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Marlon!!! Turner Classic Movies gives Brando a few hours of its time

From The Wild One to The Godfather: Two Brandos at their best.

Both icon and iconoclast, Marlon Brando made his own kind of music and even played the bongos.

An actor's actor, he supposedly hated acting. No matter. "He's the god, you know," says acolyte Johnny Depp. "And he would kill me for saying that."

Turner Classic Movies' two-part, three-hour Brando reprises the heights and depths of his legendary life with help from an array of colleagues, childhood friends and family.

Still, it's missing a little something. For one, Francis Ford Coppola, who directed him in his two latter day triumphs, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. For another, any perspectives from film critics on what Brando meant to the hallowed art of make believe.

Brando premieres Tuesday, May 1 at 7 p.m. (central) and concludes at the same hour on the following night. TCM also is filling out those nights with some of his vintage classics (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Wild One, The Men) and lesser films (Sayonara, Guys and Dolls, The Missouri Breaks and The Teahouse of the August Moon).

That's a whole lot of Brando going on, and perhaps he'd appreciate the gesture. Not that he'd ever let on if he did.

On-screen, Brando "was theatrical without being theatrical," says actor Martin Landau. In other words he had presence without giving it the old Master Thespian treatment.

"Hey, Stella!!!", his primal scream in 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire, has been parodied innumerable times. But it's never funny coming from his mouth. Brando's performance as smoldering, brutish, vulnerable Stanley Kowalski remains a defining screen moment that redefined the acting profession. Its raw power peeled away just about everything.

Al Pacino remembers watching and thinking, "Whoa! What're you doin'? People are lookin' at this

Brando in 1955's Guys and Dolls. Some of his movies weren't so hot.

Brando lasted 80 years, but made just 10 films in his last quarter century before dying of pulmonary fibrosis on July 1, 2004. From 1950 to 1960, in the flower of his youth and masculinity, he made a dozen features that marked him for life as an artist who had set new gold standards. All the while, a deep-set loathing of his alcoholic mother and belittling father left him searching for ways to remain at a distance.

"That's the epicenter. And the living, breathing soul of his art. Non-conformity," says producer George Englund, who was closer to Brando than most.

Composer Quincy Jones says the younger Brando always used to say, "You must go out and jiggle the molecules."

He jiggled and juggled them, becoming an actor/activist -- or vice versa -- who didn't particularly care what anyone thought or wrote. His refusal to accept an Oscar for The Godfather, related to a worldwide audience by Sasheen Littlefeather, reportedly heated John Wayne to a full boil backstage. The current-day Littlefeather says Wayne had to be restrained from charging into view onstage and dragging her off.

Jane Fonda, who worked with Brando in 1966's The Chase, dresses for Brando in an oversized cowboy hat with a miniature American flag sticking out the back. One of her quotes wears better: "This was not a male Meryl Streep. This was somebody who became unbelievably famous and successful, and kind of hated every minute of it."

James Caan, immortalized as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, tells a funny story about how Robert Duvall talked him into mooning the great Brando while they drove past him. It's made funnier by Caan's dead-on impressions of Duvall as instigator and Brando as giggler.

This is an oft-revelatory three-hour film that goes deep without quite making the end zone. It's more than good enough, though, whetting appetites for even some of his lesser films. What did Brando bring to forgettables such as Candy, Morituri, The Apaloosa, A Countess from Hong Kong and The Nightcomers?

Surely he brought at least something beyond the norm. That was always a given.

Grade: B+

Wow, what took so long? Just 18.5 months before election day, it's the "First in the Nation" presidential candidate debate

Extreme longshots Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel said what they actually thought Thursday night. Woo-hoo, what a concept. But does anyone care except MSNBC and its bottomless cup of pontificators?

Eight Democratic candidates and one publicity-hungry cable news network added up to the "First in the Nation" presidential debate early Thursday evening.

The carrier, MSNBC, spent virtually the entire day flogging it, even providing a Countdown Clock for those viewers who otherwise have absolutely no lives. Then they analyzed it ad nauseum far into the night after invading the campus of South Carolina State University with Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson, Andrea Mitchell and debate moderator Brian Williams among many. Apparently Triumph the Insult Comic Dog couldn't make it.

Even Matthews had a little trouble rousing himself in the early aftermath of the 90-minute close encounter among Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.

"It was very civilized, and therefore not that exciting," Matthews said. So much so that "this could have been on public television."

But we wouldn't want to have that. MSNBC sorely wants to establish itself as the go-to network for presidential politics, but even a hapless, hopeless junkie couldn't possibly have eaten the whole thing Thursday. All of this pomp and circumstance for a Decision 2008 thumbsucker held 18-and-a-half months before election day.

There were no rules of order on candidate exposure, which meant that fiery, elderly former Alaska senator Mike Gravel mostly got left out of the picture.

"I was beginning to feel like a potted plant standing over here," he said at one point.

Gravel and Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich both had nothing to lose because they have no chance to win. So they spoke with bold conviction, making their six higher-powered rivals seem like milquetoasts on the war in Iraq. Both of the field's extreme longshots just simply want to get out -- immediately.

Kucinich said, "This isn't American Idol here. We're choosing a president and we have to look at the audition that occurred in 2003," when most of his rivals voted for the war in Iraq.

He later held up a pocket copy of the Constitution to buttress his call for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney, whom he essentially brands a war criminal.

Gravel for his part professed to be "frightened" by some of the high-powered Democrats onstage. Asked to be more specific, he pointed at the "frontrunners" (Clinton and Obama). When Biden also raised his hand, Gravel dismissively included him, too, calling the longtime Delaware senator "arrogant" for thinking he knows what the Iraqi people want.

"They were the flamethrowers tonight," Matthews said of Kucinich and Gravel.

Not that any of this matters. Today's presidential politics have nothing to do with survival of the fittest. It's strictly a game for the richest war chests, and neither Kucinich or Gravel have enough dubloons to buy a Long John Silver franchise.

Kucinich, still kind of goofy looking, does have a stunning new red-haired wife, Elizabeth, whom he first met in 2005. That ought to be worth a little something in American politics, and Kucinich seemed to know as much. The two held hands on-camera throughout his post-debate interview.

Gravel had a good time, too, telling Matthews after the debate that his rivals will continue to dance around important issues "as long as you in the media keep building them up."

Matthews wanted to know where Gravel had been since he left the Senate in 1981.

"Hiding under a rock," he rejoined, triggering a patented Matthews donkey hee-haw. But seriously, "I felt terrible about the (political) system," Gravel said.

Olbermann then cracked, "Zell Miller had just endorsed Mike Gravel's candidacy," a reference to Matthews' big dustup with Georgia senator Zell Miller, who challenged him to a duel at the 2004 Republican convention.

All of this came very early in the night. By midnight (central time), four-and-a-half hours after the debate had ended, MSNBC's Scarborough and an "all-star panel" were still picking over the debate.

And they'd probably only just begun.

Sweet charity: Idol gives back -- and no one gets sacked

Safe at home: Idol's six finalists all stayed in play Wednesday night.

Bait and switch -- but for a good cause.

Host Ryan Seacrest promised the "most shocking results in our history" at the start of Wednesday's two-hour Idol Gives Back fundraiser. And when momentum-rich Jordin Sparks stood alone at the end, it seemed that a big jolt in fact had been delivered by more than 70 million voters.

"I told you this was going to very shocking," Seacrest said.


"Jordin, you are also safe," he added. "How can we let anyone go on a charity night?"

The 70 million votes instead are being applied to next Wednesday's results show, when two of the remaining six contenders will be goners. Pretty cheeky, but who cares when the end result is almost $30 million in donations to fight "extreme poverty" in Africa and the U.S. That number should go up when final proceeds are announced.

Ellen DeGeneres ably co-hosted the event from the nearby Walt Disney Concert Hall, site of live performances from inaugural Idol Kelly Clarkson of Burleson, Il Divo, Rascal Flatts, Earth, Wind & Fire, Annie Lennox and most notably, Josh Groban singing "You Raise Me Up" with the African Children's Choir. That one was sensational.

DeGeneres herself pledged $100,000 to the cause and urged the fellow rich people who watch Idol to match it. And former Will & Grace star Eric McCormack told viewers, "If everybody who ever voted for Sanjaya gave just one dollar, we could do so much good."

Weirdest item of the night: Celine Dion's duet with a still very dead Elvis Presley. The miracle of modern technology put the two of them together onstage, with virtual Elvis looking more alive than Celine during their rendition of "If I Can Dream."

The lamest bit found a videotaped Ben Stiller plugging virtually every one of his movies before pledging to keep singing "Reminiscent" by the Little River Band until $200 billion was raised. The show then made this a running joke, quickly running it into the ground.

Better rendered was Jack Black's live performance of Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" in hopes the three Idol judges would find it praiseworthy.

Paula Abdul went against type, calling it "crappy." Simon Cowell said, "You were better than Sanjaya." Then the real-deal Seal raved after the real Sanjaya laughed it up from the audience.

The show made too much of the fact that Cowell and Seacrest had bestowed their presence on Africa to visit terribly impoverished children.

"It's all right. Let it out," Seacrest said while hugging a sobbing little boy. Cowell did the best he could to be empathetic, but his already indelible cutthroat image makes that a tough sell.

At least they made the far-off journey while judge Randy Jackson ventured to his home state of Louisiana. The best Abdul could muster was a stop at a charitable foundation that she said was located next door to Idol headquarters. She also narrated footage from Appalachia, implying she was there. But you never saw her on camera.

All is well, though, when the end result is at least $30 million toward ending poverty. Five million dollars of that figure came from Fox's parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It donated a dime for each of the first 50 million votes cast for favorite Idol contestants.

Maybe that's just good business. But no other media conglomerate stepped up, so News Corporation can take an unqualified bow for its largesse.

She never promised them a Rosie garden: O'Donnell leaving The View

No more fun 'n' games: Rosie O'Donnell putting The View behind her.

Donald Trump hasn't declared a national holiday yet, but give him a few minutes. Rosie O'Donnell is leaving The View after contract negotiations with ABC supposedly fell through.

"My needs for the future just didn't dovetail with what ABC was able to offer me," she said in a statement Wednesday. Her exit is slated for mid-June. She replaced current Today co-host Meredith Vieira on Sept. 5, 2006.

ABC daytime programming president Brian Fons told ABCNews.com: "Going in we knew we would have an amazing year with her, and that anything beyond that would be gravy. But we were willing to take the chance because we understood what a coup it was to entice Ro back to daytime television."

Once dubbed the "Queen of Nice" by Newsweek, O'Donnell has added spice to The View, helped drive the ratings up and periodically been the bane of Trump, Kelly Ripa, Catholics, Asian-Americans, the Bush administration and a wealth of conservative commentators. In Trump's case, she called him a "snake oil salesman" and he called her a "fat slob."

"This has been an amazing experience," O'Donnell said in her statement, "and one I wouldn't have traded for the world."

Barbara Walters, The View's grande dame, praised O'Donnell for giving the program "new vigor, new excitement and wonderful hours of television. I can only be grateful to her for this year."

The search is now on for a no doubt less contentious replacement.

In memoriam: David Halberstam (April 10, 1934 to April 23, 2007)

The great David Halberstam, who tragically died at age 73 in a car crash Monday, had pointed views on the latter day directions of television news.

He unabashedly shared some of them with TV critics in 1997 during an interview tied to The History Channel's The Fifties, an eight-hour documentary series adapted from his same-named bestseller.

Halberstam, who in 1972 wrote the seminal book The Best and the Brightest about the road to the Vietnam War, had a special disdain for "these God-awful news magazines," which flourished and multiplied in prime-time during the mid-to-late 1990s.

"They are by and large a disgrace and they are the work of lazy people wanting only to have ratings," he said. "They have replaced documentaries from the (Edward R.) Murrow era, which tried to examine serious issues in a serious way. What you're really getting now is all about either celebrities or violence or sexual aberration as opposed to answering larger questions about our society."

Halberstam also upbraided CBS for briefly hiring former congresswoman Susan Molinari in 1997 to co-anchor the network's new CBS News Saturday Morning program. She signed on with no previous journalistic experience.

"I think CBS would be a lot better off developing their own young talent the way great journalistic institutions traditionally have, and not just hiring them based on their cosmetic attractiveness," he said. "Charles Kuralt would not get across the moat today at CBS. They can go down there and shed their crocodile tears at his funeral. But the truth is he would be unemployable at the CBS of today."

A few years earlier, in 1994, Halberstam was one of the on-camera interviewees in a CBS documentary titled When America Trembled: Murrow/McCarthy.

The Communist-hunting senator from Wisconsin was "this crummy, thuglike dictator," said Halberstam. But most of the reporters who covered McCarthy were no better in his view.

"He played them like a yo-yo," Halberstam said. "And they were glad to be the yo-yo."

Spoken like a man who feared not. David Halberstam was a redwood.

Melting pot: San Francisco's hippie trippy shakeup

Oh happy daze. It's been nearly 40 years since San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district weeded out the "straights" and welcomed in the weed, LSD, hash-hish and riff-raff. Unfortunately there were far too many of the latter, and that's what screwed things up.

The neighborhood's brief heyday as a tie-dyed utopia is reprised in Summer of Love, a new American Experience presentation in which a very young Jerry Garcia says, "We would all like to be able to live an uncluttered life."

Premiering Monday, April 23 on PBS (check your local listings), the one-hour film suffers from being too clinical. At times it feels like an episode of Nova when it should be a swervy, freewheeling trip. The defining music of those times is too little-heard or referenced, with Scott McKenzie's still melodious "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)" a welcome exception. Probably the music rights otherwise were too costly for public television, a definite sign of these times.

Narrator David Ogden Stiers of M*A*S*H fame says the 1967 rush to turn on, tune in and drop out in Haight Ashbury made for "the largest migration of young people in the history of America."

They clogged the streets, parks and sidewalks while alienating many of the townies. California Gov. Ronald Reagan campaigned against his state's newfound wealth of day trippers, who were "just being complete fools" by taking LSD and many other available hallucinogens.

Tour buses tripped, too, taking vacationers to the zoo so to speak. Summer of Love includes telling footage of old ladies and business-suited men being schooled in hippie-speak and the like from the safe confines of a Gray Line cruiser.

Actor Peter Coyote lived those times to their fullest. He remembers the initially altruistic search for better lives through chemistry.

"We thought culture is much more important than politics," he says.

Kids arrived from all over the place, many of them fleeing unhappy homes.

"It was like arriving in Wonderland," says Sandi Stein, who was 13 at the time and tired of hearing her parents yell at each other.

"Racism was supposed to be really unhip," remembers Claudia King Yunker.

But Haight Ashbury quickly became a haven for dealers of hard-core, addictive drugs. Heroin, cocaine and speed firmed their iron grips. The "spiritual awakenings" that some sought quickly became a hackneyed, old-time religion in the minds of many.

A "Death of Hippie" parade and funeral symbolically brought down the curtain in fall 1967. Still, other parts of the country remained eager to play. Idealism wasn't dead yet. Nor were the stimulants that helped fuel it.

I was just starting Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego when Haight Ashbury began decaying from within. The drug culture would flourish into the mid-1970s, though, affording ample time to catch up in both Southern California and Madison, Wis.

Let's just say I didn't get cheated in those years. But that was then, and this is just a chance to look back through the eyes of the imperfect but evocative Summer of Love.

You don't need rose-colored glasses to see that at least they gave it a shot.

Grade: B

The Sopranos: too close for comfort

Eerie: Uncle Junior, a volatile young Asian and a mental ward.

Sunday night's episode of The Sopranos indirectly but chillingly evoked the horrific events at Virginia Tech University, even though it was scripted and filmed months earlier.

In a featured storyline, a still addled Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) had a precarious friendship with fellow mental ward patient Carter Chong (Ken Leung), a young Asian with serious anger management problems.

During one of their conversations, Chong recalled how his demanding father asked him where the other four points were after he came home with a 96 on his report card. He then pointedly cursed both his father and the memory.

Chong's mother later visited, telling her son, "Now apparently you are becoming a bully." He instantly despised her for saying that.

His feelings of rejection continued to boil close to the surface, although Chong enjoyed the company of the old gangland heavyweight. It also excited him when Uncle Junior retaliated against another patient by kneeing him in the groin.

"Get him! Get him!" Chong urged.

One couldn't help but draw parallels to Cho Seung-Hui, the now infamous mass murderer whose posthumous "multimedia manifesto" seethed with hatred. Would Chong also go berserk?

He eventually did, but only to the point of physically attacking Uncle Junior after feeling betrayed by him. Until that time it had gotten very unsettling. Very unsettling indeed.

Haw, that's Rich: Little to laff about at White House correspondents gala

The Washington press corps' elite happily walked the red carpet Saturday night on C-SPAN.

American Idol evictees Sanjaya Malakar and Chris Sligh were among those keeping a close watch on the powers that be. Other proud members of the Fourth Estate's guest lists included Valerie Bertinelli, Teri Hatcher, Apolo Anton Ohno, Morgan Fairchild, Dennis Hopper, Niecy Nash from Reno 911!, Oprah pal Gayle King, James Denton, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Reggie Bush, Larry David and Sheryl Crow.

What a night, even if this just as easily could have been The People's Choice Awards. But no, the White House Correspondents Association again had done its best to invite loads of people who had no real business being there. That, as it turned out, also included the evening's featured entertainer, yesteryear impressionist Rich Little. Oh gawd, he was more dated than great grandma Gertrude's fruit cake.

Little, 68, came equipped with a deep tan of unknown origin and hair dyed the color of Log Cabin syrup. He was deemed a "safe" choice after last year's humorist, Stephen Colbert, made unusually pointed fun of both the Bush administration and the gathered swells who cover it.

Critics think these events are unseemly, particularly in very sobering times. But WHCA president Steve Scully of C-SPAN, who looks ready to join the Mounties, said it's good to break bread rather than bust chops on at least one night a year.

"Let us be reminded that an adversary is not the same thing as an enemy," he preached at an event that's been televised live by his commercial-free network since 1993. "Nor does an evening of civility mean we are selling out."

Still, if only they could see themselves as others could on live TV.

Award recipient Martha Raddatz of ABC News, a very capable reporter who won one of the night's awards, looked not ready for prom night in a laughable black strapless gown with oversized white polka dots and a pink sash. Katie Couric could be glimpsed at her table in a demonstrably low-cut white dress. Not a good idea when you're otherwise trying so hard to bring a serious sense of purpose to the CBS Evening News.

President Bush told the news media and Sanjaya that he wouldn't be cracking jokes in light of the terrible events at Virginia Tech University.

Seconds earlier he'd been twitted during the night's only funny respite, a taped "Top 10 Favorite George W. Bush Moments" prepared by CBS Late Show host David Letterman. He'd used some of them previously, but No. 2 -- "The left hand now knows what the right hand is doing" -- is always a crowd-pleaser. The President had a 50-50 chance of raising his hands in the correct order, but that mission wasn't accomplished.

Little then bombed with an unrelenting series of cob-webbed impressions.

"You thought Colbert was bad," he said when an Arnold Schwarzenegger bit collapsed on him. Next up were a few mock musings from Andy Rooney, including, "If you overdose on Viagra, how would you get the coffin lid closed?"

Worse yet, Little bridged his closing sendups of six presidents with a horrid little, piano-accompanied song that ended each time with, "Poke a lot of fun at Washington."

Judging from some of the pained reaction shots, many dinner-goers thought they instead were being poked in the eye with sharp sticks.

For the record, Little did both President Bushes, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and for his big finish, Richard Nixon.

"God, I'm having a jowl movement!" his Nixon exclaimed before singing "My Way." A penny for Sanjaya's thoughts.

The night's best entertainment apparently occurred off-camera, when Crow and fellow global warming activist Laurie David confronted Bush guru Karl Rove at his dinner table. They've already blogged about it in self-important detail on huffingtonpost.com, portraying themselves as Thelma and Louise.

Veteran ABC News correspondent Ann Compton, the WCHA's new president, now is tasked with putting together next spring's dinner on behalf of American Idol castoffs and other invited guests.

Maybe they can land a more contemporary comedian next time. It's never too early to ask Phyllis Diller.

New series review: Wife, Mom, Bounty Hunter (WE tv)

Premiering: Friday, April 20 at 8 p.m. central (9 eastern) on WE tv
Starring: Sandra Scott
Produced by: Steven Cheskin, Annabelle McDonald, Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

Formerly a pro wrestler and now a pistol-packin' mama, Sandra Scott supposedly tracks "the most wily and dangerous criminals" in Pinal County, Arizona.

Substitute "pathetic and harmless" to get much closer to the truth of Wife, Mom, Bounty Hunter, a less than spine-tingling new reality series premiering Friday on WE tv.

Sandra must have encountered far more fake danger in the ring, where she grappled under the name Tiffany Mellon for five years on G.L.O.W.: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. In WMBH's opening hour, our heroine and her two burly assistants, J.D. and Theresa, arrest a cadaverous, joke-crackin' bag and a very meek guy, both accused of drug possession. You can cut the tension with a Fisher Price play scissors.

Off-the-job domestic adventures are supposed to pick up the slack. After all, it's "chaos" in the kitchen every morning, with two dogs, two cats, two daughters and a husband underfoot. But an early tight shot of Sandra's cleavage turns out to be more riveting. As noted, she's packin'.

Given recent events, it's more than a little disconcerting to see the bounty hunters gleefully shopping for weapons near the start of the show. Sandra admires "a very sexy gun" before they all take a little target practice. Yes, these are the good guys, but still.

Tragedy later ensues when one of the Scott family's twin chihuahuas, Buddy, trespasses into a neighbor's yard and is killed off-camera by another dog. Sandra gets the news from husband, Ron, while she's on the job.

"I'll talk to you later," she tells him. "I gotta go make an arrest right now."

Things then get cloyingly maudlin when Sandra then breaks the news to her 15-year-old daughter, Sabree. Frankly, these scenes seem rehearsed, even if they aren't. And a horrid soundtrack definitely doesn't help matters. Still, R.I.P., little Buddy. At least you got a little TV face time.

WMBH also includes an unusual exchange between Sandra and the haggard fugitive Victoria, who proclaims, "I'm on my period" while being handcuffed.

To which Sandra retorts, "I started my period this morning, too, OK. And my dog just got killed by my neighbor's dog."

WE tv has ordered 12 episodes of WMBH, which will be downsized to half-hour dollops after Friday's debut. The network is still No. 3 in cable's TV-for-women league, behind her highness Lifetime and plucky Oxygen.

This latest effort looks way too forced to be entirely real. Even so, not much happens anyway. Life is much more complicated on The View.

Grade: D+

American Idol: Sanjaya and Simon both say goodbye to all that

"Sanjaya, you are going home tonight."

American Idol actually put out two fires Wednesday night, evicting its most-maligned contestant and exonerating judge Simon Cowell.

Prime-time's most popular show went to extraordinary lengths in its opening minutes to derail a mostly Internet-fed "controversy" over whether Cowell had disdainfully rolled his eyes Tuesday night after singer Chris Richardson expressed sympathy for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre.

The reliably acerbic judge had been talking off-camera to Paula Abdul about Richardson's "nasally" performance and didn't hear his post-song comments about Virginia Tech, viewers were told. And Idol offered seemingly conclusive proof by rolling previously unseen and unheard footage of Cowell and Abdul conversing. You mean he actually talks to her when it's not required?

"There's another show happening at that table every night," Seacrest explained.

Cowell told viewers, "I may not be the nicest person in the world, but I would never, ever, ever disrespect those families or those victims."

"We all know that," said Seacrest, who regularly is on the receiving end of disparaging comments from Cowell.

The night otherwise belonged to Sanjaya Malakar's eviction after he first joined two surprise members of Idol's Bottom Three -- Blake Lewis and LaKisha Jones. Earlier declared "safe" for another week were former Bottom Two residents Richardson and Phil Stacey.

"Simon, you're grinning from ear to ear," Seacrest said after Malakar, Lewis and Jones were lined up.

"I'm beginning to sense something here," he replied.

All concerned had ample time to sit on their hands. Idol first went about the business of an in-show informercial during which the seven contestants were used as pawns to promote Shrek the Third. They got to meet movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and actor Antonio Banderas before seeing the movie and laughing it up on camera.

"It was so good," said Idol frontrunner Melinda Doolittle, who probably really meant it. But what else could she say?

Finally, a teary-eyed Malakar faced the music with the far more accomplished Jones after Lewis was told to take a seat. He wore a "Life Is Beautiful" t-shirt, and for a few more moments it was. Then Seacrest made Cowell's day with the announcement that Idol would no longer in a sense be punk'd.

A pair of relative dullards -- Richardson and Stacey -- remain in play with two weeks to go before the show at last reaches its Final Four. The contestant who was "in your own universe," as Cowell put it, has been brought down to earth before he could seriously threaten Idol's reputation as a marketer of million dollar babies fronting bestselling CDs.

Not that we've heard the end of Sanjaya Malakar. As a Top 10 finalist, he'll take his rightful or wrongful place on the show's annual cross-country tour after a champ is crowned in May. Maybe he can't sing but probably that doesn't matter. There are any number of things he can do for any number of networks.

Idol has seen to that.

New series review: Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Standup (Starz)

Martin Lawrence, frontman, and Doug Williams, host

PASADENA, Calif. -- Pre-Don Imus but post-Michael Richards, comedian Doug Williams stood tall for anyone's right to use the n-word. And he didn't mean nappy.

"This is America, man," he told a roomful of TV critics in mid-January. "I mean, this show says it all."

The show is Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Standup, which premieres Wednesday, April 18 on the Starz premium cable network (10:15 p.m. central, 11:15 eastern). Lawrence is the half-hour series' executive producer, but otherwise a non-participant. He's no stranger to working "blue," though, and this series takes his cue.

"You don't have to agree with what someone says," Williams said. "I thought what Michael Richards said was horrible, and I was offended and all of those things. But do we have the right here in America to start telling people what they can and cannot say? I think once you infringe upon the First Amendment, then we are almost becoming like a Communist country."

Joey Diaz, one of 31 comedians deployed during the series, said it's his party and he'll say what he wants to.

"I don't work clean, and I refuse to work clean. I'm R-rated from the jump. I don't use the n-word, but if I'm onstage and it comes out, it comes out. I don't mean it in a derogatory way."

He's not a big enough name to be held to the Imus test. Frankly, who really gives a damn what Diaz says onstage? For the most part it's about who you are, not what you say. And the comics on 1st Amendment Standup aren't exactly towers of power in the name recognition department.

Williams, who both hosts and throws out a few opening jokes, welcomes the very profane Donnell Rawlings, the less so Ian Edwards and the very profane Sheryl Underwood to Wednesday's opening show. On another half-hour sent for preview, it's the super-profane Marilyn Martinez, the less so A.J. Jamal and the prototypically embittered Paula Bel, who says, "I hate Eskimos. I don't know why."

The Eskimo lobby, if one exists, won't bother to reprimand her. And Underwood won't be excoriated for calling Monica Lewinsky an "amateur ho" and President Bush "an ignorant ass hillbilly" in what turns out to be a defense of him.

Nor are the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson likely to come after her for saying, "You want some (n-words) rioting in the streets? Take off The Price Is Right."

Not coincidentally, it's the four black comedians who use the n-word while the other two stick to insulting gays or Hispanics.

Ian Edwards, who's black, jokes about a Great White Shark having to apologize for using the n-word because, well, that's just not done.

But he feels free to lob a crude joke at one of the world's most prominent black persons: "Some people don't think Condoleezza Rice is ugly. But you're wrong."

The show's venue is The Improv in San Jose, CA, where an enthusiastic, multi-ethnic crowd responds to just about anything with raucous laughter.

It makes one wonder how they'd react to a now-soiled Michael Richards. And as for Don Imus, well, he wouldn't have a chance. For now at least.

Grade: C

Anchors away to Blacksburg -- except for one

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams interviews two Virginia Tech students who lived to tell about Monday's horrific events on campus.

Appearances weren't deceiving. World News anchor Charles Gibson should have joined his competitors in quickly journeying to the traumatized Virginia Tech campus Monday.

Instead the star of ABC's lately No.1-rated dinner hour newscast inexplicably remained in a New York studio while Brian Williams and Katie Couric went those extra miles.

Williams had the best approach. The NBC Nightly News anchor stood outdoors in strong winds, giving viewers a tangible feel for the university and its vast green lawns while interviewing four key witnesses to the "deadliest shooting rampage in American history."

Couric opted for a much cozier, library-like setting during an expanded one-hour edition of the CBS Evening News. It made her seem more distanced from the campus than advisable. But at least Couric went to the site of this story, where she deserved to be taken seriously.

Gibson's World News covered the basic bases, but without getting the lay of the land on a day when "a tranquil college campus became a killing field."

The reporting had a processed, packaged feel, with Gibson throwing a few pro forma questions at ABC correspondents instead of interviewing the story's real people. The network seemed to be caught flat-footed and out of sorts. Pierre Thomas, an alumnus of Virginia Tech, reported from afar in Washington, D.C. So did Jake Tappert.

Gibson still has the common, everyman touch, which he displayed at newscast's end.

"I wish I could say this has been a good day. It hasn't," he said, his voice slightly breaking as he signed off. But you really had to be there -- and he wasn't.

Williams was very much on the scene, but not in a grandstanding way. He first interviewed students Trey Perkins and Derek O'Dell, with the latter wearing a sling after taking a bullet in the arm.

"We saw him actually reload a clip," O'Dell said of the still unidentified gunman, who killed 33 people, including himself.

"You've got a lot of support if and when you need it," Williams told both students, clearly affected by what he had heard.

He also talked to Virginia Tech president Charles Steger and voluntary emergency medical technician Sarah Walker.

All of Williams' interviews were live and to the point. Several of Couric's were pre-taped, including one with O'Dell.

She still has a bad habit of telling interviewees what they think, and then expecting them to think it.

"You all are angry that there wasn't a lockdown after the initial shooting this morning," Couric told a group of three freshman students.

"It's not so much anger as it is confusion about who was making that decision, how it was made," said one of them, Max Davis.

O'Dell similarly got a question in the form of an answer. Sort of like Jeopardy.

"You seem pretty calm, but obviously this must have been terrifying and you're very shaken up," Couric told him.

"Yes, nothing can describe this," he said in part.

All three networks duly reprised the 1966 University of Texas at Austin clock tower massacre, in which Charles Whitman killed 15 people and wounded 31 others. And Virginia Tech student Jamal Albarghouti's cell phone video/audio of the shootings became the go-to graphic of the day, with CNN at first claiming exclusivity before everyone started using it.

CNN's long-planned week-long celebration of Larry King's 50th anniversary in broadcasting understandably has been put on hold. He was scheduled to interview Oprah Winfrey on Monday night and be interviewed by Couric on Tuesday. Instead, King led his Monday program by interviewing Albarghouti, who's been dubbed the network's "I-Reporter" in residence.

Coverage of the tragedy likely will proceed non-stop on Tuesday, with recriminations further setting in and Gibson perhaps finally setting foot on the numbed Virginia Tech campus.

In this case, that's not big-footing. Sometimes an anchor should just know better than to stay at home.

Wedding bell ding-dongs: Ashton Kutcher finds something new to punk

Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore managed a crash-free wedding.

No, they're not going to be crashing, punking or junking up anyone's funeral. At least not for now.

"I think that might be a little morbid for my taste," says Ashton Kutcher, whose new The Real Wedding Crashers is set to premiere April 23 on NBC in place of The Black Donnellys.

Kutcher and his producing partner, Jason Goldberg, put Punk'd in the pop cultural lexicon before hitting it big a second time with the comparatively genteel Beauty and the Geek.

Their latest goof-off assumes that weddings often are inherently boring for both the vow-takers and assembled guests. So the bride and groom are in on these particular jokes, with help from five undercover wedding crashers.

Being punk'd are all those people who've thought enough of the newlyweds to shower them with Target gift cards. In the opening episode, a fake preacher has a coughing fit, the wedding cake winds up on the floor and a server keeps heisting still half-full plates.

"We're not jamming this down anyone's throat," Kutcher says in a teleconference. "If someone had an issue with it, well, then they're not really thinking about the bride and groom. Because this is what they want . . . I don't think we're turning the wedding into shambles. What we're doing is enhancing the experience for everyone and making it a day you'll never forget."

Besides, with divorce rampant, "I have to question how sacred it really is," Kutcher says of marriage, American style.

His own much-publicized union, with Demi Moore, is still intact after a Sept. 24, 2005 wedding that "only a few people on the planet knew about." Ergo, it wasn't punk'd, crashed or even turned into a week-long event on Entertainment Tonight. But Kutcher says he doesn't mind efforts to mess with his head because "if you're going to dish this out, you have to be able to take it."

The former That '70s Show star doesn't appear on camera in Real Wedding Crashers and has never crashed one himself.

"My wife and I crashed a party up the street from us at one point," he says. "Our whole goal was to go in, get one drink and leave."

Kutcher acknowledges being successfully punk'd just once -- by presidential candidate John Edwards. He boarded the Democrat's campaign plane with a big bag that had been cleared for security. But then Secret Service agents quarantined him and said the bag had a bomb in it and would have to be detonated on the tarmac. That shook Kutcher up a bit.

"So I think they actually got me on that one," he concedes.

NBC has ordered six episodes of Real Wedding Crashers, with all of the nuptials originating from Las Vegas. The show's five fakers were all "ordained" in Sin City, enabling them to marry couples without any re-do's, Kutcher says.

The show doesn't mess with any religious elements in the ceremonies, although Kutcher has "never seen spirituality as a serious thing." As a kid, he didn't get it when mom told him to keep quiet in church. "You mean Jesus didn't laugh?" he'd wonder.

Kutcher of course anticipates widespread mainstream appeal for the show, even though A-list producer David E. Kelley's The Wedding Bells recently got canceled by Fox after just four episodes.

"I think the audience range is vast," Kutcher says. "Anyone who has ever worn shoes will like it. If you've had a haircut in the last seven years, you're going to like the show."

That pretty much deals out the Abominable Snowman. A pity.

Turning 50: Larry King, 73, celebrates a half-century in broadcasting

King survived a 1994 interview with a mondo Marlon Brando.

PASADENA, Calif. -- He's got suspenders older than you. So who hasn't he interviewed?

"We almost got the Pope before he died," says Larry King. "We got a 'maybe.' That was somethin'."

CNN is makin' a little somethin' out of this with a week-long salute to King, who's been asking questions in public for 50 years since breaking in at a small Miami Beach radio station. "The King-sized" events begin on Monday (April 16), with Oprah Winfrey scheduled as his only guest on Larry King Live (8 p.m. central, 9 eastern).

King, 73, will be interviewed Tuesday by Katie Couric before starring in Wednesday's two-hour Larry King -- 50 Years of Pop Culture. Bill Clinton joins King on Thursday. Then it's a wrap with Friday's visitation by Bill Maher and "more than 20 surprise all-star guests."

He's been a CNN mainstay since 1985, a year after playing himself in Ghost Busters, his first of 21 feature films to date. He used to wear specs the size of saucers, which prompts the question, "Have you changed your eyeglasses recently to not be quite so bug-eyed?"

King takes this in good humor.

"You know, it it's kind of weird . . . They were much bigger. And then my wife suggested one day (he doesn't say which wife) that that doesn't look real good. And you know, when wives suggest it, it's not a suggestion. I also weighed about 20 pounds more. Some people say I look better now than I did 10 years ago."

He's made a huge pop cultural imprint, whether being parodied or parrying in his own non-confrontational style with a now storied list of celebrity guests.

"I'm not a soap box talk show host," King says. "Never have been. What I think of someone may not be what you think of someone. So what I try to do is present someone in the best light . . . The Perot-Gore (1993 NAFTA) debate was a classic example. If you watch that show, every question was asked fairly. Each man got the same amount of time. And you had no idea who I thought won."

A year later, King journeyed memorably to Marlon Brando's house to interview the oft-daft actor about his newly published autobiography. Brando's first words were instructive: "If the dog hadn't stopped to pee, he might have caught the rabbit." They ended up singing "Got a Date with an Angel" at Brando's insistence. Then Saturday Night Live pounced with a sketch featuring Kevin Nealon as King and John Travolta as Brando.

King says he's never minded any of the lampooning, but is offended by self-important questioners.

"The best way to judge an interviewer is how often does he or she say 'I.' If they say 'I' a lot, they're not an interviewer. They're interested in themselves. I don't use the word 'I.' I never have all these years."

His influence has waned in recent years after peaking during the tumultuous 1992 presidential campaign, when Ross Perot announced his candidacy on Larry King Live.

That year's race for the White House seemed to revolve around his show, so much so that King wrote a book titled On the Line: The New Road to the White House. He also went on to play himself in the 1998 film Primary Colors, starring Travolta as a thinly fictionalized Bill Clinton.

Fox News Channel and MSNBC didn't exist in 1992. Now King is in a nightly dogfight against Hannity & Colmes and Scarborough Country, both of which have political agendas.

"There's no question that Larry can sit in his chair as long as he continues to perform," says CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton.

That can be interpreted in several ways, but King can't imagine quitting cold turkey the way Johnny Carson did after 30 years of hosting NBC's Tonight Show.

"He was an unusual person to begin with," King says. "He was able to put it away and literally go out on his boat. I don't know what I would do being idle. I couldn't be idle. The worst case would be if I were sick or something, or physically unable. That would be terrible, but at least that would be a cause."

His latest contract with CNN will expire in 2009. That will be cause for reflection by both parties, with King not getting any younger while most advertisers have little interest in sponsoring programs drawing predominantly older audiences.

"Well, it bothers me because I'm 73," King says of today's TV realities. "Technically what you're saying is I don't (want to) appeal to myself."

There's no question about that.

New series review: Drive (Fox)

Premiering: Sunday (April 15) at 7 p.m. central, 8 eastern on Fox. Then it moves to Mondays at 7 central.
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Kristin Lehman, Kevin Alejandro, Melanie Lynskey, Dylan Baker, Emma Stone, J.D. Pardo, Charles Martin Smith
Produced by: Ben Queen, Tim Minear, Greg Yaitanes

The long and winding road of Drive may be way too much to ask at a very late point in a serial-killing season.

Fox launches this intriguing Amazing Race-ish string-along opposite Sunday night's latest chapter of CBS' real-life Amazing Race: All Stars. The latter isn't doing all that hot this season, but at least its racing teams are down to the Final Four.

Not so with Drive, which easily could reach an abrupt dead-end if enough viewers aren't quickly seated. Previous examples this season include The Nine, Vanished, Kidnapped, Runaway, Day Break, Six Degrees and Smith, all of which said hello and goodbye before paying any dividends.

Word to the wise: Don't get too attached to Drive either. Then again, attachment is what these serials need to thrive and survive. Ay yi yi.

Drive's two-hour opener sets up "The Race," otherwise known as a "secret, exclusive and illegal cross-country" competition with a $32 million prize at its finish line. It's run by unseen forces that might as well be "The Others" of Lost.

"No one knows. No one asks, They make it so you don't ask," says racer Corinna Wiles (Kristin Lehman), who's likewise mysterious. She's thrown herself into a behind-the-wheel partnership with landscaper Alex Tully (Nathan Fillion), who's also searching for his missing wife.

Fillion, a semi-cult figure from his days as Capt. Malcolm Reynolds on Firefly, is a solid Drive shaft during these first two hours. You'd like things to end well for him, even if there's probably no chance of that.

Hosting the festivities is bespectacled "Mr. Bright" (durable Charles Martin Smith from American Grafitti), who meets the racers at various checkpoints to dole out new clues and disinformation. He's not nearly as congenial as Amazing Race's jaunty Phil Keoghan, but does say "good luck" on occasion whether he means it or not.

The racers range far and wide in their makeups and motivations.

John Trimble (Dylan Baker), has a terminal illness, but hasn't told his daughter. Winston Salazar (Kevin Alejandro), freshly sprung from prison, teams up with a younger brother who didn't know he had an older brother. Timid Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey) is a new mom who for some reason is terrified of her unseen husband. And so on.

Drive mixes in a little offhand humor, although it's no Cannonball Run. It also flashes as far back as 28 years for reasons that are partially explained toward the end of Sunday's second hour.

Competitors otherwise are united only through their special cellphones. They dispense next destination text messages such as "Kennedy killed in '73" with a countdown clock also in view. Hmm, that must mean they have to get to ________ before ________ happens.

Fox has given Drive a major promotional jump-start in hopes it'll gain traction. We'll know in a hurry, because three hours are coming at you in two nights, including Monday's regular time slot debut in Prison Break's old haunt.

Hitching a ride seems worth it for now. But will this prove to be a serial that really knows where it's going? We may never know. But you already knew that.

Grade: B

New series review: Notes From the Underbelly (ABC)

Premiering: Thursday (April 12) with back-to-back episodes at 9 p.m. central (10 eastern) on ABC. The series then moves to Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. central unless the network changes its mind again.
Starring: Jennifer Westfeldt, Peter Cambor, Rachael Harris, Melanie Paxson, Michael Weaver, Sunkrish Bala
Produced by: Stacy Traub, Barry Sonnenfeld, Kim Tannenbaum, Eric Tannenbaum

ABC at first planned to deliver this baby-themed series early last fall. Now, after the longest pregnant pause in TV history, Notes From the Underbelly at last arrives Thursday before immediately moving to Wednesdays.

That's odd and uncalled for because Underbelly turns out to be ABC's best new half-hour comedy series in a season that's already had some pretty fair ones in the since canceled Help Me Help You, Big Day and The Knights of Prosperity.

Even Underbelly's early spring premiere comes after ABC announced and unannounced at least three different time slots for the show in just the past few weeks. It doesn't breed confidence that the newly expectant parents will get a chance to birth their first baby before the network in effect decides to abort the show.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black, Get Shorty), the premiere episode stars Jennifer Westfeld and Peter Cambor as a married couple in their early 30s. For several years they've wrestled with the idea of having kids. Now they want to pin their misgivings to the mat and get on with it. So Lauren Stone quickly becomes pregant in hopes that both she and her husband, Andrew, won't come totally unglued.

The kid could become a brilliant scientist, says he.

Or a weird shut-in who kills people, says she.

Like all of ABC's recent new comedies, Underbelly plays without a laugh track. It does, however, have nifty, organ-driven theme music and a very appealing mom-to-be in Lauren. After a flashback, she's 10 weeks pregnant in the first half-hour while her giggly, close friend, Julie (Melanie Paxson), is on the verge of delivering.

Very much against both pregnancies is self-absorbed Cooper, who's tartly and knowingly played by Rachael Harris. There's also the inevitable doofus single guy, and his name is Danny (Michael Weaver).

Underbelly was filmed so long ago that three of its characters are still enthralled with Lost. It's hoped that this smart, solidly acted comedy somehow can be located this late in the season. But given its treatment so far, that's perhaps less likely than Rosie O'Donnell taking a vow of silence.

Grade: B+

Imus antidotes: a coach and a candidate accentuate their positives

Impressive showings: Barack Obama and C. Vivian Stringer

The multi-faceted black faces of America obviously aren't restricted to presidential candidate Barack Obama and Rutgers University women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer.

Still, both helped to neutralize the tasteless aftertaste of Don Imus with their impressive appearances on national stages. They had the grace and presence of mind that he so sorely lacks.

Obama effortlessly parried with David Letterman on Monday night's Late Show, both jokin' about his smokin' and seriously discoursing on Iraq.

Stringer spoke from the heart, and for her team, during an impassioned and unscripted presentation carried live Tuesday morning on the cable news networks.

Her reaction to Imus' crude, racially charged remarks perhaps went on a little longer than it should have. It clearly came from her heart, though, not a TelePrompTer. Stringer's 10-member team sat to her left in their warmup suits while Stringer described them as "God's representatives in every sense of the word." She didn't lash out, though, even when describing Imus' comments as "horrible, despicable and abominable."

"Is there malice in my heart?" she asked. "No." But there's "hurt."

The Rutgers team soon will meet privately with Imus at an undisclosed location in hopes of getting an explanation from him. It's far more than he deserves.

Team captain Essence Carson said players initially were of a mind to "just let it slide." But then the media onslaught began, robbing the underdog team of the afterglow it had earned by getting all the way to the NCAA women's championship game before losing to perennial powerhouse Tennessee.

Instead it suddenly became all about Imus, whose "nappy-headed hos" bile on last Wednesday's radio program reduced him to the level of a plantation slaveholder. For that he should lose his job. It's not about political correctness. It's about restoring the badly splintered underpinnings of basic human decency. Imus can apologize all he wants, but this time an example needs to be made.

CNN and MSNBC covered the entire 70-minute Rutgers presentation without commercial interruption. Fox News Channel cut away shortly after Coach Stringer's comments in favor of intrusive analysis, commercials and an update on "Girls Gone Wild" founder Joe Francis. He's been been sued by some of the girls who went wild, all of them minors at the time.

By early Tuesday afternoon, all three networks had returned to the sorry business of covering who might be the true father of the late Anna Nicole Smith's baby daughter. Psst, it's Larry Birkhead.

On Monday night's Late Show, Obama had to mess around a bit before he could get serious. Letterman greeted him by asking, "Are you still smokin' cigarettes?"

No, he's chewing Nicorette gum, Obama said amiably. He's done so ever since his wife outed him as a smoker during a 60 Minutes interview. She then told anyone who caught him puffing to turn him in.

"I'm terrified of her," Obama joked before his host deadpanned, "It might be fun if we had a president who smoked."

"The gum's workin' good. I could use some now," Obama riposted before they segued to a lengthy session of the ongoing war in Iraq and what to do about it.

"I don't think we can be as careless getting out as we were careless getting in," Obama said to applause. Four years after the U.S. invasion, "there are no good options in Iraq," he added. "At this point there are bad options and worse options."

Letterman later complimented him on his navy blue suit, worn with a white shirt and powder blue tie.

"That is an electable suit," he told Obama before a commercial break interceded.

The host later wondered whether Obama and opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton eventually might team up and run as the Democratic ticket.

"Which order are you talking about?" Obama shot back, getting big laughs.

Letterman puzzlingly didn't ask him about Imus, and whether he'd ever want to do his radio show again. Hopefully that was an error of omission, not a prearranged agreement between host and candidate.

It's also hoped that Imus chose to watch the Rutgers media event for an up-close look at the young women he so egregiously branded. They in turn took the high road, which should be more than enough to make their attacker feel all the more repentant.

Good for them, and good riddance to him. Putting faces on the people he disparaged served to make Imus seem all the more repugnant, too.

A hard reign's gonna fall: Underappreciated King of Queens nearing closure

Kevin James with TV spouse Leah Remini and with real-life wife Steffiana de la Cruz at the 2006 Emmys. Photos: CBS and Getty Images

TV is trimming the herd of tubby hubbies married to contrastingly curvy babes.

In fact, the species is likely to be extinct by next fall. CBS' The King of Queens airs its milestone 200th episode on Monday, April 9 (8:30 p.m. central, 9:30 eastern), with the series finale set for May 14. And ABC is unlikely to renew According to Jim, the sitcom starring Jim Belushi's oft-bared gut.

Other recent entrants -- Still Standing, Rodney, Listen Up, Daddio -- already have gone belly up. So this could be it for a while, the end of a not so noble sitcom tradition that dates to The Honeymooners, which King of Queens basically is.

Meanwhile, you'll have to look long, hard and futilely for the flip side -- a chunky wife married to a svelte spouse. Roseanne provided one of the very few litmus tests, but she got the even beefier John Goodman.

"We get that all the time," says Kevin James, who stars as Doug Heffernan on King of Queens. But he has a trump card. In real-life, James married fashion model Steffiana de la Cruz in 2004. So he did "pretty well," in his view. Still, James sorta gets why some people might wonder how loudmouthed, bulbous Doug could land a hottie like Carrie (Leah Remini). And why it never works out the other way, at least in prime-time TV land.

"I understand someone saying that, I guess, in a way," he says in a teleconference.

King of Queens also is a dying breed of a different order. It's a multi-camera sitcom filmed before a guffawing studio audience and garnished when needed with a laugh track. There aren't many of those around anymore, and King of Queens is the longest-running member of the genre.

It premiered on Sept. 21, 1998, nestled on Monday nights between Cosby and Everybody Loves Raymond. In that fall, the four major networks accommodated 36 live-action, half-hour comedies with laugh tracks and one (ABC's Sports Night) that sometimes went without.

This week those same four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) have just eight remaining "conventional" sitcoms. An additional five are single-camera, half-hour comedies absent laugh tracks. The field has been pared to the point that James got his first Emmy nomination last year.

"We've been out of the Emmy loop for so long I didn't even know what time the Emmys were on," he says. "It was totally unexpected."

King of Queens won't be getting a big sendoff. Production already is completed on the show's remaining seven episodes, with James content to be remembered as the star of a reliably amusing half-hour that remained "under the radar" for its entire nine-season run. Even UPS wouldn't play ball. The company never allowed the show to use its logo, so delivery man Doug drove an "IPS" truck instead.

"In a way it may have worked for us, because people (at CBS) sort of left us alone," James says. "We really were never that shiny show. We're a simple show. . . "We weren't like Friends or Raymond, but we're popular enough."

The 200th episode is simple enough. Doug and Carrie's best friends, Deacon and Kelly Palmer (Victor Williams, Merrin Dungey), have just bought a new lake house. This provokes jealousy and suspicion that the Palmers have been able to save money because they're cheap and never pick up a check.

Meanwhile, Carrie's cantankerous live-in father, Arthur (Jerry Stiller), is coaching lunkhead Spence Olchin (Patton Oswalt) on how to land a new job. No good can come of this, of course.

James and his real-life wife are expecting a second daughter in July. The Heffernans so far have remained childless, just like Ralph and Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners. After some down time, James hopes to land another prime-time comedy.

"I really believe that every sitcom has a shelf life," he says. "Could we squeeze out another year? You know, it's very possible. But it feels like the right time. If we were to go on now, it would just be for selfish reasons."

Besides, not that many would take note. And 206 reruns in syndication will be more than enough to let James to live very much like a king.

New series review: Thank God You're Here (NBC)

Best of show: Bryan Cranston emotes while judge Dave Foley makes nice to everyone in NBC's latest import of an overseas hit. NBC photos

Premiering: Monday night (April 9) at 8 central, 9 eastern on NBC. Also airs next Monday at those times before moving to Wednesdays at 7 p.m. central
Starring: David Alan Grier, Dave Foley and various celebrities
Produced by: Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Fax Bahr, Adam Small

God probably could care less. Or maybe he's finally had it with having his name dragged through the title of an NBC series.

The Peacock started the new millennium with spring 2000's God, The Devil and Bob, starring James Garner as the voice of a cartoon Supreme Being who looked like a ringer for Jerry Garcia. Many viewers were grateful that it was dead in less than a month.

NBC's second coming is Thank God You're Here, adapted from an Australian hit and inevitably brought to these shores by Fremantle Media North America, which produces American Idol.

TGYH smells a lot like ABC's since retired Whose Line Is It Anyway?. It also smells on its own at times, particularly when a less than spontaneous celebrity is thrown into "television's most dangerous new comedy challenge!"

On Monday night's premiere, the big stiff is Jennifer Coolidge, rebounding from another NBC stiff called Joey. Coolidge is thrown into a Miss Constellation 2007 pageant, where she must fend for herself after a member of the show's repertory player group says, "Thank God you're here." Ergo, the title. Except that Coolidge is pretty much godawful after making her way through the show's "Portal of Possibility."

On the other hand, Malcolm In the Middle alum Bryan Cranston gets considerable mileage out of a brunette wig and leather vest. He uses it to impersonate an addled but self-important British rocker. This immediately proves to be funnier than a barrelful of Joeys.

The other celebrity guests are Wayne Knight of Seinfeld-ian Newman fame and Joel McHale, host of E! Entertainment's The Soup. Knight's OK, McHale less so. Later episodes will include the likes of Jason Alexander, Ana Gasteyer, Kevin Nealon, Wendie Malick, Mo'Nique, Paul Rodriguez and Tom Green.

Too long at an hour's length, the show is hosted by a now gray-haired David Alan Grier. He gamely tells viewers and a studio audience that guest celebs could find themselves in "a marriage counselor's office or a Jiffy Lube, or a Jiffy Lube in a marriage counselor's office." Instead how about a Jiffy Lube in a Discount Tire in a partridge in a pear tree at an Arena Football League game? C'mon, let's ramp this thing up.

TGYH's sole judge and jury is the by now very tiresome Dave Foley, a former Kids in the Hall stalwart who also brightened Newsradio before becoming a self-important lout and poker commentator. On this show he's benign to one and all, which pretty much makes him an unwelcome cyst.

Simply put, the performances should be voted up or down by the studio audience, not this guy. How about a gang-gong, too? That surely would liven things up a bit, providing the celebrities' egos could take it.

Winners, by the way, get an intentionally cheap-looking plastic trophy that makes the Dancing with the Stars take-home "mirror ball" look as though it's straight from Tiffany's.

NBC press materials labor to rekindle television's sometimes storied past with this hoary, preposterous come-on: "Recalling a family-friendly, old-school television flavor, one can imagine the likes of golden age television legends and experts at the improvisational ad lib such as Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and George Burns smiling down on these modern-day stars as they tackle the high wire act known as improv -- without the safety net of a script and a director to guide them."

Oh. My. God.

Grade: C (but only because of Cranston and Knight)

The Sopranos: Count your blessings nine last times

Tony, Carmela, Bobby and Janice for once are one happy "Family." Don't push it, though, 'cause these things just don't seem to last.

Push comes to shove, as it always does, in HBO's The Sopranos.

Except that in this environ, a push can be a full-blown fistfight and a shove a fatal "hit."

There indeed is some of that going around as the greatest TV series on earth begins a nine-episode countdown to its end-game. Otherwise, its Easter Sunday kickoff (8 p.m. central, 9 eastern) is something of a softie compared to last spring's explosive opener.

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) getting gut-shot by a demented Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) came out of nowhere. Sunday night's blowup comes after an almost telegraphed buildup. Still, it'll get your attention.

We begin the "Soprano Home Movies" episode with a flashback to winter 2004. It's the day that Tony tromps through the snow and away from New York boss Johnny Sack's (Vincent Curatola) house when he sees the cops coming. While fleeing, he drops his pistol. It's reclaimed by Sack's teenage son, who'd been peering through an upstairs window.

Flash forward to present day 2007, with Sack still in jail and the police pounding on the Soprano residence.

"Is this it?" Carmela (Edie Falco) asks, fearing the ultimate day of reckoning has dawned.

Tony is charged with owning an illegal firearm, the same one the kid was still packing when cops caught him with drugs in his possession. He briefly winds up in a mass holding pen, with a fellow jailbird defecating in a door-less commode just behind him. Happy birthday, Tony. He's turning 47 and his mortality again feels like an anvil pressing on a thin-skinned skull.

The charge is dropped after the feds get pissed. They've been building a Rico case against Tony for the past five years. "Then you blow this popcorn fart," one of Essex County's not-so-finest is told.

It's all prelude to the episode's main event, a weekend birthday trip to the Adirondacks, where Tony's sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), and her mob gofer husband, Bobby Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa), own a nice house by the lake.

Tony's in a good mood on the heels of another reprieve.

A deer head mounted on the wall is "gonna pass. He's stuffed," Tony cracks when food is mentioned. That night in bed, Carmela gifts him with a sexual treat that he likely doesn't get very often. Life is good again, although Tony keeps ruminating on whether life also might be too short to be still tilling in the killing fields.

The episode seems a little sluggish at first, sort of like the elongated, early wedding celebrations in both The Godfather and The Deer Hunter. But calms before the storms make the storms all the more furious. So let's just say that nobody gets killed at the lake house, but somebody definitely gets hurt. More layers are added, more emotions stripped away.

Episode 2, also sent for review, is built around Christopher Moltisanti's (Michael Imperioli) new pride and joy, his first slasher movie.

It's called Cleaver, and it has nothing to do with Beaver. Well, at least not that Beaver. Christopher is the co-executive producer, beaming at a gala "world premiere" attended by all the old gang.

The film tellingly is more gruesome and graphic than anything we've seen in The Sopranos' "real life" mob world. But this is reel life, with Christopher later confiding, "Originally I thought of a ball peen hammer, but a cleaver's better."

His movie's central character, "Sally Boy," is played by one of the lesser Baldwin brothers, Daniel. The second episode also has guest appearances by Geraldo Rivera (seen only through a TV screen as himself) and director Sydney Pollack as a defrocked doctor administering to an infirm Johnny Sack.

Old hands such as Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) are barely glimpsed in the first episode and mostly peripheral in the second. Paulie does, however, manage to mangle another piece of popular culture when trying to recite a lyric from "Spinning Wheel." In his version it's "Ride the painted pony, let the spinner wheel glide."

Less jarring than last spring's opening acts, these episodes very ably paint the undercoat for those expected big splashes to come. Tony contemplates his life's choices while also still relishing the pure joys of feeling full of himself and feared by others.

His recovered nemesis, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), talks about wanting no more of the mob life, and wishing he could get a re-do.

Christopher increasingly is seduced by the film world, even though the lead character in his first film is too close to Tony for Carmela's comfort.

And Johnny Sack? Well, let's just say he's going to have a life-changing experience.

It's all going to be up for grabs in The Sopranos' remaining seven episodes. Creator David Chase, unlike the maestros of Lost, actually seems to know where he's going. Or at least that's the bet and the hope here. This guy's got more invested than we do. The show has consumed his life since it first dawned on Jan. 10, 1999, a day in TV history unlike any other.

Ultimately, all that really matters is what happens to Tony and Carmela. Will he get out alive? Will she be with him to the end? Or will what Tony did to Adriana La Cerva be his undying, unforgivable mortal sin?

The answers at last are at hand. Only nine more hours to The Sopranos' eleventh hour.

But when a series has been this good for this long, then really, what's the hurry?

Grade: A

Rock solid

NBC has renewed the season's best new comedy, 30 Rock, for a second season despite ratings that usually put it near the rock-bottom of the weekly Nielsen reports.

It's a testament to the Peacock's newly re-found belief that quality sells over the long term.

"From the beginning, 30 Rock has proven to be the kind of quality comedy that doesn't come around very often," NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly said in a statement. "We expect it to continue to build its increasingly loyal audience and become another of NBC's classic comedy series."

Rock currently ranks 88th with advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds. More importantly to NBC, it does better among "upscale" 18-to-49-year-olds with $100,000-plus household incomes.

Starring Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan (pictured above) and co-created by Saturday Night Live maestro Lorne Michaels, Rock returns on Thursday (April 5) with a new episode titled "Fireworks." Synchronize your watches, because the start time is approximately 7:40 p.m. (central) as part of NBC's stupid "supersizing" gambit.

NBC's equally worthy Friday Night Lights, which won a Peabody award Wednesday, is still awaiting word on its fate.

Project runway? Miss America again walks the plank

Crown me: Lauren Nelson and Rachel Renee Smith respectively are the new Miss America and Miss USA. The latter pageant has a new three-year deal with NBC. Meanwhile, Miss America is looking again.

There it goes, Miss America.

The venerable but vulnerable pageant is homeless for the second time in three years after even the CMT cable network cut it loose. It's kind of like that old country song title: "She got the ring and I got the finger."

At the same time, NBC has cut a new three-year deal with the Donald J. Trump-owned Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. The network's entertainment president, Kevin Reilly, might have been under heavy sedation when he issued this statement last week: "NBC is proud to maintain this unique American cultural tradition as a viable series of competitive programming specials that continue to be a popular source of family entertainment."

Cultural tradition? Probably not. The Miss USA and Miss Universe contests aren't about appreciating the fine arts, unless you're of a mind to nominate besotted 2006 winner Tara Conner for a Nobel Prize. The contests represent Trump's vision of young womanhood. Which is another way of saying, "Show off them boobs, baby, 'cause it ain't about what ya got upstairs."

Frankly, the world easily could survive the loss of any and all beauty pageants. But there's something wrong with a picture that has Miss America panhandling again while Trump crows, "With each passing year our ratings continue to get better because of the beautiful and intelligent women who participate in our competitions."

Not that the Miss USA 2007 telecast was a blockbuster. The March 23rd telecast drew 7.4 million viewers, which is slightly less than this season's average audience for Trump's little-watched sixth edition of The Apprentice.

In 2004, its last year on ABC, the Miss America pageant drew 9.8 million viewers on a Saturday night, otherwise known as the networks' night of the living dead. And in its last year on NBC -- 1996 -- Miss America lured 19.4 million viewers.

It's true that the numbers steadily declined over the years. But what hasn't in times when the average American home now has 104.2 channels to choose from, according to Nielsen Media Research? OK, other than American Idol.

Miss America officials tried to pump up the audience volume by downsizing the televised talent segments, allowing two-piece swimsuits and letting viewers look in on the judges' scoring. None of this worked like a charm. Still, if you want to talk audience erosion, look at the free-falling numbers for Trump's The Apprentice. The only person who still thinks it's a hit is Trump himself.

Those old enough to have lived through Watergate know what a big deal the Miss America pageant once was. Phyllis George, the 1971 winner, is still involved with the pageant because she sees it as "the springboard to everything I've done in my life."

"I don't want to hear from Donald Trump, because he's a friend and I like him, and he can get vicious when he's mad," George says in the March issue of Texas Monthly. "But Miss USA contestants are Donald Trump's idea of what young women should be today. They don't stress scholarship. They don't stress talent. They're all about beauty . . . We're about beauty, but we're about the whole package."

The broadcast networks aren't likely to bite anymore, although even a relatively measly audience of 7 million viewers would be good enough to carry the day on Saturday nights. In its second and last telecast on CMT, the pageant had 2.4 million viewers, down from 3.1 million the year before.

OK, so what are the possibilities? We'll begin with the ridiculous and end with the realistic.


Spike TV -- The Final Four would engage in "ultimate fighting" elimination bouts refereed by Andy Dick.

Comedy Central -- A winner would be chosen in the first half-hour before immediately submitting to a Celebrity Roast emceed by Chevy Chase.

The Food Network -- The combined appeal of hosts Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray might be enough to kick the ratings up a notch. A cook-off determines the winner.

The Disney Channel -- Live from the Magic Kingdom, with judges dressing as characters ranging from Snow White to Jack Sparrow.

WE: Women's Entertainment -- Even one million viewers would be a Super Bowl-sized haul for this still fledgling network.

The Hallmark Channel -- The pageant would fit like a long white glove on a network that still dares to hire actors over 50.

Returning series review: The Shield -- Season 6 (FX)

Triangulating: Forest Whitaker, Michael Chiklis, CCH Pounder

Mr. Nice Guy's back.

Intense when relaxed and manic when not, Det. Pit Bull, a k a Vic Mackey, returns for a sixth season of mayhem Tuesday, April 3 on FX's The Shield (9 p.m. central, 10 eastern).

This requires star player Michael Chiklis to again don a snarl, a swagger and a black, v-neck t-shirt. At times this almost renders him a cartoon character. Wind up Vic Mackey and watch him again go off on subordinates, superiors and scum of the earth, of which there's always plenty.

Fox's 24 may be violent, but The Shield is viscerally ugly. You can smell the stench and cringe at the decay of inner city L.A., where rogue Mackey and his two remaining loyalists might as well prowl the streets on all fours.

Season 6, which will run 10 episodes, has some major unfinished business at hand.

Mackey's closest strike team pal, Curtis Lemansky (Kenny Johnson), went to Knott's Berry Farm via a live grenade at the close of Season 5. His assassin, fellow strike team thug Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), believed that "Lem" was about to become a squealer. But Mackey still thinks it was the work of a Latino drug lord. Not surprisingly, he doesn't plan to rest until exacting the ultimate payback.

Meanwhile, Mackey remains in the crosshairs of internal affairs detective Jon Kavanaugh (Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker), who's been thwarted in his efforts to take him down. Kavanaugh's last gambit, played out over a two-episode arc, is to frame Mackey for Lem's murder.

The Shield's much-needed humanity resides almost solely in the person of Capt. Claudette Wyms, played with sturdy conviction by charter cast member CCH Pounder. At last in charge of "The Barn," Wyms is more determined than ever to sanitize the place. That means pushing Mackey into early retirement while also wondering what she'll do without her dark lord's knack for sweeping the streets of human garbage. Not that it doesn't just keep piling up.

The season's first three episodes are fast-paced and recurrently grisly. That's the way The Shield rolls, with a predominantly male audience in tow. Tuesday's season opener has a gag-inducing mass carnage crime scene. And in Episode 3, Mackey makes Jack Bauer look like a pansy in his torturing of the gang leader he's fingered as Lem's killer.

Frankly, it's all getting to be more than a bit too much. Chiklis still knows how to burn a hole through the screen with a patented Mackey glare. Problem is, we can see through him now. His rages, deceptions and constant clashes with cop shop colleagues are bordering on parody, even if they haven't yet crossed over.

The Shield still hums along for those with short attention spans. It dutifully dispenses its weekly pints of blood while spewing the raw sewage of the human condition. Some of this is powerful, alluring, even invigorating. Much of it, though, is a rerun through a knee-deep, leech-infested cesspool.

Can police work really be this thoroughly dehumanizing and corrupting? And if so, haven't we seen quite enough by now?

Grade: B