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Bauer bowing out: 24 will call it quits after this season stops ticking

24 will be no more after the clock runs out on this season.

In a joint announcement Friday night, Fox and the show's co-executive producers -- who include star Kiefer Sutherland -- said they had mutually agreed to put Jack Bauer out of his various miseries. The Season 8 finale, on May 24th, also will be the groundbreaking series' final hour, although a big-screen 24 is still a strong possibility.

"While the end of the series is bittersweet, we always wanted 24 to finish on a high note," Sutherland said in a news release that was emailed at 7:20:36 p.m. central time Friday. "So the decision to make the eighth season our last was one we all agreed upon . . . Looking ahead to the future, (co-executive producer) Howard Gordon and I are excited about the opportunity to create the feature film version of 24. But when all is said and done, it is the loyal worldwide fan base that made it possible for me to have the experience of playing the role of Jack Bauer, and for that I am eternally grateful."

24 premiered on Nov. 6, 2001, and will have a grand total of 194 episodes when it ends in May. Bauer currently is trying to thwart yet another terrorist plot to deeply wound the United States with a nuclear detonation. The series ranks 30th nationally in the season-to-date Nielsen ratings, averaging 11.5 million viewers per episode.

"24 is so much more than just a TV show," Fox entertainment chairman Peter Rice said. "It has redefined the drama genre and created one of the most admired action icons in television history."

Sutherland, during a session at January's Television Critics Association "press tour," said he's "always been shocked that people I'm flying with say, 'Oh, I feel safer on the plane.' I'm thinking, 'You must not watch the show because everybody around me gets killed.' "

During the course of his many travails, Bauer repeatedly has tortured and been tortured. His brutalizing of suspected terrorists drew criticism from some quarters, leading to the show's decision to put Bauer on trial for his alleged excesses at the start of Season 7. But he eventually was exonerated, even while feeling a bit guilty at times. In one of that season's signature scenes, an FBI driver told Bauer that the U.S. Senate committee investigating his methods shouldn't have been so rough on him.

But Bauer said he was fair game because "we've done so many secret things over the years in the name of protecting this country, we've created two worlds -- ours and the people we've promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth. Then they can decide how far they want to let us go."

Bauer so far has more or less protected and served six presidents, only some of them grateful. It all began with a thwarted assassination plot against presidential candidate David Palmer, who eventually won election but later was killed. Then came presidents John Keeler, Charles Logan, Wayne Palmer, Noah Daniels and the current incumbent, Allison Taylor. Sutherland says it always surprises him when 24 is accused of having a right-of-center political agenda.

"We had the first African-American on television playing a president," he said at the TCA session. "We indicted a conservative president for criminal behavior. Jack Bauer, to me, has always been the most apolitical character, very much like the Secret Service. You don't protect a president because of your political beliefs. That's your job, and you serve that President, regardless.

"One of the things that I was always so unbelievably proud of is that you could have our show being discussed by Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh at the same time, both using it and citing it to justify their points of view. So I simply can't tell you a specific point when we changed any kind of political ideology of the show . . . It was balanced from the very beginning."

The announcement of 24's demise as a series at last gives Bauer a fighting chance to end up reasonably happy and contented -- at least until the planned movie plunges him back into a mess of much shorter duration. At the beginning of this season, he even smiled while in the company of his granddaughter. By Sutherland's recollection, it was the first time since the only other time -- in Season 3.

"He had captured Nina (terrorist Nina Myers) and was flying back with her on the cargo plane, and he had her in handcuffs. He looked at her and smiled. And that was about four episodes before he got to shoot her."

Meanwhile, this season and 24 itself have just 11 hours to go. It's ample time for Jack Bauer to do a lot more damage in the interests of saving the world anew. Perhaps he'll even allow himself to smile again at the end of it all. It wouldn't hurt.

Lifetime Movie Network keeps the faith with compelling Amish Grace

Kimberly Williams-Paisley co-stars in Amish Grace. Lifetime photo

Premiering: Sunday, March 28th at 7 p.m. (central) on Lifetime Movie Network
Starring: Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Tammy Blanchard, Matt Letscher, Fay Masterson, Madison Mason,Gary Graham, Karley Scott Collins, John Churchill, Madison Davenport, Eugene Byrd
Produced by: Kyle A. Clark, Marta M. Mobley

Rebuking hate, embracing forgiveness and letting God handle the rest are the root causes, in effect, of Lifetime Movie Channel's edifying Amish Grace.

Whatever your gender, it's a tearjerker. Typical made-for-TV movie touches are self-evident. But any film featuring Tammy Blanchard (an Emmy winner as the young Judy Garland in ABC's acclaimed 2001 miniseries) is always worth your time. And she doesn't disappoint as the guilt-wracked wife of a milk truck driver who in 2006 killed five Amish schoolgirls and then himself in a Nickel Mines, PA classroom.

Widely covered by the national media -- NBC's Brian Williams and Ann Curry are briefly seen in news footage -- the murders spotlighted the Amish community as a universally forgiving lot.

For dramatic purposes, grieving Ida Graber (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) is the lone holdout in Amish Grace after learning that her 14-year-old daughter, Mary Beth (Madison Davenport), was among the victims. Her husband, Gideon (Matt Letscher), steeled in Amish principles, is both numbed by the loss of his daughter and angered by his wife's intransigence.

A printed disclaimer notes that the Graber family is fictionalized. Those with an intricate knowledge of both the tragedy and the families involved may be inclined to discount Amish Grace for that reason alone. But it nonetheless works both dramatically and thematically, making points and counterpoints that grow in impact and resonance.

Gideon, a by-the-book practitioner, reluctantly says that his wife will be "shunned" if she makes good on her vow to leave the Amish community rather than forgive the murderer of their daughter or his widow. He will, however, come to "fetch" their little daughter, Katie (Karley Scott Collins), for periodic visits.

That sounds cold if not demonic. But Gideon is never portrayed as a monster. His faith is all-consuming but not toxic. In one of the film's many compelling scenes, Katie tells him she is determined to hate her sister's killer.

Gideon asks whether that makes her feel good inside. No, it doesn't, she admits.

Letting God "hand out the punishment" frees the aggrieved from carrying hate and buckling under it, he tells her.

"Maybe I could forgive him, and still hate him just a bit," Katie responds, earning a slight nod from her understanding father.

Amish Grace also includes an unusually benevolent TV reporter and her like-minded cameraman. Both work for fictional WEBG-TV, whose news director for once isn't a hard-driving despot. He wants to know whether some Amish are being manipulated into forgiveness by their deacon. But if Jill Green and Danny the photographer (Fay Masterson/Eugene Byrd) can prove otherwise, then he's willing to roll that way, too. Imagine that.

Meanwhile, blameless Amy Roberts (Blanchard) is left with the searing pain caused by a husband whose mind snapped after their daughter was still-born. The movie depicts this as the main motive behind Charlie Roberts' (John Churchill) demented plan to take revenge on God by taking other young girls' lives. (Showing admirable restraint, the filmmakers completely steer clear of any reenactments of the shootings.)

Blanchard, her face drawn and drained, communicates her character's agony in ways that only a first-rate actress can. Letscher and Williams-Paisley also bring texture to their performances as aggrieved Amish parents who are fortified and repelled by the act of forgiving.

Amish Grace can be forgiven its occasional cookie-cutter moments. It's an overall strong film that dares to bill itself as a "story of faith and forgiveness." You don't get a lot of that these days.


ABC serves Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (but will Americans eat it up?)

Jamie Oliver introduces Huntington, W. VA to pasta. ABC photo

Premiering: Friday, March 26th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC. Another episode follows at 8 p.m.
Starring: Jamie Oliver and residents of Huntington, W. VA
Produced by: Jamie Oliver, Ryan Seacrest, Craig Armstrong

Eating wrong is everyone's basic inalienable right. That doesn't make it right.

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution infiltrates the "unhealthiest city in America" in a six-episode effort to wean its denizens -- particularly school children -- off steady diets of breakfast pizzas, chicken nuggets and an overall "Aladdin's cave of processed crap," as he puts it. Make a healthy choice and watch this. It's reality television with a genuinely worthy objective.

Food Revolution got a Sunday night "sneak preview" on ABC, but ran into the teeth of a basketball-delayed episode of CBS' hit Undercover Boss. Friday's two hours include a repeat of that first hour plus a new one at 8 p.m. Oliver will spend all six hours of the series in Huntington, W. VA, where nearly half of the adults in its 50,000 population are considered obese, according to data from a 2006 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In reality, Huntington probably isn't any worse than any number of locales. But it's a good starting point, with Oliver suitably gagged at first and then motivated to fight his way through resistance from a number of quarters.

Early in Friday's first episode, he journeys to "The Dawg," an FM radio station whose recalcitrant morning deejay, Rod Willis, tells him, "We don't wanna sit around and eat lettuce all day."

Willis also ask rhetorically, "Who made you the king?"

"If everyone in America was like you, you would get nothing done," Oliver retorts. He later tells the camera, "I thought there was only miserable bastards like that in (his native) England."

However nobly intended, any reality series worth its salt and pepper needs an antagonist or two. Oliver also encounters one in Alice Gue, the crusty, leather-skinned head "lunch lady" at Central City Elementary School.

"Absolutely disgusting," he says of the processed "potato pearls" she proudly serves. Gue in turns sees Oliver as an unwelcome intruder whose visions of healthy, nutritious meals are both unrealistic and impossible to meet under the school's budget constraints.

Oliver, just a bit doughy himself at age 34, is a showman at heart who will dress like a pea pod if he has to while also hoping to gag resistors with sight gags.

In Friday's second hour, he welcomes a batch of first-graders to his Jamie's Kitchen, which has opened downtown for the duration of his visit. The kids see him dismantle a raw chicken while singling out the good parts. He then cuts up the remaining raw carcass and mixes it into an unsightly paste.

Initially grossed out, the kids eventually warm to the sight of the chicken glop being coated with bread crumbs and fried to a golden brown.

"Now who would still eat this?" he asks.

They all raise their hands. "That was literally the opposite response I had back home," Oliver laments.

He also pays a visit to the uniformly obese Edwards family, which mainly subsists on frozen pizzas, fries and other junk food. Mama Stacie gets teary-eyed after Oliver tries to set her straight.

"I'm just feelin' really sad and depressed right now," she says before Oliver digs a backyard grave for the kitchen fryer and pronounces, "We're gonna bury this old grease ball thing, and we're not going to have it anymore."

To its credit, Food Revolution will spend its entire inaugural mini-season in Huntington rather than dispense a few sermons and healthy recipes before moving on.

"I am a professional (bleep) stirrer, and I'm proud to say it," says Oliver, who already has nine cook books and a bushel of British TV series under his belt.

Entertaining, educational, emotional and also amusing at times, Food Revolution is both filling and fulfilling. Oliver's crusade endures many bumps and bruises in these first two hours. But of course there are small victories, too, with things starting to look up when the school kids and their cooks don "I've Tried Something New" stickers while Oliver beams.

America's obesity problem can't continue to run unchecked. That much is certain. Food Revolution dramatizes and humanizes the task at hand, with Oliver amiably, angrily and sometimes sobbingly stirring the pot. It all makes for a show that has the right ingredients. Our overall compliments to the chef.


CW's Fly Girls is grounded in pseduo reality

The five stars of Fly Girls prepare for battle. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 24th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Real-life Virgin America flight attendants Nikole, Louise, Farrah, Tasha, Mandalay
Produced by: Jeff Collins, Colin Nash

The cheapo CW network pairs one dreadful reality series with another Wednesday when Fly Girls joins the pre-existing, critically reviled High Society.

This one's not quite as bad, although that's like saying Lindsay Lohan is less odious lately than philandering Jesse James.

Billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin America airlines is the takeoff point for Fly Girls, which stars five cute 'n' buxom flight attendants named Nikole, Louise, Farrah, Tasha and Mandalay. Branson, who appears on-camera in the first two episodes, had one of the 2004-05 TV season's biggest flops in Fox's The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best. Now he's free-fallen all the way to The CW. Good for him.

The featured "fly girls" all conform to basic reality series typecasting. Nikole is the freewheeling resident bee-yotch and Mandalay the goodly striver who keeps getting her heart crushed. Aging Farrah hears her clock ticking, separated Tasha has a young son whom she dotes on and heat-seeking Louise is on the rebound from a four-year relationship that went whiskey sour.

They all live together in a Marina del rey "crash pad," where the newly arrived Nikole immediately creates problems. In Wednesday's premiere episode (they mercifully only last a half-hour), Mandalay gets all weepy after Nikole conspires to stand next to Branson atop a fire truck at a big Virgin America "launch party" in Fort Lauderdale.

That was supposed to be Mandalay's perk, but she couldn't be found at the appointed hour. So she later upbraids former best pal Nikole "because you can't just be a friend who's happy for another friend to have 'a moment.' "

Meanwhile, Louise accepts an in-flight proposition to attend a Beverly Hills cocktail party being thrown by a laughing, brainless but handsome bonehead named Geoff. It doesn't go particularly well.

Next week's thrilling episode finds Mandalay absorbing another emotional blow from a friend/rock band singer named Avir.

"Can you tell that I might have feelings for you possibly?" she asks. Yeah, he can tell. No, he's not interested.

Meanwhile, back on the West Coast, Nikole and Tasha have the great honor and privilege of being gofers and eye candy at a "Rock the Kasbah" charity event being thrown by their employer. Event planner Jessica notes that "there's going to be a tremendous amount of celebrities here."

Yeah, like who? Well, like Lohan, Sharon Stone, Paula Abdul and Daisy Fuentes, she says. Wowee. But none of 'em are shown on camera.

It's all portrayed as very glamorous and dreamy, with every day a new adventure in being servile ornaments regularly hit on by IFBs (In Flight Boyfriends).

"It's a cute guy that you scope out to make the time fly," explains Louise.

CW has ordered eight time-wasting episodes of Fly Girls. I guess they beat sitting on a tarmac while waiting for take-off. But not by all that much.


Showtime's Nurse Jackie takes its meds for Season 2

Season 2 premiere: Monday, March 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Edie Falco, Merrit Wever, Eve Best, Peter Facinelli, Anna Deavere Smith, Dominic Fumusa, Paul Schulze, Ruby Jerins, Mackenzie Aladjem, Stephen Wallem, Arjun Gupta
Created by: Evan Dunsky, Liz Brixius, Linda Wallem

A bit lighter in tone but with ample darkness looming, Nurse Jackie's Season 2 begins in a relative Eden.

Last seen flat on her back after imbibing a bigger pill cocktail than usual, Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) returns to assume the same position -- but on a blanket at the beach.

Her true-blue bar & grill-owning husband Kevin (Dominc Fumusa) is by her side and soon making out with her. Their two daughters, troubled Grace and precocious Fiona (Ruby Jerins, Mackenzie Aladjem), play contentedly by the sandy shore.

This obviously can't last too long, and doesn't. Returning to her All Saints Hospital workplace in midtown Manhattan, Jackie is nearly hit by a gunshot that instead grazes the shoulder of the venerable Virgin Mary statue. ER ER oh.

Watching the new season's first four episodes renews an appreciation for what a nicely meshed cast this is. Falco is still the star player, cursing, snorting and continuing to live various lies on the job and at home while also dispensing tender mercies to patients in dire need. But Nurse Jackie's supporting characters are if anything better than ever.

Young nurse Zoe Barkow is fun, occasionally forlorn and still brilliantly played by Merrit Wever. Supervisor Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) has more to do in these early episodes, hitting her stride in a series of nicely flavored scenes with her always balky staff.

Egotistical Dr. Fitch "Coop" Cooper (Peter Facinelli) has an even more contentious relationship with Jackie. Plus he's tweeting -- beginning in Episode 2 -- as part of a new gambit that will play out weekly in real time on the show's newly minted "@DoctorCoop" twitter account.

Facinelli is something of a Twitter addict in real-life, with over 1.5 million followers and counting.

"Don't you dare twitter about me," Jackie barks at him next Monday. Not a chance -- that he'll listen to her.

Coop also is flush, in Episode 3, with a magazine cover story that anoints him No. 23 among Manhattan's top 25 doctors. This enrages Jackie's always colorful best friend, Dr. Eleanor O'Hara (Eve Best), who considers him infinitely inferior to her. But Coop has a publicist paving his way; O'Hara doesn't.

"Do you really care what a group of magazine editors that dole out stars for the best street burritos and eyeliner think about health care providers?" Akalitus finally asks her. Well, no, but they're still a big annual moneymaker for D and other city magazines.

The aforementioned looming darkness is Jackie's clandestine, once blooming sexual relationship with pharmacist/pill provider Eddie Walzer (Paul Schulze). It was was short-circuited last season when Eddie got jettisoned in favor of a dose-dispensing machine and also learned that Jackie is married.

Season 2 finds Eddie calculatingly cementing his new barfly-to-bartender friendship with an in-the-dark Kevin Peyton while Jackie continues to distance herself. Things start coming to a head in Episode 4, when Eddie sabotages her "date night" with Kevin by taking him to a Mets game.

Random patients remain a key element of Nurse Jackie. In early episodes they include a young deaf woman who's had three fingers severed and a child being tested for cystic fibrosis. This is when you feel Jackie's humanity, an important consideration in light of her addiction and ongoing duplicity.

The humor remains razor-sharp, as when diabetic nurse Thor tells Zoe in Episode 3, "God, these (surgical) gloves are so tight I feel like O.J."

"That's the third time you've said that today," she retorts.

"Like your material's fresh," he fires back.

Nurse Jackie, which will have 12 episodes in Season 2, is still freshly half-baked and only occasionally a little overdone. It also gives Falco the best second act to date among the many prominent alums of HBO's The Sopranos.

Add an asterisk for Paul Schulze, the actor who plays Eddie. On The Sopranos, he had the recurring role of Carmela Soprano's (Falco) doting parish priest, Father Phil Intintola. Nothing sexual ever developed between the two of them, but a slow simmer sometimes seemed to be building. Now, on Nurse Jackie, it all clearly is destined to boil over. And no amount of medication will help.

GRADE: A-minus

Breaking Bad snaps into Season 3

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad. AMC photo

Season 3 premiere: Sunday, March 21st at 9 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Betsy Brandt, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks, Daniel and Luis Moncada
Produced by: Vince Gilligan, Mark Johnson

Unlike Mad Men, you won't find any clothes horses or lush lives in AMC's other much-praised drama series.

A newly introduced pair of drug cartel hit men -- known only as "The Cousins" -- have a taste for macabre fashion accessories, though. Their cowboy boots are toe-tipped with silver skulls. And they tote a silver-plated ax to their appointed rounds.

The Cousins, played by Daniel and Luis Moncada, let their carnage do the talking Sunday night in the Season 3 premiere of AMC's devilishly good Breaking Bad. They've crossed the Mexican border to Albuquerque in search of the now desperately unhappy Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher/meth cooker whose descent into the lucrative drug trade was triggered by a lung cancer diagnosis and his desire to leave a big pile of cash behind for his financially pressed family.

Cranston, winner of the last two Emmys for best actor in a drama series, remains a marvel in this marvelously offbeat morality tale. Walter now has all the cash he needs, but not what he really wants. As in Mad Men, a rotting marriage is now at the core of Breaking Bad.

Skyler White (again terrifically played by Anna Gunn) at last has learned of her husband's duplicitous ways. Walter hasn't been unfaithful but has been leading a double life as a drug purveyor known as "Heisenberg." His former student and young partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), is initially in rehab after his girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), choked to death following a drug binge.

This ended up triggering a cataclysmic mid-air plane crash at the close of Season 2, when Jane's grieving air controller father lost his faculties. Guilt and retribution permeate Breaking Bad without ever sucking the life out of it. At base level, Walter wants nothing more than to reclaim his family, which also includes a new baby daughter named Holly and high schooler Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), who sides with his dad at every turn.

The first three episodes of Season 3 move deliberately but eventfully. Walter comes clean to his wife while Jesse tries to stay clean. But other forces are always at work, determined to make their own killings -- financially or otherwise.

Through it all, Breaking Bad still has the power to make a viewer care about what befalls the Whites.

"I can't be the bad guy," Walter assures his no-good, reptilian attorney/co-conspirator, who merely wants to see him get cookin' again. Turning up the heat again is the only recourse.


Sy fy fo fum

Cable's syfy channel has just announced a new slate of original movies, some with titles that seem certain to come knockin' at Emmy time.

We're going to list six actual films either in the can or in development, plus the network's shorthand descriptions of them. We'll also mix in four fakes from the easily divined, decomposing mind of Uncle Barky. See if you can tell the difference. Phonies will be identified at the bottom below another monster picture.

1. Mongolian Death Worm -- A treasure hunter who has been searching for a tomb containing Genghis Khan's treasure teams with a humanitarian UN health worker to stop the Mongolian Death Worms, awakened by experimental oil drilling in the Mongolian desert.

2. Mothman -- The legendary West Virginia monster returns to exact revenge on five childhood friends who covered up an accidental killing.

3. Wink Martindale's Toupee Must Die!!! -- The fabled game show host has his wig flipped during a swirling windstorm. It then goes on a wanton killing spree.

4. Mega Piranha -- An unusual alliance tries to stop a mutant strain of giant ferocious piranhas that have escaped from the Amazon and are eating their way to Florida.

5. Bait Shops From Hell -- A meteor shower hits an idyllic seaside town, turning fishing worms into giant, flesh-eating boas.

6. Sharktopus -- Genetically engineered as a stealth weapon, a shark/octopus hybrid escapes captivity and goes on a killing rampage.

7. Stonehenge Apocalypse -- When the giant stones of Stonehenge begin to move and cataclysms occur all over the earth, only a fringe radio talk show host who's an expert in UFOlogy figures out that the ancient monument is really alien technology.

8. Revenge of the Killer Bucky Badgers -- A bratwurst spiked with radioactive dust from a sinister Maryland Terrapin turns the friendly University of Wisconsin mascot into a salivating, tuft-haired mutating death machine on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament.

9. Scream of the Banshee -- An archaeology professor unearths a dangerous relic, releasing a creature that can kill with her bone-splitting scream.

10. Paranormal Freak-Out -- A popular but unstable radio psychic goes mad and becomes a shadowy serial ice pick killer after attending a Gary Busey film festival.

The fakes are 3, 5, 8 and 10.

Badge of honor: FX's Justified cools it a bit without losing an edge

Timothy Olyphant again goes the honorable lawman route in FX's Justified. He previously rolled that way in HBO's Deadwood. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Joelle Carter, Natalie Zea, Walton Goggins, Raymond J. Barry
Produced by: Graham Yost, Elmore Leonard, Sarah Tiimberman, Carl Beverly, Michael Dinner

FX's "There Is No Box" brand basically has brought viewers an assembly line of anti-heroes or worse on the drama front and arrested adolescents in the half-hour comedy genre.

Publicity materials for Justified, originally announced as Lawman, describe its principal triggerman as "a true-blue hero and something of a throwback."

It's a good thing the network didn't throw him back. Timothy Olyphant, best known as Deadwood's conscience-in-residence, Sheriff Seth Bullock, returns the favor in large degree as strong, soft-spoken, but steely-eyed Raylan Givens. His moral code: "You make me pull, I'll put ya down." So far it's worked for him. And Justified is a deftly understated vehicle for his adventures.

Tuesday's premiere of Justified (the lead character originated in novels by Elmore Leonard) turns out to be notably darker in tone than two subsequent episodes sent for review.

Givens is first seen in Miami, where he's ordering a killer to get out of town on his deadline or face the consequences. The bad guy has done a big past favor for Givens, so his refusal makes it especially tough. But when pull comes to shove . . .

The resultant PR problem results in Givens' being exiled back to his native Kentucky, where he grew up as a coal-digger before escaping to become a U.S. Marshal. He likewise was fleeing from close proximity to his father, Arlo (a so far unseen Raymond J. Barry), a career criminal who's still serving time.

There's also an ex-wife named Winona (Natalie Zea) in the re-blended Lexington, KY mix. She left Raylan six years ago and since has remarried. But she still sees him as "the angriest man I have ever known." So far, though, he keeps his temper at a simmer, internalizing whatever demons might still be eating away at him. Suffice it to say they aren't likely to ever approach those of Rescue Me's ever-tortured and bombastic Tommy Gavin.

Episode 1 also is very notable for the return of Walton Goggins from The Shield as a bank-robbing, church-bombing white supremacist named Boyd Crowder. He and Raylan were hell-raising boyhood pals who worked the mines together. But the law is the law, and we'll leave it at that.

Goggins is billed as a guest star for now, with much to do in Tuesday's opener and a pivotal early scene in Episode 2. He's uniformly terrific in this dark, disturbed role, and seems destined to settle in as Justified moves on.

Raylan's new/old boss is laconic Art Muller, played with a very winning simplicity by veteran character actor Nick Searcy. Two younger deputy marshals, Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), take turns assisting Raylan in his appointed rounds. Those rounds sometimes take him in the vicinity of lithesome Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), a onetime high school cheerleader who still has the yoo rah rahs for him.

The tightest, smile-inducing writing so far belongs to Episode 2, in which two members of a prison blue grass band escape from an off-site gig. Episode 4 (the third hour wasn't ready yet) finds Raylan on the trail of a fugitive with whom he's very familiar.

Justified isn't shy on bloodshed, but it's not of the particularly grisly sort. This is a quietly violent series in what has become the familiar Elmore Leonard mode. Bad guys are people, too, and some of them are quick with a quip. Not to the point of slap happiness, though. There are no keystone cops in play. And the lawbreakers still have enough of an edge to them -- particularly Goggins' Boyd Crowder -- to keep Raylan on the toes of his cowboy boots.

Olyphant sturdily takes overall command with both a basic code of honor and an appreciation of a stiff drink or two. He puts the overall giddyap in Justified, making it FX's best drama series since Damages. It's nice to see the network try a little tenderness for a change with a drama that curbs its enthusiasm for aggressively anti-hero males and instead gives viewers an easier to swallow blend of Southern Comfort and lemonade. It's a pleasure to drink to that.

GRADE: A-minus

HBO's The Pacific joins its already vast collection of finest hours

Face of war: Joe Mazello as Marine Eugene Sledge. HBO photos

Premiering: Sunday, March 14th at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing for 10 consecutive Sundays through May 16th on HBO
Starring: Joe Mazzello, James Badge Dale, Jon Seda, Ashton Holmes, Rami Malek, Scott Gibson, Annie Parisse, William Sadler, Claire Van Der Boom and many more
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman

The fighting is fierce, the terrain sub-desolate and the cause never in question.

Body counts take a numbing toll while the elements conspire to make some Marines cry out for their own merciful deaths.

Whatever the technology or the battlefield, all war is hell. But never more so than on the killing fields of Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

HBO's 10-hour, 10-part The Pacific, sequel to its 2001 Band of Brothers, is almost a make-good commemoration of the mostly U.S. Marines who fought the entrenched Japanese in the unrelenting antonym of comparatively picturesque Europe.

There have been many more depictions, Band of Brothers included, of the war to defeat Hitler's Nazi Germany. That campaign had scenic beauty and a series of rousing welcomes for the liberating Allied forces. Little of that is included in the war to stop the Japanese from "taking the world," as legendary Marine Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller (William Sadler) puts it early in Sunday's opening hour.

Puller is only sporadically seen in The Pacific, which telescopes its tale through the real-life travails of three young combatants.

Joe Mazzello is Eugene Sledge, the kid-faced Southerner whose prosperous family employs black servants and whose doctor father diagnoses him with a heart murmur that initially keeps him from enlisting.

James Badge Dale is Robert Leckie, an Easterner who leaves his post as a newspaper sports reporter to ship out to points unknown.

Jon Seda is John Basilone, whose almost deranged demolition of the Japanese both saves his Marine company and wins him a trip back home to sell war bonds as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner.

John Basilone (Jon Seda) in the fever-heat of battle on Guadalcanal.

The scene-setting opening chapter offers only a relatively small taste of the carnage to come.

Episode 9 -- and I've seen all 10 -- is the one single hour that nightmarishly encapsulates the horrors of what these men experienced before many returned home dazed and mute. It's one of the most powerful viewing experiences in the history of the medium, including an indelibly noble act of mercy by one of the three featured Marines.

By this time, another real-life Marine -- Rami Malek as Merriell "Snafu" Shelton -- has come into full focus as a cynical, almost depraved combatant who in Episode 7 amuses himself by tossing pebbles into a dead Japanese soldier's partially remaining skull. Snafu is color-drained throughout, but much more than a black-and-white character. And Malek plays him brilliantly.

Also making his mark is Marine Capt. Andrew Haldane (Scott Gibson), a stalwart, moral leader who speaks irrefutably blunt truths.

"You can't dwell on it. You can't dwell on any of it," he tells an on-the-edge Sledge after another day and night of unimaginable horrors.

The Pacific does offer some respites. Episodes 3, 8 and 10 are largely out of the war zone. The third hour, arguably the weakest, is mostly set in Melbourne, Australia, where the battle-scarred Marines of Guadalcanal get some very welcome R&R. It's here that Leckie meets Stella (Clair Van Der Boom), whose parents quickly embrace him as a surrogate son. It gets a little sappy down the stretch before Leckie experiences both heartbreak and a return to combat that pushes him to a precipice.

The Pacific draws on memoirs by both Leckie (Helmet for My Pillow) and Sledge (With the Old Breed) to retell what they and their fellow Marines went through. Little is left to the imagination and nothing seems sugar-coated. Producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, who also joined forces on Band of Brothers, know that any obvious air-brushing would be a disservice to their service. So we see the racism as well as the heroism, the battlefield breakdowns as well as the almost super-human perseverance in the face of debilitating heat, mud, disease, death and mutilation.

Mazzello's PFC Sledge eventually emerges as the face of The Pacific. It wouldn't hurt to cut down a bit on his closeups. But on a week-to-week basis, sorting out men in the same uniforms can be an ongoing challenge. And Sledge's eventual homecoming -- along with the problems it causes for him -- must be underscored by the terrible damage inflicted on his psyche.

The final chapter brings it all home by bringing the surviving Marines back to the places where they used to fit right in. Sledge and Leckie are the focuses, but the most moving moments come from another source that won't be revealed because it would ruin the impact. The climactic scene at first might seem a little abrupt. But upon further reflection, it's a symbolically perfect ending.

By all means remain tuned for the still-picture parade of the real-life Marines depicted in The Pacific. Finding out what became of them is the final cathartic payoff in a drama that might well keep its grip on you for hours and days thereafter.

HBO of course deserves another salute for having the will and the finances to make this followup to Band of Brothers a reality. It's an incredible investment in every respect. And it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it even remotely as well.


Sons of Tucson comes up stinko

Premiering: Sunday, March 14th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Tyler Labine, Frank Dolce, Matthew Levy, Benjamin Stockham
Created by: Greg Bratman, Tommy Dewey

It's usually not a good idea to replicate a flop, and perhaps no one involved with Sons of Tucson has ever heard of A Family For Joe.

That quickly canceled 1990 NBC sitcom starred Robert Mitchum as an ornery homeless man recruited to masquerade as the grandfather of four orphaned upper-crust kids. In return he received free food and lodging, with homey life lessons learned all around.

Fox's Sons of Tucson, premiering Sunday after Family Guy, stars beefy Tyler Labine (Reaper) as lame-brained Ron Snuffkin, who's living out of his car. Three brothers whose banker dad is in jail on an embezzlement conviction recruit him to be their bogus pop. In return he receives his own room -- in the backyard tool shed -- and $300 a week. Homey life lessons slowly seep into the proceedings, beginning in Episode 2.

Network publicity materials prefer to cast Sons of Tucson "in the tradition of Malcolm In the Middle and The Bernie Mac Show." But it's not nearly in their leagues. So don't expect many if any laughs.

The three brothers, surname Gunderson, are 13-year-old Brandon (Matthew Levy), 11-year-old Gary (Frank Dolce) and eight-year-old Robby (Benjamin Stockham).

The two youngest are thoroughly unlikable while the oldest is merely bland. Little Robby of course has the smartest mouth, which in this case means saying "I'm seeing butt crack. Are we this desperate?" while he watches hapless Ron bend over at the sporting goods store that miraculously employs him.

Robby later tells Ron to "piss off," which he might also want to say to the show itself. Poorly scripted and hopelessly contrived, Sons of Tucson never shifts into any kind of gear. Instead we get a baseball bat-wielding thug named Tony (to whom Ron owes $2 grand) and a batty, hoarding grandma who despises her oafish grandson. Double clunk.

Next Sunday's Episode 2 is no better -- and in fact might be worse. Ron recruits a passel of illegal Mexican immigrants to pose as his family for a photo-shopped album. And li'l Robby is informed, "You misspelled 'butt lip' " after Ron fouls up at a classroom career day in addition to farting twice.

Robby somehow resists saying, "I smell butt crack." But you can bet he was thinkin' it.


Scum rises to the top in CW's High Society

"Trust fund partier" Jules Kirby of The CW's High Society. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 10th at 8:30 p.m. (central) before moving to 8 p.m. Wednesdays on March 24th
Starring: Tinsley Mortimer, Jules Kirby, Paul Johnson Calderon, Dabney Mercer, Dale Mercer, Devorah Rose, Alexandra Osipow
Created by: Tinsley Mortimer, Andrew Glassman, Mike Aho

The sickening, scummy, shallow, scurrilous socialites of Manhattan get a chance to shine in the new CW "docu-series" High Society.

It's virtually impossible not to despise them to the core, which is exactly the point. Being sneak-previewed in half-hour form after Wednesday's America's Next Top Model, this higher-end answer to Jersey Shore does a splendid job of making its real-life characters thoroughly despicable. Taken as a group, they have less depth than Paris Hilton's bejeweled handbag.

The narrator and co-creator is something named Tinsley Mortimer. She used to be married to a rich guy, but now can be seen play-sobbing in her Upper East Side loft after her recent separation from fund marketer Robert Livingston "Topper" Mortimer, whose face is digitized in Wednesday's premiere. Tinsley's lately dating a "German prince" named Casimir Wittgenstein-Sayn. Gotta make ends meet somehow.

Mortimer, whose snooty mother, Dale Mercer is appalled at her new digs, vows to do "everything I can" to reunite Tinsley and Topper.

Enough of them, though. Let's meet the aggressively gay Paul Johnson Calderon, also known as "PJC" and the King of the Bow Ties.

"I've been to rehab twice now," he brags. He's also kind of broke lately while on the rebound from a purse-snatching scandal. So he invites his enabling mother to the city to ask her for another $50 grand from his trust fund.

Momma agrees to half that sum after noting, "I would love it if he met someone like Anderson Cooper." But PJC is footloose and fancy-gay, treating himself to a shopping spree and a drawn bubble bath after the cash arrives in his account.

PJC later aims a shot of Jameson at "trust fund partier" Jules Kirby, but instead hits Tinsley's best friend, Alexandra Osipow. She squeals in horror, as though she'd just received a hot lead enema in an Iraqi torture chamber. If only.

Jules, bad-complexioned and regularly smashed, says people resent her because she's smart and pretty. She then adds, "I use the n-word sometimes, and I really think it should be OK to say."

The first half-hour comes and goes without the benefit of meeting another High Society regular, Devorah Rose. Her CW press release come-on goes like this: "A lot of people consider me the sexy social. I've got assets and like to show them off. I love my body."

All of the above mostly dedicate their lives to attending swank parties and bitching about their lots in life. Their overall contributions to society would fit in a thimble. In other words, what's not to loathe? High Society thoroughly succeeds in making viewers want to throw lethal objects at their TV screens. But please don't do that. They're not worth it.

GRADES: F (because they all make me puke). Or if you prefer, A (because that just has to be the show's overall intent).

DVD review: ABC's Elvis now back in the building

Kurt Russell as Elvis in landmark 1979 ABC film now on DVD.

A whole lotta shakin' went on during the night of Feb. 11, 1979, and not just in the vicinity of Elvis Presley's pelvis.

Few gave The King a chance when ABC's made-for-TV Elvis squared off against two feature film blockbusters -- Gone with the Wind on CBS and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on NBC.

The real-life Presley had died just 18 months earlier. But prognosticators viewed his reincarnation, in the form of former Disney child star Kurt Russell, as a virtually certain third place finisher on that night's Nielsen ratings scorecard.

Instead came a seismic shift. The three-hour Elvis, produced by Dick Clark and directed by young suspense-action film specialist John (Halloween) Carpenter, drew 43 million viewers and a 40 percent share of the TV viewing audience to beat both Wind and Cuckoo's Nest. Made-for-TV movies simultaneously became a much bigger business, with feature film premieres slowly losing their pre-sold luster.

More than three decades later, the longstanding broadcast networks have all but abandoned the made-for-TV movie/miniseries genre, which now primarily is the province of cable. But in 1979 alone, 150 of them aired on ABC, CBS and NBC. And none had the import of Elvis, newly re-released in pristine, restored fashion by Shout Factory at a very reasonable price of $16.63.

The three-hour film, presented at an oft-glacial pace by today's standards, is notable for re-creating full performances of many Presley standards. Russell does the hip-shakin' and lip-syncin' while longtime Elvis impressionist Ronnie McDowell supplies the dead-on vocals.

The "Suspicious Minds" re-do is especially impressive. Presley and his sideman gather in Bel Air (circa 1969) to birth it before a miffed Priscilla Presley (Russell's future wife, Season Hubley) catches them in the act and learns for the first time that Elvis is going back on tour after a near-decade absence.

"Man, I've been away too long," he tells her as prelude to their eventual split-up.

Elvis aired in times when commercials were kept largely at bay. Remarkably, the actual running time of the three-hour film is two hours, 46 minutes, not including the closing credits. In today's TV, commercial breaks consume between 15 and 20 minutes of every programming hour. Were it airing under today's constraints, Elvis would have to leave at least an additional half-hour on the cutting room floor.

Elvis also features Shelley Winters as his weepy, doting mother, Gladys, and Russell's real-life dad, Bing Russell, as a supportive, stalwart Vernon Presley. Veteran character actor Pat Hingle plays Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, who disappears in the closing hour with barely a hint of his manipulative ways. Ed Begley Jr. and Joe Mantegna have small parts as "Memphis Mafia" members D.J. Fontana and Joe Esposito.

Russell, who went on to play Snake Plissken for Carpenter in 1981's Escape From New York, established himself as a dead-serious actor with his bravura performance as Presley. He's got the voice and mannerisms down, pulling viewers into a nuanced characterization that takes Elvis from a virginal, picked-on high schooler to a darker, insecure commodity who shoots a hole in a Las Vegas hotel TV screen when a local news anchor speculates on whether he can still deliver the goods "after nearly 10 years in seclusion."

The film begins on July 26, 1969, with Presley and his entourage en route to Vegas' International Hotel for his comeback live concert performance

Elvis admits to being "kinda scared" after Priscilla pops in to give him some props. "Can I still sing? Can the voice still cut it? I ain't no Andy Williams, man."

We're soon flashing back to Tupelo, Mississippi, 1945, with young Elvis a little bummed about getting a guitar instead of a more expensive bicycle for Christmas. From there it's a leisurely, evocative journey back to the "present," with ample time for the formative music that made Presley an idolized, moneymaking machine whose wealth and generosity took Vernon and Gladys from the family's dumpy, Honeymooners-esque apartment in Memphis to the gaudy environs of Graceland.

Viewers also meet Elvis' high school sweetheart, Bonnie (Melody Anderson), whom he informs, "I gotta be me. I just ain't no gray suit type." She eventually succumbs to a "new beau" while Presley is on the road again. Creature comforts become abundant, though, with momma getting a new Pink Cadillac and expensive jewelry when her boy's salary soars to $2 grand a week.

Director Carpenter looks at the dark sides of fame and fortune, but doesn't dwell on them. Elvis smashes a lamp when producers screw up his songs. He impulsively fires his "Mafia" before immediately rehiring them. He resents making all those stupid movies and balks at the isolation that stardom has brought him. "I feel like a prisoner," Elvis tells longtime confidant/pal Red West (Robert Gray).

There also are scenes of Elvis talking to his dead-at-birth twin brother, Jesse Garon, who's depicted as a shadow on the wall. It's a little creepy, and only narrowly avoids being comical. But back then this was pushing the envelope, with director Carpenter briefly indulging his horror movie bent.

Elvis is much more about the music, though, and many of its reprises are exhilarating. This even includes Elvis' impromptu, invigorating performance of "Tutti Frutti" at a German biergarten during his Colonel Parker-imposed Army days.

Russell throws himself into each and every performance, whether poignantly singing "Sweet Caroline" at the piano to his little daughter, Lisa Marie, or gyrating through "Blue Moon of Kentucky" at a Grand Ole Opry audition that leaves the proprietor cold and Presley in a guitar-smashing rage.

Re-watching Elvis brings home what a really good movie it was and still is. It retains a wow factor while still standing tall over the many made-for-TV Presley projects that emerged in its wake. You won't regret buying yourself a copy and getting re-shook up.

GRADE: A-minus

Oscar audience up 5 mil from previous year's

Backstage with winners Jeff Bridges and Mo'nique. ABC photos

Sunday night's 82nd annual Academy Awards lured 5 million more viewers nationally than the last one, giving ABC its most-watched Oscars telecast in five years.

The three-hour, 37 minute show, hosted by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, averaged 41.3 million viewers compared to 36.3 million in 2009. It fell just short of the 42.1 million viewers for the 2005 ceremony, in which Million Dollar Baby won for best picture.

Nielsen began tabulating total viewer numbers for the Oscars in 1974, when 44.7 million watched NBC's presentation.

The least-watched Oscars were in 2008, when just 32 million viewers cared enough to see No Country For Old Men win for best picture. Oscar's record-setting audience came in 1998, with 55.2 million on hand to watch Titanic sink the competition.

Limp Oscars fade away after less than dynamic hosting by Martin/Baldwin

Ben Stiller, as an Avatar Na'vi, provided the film's biggest highlight. It later lost the major Oscars to The Hurt Locker. Photos: Ed Bark

Absent any major upsets and again running longer than planned, Sunday night's 82nd annual Academy Awards hoped to be sparked by the uncommon choice of dual hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

They instead proved to be less than riotous -- or inventive -- leaving the three hour, 37 minute ABC telecast to register as one of the least memorable in years.

Martin and Baldwin, the first multiple host team since Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Paul Hogan in 1987, were oddly missing in action at the start. Oscar's producers instead chose the ubiquitous Neil Patrick Harris to sing and dance through a production number with the refrain "No one wants to do it alone." When in fact most people do. And have.

Down the stretch, Harris almost unforgivably described Martin and Baldwin as "the biggest pair since Dolly Parton." How moth-eaten is that line?

The biggest pair finally took the stage, both in old-school black tuxes and bow ties. They quickly began singling out the night's major nominees with a game of "Hey, there's . . . "

Some of this proved funny, as when Meryl Streep was cited for her record 16 nominations. "Or as I like to think of it, most losses," said Baldwin while Streep laughed wildly.

Woody Harrelson got the ultimate tribute -- "He's so high." And George Clooney agreeably exchanged glares with Baldwin.

Martin and Baldwin were little-seen after that, lobbing in an occasional joke either as a duo or separately. A lone inspired sight gag found them sleepily encased in a giant red Snuggie after presenter Tyler Perry wondered what they were doing backstage.

Meanwhile, Ben Stiller again proved to be a master of disguise after showing up as a heavily bearded Joaquin Phoenix at last year's Oscars. This year he came as a Na'vi from Avatar, improvising as he went along while joking that it seemed like a much better idea in rehearsals. Avatar director James Cameron agreeably laughed it up, but wouldn't have much to smile about later.

The night's only other comedy highlight came from presenters Robert Downey Jr. and Tina Fey, who dueled over the worth of screenwriters. Downey finally concluded, "It's a collaboration between handsome, gifted people and sickly little mole people."

The agony, if not the suspense, was prolonged when 10 colleagues of the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees were brought onstage to individually extoll each of them. It seemed like a nice touch at first, but got pretty gooey in a hurry. It also tacked on an additional 10 minutes or so down Oscar's drowsy homestretch.

The show at least omitted all those needless performances of the now always forgettable song nominees. And it nicely deployed James Taylor to sing The Beatles' "In My Life" during the annual montage of the dead. Michael Jackson made the cut, but Farrah Fawcett oddly didn't. She obviously was best known for her TV work, but made a number of feature films, including The Apostle in 1997 with Robert Duvall. Ryan O'Neal no doubt will be expressing his tear-stained outraged this week on Entertainment Tonight, Extra, etc.

Barbra Streisand, nominated as the producer but not the director of 1991 best picture nominee The Prince of Tides, fittingly presented what turned out to be a history-making Best Director award.

"Well, the time has come," she said before announcing Kathryn Bigelow as the winner for The Hurt Locker. Cameron, her ex-husband, sat directly behind her in Oscar's audience. Whether acting or not, he responded enthusiastically to her win and then had to repeat the process when Hurt Locker also beat Avatar for Best Picture. Oddsmakers and prognosticators had swung over to Hurt Locker's side in recent days, so that wasn't really a surprise either.

The show also made ample room for young Hollywood in an obvious effort to juice up Oscar's younger demographic. Presenters included Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron, Taylor Lautner, Kristen Stewart, Anna Kendrick, Ryan Reynolds, Chris Pine and Carey Mulligan. Creaky Hollywood was largely dis-invited.

Martin finally wrapped things up by quipping, "Ladies and gentlemen, the show is so long that Avatar now takes place in the past."

Cameron for one would like to put it behind him. Perhaps audiences would, too.

The Office "Baby Event" struggles to be a special delivery

Expectant parents Pam and Jim play mind games. NBC photo

"The One-Hour Office Baby Event," as NBC keeps billing it, seems more than a little too sitcom-y for a series of this caliber.

But most long-running comedies eventually get around to either having a wedding or a baby. Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly (John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer) have already been married on The Office, so why not go for a twofer.

Otherwise subtitled "The Delivery Part 1 and 2," this one-hour episode (Thursday, March 4th, 8 p.m. central) tends to be a little flat and, well, lifeless. The shark hasn't been jumped yet, but a few piranhas might be swimming in the distance.

NBC doesn't want critics to ruin anything for viewers, so the sex of the baby won't be revealed here. Nor will the particulars of a case of mistaken identity that leaves Pam with one of those priceless mortified looks on her face.

Through it all, Dunder Mifflin boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) as always makes an ass of himself, whether trying to act as a matchmaker or racing off to the hospital with the expectant couple in tow.

Carell can still mug and improvise as few can. But the character is getting stretched thin if not threadbare. And Michael's second lieutenant, Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), is getting creepy to the point of being almost totally uncomfortable to watch.

"I need a baby. I'll never out-sell Jim and Pam without one," Schrute frets before propositioning the always desperate Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey). He later diverts his energies to attack the kitchen cupboard mold in Pam and Jim's kitchen. Symbolic perhaps?

Now in its sixth season, The Office already has made about 10 times as many episodes as the BBC original, which called it a day after 12 plus a Christmas special. At some point that takes its toll. Even the very idea of a "Baby Event" is evidence of that.

Maybe a funeral in the fairly near future should be the next step. You've got to know when to fold 'em, and The Office already has gone from a Royal Flush to three of a kind.

Leno re-takes Tonight, knowing that this time NBC will keep its hands off

Sporting a new desk but sticking to the same format, Jay Leno welcomed Jamie Foxx on his first Tonight do-over Monday. NBC photo

Like it or not, he's back. And judging from Monday's D-FW Nielsen ratings, Jay Leno at least initially hasn't missed a beat in thumping David Letterman's CBS Late Show.

Leno alluded to his prime-time nightmare during an opening sepia-toned bit in which he awoke in a daze to repeat, "There's no place like home." Ross the Intern, announcer John Melendez and bandleader Kevin Eubanks (who reportedly plans to leave the show soon) gathered around his bed before Betty White popped in to say, "Look at this ratty ass barn. I can't believe you're doing your show from here."

NBC's lantern-jawed, nose-to-the-grindstone everyman then quickly emerged on a remodeled Tonight set that still made room for the same old mosh pit of delirious, high-fiving fans.

"It's good to be home. I'm Jay Leno, your host -- for at least a while," he said.

The prime-time Jay Leno Show seemed to stretch for an eternity but in fact only ran from Sept. 14th until shortly before the start of NBC's Olympics telecasts. Conan O'Brien, who went unmentioned Monday, helmed Tonight from June 1st until all hell broke loose in early January. I think you know the story by now.

Leno worked in one dig at his home network after noting that Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn would be one of his guests. "When it comes to going downhill, nobody's faster -- except NBC," he said to general amusement.

The show then came up with a genuinely inspired taped comedy bit tied to Leno's search for a new desk. (He awkwardly sat in a stuffed chair for his prime-time show's interviews.) The host popped in on nearby Burbank residents, asked them if they had a desk he could try out, and then proceeded to do so. Adam Carolla and Randy Jackson dropped in as guests, with their impromptu audiences looking realistically blown away by the Tonight visitations. Funny stuff.

Leno's featured guest, Jamie Foxx, proved to be hyper-caffeinated from start to stop, leading the audience in Jay Leno chants, popping open a champagne bottle and eventually knocking the host's liquid-filled cup from his desk.

"Why don't you take an Ambien? We'll be right back," Leno finally ad libbed.

Leno's often not terrific with his facts, and he laid down another obvious misstatement Monday.

"Tomorrow night Sarah Palin will be here," he crowed. "She's never been on a late night show."

Yeah, except for her impromptu December appearance on O'Brien's Tonight, during which she mockingly read excerpts from one of William Shatner's books after he mockingly read excerpts from her Going Rogue.

Palin also appeared on NBC's Saturday Night Live during the height of Tina Fey's impressions of her. Guess that didn't count either.

Leno no doubt will score big with Palin anyway, while one of her principal antagonists, David Letterman, weakly counters with Mitt Romney Tuesday night. But will Jay bring up Dave with her? Or are they really pals again after Leno's surprise appearance with Letterman and Oprah Winfrey on Super Bowl XLIV's most memorable commercial?

Whatever happens, Leno is comfortably "home" again while O'Brien is left to plot his revenge via an eventual offer from a rival network. On Monday night, he effortlessly got back on his Tonight bike and resumed riding it. Critics can shoot all the arrows they want into his tires. Leno will roll on.

NBC's Parenthood a long-needed feather in Peacock's plumage

It's a Baker's Dozen of Bravermans in NBC's Parenthood. NBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 2nd at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Lauren Graham, Peter Krause, Craig T. Nelson, Erika Christensen, Sam Jaeger, Dax Shepard, Mae Whitman, Miles Heizer, Bonnie Bedelia, Max Burkholder, Sarah Ramos
Produced by: Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Jason Katims, David Nevins

It takes a little getting used to, this idea of NBC having a quality new scripted drama in the last hour of prime-time.

The network's disastrous dalliance with Jay Leno kept intelligent life at bay for what seemed like eight days a week. Parenthood, a very populated second coming of both a 1989 feature film and a short-lived 1990 NBC series, is a firm first step in restoring a little order.

It can be a little too cloying at times, and each of the first two episodes end all aglow and therefore too predictably. Even so, Parenthood on Tuesdays and ABC's Modern Family/The Middle on Wednesdays provide viewers with a higher order of dysfunctional family laughs and cries. Mom, dad and the kids are on the comeback trail, battling back against all those gruesome crime scenes and misfit singles.

The latest version of Parenthood is about the Bravermans instead of the Buckmans. But it's still the property of Ron Howard and company. Maybe a short crash course would help.

The feature film, directed by Howard, starred Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen as Midwest-based Gil and Karen Buckman. A well-appointed cast also included Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, Dianne Wiest, Keanu Reeves, Rick Moranis and Joaquin Phoenix (who was known as Leaf then).

NBC's 1990 series version of Parenthood had a marked down TV cast of Ed Begley, Jr. and Jayne Atkinson as Gil and Karen. Leonardo DiCaprio and David Arquette also were in the mix, but as relative unknowns at the time. Howard was a co-producer, but didn't have to oversee things for very long. Cancellation intervened after less than three months.

Two decades later, Howard and longtime production partner Brian Grazer have struck again with a Northern California-set Parenthood stocked with a trio of familiar TV faces.

Craig T. Nelson (Coach) is the gruff but occasionally kindly family patriarch. Goes by the name of Zeek. Lives in a spacious compound with wife, Camille (a little-used Bonnie Bedelia in the first two episodes).

Zeek's oldest kid, Adam, is played by the never-out-of-work-for long Peter Krause (Six Feet Under, Dirty Sexy Money). Maura Tierney (ER) originally was cast as Adam's discombobulated sister, Sarah. But breast cancer surgery forced her to withdraw in favor of Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls), who plays this role exceedingly well.

Sarah, a single mother previously married to a vagabond, drug-addled rock musician, is the reason for Parenthood's sometimes Ponderosa-esque feel. Strapped for cash and saddled with two problematic teen kids (Mae Whitman and Miles Heizer as Amber and Drew), she leaves Fresno to move back in with her parents.

The Braverman brood also includes youngest brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) and youngest sister Julia (Erika Christensen). He's afraid of commitment, but soon learns he's a dad. She's a hard-driving corporate lawyer whose little daughter prefers the company of her stay-at home dad, Joel (Sam Jaeger).

Adam, who runs a shoe company, also is married. But there's ample angst here, too, after he and his wife, Kristina (Monica Potter), learn that their son, Max (Max Burkholder), has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.

Despite the many characters at hand, Parenthood pretty much runs like a well-oiled machine. Sometimes a little too well-oiled. The drama initially unfolds with few if any genuine surprises, whether it's the grousing, old-school Zeek melting like buttah at crunch time or the insecure Sarah rising to the occasion of an impromptu date with a balding old high school flame whom she initially sees as an even bigger loser.

All of the performances are at the worst agreeably solid, though, with Graham and Shepard immediately exceptional while Krause's character gradually gains traction.

Parenthood also gives NBC a point of pride in a season that would have been an abject embarrassment -- and a complete ratings hellhole as well -- without the presence of two sports Goliaths (Sunday Night Football and the just-concluded Winter Games).

The Peacock used to be prime-time's gold standard in the high-flying days of Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, E.R., The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Frasier, Cheers, etc.

It merits at least a silver medal for Parenthood, which might someday be seen as the drama that helped NBC regain both its senses and sensibilities.


Young's "Long May You Run" had familiar NBC ring to it; Marriage Ref launch then waylays Olympics' closing ceremonies

Second verse, same as the first. Neil Young serenaded Conan O'Brien on his last Tonight Show (Jan. 22nd) with "Long May You Run." He returned to NBC Sunday night to play the same tune during the Olympics' closing ceremonies in Vancouver. Photos: Ed Bark

Bob Costas, master of trivia nuggets, somehow missed this one. Perhaps it might be because his boss, NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol, would have killed him had he recalled the last time Neil Young played on the network.

Costas, joined by Al Michaels, hosted the Olympics' closing ceremonies from Vancouver Sunday night. Just before the torch was extinguished, Canadian native Neil Young materialized to sing "Long May You Run" to the appreciative masses.

Gee, it seems like only yesterday -- late last month to be more exact -- that Young serenaded Conan O'Brien with the same ballad on his last NBC Tonight Show. Now, on the eve of Jay Leno re-taking Tonight, Young was playing show-stopper again.

Costas no doubt knew of the Young double-shot. But maybe it's better to zip your lip when the guy who masterminded NBC's Olympics coverage has been bluntly on the record about what he termed O'Brien's "astounding failure" as Tonight Show host.

"We bet on the wrong guy,," Ebersol also told The New York Times in a mid-January interview. He's the only high-level NBC executive to publicly criticize O'Brien's performance during his brief seven-month reign as Tonight host.

"He was just stubborn about not being willing to broaden the appeal of his show," Ebersol contended.

Young is not among the high-voltage guests lined up for Leno's Tonight return this week. Then again, he apparently only does NBC closings these days.

NBC's The Marriage Ref had an animated intro. Sunday night.

Determined to give Jerry Seinfeld's The Marriage Ref a showcase sneak preview, NBC plopped it in the middle of its live coverage of the Olympics' closing ceremonies Sunday night.

The unscripted comedy panel show, which otherwise will air on Thursdays at 9 p.m. (central), was billed as premiering after the Winter Games officially ended. But a half-hour edition of Marriage Ref, which NBC did not make available for review, instead served as a bridge between the Peacock's prime-time and late night coverage of the Vancouver curtain-closer.

That meant a rather jarring transition from the unfinished pageantry at hand to a celebrity debate over whether a husband was justified in stuffing his beloved dead dog, Fonzie. After much merriment -- or at least that was the intention -- a panel of Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin and Kelly Ripa sided with the aggrieved wife, who never liked the dog anyway. Host and "ref" Tom Papa then ratified their decision.

A second debate concerned a husband's intent to install a stripper pole in the bedroom so that his wife could perform for him. Seinfeld liked the idea, but Baldwin, Ripa and Papa didn't.

The show also deployed Today "national correspondent" and news reader Natalie Morales for its "Just the Facts" segments. Morales told Papa that 1,000 people have stuffed their dogs and that pole dancing "can burn up to 250 calories an hour." This is where a journalism degree from Rutgers University can take you. And yes, Morales has one. Can they take it back?

An embarrassed looking Marv Albert showed up near show's end with his "Shot of the Day" proclamation, in which the dog stuffer's wife was lauded for getting in the best dig.

Sunday's launch was just 30 minutes, but future Marriage Refs will be called on to fill an entire hour as lead-ins to late night Thursday newscasts on NBC stations. The premise already seems wobbly, although a future celebrity panel of Madonna, Ricky Gervais and Larry David looked amusingly lippy based on the few seconds of clips shown.

The easiest call of all, though, is whether NBC should have interrupted Sunday's live Olympics closing ceremonies to throw this little trifle at you. Of course they shouldn't have. Remember, though, these are the boneheads who put Leno in prime-time and now are trying to undo the damage done on a number of fronts. Stupidity of that magnitude just can't be underestimated.