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Showtime's Episodes ups its game in Season 2

Matt LeBlanc again excels as himself in Episodes. Showtime photo

Cable's second funniest scripted comedy series -- and there's no shame in losing to Louie -- returns for its second go-around Sunday.

It's Episodes (9:30 p.m. central, July 1st on Showtime), the sharp, knowing look at how the prime-time TV sausage is made and unmade. Some of it's a sendup, but there's a big dong of a ring-true feel to the rampant Hollywood phoniness depicted. Season 2 will run for nine weeks. And a look at the first four half-hours is proof enough that Episodes has improved on its promising first season.

Matt LeBlanc again stars as a "fictionalized version of himself," or so publicity materials say. It's four months down the road from where Season 1 left off, with a nice "Previously On" summation making it easy to join in.

The husband-and-wife creators of the hit British sitcom Lyman's Boys have come to terms with an American TV network's mangling of their show into a broad LeBlanc-fronted sitcom called Pucks!. But Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig) are now living separately after she had a daft, drunken one-nighter with Matt.

Still husband and wife, they get along at the workplace before going separate ways. But Sean is determined to cold-shoulder Matt after previously palling around with him during off-screen hours.

"I will always be pissed," he informs him. "With you I'm in a constant state of piss."

As for Pucks!, its premiere is just a night away. And the preliminary reviews range from Pucks! Sucks (New York Post) to the more rarefied "LeBlanc shoots a le blank" (Entertainment Weekly).

"There's so much rage," says Sean, who's compulsively reading all of them. "Why? Why? It's just a little TV show. It's not like we're punching Elmo."

"Oh, please, no one cares about TV reviews," network programming executive Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins) later assures him.

Maybe that's a signal to stop right here. But no. We soldier on.

Opening night ratings for Pucks! are stronger than expected, prompting Matt to chortle, "This is gonna kill (David) Schwimmer." That's a reference to his former Friends co-star. And in Episode 3, another one hits home when sexpot Pucks! co-star Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe) asks Matt, "Do You think if you died, the other Friends would come to your funeral?"

Yes, they would, he says after a brief pause.

"Even Jennifer?" Perfect.

David Crane, the co-executive producer/creator/writer of Episodes along with Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You), is a former Friends show-runner who knows this terrain and has re-tapped LeBlanc's comedic strengths after his Joey series crashed badly. The guy just couldn't play himself any better, whether imploring Sean to be his friend again or accepting sexual favors from the blind wife of mercurial Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), the network president.

Merc, a sandbagging bundle of insecurities, rages at the indignity of a talking dog sitcom on ABC beating Pucks! like a drum when it premieres opposite its second episode. Even worse for him, he passed on it. "I can actually feel the acid eating my stomach," he says.

As his network's fortunes decline all around, Merc compares it to "watching the towers fall." Carol, his dutiful lieutenant and secret lover, is unable to talk him down from that analogy. It's clear that Pankow is having a blast with this role.

Mangan and Greig likewise get the very most out of their characters. She longs to get back together while he's so far less inclined. Their scenes together can be poignant as well as very funny. They provide a welcome rooting interest, sappy as that may sound.

Episodes careens when it should while also knowing when to settle down and behave itself a bit. It's a thoroughly entertaining romp, with the television industry as a combination Tilt-A-Whirl/merry-go-round.

Of course no one in Hollywood really acts this way -- wink-wink. Oh yeah they do.

GRADE: A-minus

Two out of three cable news networks can be wrong on Supreme Court health care reform decision

Oops. Both CNN and Fox News Channel initially managed to bungle Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding President Obama's health reform law on a 5-4 vote.

Republicans prefer to call it "Obamacare." And they spun it as a "victory" anyway, telling various news networks that the decision will play into their hands on election day.

What a country. A polarized Washington and two out of three national cable news networks screwing up a historic Supreme Court decision. Dare it be said we should expect better? And man, is The Daily Show going to have fun with this. Below is video of the initial CNN report.
Ed Bark

Curry tearfully says goodbye to Today while her body language fingers Lauer

Ann Curry struggles to let go during last Today show. Photos: Ed Bark

Ann Curry haltingly walked the Today show plank Thursday, tearing up near the end as castmates Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Natalie Morales sat beside her.

"For all of you who saw me as a groundbreaker, I'm sorry I couldn't carry the ball to the finish line. But man I did try," she said before apologizing for being a "sob sister" on her final day as co-host.

It's doubtful that anyone views Curry as a groundbreaker. But in her own mind, maybe she is.

The climactic body language was instructive.

Morales reached across Lauer and held Curry's hand while both commiserating and extolling her strengths. Lauer, instrumental in the decision to let her go, then bestowed a quick kiss on Curry's hair while she sat with hands clasped and made no effort to reciprocate.

She then gave both Roker and Morales lengthy hugs while the show's longtime Game of Thrones king continued to affix a sad look. At this point, a thought bubble over Curry's head could have been lifted from The Godfather, Part II: "I know it was you," with "Matt" substituted for "Fredo."

The closing kiss of death, with Curry barely enduring it.

Lauer and Curry, who replaced Meredith Vieira as co-host just a year ago, had "chemistry" issues almost from the start. And in truth, she never seemed like a great fit for a show that increasingly is all about the juicy scandal of the day, show biz celebrity interviews, oft-ridiculous lifestyle segments and cooking. Hard news, which Curry considers her forte, is something that for the most part has to be gotten out of the way during the first half-hour of the program.

Another key to Curry's ouster was the steady rise of ABC's Good Morning America, which lately has been trading first-place finishes with the long dominant Peacock cash cow. Something had to be done in the view of NBC Universal management and Lauer, who recently signed a new multi-year deal. So Curry got the hook.

She also got more than a little ridiculous at one point, reciting some of her Today show exploits while contending they all were her reciprocal gifts to viewers.

"Matt and I -- and everyone who sits on this couch -- we often call ourselves a family, but you are the real Today show family," Curry said. "You are why I have ventured into dangerous places and interviewed dictators and jumped out of planes and off of bridges and climbed mountains and landed into the South Pole and convinced the Dalai Lama to come live to our studio. I have loved you and I have wanted to give you the world. And I still do."

OK, enough already.

Curry said she'll remain a Today contributor, with "fancy new titles" and the freedom to "go all over the world and all over the country at a time when this country and this world needs clarity."

Lauer later told her with well-practiced sincerity, "You have the biggest heart in the business."

"I'm wearing it on my sleeve this morning," she replied.

Lauer also noted that Curry will be part of NBC's Summer Olympics coverage before saying, "Thank you from the bottom of our hearts."

Her dismissal ends a week's worth of behind-the-scenes negotiating after The New York Times broke the story of NBC's plans to give Lauer a new on-air partner. Up-and-coming Today personality Savannah Guthrie is seen as the heir apparent.

In truth, Today viewers never developed the sort of love affair with Curry that they had with predecessors Vieira and Katie Couric. Still, Lauer risks coming off as the bad guy who very much helped grease the skids for her.

Meanwhile on GMA, co-host Robin Roberts' renewed health problems and seniority on the show easily make her the most relatable and recognizable female face on network morning television. While NBC again rebuilds Today's fractious "family," ABC can be counted on to pound home the notion that GMA has the family that stays together.

Curry, in the way these things work, now officially becomes a Today afterthought. She can still jump out of planes if she wants. But there's no guarantee that NBC will provide her with a parachute.

Brand X with Russell Brand gives FX its worst show ever

Russell Brand at first taping of his new, nonsensical show. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, June 28th at 10 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Russell Brand, with consultant Matt Stoller
Produced by: Troy Miller, Russell Brand, Nik Linnen, John Noel

Wow, this won't be lasting very long.

FX probably is already smelling a big stinker in Brand X with Russell Brand, which in its opening episode features the shaggy-haired, wild-eyed British actor/comedian flailing about desperately. His principal topic is a public appearance earlier this month with the Dalai Lama.

Airing at 10 p.m. (central) as the caboose of FX's new Thursday comedy block, the half-hour show is being taped just three days before its air dates in the interest of being "extremely topical and relevant to the news and events of the day." So Episode 1 wasn't made available until Wednesday on a password-protected online site.

Charitably put, those poor saps in Brand's dingy-looking studio audience look appreciably more entrapped than entranced. The star of this ill-conceived show, which also features former congressional policy advisor Matt Stoller as a very uncomfy foil, completely fails to get untracked from halting start to grinding finish.

Brand, also known as the pending ex-husband of Katy Perry, can't be expected to divulge chapter and verse about their stormy relationship. But a very labored half-hour on the Dalai Lama just isn't going to cut it. And Perry in fact is in the news this week with the release of her 3-D movie, Katy Perry: Part of Me. What's more, the film in part documents her split-up with Brand.

Still, the outwardly daring Brand doesn't go there. Not for a second. Instead his springboard is a headline reading, "Russell Brand boasts about sex life to Dalai Lama." He doesn't name the publication, but it's the Hindustan Times, which notes in its story that Brand "bragged how he had won 'Shagger of the Year award' thrice."

Brand instead bitches about how the article says he's 37 years old. And notes how the Dalai Lama briefly pulled on his facial hair. He also calls on the completely out of his element Stoller to throw out some Western culture versions of the Dalai Lama. President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Mel Gibson, Tim Tebow, Shaquille O'Neal and Charlie Sheen are among those mentioned. None of this works. But how about Moe, Larry and Curly?

Later on, Brand ventures into the studio audience to meet a woman who says her brother was circumcised at age 13. He wonders about anyone "getting his dick cut off in the name of God." An audience squirm seems to be kicking in.

As the closing credits roll, Brand is briefly onstage with a heavy-set woman who's said to have the hiccups. "Big tit hiccup porn," Brand enthuses. It could "make a fortune."

It's the worst new half-hour of comedy since ABC's January premiere of Work It, which lasted all of two episodes. Don't be entirely surprised if Brand X with Russell Brand crashes with equal speed. FX is known for giving its newcomers a chance to breathe. And a very high percentage of them see second seasons. This show won't be one of them unless a magical, mystical overhaul can be accomplished in a week's time. Either that, or re-title it The Hatfields & McCoys Present Russell Brand Bombing.


Never been better: Season 3 of FX's Louie clears its own high bar

Louie mulls his options in a horizontal mode. FX photo

Up the subway steps. Over to Gino's for a slice. Then a descent to the Comedy Cellar. All of it to familiar theme music.

Perhaps you know where we're otherwise going here. This weekly open to FX's bravura Louie is the only same-old, same-old in a series whose maestro is a mother(f***er) of invention.

The Thursday June 28th Season 3 premiere episode (9:30 p.m. central) re-cements Louie at the very top of all TV comedies. And Louis C.K. bears full responsibility as its creator, executive producer, writer, director, editor and star. Maybe next season he he can add gaffer and key grip.

FX sent the first five half-hours for review, and they're all gems. But Episode 2 is the Hope Diamond of the bunch, even if Louis has anything but high hopes for everything he undertakes.

Subtitled "Telling Jokes/Set Up," it begins with Louie being invited to dinner at the home of fellow stand-up Allan Havey (as himself) and his wife. The meal instead is something of a come-on, with Louie initially enduring an unwanted blind date with a gruff small business owner named Laurie (guest star Melissa Leo).

She saws her food loudly and has little to say until inviting Louie outside for a smoke. Matters quickly escalate from there, with Leo turning in a performance that few actresses would even attempt -- let alone pull off. You might feel unfit to go to Disneyland for awhile after watching the two of them play off one another in ways that push even the FX envelope.

The fourth and fifth episodes find Louie smitten with a book store employee (Parker Posey as Liz) after his six- and 10-year-old daughters wonder when their divorced dad will get a steady girlfriend. This proves to be another wild ride of a "date," with a madcap Posey coaxing Louie to jump through all of her hoops. Sometimes nicely, sometimes not.

Episode 3 hits the road to Miami, where Louie is booked to do standup at a beachfront hotel. A hunky young lifeguard mistakenly thinks Louie is drowning. Post-"rescue," they bond and then get out and about to see Miami "for real." It's a semi-touching episode with awkward overtones. Because Louie just can't seem to navigate a smooth relationship with anyone.

In Thursday's season opener, he's typically dissolving yet another relationship, but can't bring himself to directly call it quits with April (Gaby Hoffmann). She instead walks him through it before Louie impulsively buys a motorcycle after seeing his illegally parked car destroyed before his eyes at a construction site. Louie on two wheels proves to be no better than Louie on four wheels.

Each episode again offers snippets from his Comedy Cellar standup act before launching/lurching into Louie's latest trials and errors. Comparisons to Larry David's in part autobiographical Curb Your Enthusiasm are somewhat appropriate. Except that Louie is a slovenly dresser, has a lumpy physique and is far less prone to histrionics. You could actually last longer with him in a restaurant or bar.

Through it all, the star of the show remains unafraid to put himself in debasing situations. A plain-faced female comedian informs Louie he's "bad at sex" and has "really ruined my night in two ways" by inviting her to have dinner with his kids. And Posey's loopy Liz gets him to try on a shimmering gold cocktail dress before laughing uproariously in his face.

On the other hand, "Congratulations to you. Because you are officially great," she adds on their first night out. Victories don't get any smaller.

This is a comedy that succeeds by pretty much ignoring any and all "Don't go there" dictums. Louis C.K. just won't have any of that. But his ultimate goal is to make you laugh more than cringe. And in Season 3, he looks to be better than ever at bringing his own unique Full Monty to virtually each and every scene.


ABC's new Final Witness first focuses on East Texas killings

Episode 1 revisits the East Texas Caffey family murders. ABC photos

Premiering: Thursday, June 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Actors playing real-life murderers/murder victims
Produced by: Rudy Bednar, Christine Connor

True crime never lacks for network TV customers.

The latest evidence is ABC's Final Witness, which is stylistic, cinematic and indie music-infused in hopes of offering "a unique look at some of the nation's most shocking murders."

Seven episodes are scheduled for this summer, with Thursday's "The Kids Aren't Alright" re-telling the March 1, 2008 murders of church pianist Penny Caffey and two of her young sons, "Bubba" and Tyler. The dead-of-the-night shootings and stabbings occurred in the Caffeys' rural Texas home near Emory and about 70 miles east of Dallas. For good measure, the killer burned the house down.

Penny's husband, Terry, managed to crawl to safety and survive to finger the culprit despite being shot five times. The real-life Terry cooperates in re-telling this grisly story, as do a number of other people connected to the case. Actual interrogation videos also are used.

But Penny, the designated "final witness" in this instance, is seen and heard only via the actress playing her. And her reminiscences are from an "imagined vantage point," as ABC publicity materials put it. In other words, she's speaking from the grave as the scriptwriters think she might have, telling viewers near the outset, "It wasn't robbery, it wasn't random. It was personal." And later: "You know, the bible tells us God is love. I've always believed that. But now I see it a little differently."

Terry Caffey, who obviously cooperated in this dramatization, eventually co-wrote a book titled Terror By Night. "I believe he survived for a reason," actress Penny says of her husband.

"I remember being angry at God," real Terry acknowledges.

There's a twist, of course. Otherwise ABC wouldn't be all that interested. And the overall presentation is compelling and effective, even if the words given to Penny may not really reflect her thinking.

The aforementioned indie music comes from the likes of Mr. Gnome, The Antlers, Marissa Nadler, Jana Hunteer and Sam Amidon. It's meant to be "haunting," and often is in tandem with actor re-enactments leading up to the grisly multiple murders.

Final Witness has more texture and bite than most of TV's myriad explorations of the true crime realm. It pays equal attention to the victims while giving voice to at least one who never got a chance to say goodbye.

GRADE: B-minus

Sheen makes return deposits in FX's Anger Management

It's you know who, fittingly captured against a clouded sky. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, June 28th with back-to-back episodes at 8 and 8:30 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Shawnee Smith, Selma Blair, Noureen DeWulf, Daniela Bobadilla, Barry Cortin, Brett Butler, Derek Richardson, Michael Boatman, Darius McCrary, James Black, Michael Arden
Produced by: Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan, Mark Burg, Joe Roth,Vince Totino

OK, let's not over-analyze this -- except maybe from a pure business standpoint.

Anger Management, starring Charlie Sheen as a therapist in need of therapy, is FX's calculated risk to strike while his iron is still reasonably hot.

On a network specializing in flawed male characters, it's also the first multi-camera comedy series spiked with a laugh track. Because that's how Sheen rolled on Two and a Half Men until he lost his head, went batshit and then mounted an apology tour following his disastrous Violent Torpedo of Truth tour.

Business is business in Hollywood and anywhere else. And if Sheen as another womanizing version of himself is still a ratings winner, 90 more half-hours beyond FX's initial 10-episode order will be made in an accelerated two years' time.

This is similar to Tyler Perry's comedy series arrangements with TBS, in which both sides stand to come out way ahead on a much faster track. Quality control isn't guaranteed at such a pace. And nothing's really a guarantee with Sheen. But as FX president John Landgraf said during January's network TV "press tour," much of Anger Management is being under-written by Lionsgate Productions. FX's investment is comparatively minimal, with a nice slice of the syndication rights built in if the series makes it to the 100-episode mark.

Anger Management otherwise is part of FX's new Thursday night summer comedy block, with back-to-back episodes leading into the returns of Wilfred and Louie and the premiere of Brand X with Russell Brand.

The title of the series comes from the same-named 2003 feature film starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. There otherwise are few carryover similarities, other than group therapy.

Sheen plays Charlie Goodson, a divorced former major league baseball catcher whose short career ended when he injured himself trying to break a bat over his knee. He's now welcoming head cases to his in-home office while also occasionally visiting a prison to dispense gratis advice to inmates.

The jokes tend to be ribald, of course. And the situations exaggerated. A new ball-busting patient named Lacey (Noureen DeWulf) literally shot her boyfriend in the balls when she caught him cheating on her. In the second of Thursday's episodes, she inquires of Charlie, "How am I supposed to work through my issues with men being dicks while women are showing up in this group as a result of your past 'dickness.' "

(Perhaps it's time now to note that Anger Management is affixed with FX's traditional TV-14 rating because of "intensely suggestive dialogue" among other things.)

Then again, Two and a Half Men wasn't exactly a monastery in word and deed. And Sheen actually is more likable in some ways here as a father who maintains a cordial relationship with his ex- (nice work by Shawnee Smith as Jennifer Goodson) and adores his teenage daughter, Sam (the lyrically named Daniela Bobadilla).

The need for renewed therapy comes when Charlie loses his temper with Jennifer's latest boyfriend, who says that college will be a complete waste of time for Sam. The familiar Sheen motif kicks in when he turns to fellow therapist Kate Wales (Selma Blair), who's been sleeping with him with the understanding that there be no other attachments between them.

"Things are going so well between us right now," she tells him. "We feel nothing for each other and it's working."

Further sex will be out of the question if he wants to be her patient, Kate warns. But don't expect Charlie's "cobra" to lay dormant for long.

TV vets Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure) and Brett Butler (Grace Under Fire) also are series regulars. She's a bartender who looks decidedly worse for wear. He's a coarse-talking patient making frequent contributions to the "Queer Jar" for his anti-gay flareups. Ugh.

Episode 2 initially finds Charlie at a bar with a squeaky-voice bimbo called Daytona. But the crux of this half-hour is his ad hoc reunion with a plain-faced woman named Mel. Back during Charlie's minor league days, he used her as a "Slumpbuster" -- a superstition-fueled roll in the sack with the ugliest woman available in an effort to raise the old batting average.

The woman walks into one of Charlie's group sessions, recognizes him and says she spent thousands of dollars on plastic surgery in hopes of getting over her humiliation. He initially plays dumb -- "I slept with you because you were drunk and easy and smelled like pie" -- before trying to smooth things over by making a home-cooked meal for her.

In print this sounds horrid. In actual on-screen practice it's less so. This is in part due to the very good performance by guest star Kerri Kenney as Mel. But Sheen also brings a little sensitivity to the table as their "relationship" unfolds.

None of this puts Anger Management anywhere in the vicinity of FX's Louie, whose first five episodes of Season 3 are uniformly remarkable (review to come). But it's not a total washout either.

Sheen and principal executive producer Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show) have assembled a strong cast of female characters to regularly put Charlie Goodson in his place -- and even chasten him a bit. He remains cocksure to be sure, because no one's about to buy Sheen as a milquetoast.

Given the potential workload that he's thrusting upon himself, these initial episodes of Anger Management may well represent the show's creative zenith. As such, they're somewhat more amusing than expected. And certainly more than anyone expected this soon from a guy who a little over a year ago at this time was still proclaiming himself a "total bitchin' rock star from Mars" flying high on "a drug called Charlie Sheen."


TNT's The Great Escape can't hide from itself

Host Rich Eisen at Alcatraz for premiere episode of The Great Escape. TNT photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on TNT
Hosted by: Rich Eisen
Produced by: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Francie Calfo, Bertram van Munster, Elise Doganieri

Ostensibly a pulsating thrill show, TNT's The Great Escape proves to be about as exciting as licking stamps.

It's the network's maiden outing in the so-called "reality" arena. But an off-screen cast of blue chip producers, including Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Bertram van Munster (architect of The Amazing Race), isn't nearly enough to ring the bell. The show's non-stop, frenetic/frenzied musical accompaniment doesn't help either. From start to finish, this looks like a non-starter that most definitely shouldn't be confused with the movie that made a major star out of a motorcycle-jumping Steve McQueen.

Hosted by former ESPN and now NFL Network personality Rich Eisen, Great Escape's premiere episode originates from evocative old Alcatraz Island, which also accommodated an ambitious Fox series that got canceled last month. The old impregnable fortress seemingly is game for just about anything these days. Maybe Nickelodeon could rustle up a spooky little holiday special built around an Easter egg hunt.

Eisen contends that one of three teams competing for a $100,000 prize will "make history" by being the first humans to escape Alcatraz's clutches. That's like saying a record high jump has been made, but with a little help from a trampoline.

One of the two-member teams, brother and sister Miles and Megan, is billed as being from Dallas in the DVD sent for review. But TNT publicity materials say they're from Charleston, Illinois. Local angle or not, their competition comes from pals Jeff and Lexx and engaged couple Brittany and Gabe.

"It's old school. But it's so creepy at the same time," Miles marvels after Eisen comically barks, "Guards. Remove their blindfolds."

All three teams are put in separate "detainment zone" cells for starters. Keys are hidden somewhere within those confines. After unlocking themselves, competitors scramble through Stages 1 to 4 in search of sequential pieces of "The Great Escape Key." Eventually, the successful team will join an "accomplice" on a speed boat that will take them from Alcatraz to Eisen, who awaits with a suitcase full of cash.

"All right, it's time for you to go forth with your money," he eventually oddly puts it.

Getting to the promised land basically requires lots of running to and fro in the dark. And with the random nature of this game, "guards" can recapture a team at any moment and return them to their cell to start all over. Lacking the human drama, scenic beauty or physical challenges of The Amazing Race, this first episode quickly becomes boring and repetitive. Go go go go. Hurry hurry hurry. Blah blah blah, featuring occasional outbursts from the high-strung Lexx, who says at one point, "I went into animal mode."

Nothing really jells here. Perhaps upcoming escapes, from the USS Hornet and a Louisiana bayou, will be more interesting from a spectator standpoint. But it's important to get off to a good if not great start with shows like this. The Great Escape instead falls flat on opening night, beginning at the midnight hour on Alcatraz island and then almost instantly turning into a pumpkin.

GRADE: C-minus

Lifetime's Tall Hot Blonde is more about its man in the middle (and the performance by Garret Dillahunt)

Garret Dillahunt finds his type in Tall Hot Blonde. Lifetime photo

The hey-look-me-over title -- Tall Hot Blonde -- in fact prompted a closer look when a review DVD arrived in the mail earlier this month.

Clinching the deal was a starring role for Garret Dillahunt, currently the dense dad on Fox's Raising Hope and previously Wild Bill Hickok's killer on HBO's Deadwood before returning in a different role as a prostitute murderer.

It also helped that this Lifetime movie marks Courteney Cox's "longform directorial debut." She also has a small part in Tall Hot Blonde, which premieres on Saturday, June 23rd at 7 p.m. (central).

It's not about a strip club frequenter. Nor does it document the events leading up to Stacy Kiebler's current romance with George Clooney after first gaining fame as a wrestling star and third-place Dancing with the Stars finisher.

Tall Hot Blonde is much tamer than that. Based on a true crime and spinning off a 2009 documentary film of the same name, this is the saga of a bored middle-aged small town Michigan factory worker who belatedly discovers the joys of Internet chatting with an 18-year-old looker.

Dillahunt plays Thomas Montgomery, the guy who takes it too far before his nurse wife, Carol (Laura San Giacomo), discovers what he's been up to during those long nights on his new laptop.

Like too many movies these days, Tall Hot Blonde begins with the crime at hand -- a murder -- before flashing back to previous events. So viewers will almost instantly know that Thomas' younger, handsomer co-worker pal, Brian Barrett (Brando Eaton), is fated to be on the receiving end of a lethal rifle shot.

That needlessly drains a good deal of any suspense from a film that proceeds at a glacial pace in the early going while setting up the hardscrabble family dynamics of Thomas, Carol and their two young daughters. Cox also seems intent on displaying some very awkward man over-laughs during a cartoonish monthly poker game among Thomas, Brian and two of their blue collar pals.

But Dillahunt eventually settles into a part that requires him to be a solitary man for a good part of the movie. It's not easy to emote opposite a computer. Dillahunt gives it his all, though, whether being turned on or ultimately enraged. During the course of this, he recreates himself as the studly Marine Corps sniper he used to be. "Katie," his new cyber girlfriend, is mightily impressed with "my brave soldier." Pictures and panties eventually arrive in the mail, with Thomas clandestinely savoring them while walking the family dog in the nearby woods.

Cox plays one of Carol's co-workers, an inquisitive nurse named Amanda. She encourages her to investigate why Thomas suddenly is exercising so much while growing more distant. San Giacomo, best known for her co-starring role in Just Shoot Me, is totally deglamorized for a role that calls on her to be a somewhat subservient wife with a bargain basement wardrobe. But she's made of sterner stuff after confronting her stammering husband and then evicting him from their bed to a garage couch.

The film convincingly depicts the Montgomerys' no-frills, sub-middle class life without making a tongue-in-cheek joke of it. And there's a deft, surprise twist at the end for those who aren't familiar with this story.

Tall Hot Blonde is no towering cinematic achievement. But it's worth watching for the sturdy performances of Dillahunt and San Giacomo during a cautionary tale of sense-arousing cyber titillation amid otherwise drab surroundings.


Difficult birth: Sorkin's new baby is HBO's Newsroom

And now the news: Jeff Daniels as hot-tempered anchor Will McAvoy. HBO photos

Premiering: Sunday, June 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston, John Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Dev Patel, Olivia Munn
Produced by: Aaron Sorkin, Scott Rudin, Alan Poul

Sadly the initial premise is preposterous, or at the very least a long, long stretch.

But in the very fictional world of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, anchor Will McAvoy somehow is succeeding handsomely with his prime-time cable news show by playing it straight down the middle and avoiding all political partisanship or feather-ruffling. The ratings are rock solid, with the only bumps in the road being Will's back-of-the-hand treatment of his staffers at the ACN network.

Real world realities find CNN diving ever deeper into a prime-time ratings hole by still striving to be a balanced alternative to the respective right-left agenda-pushers at Fox News Channel and MSNBC. McAvoy might fit right in at CNN. But he'd be bombing.

HBO's Newsroom, which begins a 10-episode run on Sunday, June 24th (Episode 1 runs 75 minutes), is the accomplished Sorkin's fourth television series and first for cable. He had limited success with ABC's Sports Night, struck out with NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and succeeded magnificently with NBC's The West Wing. For the big screen he's written the words for A Few Good Men, The American President, The Social Network and Moneyball. So there's no discounting his talent.

On the other hand, Sorkin is a man of many written words, which often requires actors to spout them like busted fire hydrants. And his idealism, while admirable to a point, can sometimes gum up the works. Newsroom hits and misses on both counts.

Daniels is superb when on the air in his anchor garb. He's equally commanding off the air in scenes with his go-get-'em boss, Charlie Skinner (splendid work by a rejuvenated Sam Waterston), or former lover turned executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). She's newly returned to the States after 26 months as a war correspondent. Will doesn't like this at all, and their free-swinging repartee crackles in the early going.

But the series also spends undue time on the young love triangle of McHale import Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), naive, fluttery newcomer Margaret "Maggie" Jordan (Alison Pill) and McAvoy's cynical former executive producer, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski). She's particularly hard to take in some scenes. So are Jim's repeated hangdog expressions whenever Don has her in his embrace.

The nuts and bolts "drama" of putting together a newscast isn't enough to completely carry a scripted entertainment series. Still, the soap opera aspects of Newsroom are prolonged and grating at times. And every lengthy personal conversation between Jim and Maggie seems to be held within easy earshot of their fellow staffers. Cue the reaction shots -- again and again.

Newsroom begins with Will a panelist during a student forum at Northwestern University. He's a non-committal participant, though, prompting the moderator to reference a magazine article that calls him "the Jay Leno of news anchors" because of his determination to go along, get along.

Will finally takes the bait when a student asks him "What makes America the greatest country in the world?"

"I want a human moment from you," the moderator demands. Will gets on a roll, telling a growingly stunned audience that America no longer is the world's greatest country because it's succumbed to partisanship and infighting while letting the greater good go wanting. A piano tinkle kicks in before Will's big finish leads to an opening credit pantheon that includes images of network newsmen Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Don Hewitt and Dan Rather. The latter will be thrilled to be included. The others are all dead.

An enforced off-camera vacation ensues, with Will returning three weeks later to discover mass defections by his fed-up staff and an executive producer palace coup by Waterston's Charlie Skinner. He feels that MacKenzie is the only person who can both rein him in and rejuvenate his 8 p.m. (eastern) News Night hour.

"People will want the news if you give it to them with integrity," she tells Will after first re-branding him "Leno" for good measure. By this she means telling the truth and the whole truth rather than being "biased toward fairness." The first test of this maxim is the April 20, 2010 BP oil well explosion, with News Night emphasizing the resultant spillage while rival networks basically ignore this devastating after-effect during their initial reporting.

The principal cast members of The Newsroom in rare repose.

HBO has sent the first four episodes of Newsroom for review. It's set in the recent past rather than the present, enabling Sorkin to reference other actual big news events such as the Arizona immigration law, the rise of the Tea Party movement and the near-fatal shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Jan. 8, 2011.

"We don't do 'good television.' We do the news," MacKenzie proclaims near the start of Episode 2.

This is where it gets sticky. And sanctimonious. And inconsistent as well. MacKenzie's edict doesn't deter her from naming a leggy, beauteous ACN economist to do nightly five-minute segments on Will's News Night. Her rationale: you can't have someone who looks like George Bernard Shaw imparting such information to viewers. So much for substance over style and cosmetics.

Will repeatedly balks at the new ways, forcing an "Are you in or are you out?" confrontation with MacKenzie. Well, of course he's going to be in, with Sorkin rather ham-handedly ending Episode 2 with the embattled anchor gazing at the Statue of Liberty from his posh penthouse apartment after declaring his intentions.

Sorkin repeatedly has said that Daniels' character is not modeled after Keith Olbermann, the terminally dissatisfied and acidic cable anchor who's currently out of work again. One can take him at his word after Will makes an on-air declaration of news independence that ends with "I'll make no effort to subdue my personal opinions. I will make every effort to expose you to informed opinions that are different from my own."

Olbermann seldom if ever interviewed or included anyone with an opinion contrary to his own. So there you go.

Episode 3 also includes a guest appearance by Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the no B.S. CEO of ACN's parent company, Atlantis World Media. She wants Will to "lay off" the Tea Party or face the consequences.

"I have business in front of the Congress, Charlie!" she tells Skinner during a well-played one-on-one showdown.

Unfortunately, the tabloid troubles that dog Will in Episode 4 are not even remotely believable after it's learned how they got started. Viewers also are supposed to believe that the entire News Night staff came in on a Saturday morning to hear more of colleague Neal Sampat's (Dev Patel) riffs on the existence of Big Foot and why it's a big story.

The episode rallies down its homestretch, though, with a galvanizing sequence tied to the Giffords shooting. Let's just note that a number of real-life networks declared her dead. And that ACN in contrast has one of its finest hours. But did they have to cue Coldplay's "Fix You" to further make the sale?

Through the first four episodes, Sorkin teeters between abject fantasy and believable fiction. Strong performances by Daniels, Waterston and Mortimer serve to offset some of Newsroom's excesses and missteps. But they can't negate them.

With six hours to go in Season 1, the old Murrow sign-off seems apt. Good night and good luck. Meanwhile, we'll grade Newsroom on the curve, because the promise is still there.


CBS strikes back, fake-announcing new Dancing On the Stars series from Hollywood graveyard

It's an eye for an eye in the Eye network's war with ABC.

Reacting to its inability to stop ABC's Big Brother knockoff, The Glass House, from premiering Monday night, CBS has sent out a withering publicity release on behalf of its purported new show, Dancing On the Stars.

The headline dubs it "an exciting and completely original reality program that owes its concept and execution to nobody at all."

Fox News Channel has been known to occasionally take pointed shots at CNN and MSNBC in its announcements to TV writers. But this is unprecedented on the part of CBS -- and damned funny, too.

Dancing on the Stars, says CBS, will be "broadcast live from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and will feature moderately famous and sort of well-known people you almost recognize competing for big prizes by dancing on the graves of some of Hollywood's most iconic and well-beloved stars of stage and screen."

And if permission is not granted by the cemetery, "approaches will be made to Westwood Village Memorial Park, where equally scintillating luminaries are interred," says CBS.

"This very creative enterprise will bring a new sense of energy and fun that's totally unlike anything anywhere else, honest," an unidentified CBS spokesperson assures. "Given the current creative and legal environment in the reality programming business, we're sure nobody will have any problem with this title or our upcoming half-hour comedy for primetime, Postmodern Family.

Why, those cheeky monkeys.

In reality, CBS is just blowing off steam. And it's pretty cool to see its PR department go a little wild and crazy.

Also in reality, Glass House bombed in its Monday debut, drawing the fewest viewers nationally (3.98 million) of any prime-time program on the Big Four broadcast networks.

But CBS couldn't resist anyway, perhaps goading ABC into developing more "new" series of its own, such as NC-Eye-S and The Badda Bing Theory.

Any other suggestions?

The Soul Man cometh -- on the same path as TV Land's other laughers

Cedric The Entertainer and Niecy Nash in The Soul Man. TV Land photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 20th at 9 p.m. (central) on TV Land
Starring: Cedric The Entertainer, Niecy Nash, John Beasley, Jazz Raycole, Wesley Jonathan
Produced by: Suzanne Martin, Cedric The Entertainer, Eric Rhone, Sean Hayes, Todd Milliner

Still preaching that old time sitcom religion, TV Land offers up another one about the preacher son of a preacher man.

At least they're on a mission.

The Soul Man, originally titled Have Faith, follows broadly in the steps of TV Land's four other laughers -- the pace-setting Hot In Cleveland and Retired at 35, Happily Divorced and The Exes.

All are taped before a live studio audience in the "multi-cam" format. Laugh track sweeteners are used when deemed necessary and familiar stars are a must.

TV Land came to the rescue of this time-honored and still durable format after most broadcast and cable networks (save for CBS) increasingly went the route of "smart" single-cam comedies filmed without studio audiences and absent any built-in guffaws. They're basically the anti-Community brigade, coming at you with straight-on, easily absorbed punch lines. Snarky they're not. Amusing they occasionally are, although certainly not in league with all-time multi-cam greats such as The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond.

Spun from a character introduced during Hot In Cleveland's second season, Soul Man presents Cedric The Entertainer and Niecy Nash as devoted husband and wife. He's former R&B star Boyce "The Voice" Ballentine, whose "Sex Wichoo" single once topped the charts. She's Lolly Ballentine, who's just opened the Lolly B beauty salon in hopes of being something more than a preacher's spouse. They have a teenage daughter named Lyric (Jazz Raycole), who so far only mildly sasses her parents.

The family has relocated from Vegas to St. Louis, where Boyce's cantankerous father Barton (John Beasley) has bequeathed the First Church of St. Louis to his son. The old man's a meddler, of course, and very hard to please. But Beasley delivers his lines with an assured zing, particularly in an Episode 2 that's built around their oft-fractious relationship.

Boyce also has a stereotypically shiftless brother named Stamps (Wesley Jonathan), who drifts in and out of the first two half-hours and could easily be lost in transition.

The loving relationship between Boyce and Lolly has some sharp edges but not to the point where they're always bellowing at one another. Her low-cut dresses keep the minister on his toes, and she wants her father-in-law to get a little action, too.

"All your dad needs is a good woman and a little blue pill," she tells Boyce. "Lack of booty makes you moody."

Wouldn't you know it, though, Episode 2 finds the old man dropping in just as Boyce is about to race upstairs to Lolly with a can of whipped cream and spatula in hand. Barton is soon grousing about how "movies are the No. 1 place to catch head lice." Kind of ruins the mood.

Still, Soul Man is subtler than those very loud TBS black family sitcoms from the Tyler Perry assembly line. Boyce also finds time to don some colorful church robes, sing along with his congregation and do a little parishioner counseling in tandem with his "senior advisor" father.

Cedric the Entertainer, Nash and Beasley go with this flow -- and flow pretty well. They give their network a fifth sitcom cut from the same mold. What's old is sometimes new, though. And TV Land has found its way.


More retro: Arsenio Hall hopes to re-emerge as night light

Arsenio Hall on display during January TV "press tour." Photo: Ed Bark

Dallas came back, so why not Arsenio, too?

Retro thinking will be hitting homes again in September 2013 when the former host of The Arsenio Hall Show returns to late night on a mix of Tribune-owned and CBS stations where "duopolies" exist. The carrier in D-FW, at 10 p.m. weeknights, will be CW33, one of 17 TV stations run by Tribune. Tribune is partnering with CBS Television Distribution in producing the show.

Hall will have far more company this time. When his original show premiered in January 1989, he faced off against NBC's The Tonight Show in Johnny Carson's waning years and the short-lived Pat Sajak Show on CBS. In the 10 to 11 p.m. slot, he'll now be competing with talk/comedy shows hosted by Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Chelsea Handler.

Hall's original syndicated show, which ran until May 1994, had a party atmosphere and a wealth of minority guests who mostly hadn't been part of the late night mix. But his most famous show, in June 1992, featured then presidential candidate Bill Clinton showcasing his sax appeal by playing "Heartbreak Hotel" with the house band.

"It's nice to see a Democrat blow something besides the election," Hall joked. The appearance was credited with bolstering Clinton's standing with minority and younger voters in his successful campaign to unseat President George H.W. Bush.

"It's an amazing thing to be going home to my old friends and colleagues and firing up our 'Night Thing,' " Hall said in a publicity release. "Let's get busy -- again!"

Hall, 56, won't have the same appeal he once had with younger viewers. But CBS Television Distribution president John Nogawski figures that Hall's 18-to-34-year-old fans are "now right in the middle of the late-night core audience of 35-54. Years ago, he transcended time periods and attracted a cross-over audience while bringing a fresh perspective to late night. That same need in the market exists today as when we originally launched. We are looking forward to the same success with Arsenio's seasoned expertise and appeal in this genre."

Hall recently had a big dose of prime-time exposure, going the distance to win this year's edition of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice. From 2003-'04 he hosted a new version of Star Search on CBS. It was produced by 2929 Entertainment, a venture of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and his business partner, Todd Wagner.

Asked about returning to TV as a host during a panel at last summer's Television Critics Association "press tour," Hall said, "I would love to. It's pretty crowded out there. I'm not sure if it's too crowded for a (then) 55-year-old guy to re-emerge. But if they give me a little daylight, I'm going to slide into it."

And so he will.

Another Palin continues to lament media treatment while seeking further attention in Lifetime's Bristol Palin: Life's a Tripp

Bristol Palin and son Tripp have a moment. Lifetime photo

Premiering: Tuesday, June 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on Lifetime with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Bristol Palin, Tripp Palin and other assorted Palins
Produced by: David McKenzie, Jim Romanovich, David Martin

No, Bristol Palin initially didn't ask to be more than the minor celebrity daughter of a rootin' tootin' little-known Alaska governor.

But then came that little 2008 presidential campaign. And "all of a sudden my personal life was front page news," she laments at the outset of her latest attempt to stay in the spotlight.

Having written a book, lectured on sexual abstinence and placed third on ABC's Dancing with the Stars, the single mom Palin with the son named Tripp takes her dubious talents to Lifetime in the 10-episode Bristol Palin: Life's a Tripp. Keeping up with the Kardashians isn't just the name of the E! network's drivel-athon. It also seems to be the mission of the Palins while they simultaneously flaunt their persecution complexes.

"Even though it seemed like the media was trying to tear me down, my faith, my family and my friends held me up," 21-year-old Bristol proclaims before her new series finds her jetting off to Hollywood with reluctant older sister Willow in tow.

Ostensibly she's uprooting in the interests of her new job with Help the Children. But the sum total of her workplace experience in Tuesday's back-to-back episodes is a very brief drive-by through L.A.'s "skid row." Bristol tells her boss that she's not familiar with that term. OK, enough of that yucky stuff.

After arriving at the posh and conveniently vacant Hollywood Hills mansion of a "family friend," Bristol and Willow go clothes-shopping -- everything's too shi shi or skimpy -- before younger sis hits the Saddle Ranch bar in the company of visiting friends Jacob and Marissa. This is where the "drama" kicks in, although it's already been all over youtube for the past eight months.

While Bristol tries her hand at riding a mechanical bull, a lout yells out, "Did you ride Levi like that? Your mother's a whore."

In the spirit of Jersey Shore, Bristol must confront the imbecile while cameras roll. The guy, who says he's 47 after being asked his age, continues to decry Sarah Palin as a "devil," primarily because she "lives, she breathes."

Bristol then supplies the cliffhanger from Episode 1 to 2 by inquiring why he feels that way. "Is it because you're a homosexual?" she demands before viewers are left with a "To Be Continued" alert.

They resume their pointed exchange in Episode 2, with the instigator and a pal spewing expletives before Bristol exits to tearily phone both her Alaskan boyfriend/friend Gino and mom Sarah to grouse about "the hate we go through."

Except that it's hard to work up even a small vial of sympathy for Bristol, who's in L.A. and at this bar in the service of Lifetime-style "drama." Of which there'd really be none at all had a heckler not cooperated.

Meanwhile, Willow grouses about being her self-indulgent sister's full-time babysitter.

"She thinks I'm like the nanny or something," says Willow. Responds Bristol shortly before another weepy interlude: "She has no idea the pressure that I'm under."

Still, the two sisters seem to spend quite a bit of time together without Tripp despite Bristol's constant assertions that Willow's babysitting is essential to Bristol's concocted exploratory "journey" through new places and experiences. Maybe Tripp's hanging out at the catering truck? It's never explained.

The star's former Dancing with the Stars partner, Mark Ballas, also drops in to commiserate at lunch after Bristol notes that she needs "a break from all this drama." Sarah and Bristol's baby sister, Piper, also log a little screen time while husband Todd is briefly seen but not heard. Tripp's wayward father, Levi, is billed for a future episode.

The setups and previews of coming attractions serve to pad an already threadbare premise. Are viewers actually supposed to empathize with a poor little rich girl who lives in a lushly appointed pad fit for ABC's The Bachelor and carps about how sister Willow "teaches him (Tripp) bad things" during her virtually indentured servitude?

Life's A Tripp in reality is nothing more than another Lifetime stumble. Its subjects live off their media fame while at the same time blaming the media for often making them miserable.

In the Palins' case, it's a chorus without basis. And it's gotten damned boring, too, even with help from that aforementioned bar heckler who -- get this -- is now suing Bristol and Lifetime for defamation.

He's probably just angling for his own reality series.

GRADE: D-minus

Falling Skies still makes its special effects count while the scripts crash and burn

Noah Wyle is ever at the ready in Falling Skies. TNT photo

It's been a trying TV year for Steven Spielberg, overseer of Fox's Terra Nova, ABC's The River, Showtime's United States of Tara and NBC's Smash.

The first three are goners while Smash has been sent packing to midseason after its initial promise gave way to ridicule from many who had first praised it.

That leaves TNT's Falling Skies, the futuristic aliens vs. earthlings saga returning for Season 2 with back-to-back episodes airing Sunday, June 17th at 8 p.m. (central)

Its new slogan is "The Battle Is Just Getting Started." Unfortunately, so are the cliches and predictability in a series whose first-rate special effects vie with groan-inducing lines such as "I've never been able to control my anger. It sweeps through me like a brushfire."

That one won't come your way until Episode 4. As usual it's from the very tightly wound Captain Dan Weaver. The poor guy who plays him, Will Patton, continually gets saddled with the worst lines Falling Skies has to offer.

Sunday's Episode 1 finds him telling the oldest son of resistor Tom Mason (series star Noah Wyle), "Your father's a fighter, Hal. I know that first-hand."

In Episode 3, it's second verse same as the first: "Jimmy's a fighter. Always has been."

Furthermore, "You don't get points for effort" (Ep. 1). And "It's a long way to go on a wing and a prayer" (Ep. 3). Plus, "I'm not going to put people's lives at risk so that you can go off half-cocked." (Ep. 4).

The Spielberg touch -- and everyone swears he's always "hands-on" -- seems to have lost its once firm grip. Or maybe in reality he's treating TV dismissively, rubber-stamping the directions his TV series are taking while still baby-sitting the films he directs. In the process he's become a veritable Jerry Bruckheimer, who's also been swinging and missing of late with one series failure after another. Namely NBC's Chase, CBS' Miami Medical, ABC's The Whole Truth, ABC's The Forgotten and TNT's Dark Blue.

Falling Skies ended its first season with Wyle's Mason agreeing to board the alien spaceship in hopes of talking the intruders into freeing his second oldest son, Ben (Connor Jessup), from any lasting effects from a "harness" that had been embedded into his spine in order to control him.

Sunday's first hour flashes back and forth from that time to three months later. And the flashbacks are well-played, thanks to a truly imposing alien overlord who communicates to Tom via Hal's abducted girlfriend, Karen.

Meanwhile, the resistors are still fighting their way through scads of alien "skitters," which look like giant slimy cast-offs from the old kids' tabletop game, Cootie. Ben has become especially bloodthirsty in this respect while his dad worries that he'll be consumed by hate. Given the overall quality of the written words here, one half-expects Tom to say, "Because then the terrorists have won." Instead he goes with a variation, telling young Ben that only love -- not hate -- kept him going for the past three months.

Falling Skies is very much in league with AMC's The Walking Dead in terms of presenting an apocalyptic future in which the remaining humans are constantly terrorized while fighting amongst themselves and always looking for safer havens. The visuals of Falling Skies are in league with those of Walking Dead. But the storylines and spoken words? Nuh-uh.

Episode 4 of Falling Skies exemplifies the series' strengths and weaknesses. There are gripping, chilling scenes of a new passel of children being held captive in an alien harness factory. It's quite a sequence, and not for the squeamish. Otherwise the episode boils down to a gratingly maudlin reunion of clench-jawed Capt. Weaver and his estranged daughter, Janie, who now has a new boyfriend and life. You'll deduce the denouement way ahead of time. Falling Skies holds few if any surprises, although its action scenes and impressively designed creatures still have pulling power.

The return of Falling Skies is a continuation of TNT's big splash summer, during which all eight of its scripted drama series are being rolled out.

Rizzoli & Aisles and Franklin & Bash re-arrived earlier this month. The new Dallas launched on Wednesday and the final season of The Closer begins on July 9th in tandem with the premiere of Perception, starring Eric McCormack of Will & Grace fame. Major Crimes, a spinoff of The Closer, is set for an August 13th premiere and Season 5 of Leverage is coming on July 15th.

So TNT certainly is trying to make its mark. And whatever its faults, Falling Skies is eons better than most of the "reality" junk being spewed out this summer by the Big Four broadcast networks. Gawd, though, get me rewrite almost every time Capt. Weaver opens his mouth.

"Ah, it's just a scratch," he says of a nasty leg wound suffered in Episode 4. Ouch.


National picture: Dallas does well, but it's no Hatfields & McCoys

Family feuds, Dallas style, came up a winner for TNT Wednesday night. Still the Ewings were Lilliputians compared to the History network's Hatfields & McCoys shoot-up.

TNT says that it's double-barreled relaunch of Dallas, which ran from 8 to 10:15 p.m. (central), averaged 6.9 million viewers nationally to rank as cable's No. 1 scripted weekly series premiere for the year to date.

A total of 1.9 million of those viewers were in the advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-old range.

The three-night Hatfields & McCoys miniseries, which premiered on Labor Day, drew twice as many total viewers during its three-night run.

But Dallas did beat all competing broadcast network programming in both ratings measurements Wednesday night. Nielsen data says that Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, which ran from 7 to 9 p.m., was the night's No. 2 overall draw with 6.5 million viewers.

HBO's 41 gives George H.W. Bush his say (not that he says all that much)

Old man and the sea: George H.W. Bush at Kennebunkport. HBO photo

HBO's 41, a Hallmark card to George H.W. Bush in commemoration of his 88th birthday, is the network's first such "In His Own Words" look at a right-of-center public figure.

That doesn't make it right. But it does give HBO the standard "unprecedented access" to a lot of toasty family pictures and home movies while airbrushing or leaving out all together anything the subject doesn't choose to address.

Ted Kennedy, JFK and Gloria Steinem got the same Tickle Me Elmo treatment in their HBO documentaries. It's an approach in which other witnesses to history are left out of the picture. And maybe it's only fair that HBO go against the grain of its usually left-of-center regimen to give "Poppy" the ol' puffball treatment.

"I am so glad to be a friend of George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush," 41's executive producer, Jerry Weintraub, says in HBO publicity materials. "And so proud that our friendship includes this wonderful film about two wonderful people."

So hard-hitting it's not. Weighing in at 1 hour, 40 minutes and premiering at 8 p.m. central on Thursday, June 14th (two days after Bush turned 88), 41 gets a rise out of its subject only after an off-camera interviewer dares to ask, "Can you talk a bit about Ross Perot?"

"No. Can't talk about him," Bush snaps back. "I think he cost me the (1992) election and I don't like him. Other than that, I have nothing to say."

The entire film goes without any mention at all of what it was like to run against Geraldine Ferraro in the 1984 campaign; why he chose Dan Quayle as his running mate in the 1988 presidential campaign; the mess he found himself in over Iran/Contra; or even his past and present relationship with oldest son George W. He was, however, "proud" to see him elected president.

Instead the film devotes at least one-third of its running time to the current-day H.W.'s longstanding love affair with the Kennebunkport home built by his grandfather in 1902.

Some of this is revealing, even endearing. Once a formidable athlete, Bush is no longer able to participate in the games he once played. But he can still get around in his speed boat. Or as he puts it, "Boats, I'm still in the game."

We also learn that Bush has learned to love their new little dog, doesn't like cats anymore than he does broccoli and drives around his compound in a golf cart with a sign that warns, "Property of #41. Hands off!"

Barbara Bush, his wife of 67 years, is barely glimpsed in any current-day footage and heard only once saying, "We'll keep going" while putting together a puzzle with her granddaughter Gigi.

The most poignant parts of 41 are home movies and still pictures of George and Barbara's daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953 shortly after she would have turned four. Bush the elder talks matter-of-factly about her now, but those almost 60 year-old images of Robin may well bring tears to more than a few viewers.

41 then segues to a shot of a windmill on the Kennebunkport property. "Windmill we bought just to be greener than Al Gore," Bush says dryly. It's hard to know whether he's joking or still pissed off.

George H.W. Bush has never been much for introspection. Nor it seems is his son. Both of their post-presidencies have been case studies in relative seclusion, although dad is known to jump out of an airplane from time to time (to show that "old guys can still do interesting things") while George W. cracked some good jokes recently when his official presidential portrait was unveiled at the White House.

The senior Bush has yet to write a memoir and is very unlikely to do so at this point. But he agreed to sit down with Weintraub's director and writer, Jeffrey Roth, after seeing the latter's first film, The Wonder of It All, on the Apollo moon walkers.

Filming took place over a 17-month period, from Sept. 2009 to Feb. 2011, HBO says. It takes until the one hour, seven minute, 30 second mark before we get to footage of Bush being sworn in as president. That leaves scant time for discussion or any real detail before the subject says his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton was "very hurtful."

"There was almost unanimity in the press corps that I should lose," he contends. "They were for him and that makes a huge difference."

The film's last scene shows Bush at peace, looking out at the ocean and pledging to keep the faith with Kennebunkport "until my last days."

41's ever-sappy music swells for a final time as it fades to black. George H.W. Bush, despite his years of public service in a series of high-profile positions, remains a guy who just won't loosen up or, for the most part, say what's really on his mind.

One saving grace, perhaps. Any "In His Own Words" film about the loquacious Clinton would be a minimum 10-hour expedition. And that would be a severe edit. With Bush, a question about whether he could elaborate a bit on his tenure as CIA director gets a definitive "Ssh. No."

But he does say it with a smile.


History channeling: a look at the first media gathering of the old/new stars of TNT's Dallas

Everyone knows their place in the new version of Dallas. TNT photo

Note to readers: The reconstituted cast of TNT's Dallas met with the media for the first time during a mid-January session at the semi-annual TV Critics Association "press tour." We complete our trilogy of reports (a review is here and a reminiscence here) with an account of that event.

PASADENA, Calif. -- The "Big Three" of Dallas, as a co-executive producer dubbed them, fittingly sit front and center during a highly anticipated interview session tied to the fabled serial drama's re-launch on TNT.

Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy at times feel their ages amid the younger generation actors sharing the stage with them.

Josh Henderson, who plays J.R. Ewing's bad seed son, John Ross, remembers the original Dallas as his grandma's favorite TV show during the 1970s and '80s.

"I guess I was born in like Season 4 or something," he says. "I literally would run around the TV and be told to shut up while they (his family) were watching it."

Henderson later is asked how it felt to be "slapped by the iconic J.R." during a clip shown to TV writers before the cast and producers took questions from a hotel ballroom full of TV writers.

"It was an honor, actually," he says. "And I asked for more takes. I told him, 'Just go ahead and hit me.' It's amazing to see them and their characters come back to life, and to be part of it."

TNT initially has ordered 10 episodes of Dallas, with the completed first episode sent to "press tour" attendees several weeks before this gathering. Duffy's Bobby Ewing easily has the most screen time among the Big Three. And his opening scene health scare (to say more would be a heavy-duty spoiler) fuels much of the action to follow in the series' initial hour.

Duffy says the three originals are in every episode so far, with eight of the 10 hours already filmed on location in Dallas.

"That's why we wanted to do the show, because we're trying to tow the load as much as everybody else," he says. "The younger people have more stamina. But we're here and we're performing the functions we did in the original Dallas."

He then dubs Hagman the show's "Obi-Wan" before co-executive producer Cynthia Cidre emphasizes that the Big Three were never intended to be used as "bait for the new show . . . It was really to integrate them fully with the new cast."

Hagman, recently diagnosed with an undisclosed but treatable form of cancer, is mostly working half-days on the new Dallas. But he's still very much a key player, whether slapping Henderson's John Ross or spitting out dialogue such as "I hate to hit a man below the belt, but you know I will."

He re-booted himself as J.R. in order to "work at 80," Hagman says. "How many people do you know working at 80? And doing a job that he loves with the people he loves. Oh yeah, I'm a very lucky man."

Gray, who as Sue Ellen Ewing endured numerous indignities from J.R. before divorcing him, got a chance to slap him in the chops in a scene filmed the day before the cast headed West for this interview session.

Hagman blurts this out before Gray says, "Sshh, you're not supposed to say that."

"Oh, sorry, I take it back. Don't print that," he says before Gray rejoins, "But it was great."

The Big Three made two Dallas TV movies and then had a cast reunion special after the series ended its 1978-'91 run on CBS. But Duffy says he never envisioned doing a weekly Dallas series again.

"It was the heartbreak of my career because these are my two closest friends," he says of Hagman and Gray. "And I knew somewhere in my heart that we could never work together again because the three of us couldn't come into a scene without everybody saying, 'Oh, there's J.R., Sue Ellen and Bobby.' And that hurt me. I really wanted to work with them again. So this is the best thing that could happen in my career life."

"I got a tear in my eye," Hagman says, seeming to actually mean it.

"He woke up again," Duffy jabs before Gray says the original Dallas "should have been a sitcom because I laughed every single day we were on the set. And nothing has changed. Nothing."

Well, there is the matter of shower scenes. Bobby took the most famous one in TV history in May 1986 after Duffy left the show a season earlier to pursue a movie career that never really clicked. Bobby supposedly had died in a fiery car wreck, with J.R. and wife Pam (Victoria Principal) among those gathered around his death bed. But the writers brought him back to life by having Pam awaken to find him happily sudsing. The previous season and its creative misdirections were then written off as Pam's bad dream.

That was then, though. At age 62 (he's since turned 63), "I don't do showers anymore. That's these guys," Duffy says, pointing to Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Bobby's son, Christopher, on the new Dallas.

By the way, Metcalfe was born in the same year that the original Dallas premiered.

"They really bring the history," he says of Hagman, Duffy and Gray. "We're just kind of, you know -- I don't want to say the 'fresh legs' -- but we're the next generation. We're just carrying the torch, but they set the tone."

Henderson then ups the ante, recalling his first scene with Hagman's J.R.

"If you guys saw the pilot, you saw the scene where his eyes opened and he just looked at me. I don't want to say I almost peed my pants, but it electrified the room. It's amazing to see them and their characters come back to life."

Duffy says it's all been a "seamless transition" from the Dallas of old to TNT's new day.

"It was like snapping your fingers," he says. "And we were Bobby, Sue Ellen and J.R. again -- with no interspersing of time in between."

TNT's big, bold Dallas shows that oil's well with the storied Ewings

"The Big Three" of Dallas plus newcomer Brenda Strong. TNT photo

Premiering Wednesday, June 13th at 8 p.m. (central) on TNT with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Brenda Strong, Josh Henderson, Jordana Brewster, Jesse Metcalfe, Julie Gonzalo. With guest appearances by Ken Kercheval, Charlene Tilton, Steve Kanaly
Produced by: Cynthia Cidre, Michael M. Robin

It fittingly re-starts with a Southfork gusher that showers the already oily only son of J.R. Ewing with high-priced Texas tea.

Some said it couldn't be done. Others argued it shouldn't be done. But it's a done deal. TNT's 21st century brand of Dallas swaggers into view Wednesday night with back-to-back episodes subtitled "Changing of the Guard' and "Hedging Your Bets."

The grand ol' soap opera that fueled CBS from April 2, 1978 to May 3, 1991 returns with no need to apologize. TNT, Warner Horizon Television and executive producers Cynthia Cidre and Michael M. Robin have put together another broadly entertaining, handsomely produced, chicanery-filled Big Gulp of Big D. But it'd all be little more than a dry hole without the active participation of three Southfork essentials returning to the scene of their shrine.

Larry Hagman, 80, is still the ungodly J.R. Ewing.

Patrick Duffy, 63, remains goodly as his brother Bobby.

And Linda Gray, 71, has gladly traded in her besotted, victimized version of Sue Ellen for a new and confident model with a run for governor just down the road.

That's way too much Matlock for most networks. But TNT very wisely has given all of them much more to do than walk throughs. Those are left for the likes of Dallas alums Ken Kercheval, Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly. Much more is expected -- and delivered -- from the so-called "Big Three."

Duffy's the workhorse. TNT made seven of Season One's 10 episodes available for review. And Duffy's Bobby is on camera every bit as much as the five principal newcomers -- three of them veterans of Desperate Housewives -- who join the show's elders as bait for younger viewers.

Bobby provides the opening episode's shock value in his first scene. Let's just say he'll be in the throes of a major health scare while also battling the ever-embittered John Ross Ewing (Josh Henderson from Desperate Housewives) for the future direction of Southfork.

John Ross wants to drill, baby, drill with the initial support of girlfriend Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster). She's the daughter of the Ewings' Hispanic cook, Carmen (Marlene Forte), and ex-fiancee of Bobby's adopted son, Christopher (Jesse Metcale from Desperate Housewives).

Bobby, happily married to his third wife, Ann (Brenda Strong from Desperate Housewives), is hell-bent (in a good way, of course) on upholding his sainted late momma's "no drilling on Southfork" edict. He also yearns to end a generation of Ewing dysfunction, underscored in his first scene with a clinically depressed, J.R., who's first seen in a well-appoined nursing home.

"I worry about Christopher and John Ross . . . I don't want them to be like us," Bobby says measuredly to an unresponsive J.R. "But all that being said, I do miss you."

It's an effective and galvanizing scene, rekindling the old, ringing in the new and setting the stage for those inevitable Bobby-John Ross fireworks once it's learned that Southfork has been violated anew.

The fifth new cast member, Julie Gonzalo from Veronica Mars, plays Christopher's new fiancee, Rebecca Sutter. But all's not what it seems with her. Ditto for the beauteous Marta Del Sol (Leonor Varela), who promises Bobby that under her conservancy, Southfork's "vast, exquisite, scenic views will be protected forever."

Hagman's J.R. is still a double-dealing scene-stealer. CBS/TNT photos

J.R. eventually rouses himself, as you knew he would, to reclaim his rightful place as the Lord Dastardly of Dallas. His first speaking lines arrive more than halfway through the opening episode. But they're almost electric. And comical, too. Bad seed John Ross, who had been estranged from his daddy, visits the old sidewinder to whine about Bobby's blocking of his plans. A mute J.R. soaks it all in before at last loosening his tongue.

"Bobby was always a fool," he tells the boy. "Stubborn as a mule. And particularly harebrained about that foundling, Christopher. Not even a Ewing."

So much for fence-mending.

Bobby's impulsive solution is to sell Southfork and help fund son Christopher's clean energy alternative -- hydrate mining of methane. But nothing goes smoothly on Dallas, where only Bobby fully swears by handshake promises and getting even via honorable means.

The first seven episodes are replete with John Ross's trumpeting of his "birthright," Bobby's momma's boy preachments and J.R.'s close-ups just before commercial breaks. Whether brandishing his trademark chortle or simply setting his jaw, Hagman shows that getting back on this bicycle is still a snap for him. He also fires off some fine lines.

Episode 1: "Son, the courts are for amateurs and the faint of heart."

Episode 2: "And son, never pass up a good chance to shut up."

Episode 3: "I'll be there when they put you in the ground, Barnes. Listen close, I'll be the one dancin' on the dirt overhead."

Also in Episode 3: "Bullets don't seem to have much of an effect on me, darlin'."

It's all in the service of J.R.'s overriding game of thrones. When it comes to a certain big parcel of prime Texas turf, "I'm the one who belongs on Southfork. It's mine -- and only mine."

Barbara Bel Geddes and Jim Davis are deceased, and Victoria Principal so far is not participating. Otherwise they're all back.

In the annals of the original Dallas, only one sports team really mattered to J.R. and his cronies. A world championship season by the Dallas Mavericks and back-to-back World Series appearances by the Texas Rangers haven't changed that. They're unmentioned in the first seven episodes while the comparatively inept Dallas Cowboys again are referenced or spotlighted.

In Wednesday's first episode, a grizzled conspirator in John Ross's secret oil digging notes that "Bettin' against J.R.'s son would have been like bettin' against the Dallas Cowboys,. Downright unpatriotic."

That same episode ends with a completely concocted meeting of two conspirators on the 50 yard line at Cowboys Stadium. And in Episode 5, J.R. makes a showy appearance in owner Jerry Jones' stadium box, where the real JJ treats him like a knight in shining armor despite his long history of screwing people.

"Good to have you back in form, J.R.," Jerry tells him before the evergreen double dealer is serenaded by the PA announcer: "Jerry Jones and the Cowboys organization is proud to welcome J.R. Ewing to the Cowboys Stadium. Let's all give him a bit Texas-size welcome."

J.R. grins and waves in the company of son John Ross while coach Jason Garrett claps and receiver Dez Bryant gives him a little high sign. But both of those gestures clearly are the product of stock footage in which Garrett in fact was exhorting his team while Dez was just being Dez. Good theater, though.

Of the newcomers, Strong as Bobby's devoted wife is a clear standout. She's somewhat reminiscent of Connie Britton in NBC's Friday Night Lights -- a loyal partner whom you'd better not cross. Ann Ewing is made of sturdy stuff, but also has a secret back story that reduces her to copious tears in a later episode. No one is ever home free on Dallas.

New blood/fresh meat on Southfork: From left are Jesse Metcalfe, Julie Gonzalo, Jordana Brewster and Josh Henderson. TNT photo

The kids are all right, too.

Henderson has a knack for simmering, burning and blowing up as the prodigal John Ross. He means to get even but also knows the score, telling his daddy in Episode 3, "I don't blame ya for tryin' to screw me."

Metcalfe's Christopher is prettier than his cousin, and with a harder role to navigate. Being Bobby's son requires him to walk a vanilla brick road at times. But the character can't be a pushover and must know how to play hardball. Christopher's confrontations with John Ross -- and occasionally with his father -- are for the most part well-played. "Stop protecting me like I'm a little boy!" he rages in Episode 3. That's the spirit.

Gonzalo as Christopher's bride-to-be is torn between duplicity, fidelity and her growing bond with Bobby's supportive wife. The noticeable scar on the bridge of her nose seems to grow deeper the more vexed she is. It's her equivalent of a furrowed brow. And by Episode 7, her major new development promises to drive the story line almost as much as the war over oil and pristine Southfork land.

Brewster, as the cook's daughter, battles insecurities while fending off or accepting the advances of both John Ross and Christopher. While despairing of trusting anyone, she forges an alliance with Sue Ellen Ewing, the onetime drunken dependent who now has the ways and means to make her own power plays.

Gray's Sue Ellen is the least-seen of the "Big Three." But she makes her scenes count, whether presiding over the annual Cattle Baron's Ball (staged in Victory Plaza) or propping up John Ross in his times of need.

Gray and Hagman briefly flash their old Dallas magic at the Cattle Baron's Ball, where he discards a walker and ambles up to her as part of his faux apology tour.

"You won, honey. And I couldn't be happier," he says. "You're still the prettiest gal at the ball."

Sue Ellen has grown too old and wizened to entirely fall for that. Still, she clearly appreciates the sentiment in a scene that should be bottled and preserved.

It also should be noted that even the Ewings' feisty Latina cook gets a few lines on occasion, even if one of them is "Mr. Bobby." In the original series, the Hispanic help was seen but not heard.

John Ross and Elena: It's raining oil, hallelujah. TNT photo

The new Dallas otherwise has as many preposterous plot twists as the old one. Everyone has an agenda, with even Bobby initially keeping secrets, albeit for what he sees as the greater good. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps a few of these schemes could have been left on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, Dallas has always been a bodacious prime-time version of a more budget-conscious daytime soap. So maybe restraint just ain't gonna cut it.

Whether all of this means another long run for Dallas is anyone's guess on the eve of its heavily promoted return. Hagman, for one, just may not be up to that. And his subtraction would be akin to eliminating the devil from Damn Yankees.

In the here and now, though, TNT's brighter, shinier Dallas makes an impressively staged re-entrance Wednesday night. Its signature opening theme is intact amid some changed scenery that now includes glimpses of Cowboys Stadium, the downtown Omni hotel, a DART train and the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. But the show's namesake city still comes off as a synonym for greed and trickery.

Back in the early days of Dallas, this imagery constituted a problem for some city leaders. But then the money started flowing in while the world began seeing Dallas as the home of the Ewings rather than the site of Kennedy assassination.

Thirty-four years after Dallas premiered on CBS and 21 years after the series ended, it's all coming back home again. And the elemental dynamics between the series' Cain and Abel remain for all to see.

"You wanna carry on mama's legacy? Well, I wanna carry on daddy's," J.R. informs Bobby after out-witting him in Episode 5.

"I'm gonna make this right," vows Bobby. "And I'm going to take you down -- brother."

Sounds like family.


NBC's out-of-body Saving Hope may have a ghost of a chance

Bedside manners in out-of-body Saving Hope. NBC photo
Premiering: Thursday, June 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Michael Shanks, Erica Durance, Daniel Gillies, Julia Taylor Ross
Produced by: Ilana Frank, David Wellington

One minute you're on the way to your wedding. Then bang-o, your fiance suffers a serious head wound and lapses into a coma just minutes after you've been making out in a broadsided taxi cab.

NBC's new summertime medical drama, the made-in-Canada Saving Hope, takes this premise and runs fairly well with it. Although out-of-body experiences are getting to be pretty damned commonplace these days. Even Mad Men was on acid for an episode this season. And CBS' recently canceled A Gifted Man focused on an ego-driven doctor trying to interact with his concience-brandishing deceased wife.

This time the walking (near-)dead is divorced chief of surgery Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks), whose new bride was supposed to be chief surgical resident Alex Reid (Erica Durance). Instead he's left to wander the halls of Hope Zion Hospital in formal dress with bow tie askew.

"There's no real test for this," he muses. "I am having an out-of-body experience in a tuxedo. Wake up, you dumb bastard."

He's speaking to his comatose self while Alex wanders around in a daze when she's not counseling patients in a sometimes syrupy manner. Still, there are some solidly affecting scenes in Thursday's premiere episode. Next week's hour, subtitled "Contact," also has its moments. But one of them isn't the tired hospital drama standby of a dying woman whose religion prohibits her from having a blood transfusion or taking drugs.

Saving Hope's third wheel is Dr. Joel Goran (Daniel Gillies), a jaunty ladies' man who used to date Alex. The character is cocksure while also being likable. And he has a very nicely acted exchange with Alex near the close of Episode 1. It ends with her telling him, "You're a lot of things, Joel. But you're not nice."

Well, he's not that bad either. And his self-confident 'tude is often preferable to the preachments of ghostly Charlie, who sounds a bit in tone like Dr. Gregory House but isn't much of a match in the dialogue department. That's not the actor's fault, though. And some of what he says does manage to resonate.

The series hopes to pull viewers along with both individual patient cases and the week-to-week prospects of flat-on-his-back Charlie, who shows a fleeting sign of life next Thursday. The best case so far is an American war hero who's uncommonly eager to have his tumor-impaired right arm amputated rather than try to save it with alternative forms of treatment. His story is resolved during Thursday's opening episode.

The Big Four broadcast networks mostly resort to hot weather regimens of ill-considered or sick-in-the-head reality series. Saving Hope may be a nice curative in that respect. Its characters are comparatively compelling even when they're falling a little short.

So perhaps hovering Charlie's watchwords to his fiancee will also serve to keep viewers on the hook. She can't hear him, but you can. "Don't you give up on me," he tells her. "I'm still here."

GRADE: B-minus

Fox's The Choice is mostly about chiding The Voice

The first four celebrity bachelors wait to be tempted on The Choice. Fox photo

Premiering: Thursday, June 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Host Cat Deeley and an array of "the most eligible celebrity bachelors in America"
Produced by: Arthur Smith, Kent Weed, Scott St. John

There's no honor among thieves, particularly when they're television networks.

CBS is suing ABC over its planned June 18th premiere of Glass House, a transparent copycat of Big Brother being helmed by that show's former executive producer.

NBC hasn't bothered trying to stop Fox's The Choice, which is clearly intended to twit The Voice. In this case, four of "the most eligible celebrity bachelors in America" sit in swivel chairs and activate their spin-around "love handles" if a sight-unseen potential date lures them with her verbal teases. The women who get selected become part of the celebrity's "team" before further winnowing kicks in. Sound familiar?

It all gets much more serious in the fall, when The Voice and Fox's The X Factor will give viewers four successive weeknights of splashy singing competitions. Fox hopes to soften up The Voice a bit with a summertime parody. So far NBC hasn't yet made a move to retaliate with a fractured relationship show called The Ex- Factor,

Your host for The Choice is Cat Deeley, the vivacious and gorgeous Brit who also presides over Fox's Wednesday night editions of So You Think You Can Dance. She strides out confidently in tight red leather pants, prompting General Hospital actor Jason Cook to say he wants her as his date. Naughty boy. Pull your knickers down and take your spanking.

For Thursday's premiere, the three other bachelors are singer Romeo, former skiing champ Jeremy Bloom and the requisite Jersey Shore cast member. This time it's DJ Pauly D, with the show's Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino due later this summer.

Other booked bachelors include temperamental Detroit Lions defender Ndamukong Suh, singer Joe Jonas, Dean "Superman" Cain, star New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Season 5 American Idol champ Taylor Hicks, for whom it's come to this.

An upcoming special edition of The Choice will put hunky men on the receiving end, with four celebrity bachelorettes making these hard choices. Among them are Carmen Elektra and ex-Miss USA 2010 Rima Fakih, who lately aspires to be a WWE wrestler.

Women come and go rapidly Thursday night, with each getting just 30 seconds to reel in at least one male. First to prance out is Rachael, a North Carolinian who bills herself as a "cutie with a booty" and also enjoys spending time with her 96-year-old grandma.

This prompts both Bloom and Cook to whirl around. Cook says with a straight face that "she got my heart with that one" -- meaning hangin' with grandma and not her booty. Rachael must then choose between them.

Cook and Pauly D can be mildly amusing at times, even if their quips just might have been pre-written for them. A total of 14 women vie for the three spots on each bachelor's team, eventually wearing beauty pageant sashes to designate their affiliations.

"Please welcome -- Jeremy's ladies!" Deeley proclaims. Yes, this show is further proof that women have come a long way -- that is if you substitute "had" for "have."

A quick-paced Q&A further reduces the field from three to two for each bachelor. Then come the Miss America-esque final questions before one woman is left out and the other gets to go on a "hot date" to a destination that's never specified.

Romeo wants to know, "What's the most impressive thing you've ever done for love?" He gets 10 seconds to digest the answers before picking his girl. And so on.

Deeley says the "outcomes" of these dates will be detailed during next week's episode of The Choice. Which means that the show also is stealing from Love Connection.

Fox is premiering another dating show, the George Lopez-hosted Take Me Out, as a Thursday night lead-in to The Choice. But it wasn't made available for review as of this writing, leaving TV critics to ponder how bad it might be.

The Choice already is bad enough but has a few amusing moments to help keep it afloat. These mostly have to do with the bachelors' feigned sincerity before women are given their eviction notices. In the end it's all one big meat market, with the supplicants belting out brags instead of songs.

"I'm a bombshell with a body like Jessica Rabbit."

"I have a beautiful European look to me."

"I've been in over 100 pageants and hold many titles."

Anything to make the "Team."

GRADE: C-minus

Charitably put, Lifetime's The Week the Women Went is "reality" in all its worst forms

The adult women of Yemassee, S.C. happily blow town. Lifetime photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on Lifetime
Starring: The men, women and kids of Yemassee, S.C.
Produced by: Jon Kroll, Elli Hakami, Jane Tranter

The transparent holocaust imagery can't have been entirely lost on Lifetime and the producers of this new "daring social experiment" -- namely The Week the Women Went.

Really, what were they thinking in having the real-life adult women of Yemassee, S.C. walk en masse toward a train taking them to an undisclosed destination. On a foreboding stormy night no less. And with a little girl tearfully asking "Why does she have to leave?" as families are separated while the train pulls out of town.

Wasn't there a better means of illustrating this mass evacuation during a series adapted from a same-named BBC series? It's scheduled to afflict American audiences on the next four Wednesdays, with a two-hour finale set for June 27th.

The women end up at Florida's Omni Resort on Amelia Island Plantation, where they'll spend a week. Back home, their menfolk are left to fend for themselves in the company of possibly the brattiest kids ever collected under one "reality" series roof.

Yemassee, population 1,027 as of the 2010 census, may not like what it sees of itself. Then again, way too many people will do whatever it takes to get on a teevee screen near you. Particularly an onerous 18-year-old dimwit named Jerome, whose most refined moment comes when he tells a pal, "Let's go find us some bitches."

Before providing a few further details, let's also note that a preview of future episodes has the left-behind white men of Yemassee marching menacingly toward what's described as a secretive African village where un-American things might be happening. What the hell, Lifetime? However this all ends, the set-ups are repulsive.

In the spirit of TLC's newly announced Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (starring the gag-inducing 6-year-old "breakout star" of Toddlers & Tiaras), the producers of Week the Women Went have given viewers two monstrous little girls.

Bailey's a screaming, tantrum-throwing banshee whose dad laments," She's a drama queen. And they ain't no medicine for that."

Elie, already way too chubby, demands coffee for breakfast and is of course served by her dumbass dad. "Just don't mess with my coffee," she warns.

It gets worse. Elie's dad has been informed that he has to throw together a prepubescent "full-blown beauty pageant" by the weekend, with both his daughter and Bailey among the contestants.

Back to the teens from hell sub-category, with 24-year-old Matt hoping to impress his 31-year-old girlfriend by winning over her thoroughly obnoxious 13- and 15-year-old daughters and their little brother.

"I love my girlfriend, but her kids can definitely be brats," Matt deduces. Run for the hills while you still have a fighting chance!

The only halfway decent kid in town appears to be a 14-year-old woman preacher's daughter who's left in charge of mama's other sideline, a catering business. But even she's getting pretty bossy by the end of Wednesday's 90-minute introductory episode.

A 21-year-old manchild named Justin is also in the mix. He works for the fire department but still lives at home, where his protective mother still does everything for him while seeming determined to turn him into a modern-day Norman Bates.

But Justin is intendin' to marry his sweetheart, and already has bought an engagement ring. This doesn't sit at all well with momma ("I'm just all messed up now"), or daddy for that matter.

"You don't have a penny and you don't have a window to throw it out of either," he says encouragingly.

Meanwhile, back at the Amelia Island Plantation, the women are learning how to use sex toys at a party thrown for Justin's sudden fiancee. Some of the toys apparently are so daring they're digitized. But you can still learn a thing or two, such as "the average man masturbates one to three times a day."

Oh lordy. And pass the cheese grits that little Bailey likes so much. Week the Women Went, with Bailey's dead proclaiming, "My nerves is shot," makes even the Hatfields and McCoys seem like members of the Royal Family. And it's unforgivably clueless as well with that central image of women marching toward a mystery train while a big storm gathers.

"If the men think this storm is bad, just wait 'til we're all gone," the preacher woman declares.

Astonishing. Funeral services for Western Civ will be held in front of Lifetime's corporate offices.


Discovery's Dallas-set Fast N' Loud offers auto rehab at the friendly Gas Monkey Garage

Aaron Kaufmann & Richard Rawlings of Fast N' Loud. Discovery photos

Premiering: Wednesday, June 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on Discovery
Starring: Richard Rawlings, Aaron Kaufmann
Produced by: Craig Piligian, Eddie Rohwedder

Buy cheap, restore quickly, sell at a handsome profit and repeat.

There's your prevalent cable reality series premise in a nutshell, with Discovery's Dallas-based Fast N' Loud spotlighting junked out autos and a pair of bearded entrepreneurs who also could have made a few bucks as extras on History's Hatfields & McCoys.

"We turn rust into gold," Gas Monkey Garage owner Richard Rawlings asserts at the outset of Wednesday's one-hour series premiere.

His Michelangelo is scruffy Aaron Kaufmann, who perhaps could hide a few spark plugs in his fulsome facial hair. Together they traipse around Texas and nearby states in search of dilapidated vintage cars that Aaron and his crew can trick up.

There's the usual race to a made-for-TV deadline. Otherwise all will be lost. In this case, the boys must turn an 80-year-old Model A into a freshly painted, newly outfitted hot rod in their workspace at 11276 Ables Lane in Dallas. The big Good Guys swap meet at Texas Motor Speedway is just nine days away and "we're going to have to race the clock every day to get it done," Aaron says with as much urgency as he can muster during the show's frequent talk-to-the-camera interludes.

It's not giving a whole lot away to tell you that Richard and Aaron succeed in this endeavor. Otherwise they'd be amateurs in over their heads, and that's a reality no-no when you're selling viewers on the overall expertise of a show's offbeat stars.

They're allowed to have setbacks, though. That's also part and parcel of the genre before those inevitable sunny skies outcomes -- and just in the nick of time, too.

Richard and Aaron make other purchases during the opening hour, including a '53 Chevy and a Buick Riviera used in the Nicolas Cage movie Drive Angry and still outfitted with fake bullet holes. A little history of the cars is thrown in, which is both helpful and helps to fill the time.

The stars of the show get along just fine, but there's occasionally a little soft-serve drama thrown in. As when Aaron lobbies for a more costly rehab while Richard balks a bit as the resident money man.

"This is where we always butt heads," he tells viewers. "Creative vision versus bottom line."

Fast N' Loud relies a little too much on pro forma talking to the camera. There also are the usual reality series redundancies, with one guy or the other regularly reminding the audience what they're up against, how they really need to make some money on this deal, etc., etc.

Still, the two leads are pretty engaging and the work they do is both impressive and interesting. It all comes down to the climactic swap meet, where Richard names the minimum price he'll need on the beautifully restored Model A in order to "pay the bills and put some money in the bank."

We're heading toward a done deal, of course. But it's some fun getting there and there'll be plenty more cars where these came from.


Ampersands unite with returns of TNT's Rizzoli & Isles, Franklin & Bash

Ampersand Tuesdays are coming to TNT with the June 5th returns of Rizzoli & Isles (not an entree at Olive Garden) and Franklin & Bash (not a heavy metal band).

For those who haven't yet met them, Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are Boston-based murder mystery solvers while Jared Franklin and Peter Bash are fun-loving L.A. lawyer dudes. You could do worse than while away a summer night with them. Neither series is in the upper echelon of quality TV dramas but both are driven by interesting lead characters and nicely drizzled with familiar-faced guest stars and recurring characters.

Rizzoli & Isles, firing up its third season at 8 p.m. (central), is paced by Dallas-born Angie Harmon's hard-bitten, scratchy-voiced detective Rizzoli. Isles (Sasha Alexander), her medical examiner pal, is girlier and snootier. It all makes for weekly doses of "offbeat chemistry," as they say in the biz and as TNT says in publicity materials.

They're on the outs, however, as Season 3 begins. During an undercover sting at the close of Season 2, Rizzoli shot an Irish mob boss named Paddy Doyle (John Doman), who turned out to be Isles' biological dad. Isles is miffed and Rizzoli worries that their friendship could be broken.

"You guys'll make up," assures her veteran street partner, Sgt. Vince Korsak (Bruce McGill).

"Yeah, that's what they said about The Beatles," Rizzoli retorts.

This is also the series where it's still hard to get used to Lorraine Bracco (of Dr. Jennifer Melfi fame on The Sopranos) in the recurring role of Rizzoli's matronly mother, Angela. She's a tongue-wagging compulsive hugger whose less than smooth relationship with her daughter is both grin-worthy and cringe-worthy. Small on-screen doses would be best for all concerned but Tuesday's episode instead heaps on their scenes together.

Also dropping in and out are the likes of Ed Begley Jr., Jacqueline Bisset (as a barely recognizable, beaten-up hospital patient) and Alan Rachins, formerly a key player on L.A. Law. The episode, in addition to the Rizzoli/Isles falling out, blends an internal affairs investigation with a convenience store shooting that leaves a clerk and a cop dead. It's strictly so-so stuff, but Harmon still merits your attendance. Even when she's required to say, "Oh, for the love of Pete."

Franklin & Bash (9 p.m. central) is appreciably lighter in tone, with the always employed Mark-Paul Gosselaar (as Bash) teaming with co-star Breckin Meyer for more courtroom hijinks spiced with nimble banter and occasional soul-searching.

Malcolm McDowell likewise is back in play as the hard-driving Stanton Infeld, whose high-dollar Infeld-Daniels law firm is dangling an offer of full partnerships for both Franklin and Bash.

"More power, more money, more everything," he reasons. But there will be prices to pay -- both hidden and otherwise.

Tuesday's lively Season 2 return also includes an opening speck of Martin Mull as a judge. Kevin Nealon also drops in -- for longer and to better effect -- as a beverage company magnate whom the boys are ordered to woo as a client in order to enhance their chances to become Infeld partners.

Next week's episode will include a guest shot by Jane Seymour as Bash's meddling mom, Colleen. Her first meddle concerns son Peter's budding romantic relationship with a cop (played by Kat Foster), who first shows up Tuesday night as a courtroom adversary.

Franklin & Bash is a welcome summer breeze with agreeable lead actors who both look as though they're having the times of their lives. Rizzoli & Isles has a big plus in Harmon, who ably fights her way through hit-and-miss story lines.

TNT's decision to team the two shows on Tuesdays, with Rizzoli & Isles moving from Mondays, gives the network a nice new summer season duo while also getting its only pair of ampersands together.