, one foot in the shower." I guess we're supposed to reflect.

Life Unexpected will be paired on Monday nights with One Tree Hill, which has shown remarkable staying power in the face of sapling-sized ratings.

The newcomer tries hard to pluck heartstrings and make us connect with its core group of reliably white good-lookers. But its second episode is harder to bear than the first, which at best is only marginally watchable.

Whatever your age, it's way too hard to swallow the premise that the irresistibly cute and smart Lux went unadopted because she had a hole in her heart that required a series of surgeries until the age of three.

By that time she supposedly was too old for prospective adoptive parents. Life Unexpected overall is just too dumb to take into your homes.

GRADE: C-minus

Glee, Mad Men win top TV Globes

Host Ricky Gervais hoists one and Dexter star Michael C. Hall wins one at Sunday's 67th Golden Globe awards on NBC. Photos: Ed Bark

Cable copped eight of the 11 TV awards during Sunday night's Golden Globes show on NBC, but one of the big ones went to Fox's Glee.

"This is for anybody and everybody who got a wedgie in high school," executive producer Ryan Murphy said after the first-year series won in the best comedy or musical category. AMC's Mad Men earlier was named best TV drama series.

All of the TV awards again were dispensed with before the feature film biggies got down to business in the three-hour telecast's home stretch. For a while it looked as though Showtime might overwhelm HBO for the first time ever. It won the evening's first three TV awards -- with Toni Collette the first onstage for United States of Tara before John Lithgow and Michael C. Hall followed with acting awards for Dexter.

Hall recently disclosed that he's in the final stages of treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma, with the disease now in remission.

"It's really a helluva thing to go to work at a place where everybody gives a damn," said Hall, who wore a black stocking cap to the ceremony. His wife, Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Dexter's sister, Debra, could be seen beaming from the audience.

HBO later caught up to and surpassed Showtime with two Globes for the movie Grey Gardens and one each for Big Love and the movie Taking Chance.

Host Ricky Gervais, seen sparingly after a relatively brief opening monologue, scored his biggest laugh by riffing, "One thing that can't be bought is a Golden Globe -- officially. I'm not gonna do this show agaln anyway."

He sipped from a glass of beer late in the game, telling one and all that "I like a drink as much as the next man. Unless the next man is Mel Gibson."

Gibson then briefly feigned drunkenness after receiving an enthusiastic welcome. He soon was announcing a best director award for James Cameron and his global smash Avatar. Cameron said he had to pee really bad, and would be quick with his remarks, which he pretty much was. Avatar also won the night's climactic trophy -- for "Best Motion Picture -- Drama."

For a complete list of the TV and feature film winners, go here.

Fox's Human Target triggers another alpha male into action

Human Target's Chi McBride, Mark Valley, Jackie Earle Haley

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 17th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Mark Valley, Chi McBride, Jackie Earle Haley
Produced by: McG, Jonathan E. Steinberg, Brad Kern, Peter Johnson

Will he ever be a bonafide, big-time TV star? Fox's Human Target looks like Mark Valley's peak attempt after starring in the short-lived, under-appreciated Keen Eddie and then playing supporting roles in Boston Legal and Fringe.

Valley may have a career-defining role as the suitably quip-equipped Christopher Chance, a protector for hire who simultaneously coaxes threats into the open before eliminating them.

In Sunday's "special preview event" -- preceding 24's two-hour Season 8 launch -- he's aboard a spanking new San Francisco to L.A. "bullet train" in the company of its comely design team head, whose life is endangered. Then Wednesday's post-American Idol episode finds Chance piloting an endangered passenger jet, which he flies upside down in hopes of putting out an engine fire.

Although his life is constantly in the balance, Chance seems to be having lots more fun than the ever-taut Jack Bauer. Human Target bloodies him up, particularly after Sunday's prolonged kick/punch, semi-cartoonish fight with a would-be assassin. But Chance never grimaces for long. Life is too short for that.

Human Target's breaks in the action often are filled in by Chance's no-nonsense business partner, Winston (Chi McBride), and a non-conformist informant named Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley). They trade insults with one another while also supplying Chance with the information he needs to ferret out wrongdoers.

Fox's cancellations of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse have made the network a virtually wall-to-wall man's world dominated by either headstrong alpha males or doofus cartoon ones. The lone exceptions are Bones and Fringe, where co-stars Emily Deschanel and Anna Torv occasionally get a say in some matters.

The broad, oft-preposterous action-adventure of Human Target turns out to be a nice, breezy break from the clench-jawed 24 motif or the perplexing, strung-out "mythologies" that drove both Terminator and Dollhouse.

Valley's Christopher Chance is hard to resist as a devil-may-care hero-for-hire who charms and disarms before moving on to another mission: improbable. Easy come, easy go, easily watched.


Which network can't you do without?

As of this writing, Cablevision is still warring with Food Network and HGTV after dropping them from its systems earlier this month rather than pay the markedly higher carriage fees being sought by their proprietor, Scripps Networks.

And at the end of last year, Time Warner Cable and Fox Networks Group had a big bout on a similar front, with their main disagreement over "retransmission" fees for Fox's broadcast channel, home of American Idol, The Simpsons and House.

As noted in an earlier post, this has been a boon for some major city newspapers, whose front sections have been nicely peppered with full-page accusatory ads by both sides. And in an excellent New York Times summation, reporter Brian Stelter has outlined the current and future ramifications for consumers, whose monthly bills are likely to be going up, up, up.

Recurring spats among cable providers and the networks they carry are likely to be the norm for years to come. At some point, though, somebody's not going to blink. And a network -- or two or 10 -- will simply vanish from your programming menu with little hope of return.

So the questions are these. Which network -- cable or broadcast -- is indispensable to your viewing pleasure? And would you switch providers or continue to swallow escalating costs to keep it on your home screen?

Or, maybe enough is enough. At some point would you simply cancel your cable or satellite package and rely on the Internet and/or a converter box hookup to subsist on a reduced diet of program-watching?

Your comments as always are welcome. It's an issue that unfortunately is going to keep pecking at pocketbooks.

Look out below: FX's animated Archer is fit for an R-rated review

"Master spy" Sterling Archer is perfectly voiced by H. Jon Benjamin.

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 14th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring the voices of: H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, George Coe, Amber Nash, Peter Newman, Lucky Yates
Produced by: Adam Reed, Matt Thompson

Cartoon characters can say the damndest things, particularly when placed on the male-centric, TV MA-happy FX network.

Archer, the advertiser-supported network's first animated series, premieres on Thursday, Jan. 14th with a jaw-dropping episode in which:

***Amoral, self-important, womanizing, sexist "master spy" Sterling Archer tells an antagonist during simulated torture, "I assume you'd be trying to suck a promotion out of some Russian guy's cock."

***Archer earlier beds a bare-assed babe with a paddle mark on one of her lower-regioned cheeks.

***Archer later has a flashback bedroom scene with his ex-girlfriend, super-voluptuous agent Lana Kane. They're watching interracial porn together when his boss lady mom calls.

***Archer endures the slings and arrows of being called a "sack of shit."

***Archer and other principal characters regularly begin their dialogue with "Jesus Christ" or "Goddammit."

***Archer grouses about his newly laundered shirt, which reeks of curry and "smells like Indira Gandhi's thong."

Yeah, but is it funny?

Um, in a Borat-juiced world that FX seems determined to replicate, Archer in fact has its moments. It also features sterling voice-over work by H. Jon Benjamin, who's in command from start to stop in the three episodes I navigated.

Benjamin has a cocksure way with words that's both riotous and letter-perfect. This doesn't completely redeem Archer or save it from possible eternal damnation. But in the coarse of this shows events, a good performance at least slightly cleanses the palate.

The plots, beginning with "Mole Hunt," of course are nonsensical. Blending Get Smart, James Bond and Hot Pussy from Timbuktu (or something like that), Archer keeps up a steady barrage of insult humor within the confines of ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service).

The spy agency is run by Archer's mother, Malory (Jessica Walter), who rides her son mercilessly while he in turn more or less wishes her dead. In a delicious slice of uncommonly G-rated dialogue (from a yet to be scheduled episode subtitled "Killing Utne"), Archer asks plaintively, "And what about my happiness, mother?"

Long pause. "Well?"

"Oh. Was that not rhetorical?" mom at last retorts.

ISIS also is populated by the aforementioned lush Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler); plus-sized human resources director Pam (Amber Nash); dutiful secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer) and comptroller Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), who is Lana's new boyfriend.

You can imagine what Archer does with Figgis' name. And Malory is no kinder to Pam, telling her in a future episode, "Oh, like you'd recognize a vegetable that wasn't wrapped in a Monte Cristo sandwich."

The creator of Archer, Adam Reed, previously concocted Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo for the Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" bloc. FX's yen to shock if not always awe TV critics allows him to go a number of steps beyond those shows and actually use the term "hard dick-inest" in an upcoming half-hour.

Ten episodes are scheduled to air on consecutive Thursdays unless a lightning bolt strikes FX offices in the interim. Otherwise it's easy to see Archer emerging as a full-blown hit for FX. It's likely to hit the young male demo like a laser beam while also dragging along some older gray mules who can't help but be kind of amused by this equal opportunity offender. Count me among them for at least the short term. But I also pledge to do penance by occasionally watching a squeezably soft Hallmark Channel movie.

Does that sound fair? No? OK, throw in a dozen episodes of House Hunters.


The Simpsons: 20 years, 450 episodes and counting

Simpsons guru Matt Groening and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock.

No, you won't need those Avatar glasses.

The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice! is not in 3-D and isn't on ice, save for the closing few seconds after Bart complains, "Stupid lying Fox."

So yes, the title is meant to be wryly amusing, as is the content of an easily digested one-hour retrospective (Sunday, Jan. 10th, 7:30 p.m. central) made, narrated and hosted by Morgan Spurlock.

The filmmaker ranges fairly far and wide, going to England for a close encounter with a Simpsons collectibles fanatic while also collecting celebrity quotes from the likes of Conan O'Brien (a former writer on the show), Sting, Dan Rather, Brian Williams, Hugh Hefner, Jimmy Kimmel and John Waters. Yeah, The Simpsons pretty much remains a guy thing.

Premiering as snippets on one of the Fox network's charter series -- The Tracey Ullman Show -- Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and an accompanying menagerie of fellow Springfield inhabitants first came to half-hour life in a Dec. 17, 1989 Christmas special. Austin auteur Mike Judge, whose Beavis and Butt-head came four years later, marvels at what The Simpsons has wrought, including his subsequent and recently canceled King of the Hill series.

"To see something like this just rise out of the manure pile that was animation was just pretty amazing," he says.

Now the longest-running prime-time series in TV history, The Simpsons will air its 450th episode preceding the Spurlock special. And as Bart's commemorative opening blackboard scrawl notes, "The world may end in 2012 but this show won't."

"At this point the show's like running water or electricity or the absence of the Berlin Wall," Spurlock says with only slight exagerration.

So what's the secret? Matt Selman, a Simpsons writer and executive producer since 1997, has a cogent theory. "Their eyes look like boobs," he says during the special. This is exactly the kind of cheeky approach that's worn so well, even if the show's maestros more or less acknowledge that The Simpsons perhaps isn't as funny now as it was a decade or so ago.

Not that we're overly complaining. Back in the early 1990s, Homer's doofus parenting and Bart's non-stop 'tude were seen as subversive by some, most notably President George H.W. Bush.

"Make American families a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons!" he once railed ridiculously.

The Simpsons since has become cuddly in comparison to the three Seth MacFarlane cartoons following it -- Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show. It can still be sharp around the edges, but has a veritable Mickey Mouse feel in times of MacFarlane's Peter and Stewie Griffin.

Sunday's 450th, subtitled "Once Upon a Time in Springfield" (7 p.m. central), nonetheless is a solidly amusing half-hour anchored by the always welcome presence of Krusty the Clown (voiced by Hank Azaria).

Krusty's head-bashing kids show finally has run afoul of timid programming execs. They demand that he accept a new squeaky clean Princess Penelope co-star (guest-voiced by Anne Hathaway) or be replaced as host via a reality show competition. So Krusty crumples while Bart can't believe what's befallen his favorite head-banger, who's now all smoochy-poo.

"Why are great things always ruined by women?" he laments. "The Army. The Fantastic Four. Think how awesome American Idol would be with just Simon and Randy."

Meanwhile, Homer endures the horror of no more free donuts at the Springfield nuke plant, making him susceptible to recruitment by a rival head-hunter. That sub-plot's not so hot.

Jackie Mason and the late Eartha Kitt also lend their guest voices before the episode ends on a grateful note.

"Thanks for 20 wonderful years," it says in the closing credits. "Now stay tuned for three Seth MacFarlane shows."

Actually, just one MacFarlane creation, The Cleveland Show, is scheduled to follow The Simpsons this Sunday. So perhaps they'll amend that before air time. Still, the point is well taken while the truth remains obvious. If not for The Simpsons, there'd be no "Animation Domination" -- on Fox or anywhere else.

ABC's love connections are hardly heart-healthy

Dallas flyboy Jake Pavelka of The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love and Jennifer of Conveyor Belt of Love. Both launch Monday on ABC.

Love, American Broadcasting Company style, is strictly stupid Cupid Monday night.

For openers, studly Dallas flyboy Jake Pavelka begins sorting through 25 awestruck beauties on ABC's two-hour premiere of The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love (7 p.m. central). It's the 14th edition of the long-running "romance reality" series.

Then comes Conveyor Belt of Love (9 p.m. central), a one-hour special apparently designed to pound brain cells senseless with a two-by-four before implanting them in Joey Lawrence. Very simply put, 30 men are presented to five women -- for one minute each on a continuous conveyor belt. Finalists get to go on dates "in the hope of finding a true connection."

The Bachelor is on a bit higher plane, with pilot Pavelka getting a second flight after being rejected on The Bachelorette by Jillian Harris, whom he supposedly envisioned as his future wife.

"I was crushed," he relates in the early minutes of ABC's preview video. "And now I'm back at square one. Nice guys finish last. It's been the story of my life."

Jake, 31, remains swoon-worthy yet loveless. His perfectly sculpted bare torso, flashed frequently during an introductory segment, apparently hasn't been enough to land him much more than a series of one-night stands. Perhaps it's because he comes off as too "intense," Jake tells host Chris Harrison, who still plays his part with an impenetrable earnestness.

At one point, Harrison actually asks, "Would you give up flying for love?"

Jake, after a few seconds of feigned reflection, submits a reality TV groaner for the ages: "You know what? Love is more powerful than flying."

Rats. Just a few minutes earlier, Jake had pledged his undying allegiance to the friendly skies. That's because "flying is like a drug," he emoted. "It bites you and you're hooked. Just like being in love."

He'll winnow the field from 25 to 15 by the end of Monday's two-hour helping. And all of his suitors go prototypically goo-gah after Harrison proclaims, "Let the journey begin."

One woman wants to feel his abs. Another says that her name, Rozlyn, "actually means 'Little Rose.' " So clearly they were meant to be.

Jake of course warmly greets each of the eye-batters with a little patter and flatter before sending them inside to await him in the show's all-purpose Malibu mansion.

"I am so shocked at how beautiful he was," says one lady in waiting.

"I feel like I'm in love with him already," says another."

OK, enough.

ABC thoughtfully provided only a handful of short clips from Conveyor Belt of Love. In one of 'em, subtitled "Buns of Steel," 25-year-old Johnny Pride conveyor-belts into view wearing only black briefs and carrying a small dog he's dubbed Princess in daytime and Rambo at night.

A woman named Keiko hoists her "Interested" sign because "I think it's courageous and I love it." But Jennifer (pictured above) demurs, telling Johnny, "I would be terrified to leave you with my children. I don't have children, but if I did, they would not be with you."

And so on.

Both Bachelor and Conveyor Belt are love-shtick for one another. Which makes them a perfectly vacuous couple on a Monday night where most of D-FW's hearts should belong to TCU's unbeaten football team. They'll be playing the field -- and Boise State -- in Fox's competing Fiesta Bowl. Horned Frogs trump pseudo Prince Charmings. Gotta love it.