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New series review: Hey Paula (Bravo)

Paula with her four Chihuahuas and looking a little glassy-eyed.

Premiering: Thursday, June 28, with back-to-back half-hour episodes at 9 p.m. (central) on Bravo
Starring: Paula Abdul, hairstylist Daniel, publicist Jeff, wardrobe assistant Kylie and Chihuahuas Bessie Moo, Chomps, Thumbelina and Tulip
Directed by: Jason Sands

Two quotes leap from the video pages of Bravo's new fine arts production, Hey Paula.

The first one actually is kind of clever. And that's pretty astounding when one considers the source -- Paula Abdul herself.

"Last time I had a hit record, Bill and Hillary were having sex," she quips. "That's a long time ago."

It'll go perfectly alongside two recent YouTube tongue-waggers -- the "Obama girl" video and Hillary-Bill's counter-striking spoof of The Sopranos' climactic diner scene.

Ah, but then the ultra-needy Abdul has to un-redeem herself by saying, "I'm tired of people not treating me like the gift that I am."

That's the last impression she makes in Bravo's preview of upcoming Hey Paulas. It bridges Thursday night's premiere episode, which was sent to TV critics, and an immediately following second half-hour, which was not.

Abdul, in her view, is beloved by her many fans but bedeviled by media sharks.

"You know, I'm just like everyone else," she explains. "I have good days -- and bad days."

But everyone else doesn't get invited to the Grammys -- it takes four hours for Abdul's handlers to prepare her -- before taking a red eye from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to hawk her line of jewelry in the wee hours on QVC. This constitutes a back-breaking work day for Abdul, whose publicist, Jeff, just doesn't know how she does it.

It's a good thing that Abdul has a loyal Latina maid, Marina, to scoop up the "big-ass poop" that the star insists is not the product of pet Chihuahuas Bessie Moo, Chomps, Thumbelina or Tulip. The latter is the one she tripped over, suffering a broken nose during the closing chapters of last season's American Idol.

That said, this is Abdul in "three-dimensional" closeup, according to Bravo publicity materials. "This is my life. Enjoy the ride," she says.

Her life is her own fault. And it's filled with the ramped-up suspense typical of a genre that also has provided viewers with peepholes into the indulgent lives of Anna Nicole Smith, Farrah Fawcett, Danny Bonaduce, Gary Busey, Chuck Woolery, Whitney Houston/Bobby Brown, Kathy Griffin and too many more to stomach.

In Hey Paula, we're supposed to worry that she might be tardy to the Grammys' red carpet festivities. Or miss that night's plane to Philly. Or suffer the indignity of poorly designed jewelry. Or be embarrassed and distraught if QVC can't sell it.

Along the way, Abdul finds time to have a few laughs, especially in response to her joke about Joan Rivers.

At the Grammys, "I wanted to say to Joan, 'What doctor is your face wearing,' " she says before cutting loose with a disturbingly maniacal cackle.

Later, an autograph-seeking fan tells Abdul, "Listen, no matter what they're sayin' in the news, don't let 'em beat you down, you hear?"

"Thank you for saying that," she replies.

Many more reassurances will be needed in Thursday's Episode 2, when Abdul has her famed satellite interview meltdown while promoting Season 6 of Idol. A brief preview shows her overwrought, distraught and threatening to track down a reporter if she's misquoted.

Bravo has ordered seven episodes of this stuff, to which few are likely to say, "Bravo." But for Paula Abdul it's both another payday and an odd sort of opportunity to show "the real woman behind the headlines."

Knock yourself out.

Grade: C-minus

Summing up summertime's newbies

So You Think You Can Dance and America's Got Talent are the only first-run summer series averaging more than 10 million viewers.

They just keep coming, even though some already are goners.

Yes, the broadcast networks keep pounding away, filling what used to be the summertime rerun season with scads of mostly low-cost reality series. There's no relief in sight, with the onslaught resuming after a brief Fourth of July break. Here's a look at what's been thrown at you so far, with audience measurements culled from Nielsen Media Research.


***America's Got Talent (NBC) -- Judge David Hasselhoff picks up Paula Abdul's slack as TV's biggest goofball on a competition that's grabbing 12.5 million viewers per episode. He's fake-walked off the show twice so far, doubling the phony, tantrum-laced exits of fellow arbiter Sharon Osbourne. Please go all the way one of these times. Pauly Shore and Naomi Judd need the work.

***So You Think You Can Dance (Fox) -- The weekly Wednesday and Thursday editions are pulling in an average of 10.1 million viewers. That's roughly one-third the average American Idol audience, but not bad for a Simon Cowell-less production.

***Hell's Kitchen (Fox) -- Tyrannical chef Gordon Ramsay puts the fear in his hapless cooks, with 8.3 million viewers making this a recipe for success. It'd be great, though, if one of these spineless urchins turned on him and retorted, "Curse me again and I'll cook your hand well done on a George Foreman grill."


***The Next Best Thing (ABC) -- Its judges can be genuinely funny and the show's weekly parades of amateur impressionists are mostly morbidly fascinating but occasionally quite talented. Averaging 7.2 million viewers, the show's a borderline hit but has slumped a bit after a strong start.

***Age of Love (NBC) -- An initially dumbfounded tennis pro sorts out "cougars" and "kittens" in this dim bulb offshoot of The Bachelor. Its first outing drew 6.9 million viewers, a sharp drop from its Deal Or No Deal lead-in but good enough to beat ABC's competing Ex-Wives Club.

***American Inventor (ABC) -- New judge George Foreman is a nice addition but so far the country isn't overly wowed by the sight of eccentrics who all think they're visionaries. Averaging 6.7 million viewers a week in its second season, it might grow a bit after all the crackpots are sent packing.

***Last Comic Standing 5 (NBC) -- The ratings aren't yet a joke, but 6.6 million viewers don't have the Peacock laughing all the way to the bank.


***Pirate Master (CBS) -- Much more was expected of this heavily promoted Survivor clone, which is pulling in just 6.3 million viewers an episode in Survivor's old time slot. Avast, it's a vast wasteland out there.

***Traveler (ABC) -- New scripted series are a rarity in the summer. And this fairly well done serial drama won't be around much longer with an average of just 5.3 million viewers. That's a sharp falloff from the preceding and hardly imposing American Inventor.

***Creature Comforts (CBS) -- Summer's best-reviewed new show also is one of its quickest cancellations. Alas, most viewers didn't respond to the idea of animated animals, fish and fowl speaking the words of ordinary Americans. The Americanized British import drew just 5 million viewers an episode before being axed this week in favor of an Old Christine repeat.

***Ex-Wives Club (ABC) -- Its "series finale" on Monday (June 25th) couldn't come soon enough for a network that resisted divorcing it earlier despite a puny average of 4.8 million viewers per hour.

***National Bingo Night (ABC) -- It just wasn't in the cards. The interactive show went bust last Friday (June 22nd) after drawing just 4.7 million viewers a show during its five-week run.

***On the Lot (Fox) -- Powerhouse producers Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett are behind this amateur film competition. But it could be "The End" any day now for a not-bad show that's averaging a humbling 3.1 million viewers.

***Fast Cars & Superstars (ABC) -- Psst, pass it on. Former pro quarterback John Elway won the Sunday (June 24th) finale. Few people know this because the show sputtered to its checkered flag with just 2.2 million viewers in tow. That made it 109th for the week as well as the least-watched prime-time show in ABC history. Gentlemen, stop your engines before you take the entire network down. Thank you.

Going to Graceland: Simon gets a Gershwin

The solo Paul Simon -- and with his better half, Art Gartfunkel.

For much of the time it rolls along at an A-plus -- before ending on a B-flat.

PBS' Paul Simon: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song finds the sometimes somber recipient in the good humor such an occasion demands.

He's the very first honoree, after all. And this previously taped two-hour special (9 p.m. in Dallas on KERA-TV/Channel 13) further enshrines him as one of music's great long distance runners.

Simon, 65, begins the show sportingly, singing the upbeat "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" in the company of Stevie Wonder on harmonica. He's then offstage until a long-in-coming grand finale that fails to deliver the anticipated knockout punch.

Shirt hanging out and hair wearing thin, Simon re-begins vigorously with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a rousing performance of "Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes." He seems to be having a helluva time at Washington D.C.'s Warner Theatre, where the ceremony was held on May 23rd. Warmly hugging Ladysmith's leader, Simon then welcomes "my dear friend and partner in arguments, Art Garfunkel."

They hug, too, but not as though they're crazy about it. This is, however, what watchers have been waiting for. So how many tunes are they gonna do? Just one -- "Bridge Over Troubled Water" from their final album together in 1970. It's their anthem, but this particular version just doesn't sing as it should.

Garfunkel's then gone, leaving Simon to solo on one of his lesser songs, "Father and Daughter." Then he's rejoined by Wonder and the Dixie Hummingbirds for "Loves Me Like a Rock." A review copy sent to critics includes Wonder's false start and game joke -- "I'm sorry. I don't have my cue cards." All in all, the entire effort is kind of forgettable, although everyone clearly is trying hard.

A hoped-for redemption would have been Garfunkel returning to the stage for a final medley or at least the pair's first big hit, "The Sound of Silence." But instead we get composer Philip Glass playing us off with a jazzed-up, uninspiring piano version of "Silence" as the closing credits roll.

Oh no, this just won't do. And it's a very odd way to end a program that otherwise has more than a few highlights on its side. None is more arresting than Simon's incredibly poignant 1999 performance of "Mrs. Robinson" at Yankee Stadium in honor of the late Joe DiMaggio.

PBS wisely replays it in full, with Simon standing alone in black on the hallowed turf while Yankee players are transfixed in their dugout. "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Look for this in the first half of the special, following an introduction by Bob Costas.

Costas earlier sums up Simon as a generation-spanning troubadour whose best music conceivably could still be ahead of him.

"This has been an astonishing run," he says. "Paul Simon is classic and contemporary at the same time."

Some of his contemporaries join in.

Lyle Lovett has a fine and spirited time with "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" after beginning it as almost a funeral dirge.

Alison Krauss and Shawn Colvin team beautifully on "The Boxer." James Taylor has a nice time with "Still Crazy After All These Years" and "Slip Slidin' Away." Stephen Marley is terrific on "Mother and Child Reunion" while Marc Anthony deservedly gets one of the night's bigger ovations for "Late In the Evening."

The program also makes room for Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels, who's lived across the hall in the same building as Simon for 30 years.

People ask him, "What's it like to live next door to a genius?" Michaels says. His response: "Don't ask me. Ask Paul."

He gets away with that line. But you might come away from this special thinking about how it went on a little too long before sagging near and at the finish line.

Even so, it's still a palate-cleanser during a summer marked by a continued heavy onslaught of broadcast network "reality" concoctions. PBS always aims higher than that, and without breaking a sweat. So you could do far, far worse than give Paul Simon and friends a prolonged tumble Wednesday night.

Grade: B+

New series review: Shaq's Big Challenge (ABC)

Shaq and the kids, and with his personal trainer, "Doc" Colker.

Premiering: Tuesday, June 26th at 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Shaquille O'Neal, six kids and six specialists
Produced by: Rick Ringbakk, Greg Goldman, Shaquille O'Neal

Frankly, these six kids are pretty pitiful. Otherwise there wouldn't be a show.

Shaq's Big Challenge doesn't try to demean them, though. And that's important, because some of his young charges are diagnosed as "morbidly obese" on the road to being dead in a much bigger hurry than they'd like. Three can't do a single situp; four can't manage even one pushup. And they've already been the butts of enough fat jokes to last them a lifetime.

So it's Shaquille O'Neal to the rescue -- and on a mission he really seems to believe in. That's what makes the first two episodes of this reality series easier to swallow than one of those baby carrots that one kid says he's never had. Shaq's Big Challenge, premiering Tuesday at 8 p.m. (central), is involving, inspiring and surprisingly touching at times.

Unlike NBC's The Biggest Loser, it's without any carnival midway additives or team competitions leading to eliminations. These six kids are treated as a single team looking to gain self-esteem by shedding all those potentially lethal pounds they've put on.

Acne-plagued Walter, a 14-year-old, 285-pounder, is a lonely video game addict whom Shaq deems his biggest challenge.

"You're not gonna quit because I'm not gonna let you quit," O'Neal tells him.

Kit, one of two girls in the group, is the same age as Walter and nearly as heavy at 263 pounds. She becomes an early dropout, but will she drop back in? It's easy to feel for her.

James, 11, weighs 182 pounds but is destined to catch up in no time. His mother's an enabler, dousing a typical batch of popcorn with two sticks of butter.

Some of the early narration can be off-putting, particularly when we're told that "Shaquille has just six months to change the future, and save a generation" from the epidemic of child obesity.

But our hero isn't portrayed as Superman. He's alternately cocky and frustrated, with his personal trainer and physician, "Doc" Colker, both bringing him down and bucking him up.

Also on board are hard-core fitness taskmaster Tarik Tyler, nutritionist Joy Bauer and O'Neal's former Lousiana State University basketball coach Dale Brown, all of whom provide the show's star with extra moral support and muscle. But the kids are the magnets, drawing viewers in while at the same time bringing out Shaq's tender and defiant sides. He's a real presence on this show, especially with Walter, Kit and the others in his presence.

Shaq's Big Challenge no doubt uses some editing tricks to ramp up the drama. At its heart, though, it really has a heart. These six kids seem all too emblematic of a generation that sits first -- and then has a pizza. Maybe this show will help persuade some parents that this often is very much their fault, too.

Grade: B

New series review: Age of Love (NBC)

40 love? Tongue-twisting tennis pro Mark Philippoussis encounters middle-aged Dallas "cougar" Jodie Fisher on NBC's new Age of Love.

Premiering: Monday, June 18 at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Australian tennis pro Mark Philippoussis and 13 women between the ages of 21 and 48
Hosted by Mark Consuelos

Summer's reality tidal wave continues Monday with the premiere of NBC's dippy but goofily watchable Age of Love

Cribbing from ABC's The Bachelor and NBC's earlier Average Joe, the eight-episode series puts 30-year-old Australian tennis pro Mark Philippoussis in the midst of seven potential senior partners, including 46-year-old Jodie Fisher of Dallas.

He's increasingly non-plussed while adding things up. But then comes the already announced "twist" -- a half-dozen frisky nymphets in their 20s. Average Joe used a similar tack in belatedly pitting schmoes against hunks for the hand of a babe.

It all basically boils down to these snappy quotes from Age of Love's two enemy camps.

Says a "cougar" with her claws out: "It's our way or the highway, bitches."

Says a "kitten" who thinks she's purr-fect: "I'm young and definitely hot. Deal with it."

Whatever their ages, all of the women of course swoon over Philippoussis, whose name spelled backwards is Sissuoppilihp. In his estimation, "I've been perceived as being a bit of a playboy." But now he'd like to settle down a bit, or at least downshift to Lothario.

The women, meanwhile, are either desperate ("I'm here because I want to be in love. The clock is ticking") or dead-certain they can prevail over a bunch of old bags with "crow's feet and saggy boobs," as one puts it.

You can bet the producers put her up to saying that. Little is entirely on the up and up in these concoctions. Take Jodie Fisher for instance. Her occupation is listed "VP, asset management," although the once-divorced, Dallas-based mother of an eight-year-old son also has managed her assets in other interesting ways.

The reliable imdb.com (Internet Movie Data Base) lists 10 acting credits, all during the 1990s, in films such as Blood Dolls, Sheer Passion, Dead By Dawn, Body of Influence 2 and Intimate Obsession.

In fairness, though, you pretty much have to act your way through these things. And Philippoussis capably looks incredulous, dumbstruck, conned, etc. while meeting the show's initial batch of ripened women suitors.

"I have never dated an old woman," he says before almost instantly being transformed into a sensitive soul for whom age is no detriment. He's then forced to evict one of the oldsters (not gonna tell who) before a curtain opens at show's end to reveal the half-dozen little sizzlers.

"Oh. My. God," Philippoussis says before the credits roll, making him the 46,925th reality show denizen to say just that.

Your congenial host is All My Children's Mark Consuelos, 36, whose wife, Kelly Ripa, will turn 37 almost five months before he does.

No matter. She's still a kitten in her book. Meow, baby.

Grade: C

TNT brings The Closer back in hopes of opening a new front

TNT's woman of the year returns to the fold Monday with a two-fold mission to solve more murders and launch a new hospital drama.

The Closer, a basic cable ratings-setter in its first two seasons, has Kyra Sedgwick going for it and doesn't need much more. Heartland, following in her wake, gives Treat Williams another go as a doctor after his Everwood series went under.

They're paired from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on a night that's wide open for first-run scripted drama. The only broadcast network competition is reruns of CBS' CSI: Miami. Otherwise it's wall-to-wall reality series and sitcom repeats. So TNT should thrive.

Sedgwick's tough-minded top cop, Brenda Leigh Johnson, is now firmly established as one of television's singular originals. Impatient, incisive, erotic and a bit neurotic, she's firmly in charge of her LAPD troops. Atlanta, from whence she came, is pretty much out of the picture. Brenda calls the shots, and the men under her no longer see her as either a rube or a threat to their masculinity.

Instead she's facing an all too real terror -- mandated downsizing and budget cuts. Go ahead and catch killers if you must. But do it with fewer people and less money, she's told. Unlike many a male boss, Brenda doesn't buckle under. The grisly stabbing murders of a middle-aged couple and their 12-year-old daughter have her on the prowl without worrying about overtime or other extra costs.

The principal suspect is a teenage son found hiding in the family attic. He claims to not have heard a thing. But Brenda finds this mystifying. And the kid starts to come cleaner after she jolts him by screaming and thrashing the way the victims would have. It's a scene that will stay with you.

On the domestic front, Brenda and FBI agent Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney) are living together in her cramped quarters. All of his stuff is still in her garage, so he yearns to go house-hunting. But she's reluctant to relocate until he finally one-ups her.

All of this makes for a satisfying season-opener with a suitably clever twist to the featured murder case. But the primary reason to watch, as always, is Sedgwick's complete command of the many-faceted Brenda. You just can't go wrong with her.

Then comes Heartland, a straight-ahead, conventionally rendered medical series whose lead doctor of course is brusque but brilliant. That would be Dr. Nathaniel Grant (Williams), a risk-taking organ transplant surgeon whose ex-wife, Kate (Kari Matchett from Invasion), still has to deal with him in her job as an "organ-donor coordinator." This regularly brings Kate to St. Jude's Transplant Center in Pittsburgh, where Dr. Nate has been seeing a younger nurse named Jessica (Morena Baccarin).

For openers we have a teenage girl in desperate need of a new heart. On a lesser plane, Nate's and Kate's teen daughter, Thea (Gage Golightly), is caught stealing condoms from a drug store.

Guest star Dabney Coleman later drops in as the seriously ill Dr. Bart Jacobs, who wants Nate to succeed him as head of St. Jude's transplant unit. Jacobs himself is refusing a lung transplant, which has his onetime protege feeling blue and flexing his softer side.

"I'm not ready for you to go," he tells Dr. Bart after describing himself in front of the St. Jude's board as "just a guy with a knife and some strings, really."

Speaking of strings, there's an awful lot of mood music here. Too much in fact. That can sometimes be a problem with The Closer, too. We don't need an accompanying sound track virtually every time a character emotes. Oftentimes it's far better to just let their words sing a cappella.

Heartland otherwise looks like an OK running mate for The Closer. Williams wears this part well enough, but without making any hearts race. His show likely will just draft along behind The Closer, settling in for what could be a gainful run in an optimum time slot. TNT asks no more.

Grades: The Closer -- A-minus; Heartland -- C-plus

Bizarro worlds: HBO's Flight of the Conchords and Showtime's Meadowlands are invitations to go mental

Coming Sunday night: Real-life New Zealanders Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement and the fake Brogans of fictional Meadowlands.

Two new sets of strangers in strange lands are requesting permission to mess with your heads Sunday night. Anything to take the edge off John From Cincinnati, which already is acting very strangely.

HBO's new addition, Flight of the Conchords (9:30 p.m. central) is easily the more fun of the two. Following John From Cincinnati and new episodes of Entourage, it stars two young New Zealanders who sing a bit like the Bee Gees but can claim only a lone, pathetic groupie.

Showtime's Meadowlands (9 p.m. central) is built around a transplanted family of four who arrive blindfolded at a seemingly protected community. But in fact no one is safe -- or entirely normal. And by the end of Episode 2 we've gotten very dark indeed.

Conchords' two leads, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, are flailing and failing in New York, where they can't seem to get girls, gigs or anything resembling a decent meal. The two are playing themselves, at which they're very good.

Bespectacled Jemaine fashions himself a lady's man, but has been a bit cheated in the looks department. He resembles both Jeff Goldblum and Mick Jagger, neither of which is quite enough to make him even unconventionally handsome.

Best friend Bret is slighter of build and the looker of the two. Still, his savoir faire is positively Dennis Kucinich-ian, which leaves no room for error.

The boys light up, though, when performing two or three integrated songs per episode. This isn't The Monkees, but the concept at least is somewhat reminiscent. Several of the songs and lyrics are very catchy, almost hypnotic.

In Sunday's first episode, "I'm Not Cryin' " is worth your price of admission. It's a hysterical and sometimes hysterically funny song of rejection. No, those aren't tears, but "my eyes are just a little sweaty today."

Next Sunday's second episode hums along with "Inner City Pressure," a sad but true song about how "you know you're not in high finance; considering second-hand underpants." A third half-hour finds Bret and Jemaine taking on the rap names "Rhinoceros" and "Hippo-po-potamus."

Ably assisting their aimless adventures are hapless band manager Murray (Rhys Darby) and creepy groupie Mel (Kristen Schaal), who'd be off-puttingly pathetic if her facial mannerisms and delivery weren't such howls.

But will they be able to keep this up beyond the 12 episodes HBO has ordered? For now I'll have whatever they're having, because Flight of the Conchords seems so guileless in its efforts to be distinctly different. It's hard to describe exactly what's going on here. Just keep doing it for as long as you possibly can.

Showtime's Meadowlands sometimes tries too hard to be a twisted tale of deception and misdirection. Its principal protagonists are the British Brogans, who used to be the Foys before a mysterious fire made them candidates for a blindfolded trip to an outwardly manicured community.

Danny Brogan (veteran BBC star David Morrissey) initially is convinced he's in the right place.

"Out there, nothin' good can happen. Do ya get me?" he tells his restive wife, Evelyn (Lucy Cohu).

Seventeen-year-old daughter Zoe (Felicity Jones) quickly develops a jones for handyman Jack Donnelly (Tom Hardy), who's sorely tortured from within.

Her twin brother, Mark (Harry Treadaway), at first is a mute voyeur who enjoys watching dumpy middle-aged neighbor Brenda Ogilvie (Melanie Hill) undress her inhibitions. Wait'll he starts talking, though. The kid's got a lot of weird hangups, including in his closet.

Episode 2 gets eerier and also considerably grislier. Let's just say that Hardy plays the hell out of Jack Donnelly, to the point where the character is almost unbearable to watch.

Meadowlands never lets the viewer forget that all isn't as it seems. You're seldom far from a "wh-o-o-o-o-sh" or other artificial additives that in fact detract.

Still, it might be well worth playing along for a while. Showtime bills Meadowlands as an "eight-episode dramatic series," which indicates a beginning, a middle and an actual resolution of some sort.

That would be a nice change of pace -- a serial drama with a foreseeable finish line. Don't know how much fun it's going to be getting there, though.

Grades: Flight of the Conchords -- A-minus; Meadowlands -- B

Acid redux: VH1's Monterey 40 is worth a trip

Janis Joplin roared into view at '67's Monterey Pop Festival.

The Avis of music festivals really shouldn't be.

Turning 40 this month, 1967's Monterey International Pop Festival pre-dated Woodstock by more than two years. Yet it's still a relative shadow player despite launching the careers of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding.

That alone is almost enough said. But Monterey also brought The Who to stateside prominence during a three-day blowout garnished with performances by The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Canned Heat, Simon and Garfunkel, The Animals, Booker T and the MGs, Ravi Shankar and The Mamas & The Papas. It was no slouch, which you'll see in VH1's Monterey 40 (Saturday, June 16th at 8 p.m. central).

The one-hour film, airing under the network's "Rock Doc" banner, both recaptures the festival and recalls it via fresh interviews with the likes of Shankar, David Crosby, Grace Slick, Michelle Phillips, Pete Townsend, record industry magnate Clive Davis and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. From what they can remember it was great to be alive on that storied mid-June weekend in Northern California.

LSD, pot and various other refreshments put both the crowd and musicians in altered states. The Who's Townsend smashed his guitar to smithereens back when that was both a shocking and electrifying development.

Hendrix lit his ax on fire after dry-humping it, a sight that "disturbed me very much," Shankar recalls.

Redding signed, sealed and delivered some searing soul music after incongruously being introduced by Tommy Smothers. And Joplin blew everyone away with the bubblin' crude vocals of a howlin' she-wolf.

"She put that festival in her pocket and walked off with it," says Crosby, who's now white-haired, a bit slimmer for a change and amazingly still ticking.

Crosby was with The Byrds back then. And he enraged band leader Roger McGuinn by first vocalizing his feelings on the Kennedy assassination.

"He was shot from a number of different directions by different guns. The story has been suppressed," Crosby told an approving crowd before The Byrds began singing in perfect harmony.

Organized by Mamas & Papas lead singer John Phillips and producer/promoter Lou Adler, the Monterey event at first was envisioned as a rock summit uniting the Los Angeles and San Francisco music scenes. It became much bigger than that, both as a star-making event and a utopian "summer of love" curtain-raiser.

There were no arrests or overdoses at Monterey, at least none that were documented. Musicians hung out backstage and jammed with one another or simply joined the crowd to groove on one of the acts.

Politics were played, too. Townsend and The Who adamantly refused to follow Hendrix on the festival's closing day, knowing full well he'd completely upstage them. And Joplin's band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, at first refused to be filmed in any way by director D.A. Pennebaker, whose Monterey Pop is now a classic.

Joplin's Saturday performance thus went undocumented. But she pitched a fit and prevailed, returning to the stage the following day with the cameras allowed to roll. Imagine what a hollow document Pennebaker would have had without her.

We also see The Association incongruously opening the festival in coats and ties while singing "Along Comes Mary." Its closing act, The Mamas & the Papas, had earned that right because of John Phillips' yeoman efforts to make Monterey happen. But his wife at the time, singer Michelle Phillips, says the band was out of sorts and unable to rise to the occasion.

"My feeling was that we had done a really rotten show," she remembers.

Still, she's demonstrably proud to have been there and tearful at the thought that Hendrix, Joplin, Redding and "the movement" turned out to be so short-lived.

Monterey 40 and Pennebaker's film show that all of them were once very real and genuine. And never better.

Grade: B+

Price cut: Bob Barker's end game

Priceless: Bob Barker bids adieu after hosting his final Price Is Right.

Bob Barker officially cashes out Friday with his last edition of The Price Is Right.

A CBS preview DVD shows that it's a show pretty much like any other show -- except it's his last. The network has asked reporters to "not give away the ending -- we want it to remain a surprise to the fans."

Presumably they're talking about who wins the last "Showcase Showdown" on Barker's watch. No problem with keeping that a secret. He/she sure is happy.

Otherwise there's really nothing to give away. A more boisterous crowd than usual keeps cheering after the game show legend says succinctly, "Now folks, I want to thank you very, very much for inviting me into your homes for the last 50 years. I am deeply grateful. And please remember, help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed and neutered."

That said, he waves goodbye while the closing credits roll. Taped earlier this month, Barker's 6,586th and final show will air at its regular morning hour (10 a.m. central on June 15th) and then be repeated at 7 that night as an appetizer for The 34th Annual Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards. Barker, who's won 17 Emmys, will be feted during the ceremony by Dr. Phil. Meanwhile, speculation continues on who could possibly replace him.

Barker says he hasn't been asked for any input, but did volunteer to fill in for a brief time if CBS and FreeMantle Media can't decide on a new host by the time Price's summer reruns are through.

"There is undoubtedly someone who can do this show. But will they find him?" Barker told a small group of TV critics after a mid-summer farewell press conference in Pasadena, CA. "It's going to be history for me, and I'm sure they'll choose wisely."

Candidates supposedly include Mario Lopez, John O'Hurley, Entertainment Tonight co-host Mark Steines and even George Hamilton. Rosie O'Donnell also has expressed an interest, but CBS likely won't take a chance on possibly mixing Iraq war commentary with Plinko.

Barker, who broke into television as the host of Truth or Consequences in 1956, has presided over Price since its 1972 premiere on CBS. An earlier NBC version was hosted by the late Bill Cullen.

Price's retro gaudy surroundings also are emblematic of the show during Barker's reign. And he doesn't want to see any earth tones.

"I think it would be a big mistake to change the set," he says. "When you turn our show on, it looks like the 1970s. And that's what people want. They keep saying they don't want us to change a thing."

The only bump in Barker's road, a settled-out-of-court sexual harrassment suit by some of the show's "Beauties," was a false and "disgusting" charge, he says. Some saw a silver lining, though.

Barker recalls a publicist telling him, "Bob, this is going to help you. This is going to make you more interesting." He laughs boisterously at the thought that someone could think that way.

A vegetarian for 30 years and a longtime animal activist as well, Barker plans to continue hosting charity events on behalf of his DJ&T Foundation, named after his late wife, Dorothy Jo, and mother, Tilly.

"I'd like to be remembered as a guy who loved all living things and did as much as he could to make it a better world for animals," Barker says. "And that he also had time to do a lot of television shows."

His own TV watching is minimal, but he does plan to take a look at the new Price Is Right.

"Sure!" he says. "I'm going to put a scarf across my shoulders to keep the draft away, get in my rocking chair, scratch my dog with my right hand, watch Price Is Right and sip from my tequila in my left hand."

At the actual retail age of 83, it's his prerogative.

"Tart" assessment: Dan Rather's riff on Katie Couric is deemed "sexist" by his old boss

All things seemed possible when Bob Schieffer passed the CBS Evening News torch to Katie Couric. CBS president Leslie Moonves, who hired Couric, can be seen beaming on the far right.

Disgraced and then deposed, Dan Rather is hardly disposed to be nice to CBS News.

He's pretty much kept his opinions private, though, until diving this week into his old boss's chopper blades. On Monday's edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, the host asked Rather whether CBS perhaps "tried to re-brand the Evening News in a way that Americans just didn't want to accept."

This time Rather took the bait after first dutifully calling Couric "a very nice person."

"However," he added, "it was clear at the time and I think it has become even clearer that the mistake was to try to bring the Today show ethos to the Evening News and to dumb it down, tart it up, in hopes of attracting a younger audience."

Rather, who now has a weekly program on Mark Cuban's Dallas-based HDNet, also upbraided The New York Times for recently putting a Paris Hilton story on the front page. And he noted that the Evening News' new executive producer, Rick Kaplan, has tried to "harden up the broadcast in recent days."

But CBS Corporation chairman Leslie Moonves, who hired Couric and blessed the eventual dumping of Rather, seized on the words "tart it up" during a public appearance Tuesday in New York. He branded them "sexist" and said that Couric deserves a break from critics. He also again stated his belief that the evening newscasts "will die" if they don't lure more viewers under the age of 60.

Actually, they won't. In fact they easily could live long and prosper by lapping up all of the land's mushrooming 60-plus population while letting everyone else go cuckoo for Coco Chanel. Or Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Anna (still dead) Nicole Smith and Nicole (what a waste) Richie.

Rather really didn't say anything that bad, especially compared to what some of the CBS News old guard said about him during his dying days in the Evening News "Chair." He often uses the term "tart it up," and it really has no sexual or sexist connotation. It's simply Rather's way of saying that celebrity gossip, not old-school hard news, increasingly is winning the day. Old Man Rivers knows he's swimming upstream, but doesn't want to be entirely drowned out.

Moonves on the other hand has a huge financial investment in Couric. So he often bristles when her ratings or the makeup of her newscast are broached.

"I think the perception comes from the fact that she's a woman," Moonves told a small group of TV critics at a January "press tour" party in Pasadena, CA. "Charlie (Gibson) can do a softer piece and Brian (Williams) can do a softer piece. But when Katie does it, they say it's a softer newscast. We don't feel it is."

Couric actually hasn't endured that much criticism. It's her ratings that usually are written about. And in the latest ratings week (June 4-8), the Evening News trailed ABC's No. 1 World News with Charles Gibson by 1.71 million viewers according to Nielsen Media Research.

A year ago at this time, when NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams led the pack, the gap between first and third was 1.06 million viewers. But Bob Schieffer's No. 3 broadcast trailed the second place World News by just 330,00 viewers. In the latest ratings, the Evening News is 1.43 million viewers behind the No. 2 Nightly News.

CBS News president Sean McManus, in an interview with unclebarky.com at the January press tour, said he wasn't sure whether Couric's gender had anything to do with how many people were watching her newscast.

"There are probably people out there, both men and women, who perhaps are uncomfortable having a woman anchor the news," he said. "But on the flip side, there probably are some people who like a different approach and like the fact that Katie is not the 'traditional' anchor. So how much that balances out, I don't know."

Couric does, however, have to "worry about a lot of things the male anchor doesn't have to worry about," McManus contended. "How she looks or what she's wearing or how her makeup is or how her hair is. She's under enormous, enormous scrutiny on the peripheral elements of what she does."

She's had the job since Sept. 5. Despite what Moonves says, that's time enough for most Americans to have reached a verdict. Here's a guy who OK'd the cancellation of the Ray Liotta/Virginia Madsen drama Smith after just three episodes on the grounds that viewers already had rejected it.

In contrast, Couric will be given more time to dig a bigger hole for herself while ABC's increasingly avuncular Gibson inexorably pulls away from the field.

Maybe he's guilty of "uncling up" World News with his cozy, cardigan-ready persona. But in the battle of two former morning show personalities, it's Gibson who has the common touch while Couric can't seem to put her fingers on the pulse of anything.

When you get right down to it, Angela Lansbury might have worked better for the CBS Evening News. Comforting, experienced, nobody's fool. And news background or not, I'll bet she wouldn't have stood for any Paris Hilton stories.

Rescue Me: Fourth season premiere (FX)

Mr. Softie: Firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) cradles his estranged wife's newborn son while wondering whether he might be impotent during the fourth season return of FX's Rescue Me.

FX's ongoing parade of deeply flawed men isn't about to miss a beat.

Last week's sixth season finale of The Shield bleeds into Wednesday's fourth season launch of Rescue Me (June 13th, 9 p.m. central). After that comes Nip/Tuck, whose Season 5 is set to launch in early fall. Men. Can't live with 'em, can't live with 'em.

Rescue Me's smoldering torch, New York firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary), was dragged from a burning beach house at the end of last season. He's still not entirely sure what happened, and his erstwhile girlfriend, Sheila Keefe (Callie Thorne), isn't about to fully admit her complicity.

A big insurance settlement awaits if Tommy can convince investigators that he didn't start the fire in another of his alcoholic fits. "We know you're a drunk with a very convenient drinking problem," he's told.

Leary clearly hasn't grown weary of Tommy. Wednesday's early minutes are consumed by his energized spurts of dialogue after 18-year-old daughter Colleen (Natalie Distler) comes home drunk and high after having sex with a 26-year-old rock singer.

"I can't believe that I'm finally the moral compass here," he tells his estranged wife, Janet (Andrea Roth), with whom he's been living platonically after she birthed a boy that's either his or his recently deceased brother's. Life is never free and easy for Tommy, who also worries about being impotent after Sheila cannily lays that groundwork.

Clean and sober for now, Tommy is more comic than tragic in the first three episodes of the new season. Whatever his circumstances, Leary has the character down. So much so that the show tends to sag a bit when other cast members take the leash for too long.

Chief Jerry Reilly (Jack McGee), trying to reassume command after recovering from a stroke, is the most compelling of the firehouse gang. But new cast member Jennifer Esposito makes an immediate strong impression as a sexy, sturdy volunteer firefighter named Nona. She carried Tommy from the blazing beach house and now wants to carry their relationship further. But recent fears and anxieties shrink him to a near nebbish in her presence.

Rescue Me also dares to include a Tourette's Syndrome character who involuntarily spouts the n-word. And Tatum O'Neal is back as Tommy's porn-dependent sister, Maggie, who recently married less than worldly firefighter Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale).

The show as usual overreaches at times. One wonders how any fires get put out by a Ladder 62 crew with so much internal baggage. Lt. Kenny Shea (John Scurti) is another case in point. His marriage to a sex-starved former nun leaves him more spent than a little kid's allowance at Toys 'R Us.

For the most part it's still morbidly fascinating, with the last seconds of Episode 3 providing one of Rescue Me's biggest jolts to date. The series may not be on fire all the time, but it hasn't cooled its jets just yet.

Grade: B+

New series review: Lil' Bush (Comedy Central)

Premiering: Wednesday, June 13 at 9:30 p.m. (central) on Comedy Central
Starring: Cartoon likenesses of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, George Bush Sr., Barbara Bush and others
Created by: Donick Cary

Comedy Central gifted a new president early in his first term with That's My Bush! from the creators of South Park.

That one didn't last long, and this one might not either. But as George W. Bush winds down his second tumultuous term, here comes Comedy Central's even nastier Lil' Bush. Nasty in a funny way, though. At least some of the time.

Bush likely never envisioned a day when former "Godfather of Punk" Iggy Pop would be voicing a cartoon approximation of his deposed secretary of defense, Donald " Lil' Rummy" Rumsfeld. Or that Condoleezza "Lil' Condi" Rice would have a crush on him in this rendering of his boyhood. Or that Dick "Lil' Cheney" Cheney literally would inhabit his mother, Barbara, after she takes him into her bed. Yeah, it's hard to predict such things.

Created by former Late Night with David Letterman writer Donick Cary, Lil' Bush originated as a series of mobile phone shorts before an amused Comedy Central ordered six episodes.

Cary also voices Lil' Cheney as a constantly growling beastly boy who regularly sucks the blood out of birds. Each half-hour episode is divided into two short stories with titles in the old Friends mode. On Wednesday's premiere, "The One Where I go to Iraq for Some Reason" shares billing with "The One Where Pop's Got to Smoke Lil' Cheney Out of a Hole." Comedy Central says the central characters are "like The Little Rascals, but with access to the A-Bomb."

This also is a world where the senior George Bush (voiced by Dave Mitchell) is still president. But we're in the present, with the war in Iraq raging while "Poppy" admonishes, "You kids know you're not supposed to watch anything but Fox News."

His dinky son already has the over-enunciation and smirk/laugh of later years, with Chris Parson's voice-overs nailing both. In the first story, Lil' Bush joins the Army as a dopey way to give George Sr. "the perfect Father's Day gift." Enlistments are zilch, so the Army is all too glad to have him.

"When do I get my body armor?" Lil' Bush asks the recruiter, prompting prolonged laughter from both.

There's a Lil' Bill and Hillary in the second adventure. He's already making out with the Lewinsky twins; Lil' Bush is more interested in kissing 'Lil Laura to win a bet.

Meanwhile, Barbara Bush yearns to be rode hard. "Oh George, you never visit the First Lady parts anymore," she laments.

Lil' Cheney eventually winds up in the sack with her in a sequence that even Dennis Kucinich might say goes too far. But then Lil' Bush goes even farther, with George Sr. taking his wife to an abortion clinic to have Lil' Cheney removed from her stomach, where he's been using one of her kidneys as a beanbag chair.

This does seem like cruel and unusual punishment, even to a president with such low approval ratings. But Lil' Bush can be funny in spite of its excesses. As when Lil' Bush beats his dense little sibling, Jeb, with a crowbar before Barbara warns, "Now be nice to your brother. You might need him to rig an election someday."

Let freedom ring.

Grade: B-minus

Tony award: Season finale of The Sopranos rules Sunday night ratings but doesn't set record

HBO's The Sopranos bowed out with 11.9 million viewers nationally Sunday night, easily outpointing Game 2 of the NBA Finals and almost outdrawing all of the week's prime-time programs.

Only last Tuesday's two-hour second season premiere of NBC's America's Got Talent had a bigger audience haul. Originating from Dallas, although with no contestants from the city and very few from Texas, Talent lured 13 million viewers according to Nielsen Media Research. The Sopranos slipped into the No. 2 spot, ahead of CBS' Two and a Half Men repeat (11.3 million viewers).

The Sopranos didn't break its own record, though. Season 4's premiere episode drew 13.4 million viewers to hold that mark. But Sunday's end game had the most viewers since the Season 5 premiere's 12.1 million. The June 3rd next-to-last episode drew 8.02 million viewers.

ABC's Sunday night San Antonio-Cleveland game averaged 8.6 million viewers to place 15th for the week of June 4-10. CBS' telecast of the Tony Awards, which also in part competed against The Sopranos, finished 29th with 6.2 million viewers.

Big Love: Second season premiere (HBO)

Meet the Henricksons: Clockwise it's Bill, Barb, Nicki and Margene.

So now we turn to HBO's other turbulent family of note. But first a word from Bill Paxton, who spoke volumes about his network's immediate future prospects during the lead-up to Sunday's finale of The Sopranos.

"We've gotta hold it together. We've gotta go about our business as if everything was normal," his character, Bill Henrickson, said in reference to The Sopranos no longer being among HBO's living.

Series such as Big Love, which returns for a second season Monday (8 p.m. central), will have to pick up the considerable slack. The polygamous Henricksons of Salt Lake City aren't as explosively showy or even as aggressively amoral as Tony and his two families. There's a lot to like, though, about HBO's version of Ozzie and Harriets. Or as aggrieved second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) puts it, "There are four of us in this marriage, Bill."

One of the four, first wife Barb, found herself outed as a polygamist at a "Mother of the Year" ceremony that capped last year's season finale. Bill's determined to finger the snitch while traumatized Barb furiously swims laps in the backyard pool when not sinking further into depression.

The second season's first two episodes are in no particular hurry to make ends meet. Barb moves out of the house to recalibrate whether she wants to remain a Henrickson. Nicki, daughter of conniving Mormon kingpin Roman Grant (Harry Dan Stanton), lobbies to become first wife. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) remains sexy and simple.

Bill's belief in polygamy remains firm, and it's never been all about the sex. He's devout and upstanding in ways that most conventionally married TV characters aren't. It's paramount for him to hold his family and children together. One of them, teenager Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), is only being half playful when she tells a new male acquaintance, "I should go. My moms don't know I'm here."

A happy and prosperous home life otherwise is greatly dependent on the success of Bill's Home Plus warehouse stores. And in Episode 2 they're endangered by billboard defacers -- "Home Plus +us +us +us" -- intent on spreading the word about the owner's lifestyle.

Bill and Home Plus lieutenant Don Embry (Joel McKinnon Miller) confront a billboard magnate who uses Lady Bird Johnson's image as a backboard for his trash basket. As first lady, her famed highway beautification project threatened the very existence of billboards. The guy hasn't forgotten.

Look also this season for two fake "polygamy lifestyle" ads airing during HBO program breaks and three mini-"In the Beginning" episodes currently available on Time Warner's digital On Demand channel. They'll also make it to the HBO mothership on Sunday, June 24th at 6:45 p.m. central.

Big Love is a very welcome re-addition to a network that's just suffered a big subtraction. Far more accessible and coherent than the new John From Cincinnati, it keeps the lights burning with a much softer glow than The Sopranos ever managed. We won't be gabbing about it as much, but it's a conversation-starter nonetheless.

Is Bill the most henpecked hubby on the TV planet? Or would you trade places with him -- or one of his wives -- in a New York minute? That's a lot to ask right there, isn't it?

Grade: A-minus

One last shot: The Sopranos lets us off its hook

Tony and family in Season 1; Tony and Dr. Melfi near the end.

It all began on Jan. 10, 1999, with Tony Soprano ogling a nude woman sculpture in Dr. Melfi's waiting room.

Last seen he was shacked up in a hideaway, taking a King Cobra-sized automatic weapon to bed with him in preparation for a long night's insomnia. And was that in fact his despised mother's house where Tony took his remaining boys? Sure looked like it. Backing back into the womb would be the ultimate U-turn for him.

Another question: Can you believe it? Sunday night's 86th episode of The Sopranos will be its very last. After six seasons spread over eight-and-a-half years, it's goodbye and farewell to the single greatest drama series in television's 60 years on this earth.

Boiled down to the very basics, it's now a question of whether Tony will live or die after directly or indirectly burying so many foes, friends and blood relatives. Does he have it coming? Would the show's afterlife be as vivid if we knew he'd not only been measured for a coffin but finally came to rest in one?

Several years back, creator David Chase openly aspired to make a Sopranos feature film. So at that time at least, he clearly had no intention of offing his meal ticket.

Now those plans are off -- for now at least. Still, would Chase firmly close the door by taking Tony out? There's no Sopranos movie without him, and actor James Gandolfini just wouldn't be believable in any sort of prequel.

Tony's fate is the overriding betting interest on the minds of many as The Sopranos prepares to meet its maker. But it's obviously bigger than that. Here's a show that soared as no other. HBO and The Sopranos are inseparable in that respect.

The network made a no-holds-barred home for Chase, who earlier tried to sell the show to CBS. And The Sopranos in turn elevated HBO in the public's and creative community's mind as the go-to venue for programming of a higher calling.

Over the years, The Sopranos in fact became bigger than HBO, with Chase telling the network how many episodes he'd do, when he'd do them and when he needed to quit. He's made a few false starts in that last respect. But now the deed is done, and suddenly it seems like a screeching halt.

The Sopranos wedded family and "family" better than any previous mob opus. That includes Goodfellas and The Godfather movies, none of which had all this time and space to stretch out.

Tony's hot-and-cold relationship with wife Carmela and their unruly children, A.J. and Meadow, drove The Sopranos as effectively as who'd be the next in line on the show's hit parade. In the first episode, Meadow was the provocateur, with A.J. the relatively docile fat kid who'd just turned 13.

Later it became A.J.'s turn to boil his parents' innards. Now he's suicidally depressed about both the world at large and his bad seed inclinations to be a Big Man cloaked by his father's bigger shadow.

Meanwhile, Tony continued to see Melfi until she brusquely cut him off in last Sunday's next-to-last episode. She finally had judged herself an enabler after a bit too conveniently reading an academic study that said "the criminal uses insight to justify heinous acts."

Chase has brilliantly staged conflict and killing while sprinkling in malaprops that serve to take a bit of the edge off. Tony dropped the first one in Episode 1 after telling Carmela that he'd sought to curb his panic attacks by seeing a therapist and taking Prozac.

Her giddy reaction didn't set too well. "You'd think I was Hannibal 'Lecture' before or somethin'," Tony barked.

If Chase has a weakness -- and likely it's by design -- it's his tendency to bait hooks and then reel them in without any payoffs.

Season 3's "Pine Barrens" episode, considered a classic, has left the "The Russian in the Woods" at large ever since.

Tony's near-fatal shooting at the hands of Uncle Junior made him ripe for a spiritual awakening. Characters were introduced in that vein, but then Chase dropped it all like a hot potato.

Also, will Carmela ever learn that Tony ordered the execution of her best friend, Adriana? And what if she did? Don't hold your breath. With just one episode remaining, that would be a lot of ground to cover.

As we prepare for final burial, it's instructive to look back at those very first sessions between Tony and Melfi. Quite a lot was said.

Tony on what his mother, Livia, did to his dad, who had been a strong man until eventually knuckling under: "My mother wore him down to a little nub. He was a squeakin' little gerbil when he died."

Tony on life as a "waste management consultant": "I find that I have to be the sad clown, laughin' on the outside, cryin' on the inside . . . I feel exhausted just talkin' about it."

Tony on life its ownself: "Lately I'm gettin' the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over."

It was a long time ago. There was even a reference to the Sally Jessy Raphael Show. But the closing music for that first episode couldn't have been better chosen. It was Nick Lowe's rendition of "Beast in Me," and here's how it went down:

"The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bonds.
Restless by day
And by night, rants and rages at the stars.
God help, the beast in me.
The beast in me."

No matter how it all ends, play it again on Sunday night.

News series review: John From Cincinnati (HBO)

Magical, mysterious John puts a new HBO series in murky waters.

Premiering: Sunday, June 10 at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Ed O'Neill, Brian Van Holt, Austin Nichols, Greyson Fletcher, Luis Guzman, Keala Kennely, Luke Perry, Matt Winston, Willie Garson
Created by: David Milch, Kem Nunn

Maybe David Milch has finally completed the job and morphed into David Lynch.

The Deadwood head's new HBO surfer series, John From Cincinnati, is intriguing, annoying, frustrating and either sophomorically or bracingly deep. Immersing oneself in its first three episodes is like taking a bath in a mud puddle. You won't come away clean, but it's certainly been a different experience.

This is Milch's Twin Peaks, and the guess is that most viewers will take a peek and then tune it out after Sunday's series finale of The Sopranos. Maybe you'll make it as far as Zippy the cockatiel coming back to life. Don't ask.

Milch, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict, seems to be delving deep into his demons, searching for answers while probably holding out hope that there really aren't any. One of his more lucid descriptions of John From Cincinnati, during a January session with TV critics, shows there's a brilliant mind working behind the scenes. But if you think Lost is deep or maddeningly obtuse . . .

"This is a story that takes place on the margins of things," Milch said. "The attempt to identify the coordinates of reality is itself a kind of problematic and conditional effort. It's changing all the time. What constitutes -- where are we when we sleep? What is our sense of reality at that moment?

"It's, you know, science now suggests to us that what has been perceived as matter for a long time is, in fact, energy. That what looks solid, in fact, is constituted in waves, that Einstein's beautiful mathematical equations which depict the nature of reality don't apply at certain levels. And I think that's true as well about what constitutes the natural and the supernatural. You know, it depends on what foxhole you're in."

No, this isn't Gilligan's Island.

Basically, John From Cincinnati is about a host family named Yost. Mitch (Bruce Greenwood) is an embittered California surfing legend whose gainful career ended with a devastating knee injury. His wife, Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), loves/endures him.

Son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) was even better at riding the waves, but now is a pathetic drug-addicted burnout and misfit father. His vocabulary is strongly influenced by f-bombs, making him a natural descendant of Deadwood saloon magnate Al Swearengen.

Butchie's lone son, 13-year-old Shaun (Greyson Fletcher), is a pure-as-the-driven-snow surfing prodigy who speaks in shorter bursts than Chuck Norris. Grandpa hates the idea of him surfing for a living, but grandma secretly encourages and enables Shaun.

Into their lives drops John (Austin Nichols), who outwardly seems to be autistic but may in fact be Christlike or even Christ.

John mostly parrots what others say and do, but does have an overall tagline. "The end is near," he keeps saying. And in a future episode, a surf shop saleswoman named Kai (Keala Kennelly) goes briefly comatose after John instructs her to "See God."

Meanwhile, Mitch suddenly levitates, and fears he has brain cancer. And Butchie befriends John after seeing he has a bottomless platinum credit card.

There's also addled Bill (Ed O'Neill), an ex-cop who's now a few bullets shy of a six-shooter. Even odder is the seemingly psychotic Barry (Matt Winston), a lottery winner who buys the decrepit motel where Butchie is holed up.

John From Cincinnati has a semi-straightahead character in Linc (former Beverly Hills, 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry). Even so, he's devious in his efforts to exploit Shaun's off-the-charts surfing talents.

Milch whirs all of this in a blender that sometimes breaks down. Does he know where he's going? Do we care where he's going? Is there any intent to sort things out, or are we at best being welcomed to his nightmare?

Later episodes pick up some speed, but not a lot of clarity. Still, a major turn of events imbeds a hook at the end of Episode 2. But then . . . well, we'd better pull up short of giving anything away. Other than to say that those still sticking with John From Cincinnati might be struck by how utterly predictable this particular turnabout is.

All in all then, this seems to be quite a fine mess that Milch has created. Or could it be a masterpiece that needs much more time to reveal itself as such?

Here's another thing John keeps saying: "Some things I know and some things I don't."

Ain't that the truth.

Grade: B-minus

New series review: Fast Cars & Superstars -- Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Race (ABC)

John Elway plays the race card in ABC's new high-speed competition.

Premiering: Thursday, June 7th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC, with a second episode on Sunday at 7 p.m.
Starring: A dozen celebrity racers, including John Elway, Serena Williams, William Shatner, Tony Hawk, Jewel and Bill Cowher, plus six professional "Young Guns"
Hosted by: Kenny Mayne, Brad Daugherty

ESPN's Kenny Mayne is known for his low-key, sardonic approach to sports large and small. He shifts to the role of over-caffeinated lap dog on ABC's Fast Cars & Superstars -- Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Race.

The half-hour competition, premiering Thursday and continuing on Sunday, is surprisingly boring despite Mayne's out-of-character efforts to build it up.

"We're making history here!" he exclaims in the early going, assuming the position for a paycheck. Ya gotta eat, though, so Mayne swallows everything whole with help from an even more over-the-top Brad Daugherty.

A dozen celebrities are involved, including William Shatner of course. Three of them sort of race one another in each of the first four episodes. For openers, John Elway, Serena Williams and surfer Laird Hamilton individually take three laps around the track while pro racer Kurt Busch leads the way. The two celebs with the fastest time trials move on; the slowest goes home.

It's not exactly riveting, even with a terrified Williams screaming during early training sessions. Or with Mayne telling us, "The crowd is pumped up here at Lowe's Motor Speedway!"

You're going to hear the words "Lowe's" and "Gillette" a lot. NASCAR racing long has been product-placement personified, and ABC misses no chances to work in the names of this show's principal sponsors.

Boston Legal's ubiquitous Shatner, who bombed earlier this season as host of ABC's Show Me the Money, is not involved in the first two time trials on Fast Cars & Superstars. He does, however, set the table for each episode. "Fear. There's always that element," Shatner proclaims as only he can proclaim.

Jewel ads, "This is really dangerous," even though it's really not.

Mayne occasionally throttles down to ESPN form, although remaining a little pitchy.

Elway's way with a wheel is "has set a new paradigm for celebrity racing greatness, whatever paradigm means," he says.

Sunday night's second episode will feature a celebrity threesome of skateboarder Tony Hawk, rodeo champ Ty Murray and actress Krista Allen, who got her start in the business as the disrobing star of the adult Emmanuelle In Outer Space series. Mayne neglects to mention this, instead focusing on Allen's roles in Days of Our Lives and ABC's recently canceled What About Brian.

"I almost puked," she says after making a very game effort to keep up with the boys.

Maybe the competition will get more interesting after the field is thinned. For now, though, the sights and sounds of celebrities following a "Young Gun's" lead are less compelling than a rush hour drive. Motorists scream in those cases, too.

Grade: C-minus

New series review: Tyler Perry's House of Payne (TBS)

LaVan Davis spreads venom as obnoxious Curtis "Pops" Payne.

Premiering: Wednesday, June 6th at 8 p.m. (central) on TBS
Starring: LaVan Davis, Allen Payne, Cassi Davis, Lance Cross, Demetria McKinney, Larramie "Doc" Shaw, China Anne McClain
Created by: Tyler Perry

Let's get right down to the nub. Tyler Perry's House of Payne is a torture rack.

Worse yet, the self-described "Very Funny" network, TBS, already has ordered 100 episodes of a show that manages to make UPN's old Homeboys In Outer Space sitcom seem positively Cosby-esque.

Wow, what a stinker. Yes, this is coming from a white guy, so consider the source. But no, that doesn't make this a high-quality comedy aimed at an under-served audience that will "get it."

Not all sitcoms of color can be Everybody Hates Chris, which currently is the gold standard. House of Payne strains to get even in the vicinity of awful, though. For the most part it's godawful, judging from two episodes sent for review. And shows that are this poorly made from the start seldom evolve into anything more than mediocre, if that.

Perry already has made a killing playing sassy, intimidating Mable "Madea" Simmons in a series of Diary of a Mad Black Woman movies. Some film critics have been branded racist, insensitive or clueless for failing to understand the underpinnings of their humor.

Perry, as Madea, guest-stars in Wednesday's premiere of House of Payne. Not that this helps. In what's apparently supposed to be a riotously funny scene in a school principal's office, Madea threatens to slit the big belly of the show's central character, Curtis "Pops" Payne (LaVan Davis).

"You gonna bleed chocolate milk all over this floor," Madea informs him. What fun.

Madea later says that the "two great kings" are smoking and drinking. Are your sides splitting yet?

TBS press materials quote Perry comparing House of Payne to All in the Family, Good Times and Roseanne, which "made you laugh and had heart." Would you settle for simply having your head go numb?

Pops Payne is Perry's Archie Bunker, except that he's reprehensibly obnoxious without being the least bit amusing. His J.J. "Dy-no-Mite" Evans is scheming slacker Calvin Payne (Lance Gross), who needs a fuse lit under his acting.

There's also nephew CJ Payne (Allen Payne), his crack-smoking wife, Janine (Demetria McKinney), and their children, Malik (Larramie "Doc" Shaw) and Jazmine (China Anne McClain).

They all move in with Pops after their house burns down. But of course he doesn't like it one bit, constantly ordering them to get the hell out of his castle. Exempted is his long-suffering wife, Ella (Cassi Davis), who somehow understands this lout.

Pops also has inexplicably become an Atlanta fire chief, with CJ working under him and Calvin more or less volunteering. The one-note workplace is no funnier than the one-note home base. Mechanical acting and a dated, snickering laugh track conspire to make it all even worse.

Fox-owned stations, including KDFW-TV in Dallas, also have signed on to carry House of Payne in September 2008 after TBS has first dibs. Somewhere Tyler Perry must be laughing -- not at his show but at all the people he's snookered. Very funny indeed.

Grade: F

Much room for improvement: Grading the 2006-07 seasons of the six major networks

Just three new series -- Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? (Fox); Heroes (NBC) and Shark (CBS) -- made Nielsen's top 30 in the 2006-'07 TV season. But Heroes hit the top 10 with 18-to-49-year-olds.

More viewer dropoffs marked the 2006-07 TV season, with none of the six major networks holding on to all of what they had a year ago.

Fox and Univision came close, though, with the Spanish language network moving into fifth place ahead of the new CW in both total viewers and advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds.

Here are unclebarky.com's end-of-season report cards, with the differences from the 2005-06 season in parentheses. (Source: Nielsen Media Research's final national numbers).

Total Viewers -- 1st with 12.18 million (minus 380,000)
18-to-49-Year-Olds -- 2nd with 4.67 million (minus 250,000)

Rundown -- CBS' three-pronged CSI franchise remained strong, but the fourth-ranked Thursday night mothership lost a whopping 5.3 million viewers from last season in direct competition with ABC's transplanted Grey's Anatomy.

The two latest editions of Survivor also dropped out of the Top 10. Two and a Half Men remained strong, losing less than a million viewers from last season. Astonishingly, it's the only network sitcom to rank in Nielsen's top 30.

Just two new series -- Shark and Rules of Engagement -- will live to see second seasons. So replenishing the pump is vital.

Grade: C+

Total Viewers -- 2nd with 10.19 million (plus 130,000)
18-to-49-Year-Olds -- 1st with 5.13 million (minus 190,000)

Rundown -- The two editions of American Idol again ranked one-two in prime-time. For the first time, though, Idol's audience levels sagged down the stretch, with overall ratings dropping slightly from last season's in both total viewers and among 18-to-49-year-olds.

House ranked 9th, its highest finish ever. It also had a slight increase in viewership, a rarity these days.

Fox also turned out a cost-efficient new hit in Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and used an Idol lead-in to save Brad Garrett's new 'Til Death from cancellation.

24 slumped both creatively and in the ratings while Prison Break failed to improve on its first-season numbers despite a major promotional push and a new North Texas locale. Fridays remained a mess, and again will be totally rebuilt in the fall.

Grade: B


Total Viewers -- 3rd with 9.71 million (minus 1.06 million)
18-to-49-Year-Olds -- 3rd with 4.43 million (minus 690,000)

Rundown -- ABC made a lone masterstroke, moving Grey's Anatomy to Thursdays opposite CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The sexually charged hospital drama suffered a comparatively slight erectile dysfunction (down one million viewers) while taking five times that many away from CSI while while easily beating it among 18-to-49-year-olds.

Dancing with the Stars also scored big, finishing with more momentum than American Idol. The new Ugly Betty made ratings inroads on a highly competitive Thursday night, but audiences drooped in the season's second half. Another freshman, Brothers & Sisters performed well enough in its post-Desperate Housewives slot to be invited back.

ABC otherwise struggled, with the third seasons of Desperate Housewives and Lost lagging well behind their sophomore years. The network again struggled on the comedy front, and had to issue early pink slips to a trio of high-profile serial dramas -- The Nine, Six Degrees and Day Break.

Overall ABC suffered the sharpest year-to-year audience dropoffs of any network despite renewing five new series.

Grade: C

Total Viewers -- 4th with 8.66 million (minus 1.02 million)
18-to-49-Year-Olds -- 4th with 3.90 million (minus 340,000)

Rundown -- Sometimes quality only counts in horseshoes. And only one critically praised NBC series -- Heroes -- delivered big audiences last season. It ranked ninth with 18-to-49-year-olds, easily the best show of any new series. And Heroes finished 22nd in the total viewer Nielsens, giving the Peacock its only scripted show in the top 30.

Much-praised newcomers Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock have been renewed despite sickly ratings. And NBC's holdover comedy gems -- My Name Is Earl, The Office and Scrubs -- respectively ranked 66th, 80th and -- yikes -- 125th in the overall prime-time Nielsens.

NBC got an early season boost from its new package of Sunday Night NFL games, which finished in a 10th place tie with Desperate Housewives. But the second-half of the season proved abysmal, with Donald Trump's The Apprentice falling flat amid failed newcomers such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, You're the One That I Want and The Black Donnellys.

It all left the Peacock mired in fourth place for the third straight season, with no end to its woes in sight despite last week's surprise executive shakeup. But at least it failed by trodding the high road.

Grade: C

Total Viewers -- 5th with 3.63 million (minus 170,000)
18-to-49-Year-Olds -- 5th with 2.06 million (minus 70,000)

Rundown -- Let's look at this way. Univision's five nights of its Fea Mas Bella telenovela averaged roughly the same numbers of viewers per episode as the CW's hottest show, America's Next Top Model. And they drew more viewers than series such as Fox's The O.C. and CW's Smallville, Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Friday Night Smackdown! and 7th Heaven.

Those are eye-opening numbers, and the gap between Univision and the Big Five broadcasters likely will only close in the coming years. Even more disconcerting for CBS, Fox, etc.: Univision grinds out programming on the cheap, but the telenovela audiences appear to be rock-solid loyal. And not going away.

Grade: B

The CW
Total Viewers -- 6th with 3.12 million (minus 3.1 million from the ashes of The WB and UPN)
18-to-49-Year-Olds -- 1.66 million (minus 1.66 million)

Rundown -- The new network had a grand plan to cut costs and losses while absorbing the best series from WB and UPN. That didn't work. CW is drawing just half of what those two networks had. And none of its shows has benefited in ratings from this downsizing.

Cases in point: Everybody Hates Chris averaged 4.3 million viewers on UPN and 2.7 million on CW. Supernatural averaged 3.9 million viewers on WB and 3 million on CW. And so on.

Grade: F

New series review: Creature Comforts (CBS)

Owls and poodles help to make Creature Comforts a hoot and a howl.

Premiering: Monday, June 4 at 7 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring:: A menagerie of animated fish, fowl, animals, insects, etc.
Created by: Nick Park

By all means put words in their mouths. Because pigs, alligators, horses, bees, owls, dogs, cats, monkeys, rabbits and other non-humans prove to be very able stand-ins for America's upright citizenry.

CBS' Creature Comforts, niftily adapted from the same-named British series, is bitingly, inventively and seriously funny. Monday's premiere turns words on their ears in ways that make this show the long, hot summer's surprise comedy cool spot.

Everything about it is simply irresistible, whether the humor is gamey, cuddly or very obvious on the face of it. As when a porcupine mouths a human saying, "I'm not really scared of needles."

Dialogue is drawn from interviews with so-called "ordinary Americans" who pour out their views on topics such as "Secrets & Lies" and "Animal Magnetism." A wide variety of stop-action creatures take it from there. They're all brought to life by Aardman Animations, which also made the much-praised feature films Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

We begin with an out-of-body segment that's not really typical of the show. A man discoursing on wine is turned into two dogs sniffing another's butt.

"It smells pretty ripe," says one of the canine connoisseurs. "I'm getting medium to dry notes."

Most of the humor is more in character. A "Pets at the Vet" segment is built around humans talking about their ailments and attitudes toward doctors.

Its fine, feathery centerpiece is two love birds perched in a hanging cage, with the female ticking off a long list of bodily breakdowns. A perfect match of words and images is finally punctuated by, "I'm constipated constantly."

The trick is in matching the creatures to the human voices. And these are inspired matches throughout, whether it's a bee with a coughing fit or a little fish in a tank marveling, "Dry skin. Can you believe it?"

At times bawdy but never a crass menagerie, Creature Comforts is witty and pretty and wise. Humans have seldom had it so good. All they have to do is be heard but not seen. Far better to let an elderly monkey start telling America, "I was eatin' a banana . . ."

Grade: A

New series review: Army Wives (Lifetime)

The characters in Lifetime's Army Wives are uniformly well-drawn.

Premiering: Sunday, June 3 at 9 p.m. (central) on Lifetime
Starring: Kim Delaney, Sally Pressman, Catherine Bell, Wendy Davis, Brigid Brannagh, Drew Fuller, Brian McNamara, Sterling K. Brown, Terry Serpico, Jeremy Davidson, Richard Bryant
Produced by: Mark Gordon, Katherine Fugate, Deborah Spera

Stand ready to salute the best new drama series in Lifetime's lifetime.

Army Wives isn't a four-star general yet, but definitely makes colonel. It's an involving prime-time soap with amply interesting characters and storylines that men can buy into, too.

Odds are that many a viewer will both hoot and root for hot 'n' saucy Roxy LeBlanc (Sally Pressman), a deep-fried, Kellie Pickler-ish Alabaman who actually gets away with saying stuff like, "Well, if I didn't just serve up toe jam on an idiot cracker."

Roxy provides Army Wives' first visual image in Sunday's premiere episode. Her tight-jeaned backside gets an extreme closeup before the camera pans away to show she's a honky tonk bartender. She's also the twice-divorced mother of two high-spirited little boys. That doesn't deter a hunky Army PFC named Trevor from impulsively proposing marriage after knowing Roxy for less than a week.

Wahoo, she accepts and they're soon driving up to their new government house on the Fort Marshall base in Charleston, S.C. The front yard's a bit overgrown, but "where I'm from, the lawn's for car parts," says Roxy. Trust me, she'll grow on ya.

Prime-time combat veteran Kim Delaney (NYPD Blue, CSI: Miami) otherwise heads the cast as Claudia Joy Holden, dutiful but spirited wife of Col. Michael Holden (Brian McNamara). Former JAG star Catherine Bell gets right back to a military motif as abused Denise Sherwood, wife of super-stern Maj. Frank Sherwood (Terry Serpico).

Denise's bruises aren't from her husband, though. We'll stop right there.

The other key players are pregnant Pamela Moran (Brigid Brannagh), who's also harboring a secret, and shell-shocked Lt. Col. Joan Burton (Wendy Davis), addicted to both combat and the bottle. Joan and her civilian psychiatrist husband, Roland (Sterling K. Brown), are Army Wives' most poignant couple. Next Sunday's second episode will put them in much sharper focus.

Army Wives' off-camera headmaster, Mark Gordon, knows his way around a series populated with strong women characters. He's also the co-executive producer of ABC's Grey's Anatomy. His big-screen credits include Saving Private Ryan, so he has a knack for playing military dress-up, too.

Early episodes are without any combat, though. Some of the spouses' men -- or women -- are either in the Middle East or headed there, but all of the action is at base level. In that sense, this is the flip side of FX's recent Over There series.

The homefront emphasis makes Army Wives frothier, sexier and far more accessible to viewers of both sexes. Over There had an almost exclusively male audience that dwindled week by week. Lifetime aims to please women first and foremost, but many a man probably won't mind marching along with this one.

This isn't, after all, a typical Lifetime movie with a colon insert. Even if it just as easily could be titled Army Wives: The Roxy LeBlanc Story.

Grade: B+