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Leno back among the living; NBC exhales

Jay Leno exits hospital before his return to Tonight. Photo: Ed Bark

Jay Leno returned to his Tonight Show environ Monday, swine flu and octo-mom jokes at the ready.

"I ate a raw pig a friend brought back from Mexico," he said during his monologue.

But seriously folks, Leno came to work with a 103 degree fever Thursday and spent that night at St. Joseph Medical Center. He also skipped Friday's show while recuperating.

Leno's health is of no small concern to NBC, which will be bequeathing him five weekly hours of prime-time next fall after he leaves Tonight in the hands of Conan O'Brien, starting June 1st. Many feel that NBC is upstaging O'Brien and possibly diminishing Tonight by again making him Leno's followup act.

"I had a horrible dream" while in the hospital," Leno cracked. "I couldn't breathe. I felt I was suffocating. Then I woke up and realized, oh, Conan was holding a pillow over my face."

Leno also said he heard screams in an adjoining hospital room, where doctors were "trying to revive NBC's prime-time schedule."

Before re-taking the Tonight stage, Leno appeared in a wheelchair cradling nine baby dolls while Access Hollywood sycophant Nancy O'Dell asked him for comment.

"I now have the record," he crowed. "Nine kids! Take that, octo-mom!"

CNBC's As Seen on TV an info-taining look at infomercials

Master baiter Billy Mays and the Today crew in Snuggies.

A down economy is an upper for infomercials, which supposedly have grown to a $150 billion industry lately spearheaded by the likes of product hawker Billy Mays and the Snuggie.

Networks and myriad local television stations, hard-pressed to sell ad time or even afford programming, increasingly turn to these 30-minute come-ons to cushion their bottom lines. The CNBC cable network's latest original documentary, As Seen on TV (Wednesday, 8 p.m. central), manages to be at least as entertaining and informative as sitting through one of Ron Popeil's pitches for the Showtime Rotisserie ("Set it and forget it!").

Popeil is interviewed, of course. As is Mays. Reporter Darren Rovell also talks to the CEOs of several "direct-response" companies, regulators who want to rein them in and a product tester who finds the ShamWow pretty impressive but the MXZ Pocket Saw a rip-off.

CNBC's review DVD is missing a few segments in order to "better make your deadlines." So wait, there's not more. But there's enough here to judge As Seen on TV both entertaining and informative, even if Rovell acts a little too impressed with Mays' ad libbed sales pitch for the reporter's cell phone.

The Snuggie, a blanket with arm holes, so far has generated $100 million in sales, with the demand so great that All Star Marketing Group had to cut back on its advertising, says CEO Scott Boilen. They're sold for the low, low price of $19.95 for a pair, plus two free book lights.

Boilen says the price has to be right: "If we marketed the Snuggie at 29 or 39 (dollars), I don't think it would've worked."

Throwing something of a wet blanket on all of this is the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program, whose director, Peter C. Marinello tells Rovell, "At the end of the day, they've got to be able to back up what they're sayin' and what they're showin'."

(Note to consumers of this article: Never fully believe anyone who uses the term "at the end of the day." Also distrust people who say, "The fact of the matter is.")

Mays' wide range of products includes Oxy-Clean and Mighty Putty. Unlike Popeil, though, he doesn't invent 'em. He just sells 'em.

"Critics say he's screaming. He says it's about breaking through the clutter," Rovell says.

Mays, 50, says he turns down lots of offers, and spends some quality time with a product before deciding whether to bawl on its behalf. You wouldn't know it from his jet-black hair and beard, but "there's a lot of pressure put on me when people believe that I'm the only one that can take their product to the next level," Mays says.

Popeil, founding father of the Veg-o-Matic and pretty much the godfather of informercials, sold his company for a tidy $55 million in 2005. But he's still got a marvelous new turkey/chicken fryer in development, and hopes that people will remember him not as a salesman but as a guy who made products that actually work.

As a kid, I remember cutting my lip after turning a Sprite bottle into a decorative kitchen glass with Popeil's bottle and jug cutter. But that's a fond memory now, so no offense taken.

Popeil does seem to have at least one regret. His Inside the Shell Electronic Egg Scrambler didn't sell well, but he still considers it one of his master inventions.

Guess there weren't enough yo(l)kels out there for that one.


HBO's Grey Gardens finds Drew Barrymore at last in full bloom

An actress comes of age in HBO's Grey Gardens.

Never mind that Drew Barrymore is now 34 and made her first big impression more than a quarter-century ago in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. She finally arrives as a thoroughly adult actress Saturday night (7 p.m. central), steeling herself and stealing the film from estimable Jessica Lange.

They're respectively "Little Edie" and "Big Edie" Beale in an expanded version of a 1973 documentary film by the accomplished Maysles brothers, Albert and David. It's the story of repressed but rich relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and their retreat to an East Hampton mansion that gradually decays along with them.

Barrymore's Little Edie has more than a passing resemblance to both the young and the middle-aged Bette Davis. But this is no horror-mongering Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? There's no pet parakeet served on a platter, although cats and raccoons eventually have the run of the place, defecating and urinating wherever it pleases them.

The 100-minute film begins in 1973, with the Maysles (Arye Gross as Albert and Justin Louis as David) showing Big and Little L a portion of their work-in-progress film. Then it's back to 1936, with Little Edie balking at being "presented" during a showy debutante ball at New York's St. Pierre Hotel.

Big Edie and her stern, all-business husband, Phelan (Ken Howard), want nothing more than a prosperous marriage for their daughter. Momma's would-be career as a singer/dancer already is being stifled, but she remains convinced -- or deluded -- that Little Edie can have it all.

"Find a man who will give you a long leash," Big Edie counsels.

Phelan has outfitted his wife with a choke collar. Constantly off on business in the city, he resents the company his wife keeps back in their East Hampton mansion. Mainly that's fey George "Gould" Strong (Malcolm Gets), who serves as Big Edie's pianist and vocal collaborator. They love nothing better than to entertain fellow swells at parties. But Phelan wants only a devoted caretaker, "not a showgirl."

Vivacious Little Edie briefly ends up footloose in NYC, living on daddy's money while he tries to strong-arm her into getting married and in the interim at least holding a steady job. Instead she hooks up with former Secretary of the Interior Julius "Cap" Krug (Daniel Baldwin), who's married.

"All I want in life, Mr. Krug, is a dance partner," she tells him. Her ambitions, like her mother's, are to be an entertainer.

Nothing goes according to plan, of course. And a good deal of Grey Gardens is about the two isolated Beales succumbing to a co-dependence on one another, all the while denying their increasingly desperate straits. Eventually the health department shows up and the Beales make headlines as Jackie's neglected kin.

A visitation by the former First Lady (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn of HBO's Big Love) is the film's one false note. Jackie is suitably gagged by what she sees, but then is almost saintly in her heart-to-heart sit-down with the Beales. Little Edie still resents her for a glamorous lifestyle that she believes should have been hers. Jackie benevolently endures her diatribe before commissioning work crews to rehabilitate the mansion and stave off eviction. There's nary a hint that her good deed might be purely out of embarrassment.

Barrymore is a marvel throughout, both as the luminescent young Little Eddie and the dissipated but still resilient middle-aged version. An Emmy nomination seems like a cinch for a role that Barrymore inhabits from start to finish.

Lange's portrayal of Big Edie is strong without being show-stopping. Her character spends a good deal of time in bed, figuratively licking her wounds while affixed with a set of discolored teeth. It's just not as juicy a part.

Grey Gardens further separates HBO from the rest of the pack when it comes to making TV movies of merit and distinction. The network also is willing to take chances with first-time directors. This is Michael Sucsy's debut behind the camera, and he definitely looks like a keeper. As does Barrymore. She's hardly brand new anymore, but this could be the start of something big.

GRADE: A-minus

Fox's Sit Down, Shut Up is best watched on "Mute"

Premiering: Sunday, April 19th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Featuring voice-overs from: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Kristin Chenoweth, Kenan Thompson, Will Forte, Cheri Oteri, Henry Winkler, Nick Kroll, Tom Kenny
Produced by: Mitchell Hurwitz, Eric and Kim Tannenbum, Josh Weinstein

Attention must be paid to Fox's Sit Down, Shut Up, if only because its behind-the-camera architects include Mitchell Hurwitz of Arrested Development and Eric and Kim Tannenbum from Two and a Half Men.

The voiceover talent is eye-catching, too. Jason Bateman and Will Arnett are Arrested Development alums. Kenan Thompson and Will Forte are current Saturday Night Live cast members, and Cheri Oteri used to be one. There's also ubiquitous Kristen Chenoweth, last seen in ABC's canceled Pushing Daisies, and evergreen Henry Winkler.

Put them all together and then try to pick up the pieces. Sit Down, Shut Up, an animated comedy series set in a Florida high school, does little more than just lay there. It's a jumble of misfits and misfiring jokes, including the one about how acting principal Sue Sezno's (Thompson) catch-phrase is "No."

There's also reluctant gym teacher Larry Littlejunk (Bateman), who has a crush on a cosmic science teacher named Miracle Grohe (Chenoweth). Winkler chips in as bald, runt-ish German teacher Willard Deutschebog, who's prone to buying X-rated magazines dubbed "The Filthies." Oteri voices plain-faced, asexual Helen Klench, Forte is vice principal Stuart Proszakian and Arnett plays self-loving English teacher Ennis Hofftard.

Adapted from an Australian series, Sunday's aimless opener otherwise is built around a hidden cache of performance-enhancing drugs and rumors that a teacher is going to be fired.

Some of the show's animation is set against live action backdrops, as in the picture above. That's supposed to make Sit Down, Shut Up look distinctive. But a clunker's a clunker, even in times of grade inflation.

GRADE: C-minus (on the curve), but otherwise a D

Madden hangs it up; Collinsworth looks like a cinch to replace him on Sunday Night Football (updated)

John Madden's suddenly announced retirement Thursday begs a question that seems very easy to answer. Who's going to replace him in NBC's Sunday Night Football booth?

Cris Collinsworth, already a part of the network's Football Night In America, seems like a clear and obvious choice. He's seasoned, opinionated, knowledgeable and likely a perfect fit with incumbent Al Michaels.

NBC could revert to a three-man announcing team, which might make room for the likes of Tiki Barber, Jerome Bettis or maybe even Keith Olbermann. But that seems unlikely. Collinsworth deserves the spot, and three's a crowd anyway. Enduring ESPN's Monday Night Football blabber among Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser is already enough time spent in purgatory each week.

(This just in: NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol made it official in a conference call held after this article was posted. Collinsworth will be Michaels' new Sunday Night Football partner.)

Madden, 73, and famously afraid to fly, said in a statement Thursday: "It's time. My 50th wedding anniversary is this fall. I have two great sons and their families, and my five grandchildren are at an age now when they know when I'm home and, more importantly, when I'm not. . . I still love every part of it -- the travel, the practices, the game film, the games, seeing old friends and meeting new people. But I know this is the right time."

Madden, a Hall of Fame football coach who led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl XI win, has been an NFL broadcaster for 30 years. He began with CBS, moved to Fox from 1994 to 2002 and spent four years with ABC's Monday Night Football before the network punted the franchise to ESPN. He then moved to NBC, joining Michaels for the first three seasons of Sunday Night Football.

NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said that he "spent all day" Thursday with Madden, and "tried every way I could to make sure he was sure about his decision."

"To put any speculation to rest, John has just decided to retire because it's time -- nothing more, nothing less," Ebersol said in a statement. "We will never hear another man like John Madden. We will sorely miss him because he was the most fun guy ever to just hang out with."

In the season-to-date Nielsen ratings, Sunday Night Football is downtrodden NBC's only program to rank in prime-time's Top 20. On Sept. 20th, and now without Madden, SNF will have the first regular season game from the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington.

TV Land's The Cougar stars 40-year-old temptress and 20 Jungle Jimmies

"Cougar" Stacey Anderson meets her wolf pups on TV Land.

Premiering: Wednesday, April 15th at 9 p.m. (central) on TV Land
Starring: Stacey Anderson and 20 younger male horndogs
Created and produced by: Mike Fleiss

Transport 20 strapping bucks to the usual posh Southern Cal locale and let the liquor flow before a 40-year-old temptress summarizes what she sees.

"There are a lot of hot, hung, incredible guys surrounding me," says 40-year-old, twice-divorced, mother of four Stacey Anderson. And she lah lah lah lah lah lah likes it.

TV Land, which used to be the prime time preserve of evergreen sitcom reruns, takes another tumble into the reality genre Wednesday night (9 p.m. central) with the premiere of The Cougar.

It otherwise looks very much like The Bachelor, and was created by one of that show's maestros, the ubiquitous Mike Fleiss. But its heroine dispenses with roses and instead eliminates suitors via the climactic "Kiss-off." She bestows a brief lips-to-lips stamp of approval on the worthy. Castoffs get her cheek instead. In Wednesday's opener, five of the 20 are sent pecking.

The show's host is Vivica A. Fox, who gets stuck with saying, "Gentlemen, feast your eyes on Stacey -- The Cougar." I guess it's a paycheck, but at what price? Poor Vivica's not that far removed from her nine-episode guest arc as saucy Loretta Black on Curb Your Enthusiasm. And now it's come to this.

Stacey, who regularly says "amazing," has a daughter, 23, who's older than two of her male playthings and the same age as five others.

One of the 23-year-olds, "pool boy" Bodie from Austin, TX, describes himself as a lamb who is "nice and sweet and tender." But will The Cougar eat him alive? Sorry.

NBC's 2007 reality dollop, Age of Love, had a mildly similar premise. In that one, a mix of 13 cougars and kittens vied for the affections of Aussie tennis player Mark Philippoussis, whose surname presented a helluva challenge after a few drinks.

Players are seldom without a drink in hand on The Cougar. One of them, a 29-year-old ex-Marine named Ryan, turns out to be a surly drunk whose bleeped profanities are aimed at a rival. This is reality gold, so he's likely to be kept around for a while.

The show purports to "change everything you know about relationships, love and getting older." It does nothing of the sort, but does reinforce the time-honored tradition of young men whooping and yelping at the sight of a "hot" woman, which Stacey certainly thinks she is.

"You're an absolute fox," one supplicant tells her. An Illinois cop ups the ante, telling Stacey she's under arrest and "you have the right to remain delicious."

After the drinks settle in, fun-loving Johnny strips down to his undies and cannonballs into the pool in hopes of making a good impression. And so on.

The Cougar could be called mindless entertainment, although that's perhaps too much of an upgrade. Stacey, a seemingly prosperous commercial realtor from Arizona, of course is determined to find true love amid all of this ephemeral splendor and testosterone. Her kids also say they're pulling for mom, who in an episode-ending preview of coming attractions is shown sharing a bubble bath with one suitor and a bed with another.

"I feel like Eve in a garden of forbidden fruit," she says. Peachy.

GRADE: C-minus

Friday Night Lights closes out Season 3, suits up for two more

The Taylors vs. a McCoy: Friday Night Lights turns up the heat.

Separation anxieties and a strong sense of reinvention fuel Friday's third season finale of Friday Night Lights.

But there's peace in the valley, too. Fans of NBC's best drama series can savor the moments -- if they haven't already on DirecTV -- with the comforting knowledge that at least two more 13-episode seasons are already on order. That's a welcome first for a series that had been left hanging at the close of its freshman and sophomore years.

Friday's "Tomorrow Blues" (8 p.m. central) episode closes out the senior years of Dillon High students Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford); Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch); Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki); and Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly). It's five months after the Panthers' heartbreaking championship game loss, but those are old wounds when uncertain futures are at stake. Who's going to college and where? What relationships will endure and how?

Football coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), who's also the high school principal, are thrown for the biggest losses. A power play by wealthy Joe McCoy (D.W. Moffat), father of hotshot quarterback J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter), is designed to put Taylor out of a job and into what seems like a no-win situation at cash-poor East Dillon High, home of the toothless Lions.

Friday Night Lights, filmed entirely on location in Austin, has not made the mistake of keeping its actors in high school to the point where they look old enough to be returning for a 10th year reunion.

Earlier this season, star running back Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) and wheelchair-bound former quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) left small-town Dillon's confines to begin new lives. They're always free to drop in for a guest appearance on FNL. But the show otherwise goes on without them. And that goes double for next season, which almost assuredly will be stocked with a big batch of new young characters with something to prove.

FNL has been ratings-challenged from the start. So a cast upheaval probably can't hurt too much, provided that at least a few of the high school age reinforcements hit the ground running. Their forebears are leaving some deep imprints.

Meanwhile, the principal adult characters play on. And that pretty much boils down to the Taylors, the McCoys and car dealer Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), a Texas Bubba for all seasons who'd be sorely missed if he ever blows town.

Eric and Tami Taylor continue to have the most interesting and endearing relationship of any prime-time married couple. And FNL likewise has put Texas on the TV map as something other than a home on the range for broadly drawn, deep-drawling weasels and buffoons.

This is a series that has always treated Texas like an adult, even if the majority of its cast members aren't yet legal or barely so. We can now look ahead to at least two more seasons of football-infused, deeply human drama, with Coach Taylor re-gathering his resolve and then taking it to 'em.

CBS' Harper's Island may just be a killer ap

Have fun while you can: Harry Hamlin as good time Uncle Marty.

Premiering: Thursday, April 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Elaine Cassidy, Christopher Gorham, Katie Cassidy, Richard Burgi, Harry Hamlin, Cassandra Sawtell, Cameron Richardson and a host of other potential corpses
Produced by: Jon Turteltaub, Ari Schlossberg

Settle back, park your brain in neutral and watch a bunch of human playthings die week-by-week in gruesome ways.

There are worse things. CBS' heavily promoted Harper's Island, getting a cushy, post-CSI: Crime Scene Investigation slot all the way through July 2nd, has a way of gripping you with its basic idiocy and unanswerable overriding question. Namely, why would anyone continue with a week-long wedding bash when the guests start dropping like flies on an island with a history of mass murder?

It's best not to think too hard about that basic impossibility. Harper's Island isn't overly concerned with making any sense or adding up to much more than a ghoulish guessing game. It's basically a reality series without any grand prize but with a script. Elimination rounds abound, though, with at least one character getting knocked off each week until the climactic Episode 13 purportedly answers all questions, reveals the killer and leaves just a handful of characters still standing. Clue comes quickly to mind.

Thursday's premiere begins with a big gang of celebrants gathered on a yacht headed 27 miles off the coast of Seattle to the posh Candlewick Inn on Harper's Island. Principal among them are groom Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham) and bride Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy), whose rich, imperious daddy (Richard Burgi) is financing this big splurge.

The first corpse turns up in tandem with the yacht's launch. An unaccountably tardy guest who shall not be named is tied to the vessel's underside, strategically positioned to lose his head when the propellers fire up.

Harper's Island otherwise is sauteed with little mini-scares until another character is subtracted near episode's end. A siren goes off, making some of the women eek. A seagull lands in the midst of revelers, triggering a few more squeals. A dockworker slices fish heads; the boyfriend of a nubile semi-skinny dipper gets a big chill.

The cast is affordable as well as disposable. The most recognizable faces are Burgi, who's logged ample time on Desperate Housewives, and Harry Hamlin as besotted, fun-loving "Uncle Marty."

Mysterious text messaging abounds, and there's ample skin, too. The groom's childhood best friend, Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy), whose mother was murdered seven years ago on Harper's Island, is adept at deep-bending to showcase her ample wares. Oddly enough, the bride doesn't seem bothered in the least by all the time her husband-to-be spends with Abby. But as we said, a lot of this doesn't make sense.

What Harper's Island does do pretty well is whet whistles for mayhem in a picturesque setting populated by pretty people. It's got all the trappings, save for a butler. There's even a spooky kid named Madison (Cassandra Sawtell) who seems to be either possessed or related to Lost's diabolical Benjamin Linus. The groom's tattooed brother, J.D. (Dean Chekvala), is pretty creepy, too, although surely misunderstood.

None of this will tax anyone's intellect. But if enough viewers get sucked in, then CBS has a cost-efficient "franchise" that can travel just about anywhere in future TV seasons. Carnage Cove anyone? Just make it simple, and by all means keep the heads rolling.


NBC tries to rebuild post-ER Thursdays with Amy Poehler-led comedy and ensemble cop drama

Note to readers: Struggling NBC's Thursday night lineup, without ER for the first time in 15 TV seasons, re-gathers itself on April 9th with a new episode of The Office, the premiere of Parks and Recreation, another new Office episode, a first-run 30 Rock and the premiere of Southland.

Here are our reviews of the two newbies:

Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari co-star in Parks and Recreation.

Premiering: Thursday, April 9th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones, Nick Offerman, Paul Schneider, Aubrey Plaza
Produced by: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur, Howard Klein

It seemingly would be hard to go wrong with Amy Poehler, the former Saturday Night Live bright spot who used to co-anchor "Weekend Update" in addition to doing a killer Hillary Clinton.

That telegraphs this next sentence, which goes a little something like this: But NBC goes very wrong in the flat and wholly derivative first episode of Parks and Recreation. Straining to replicate The Office, it instead pulls a muscle that's located nowhere near the funny bone. Yeoman work needs to be done on this very disappointing depiction of small town government and its feckless practitioners. They're all gathered in real-life Pawnee, Ind., but the berg shouldn't expect any big uptick in tourism.

Park & Recreation's principal creative force, Greg Daniels, is the same guy who made the U.S. version of The Office a stand-alone, see-worthy knockoff of the BBC original. Here he settles on the identical talk-to-the-camera "mockumentary" motif, with Poehler cast as a self-important but essentially well-meaning deputy director named Leslie Knope.

Her surname leaves the K silent, which might be most viewers' reaction as well to another NBC comedy series without a laugh-track or sweetened studio audience howls. The material mostly just curls into a fetal position, making one almost long for a Kuh-nope joke or two. But nope, it's just Knope.

After finding a drunk sleeping in the kids' playground tube slide, Knope goes about the business of moderating an ill-attended nighttime public forum. She's accompanied by sardonic colleague Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), who'd just as soon be plucking nose hairs.

"What I hear when I'm being yelled at is people caring loudly at me," Knope later tells the camera. One of the complainers, nurse Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), says that her lout of a husband broke both of his legs falling into an abandoned, town-owned pit. Knope immediately promises to fill it in and then build a public park on the land. "This could be my Hoover Dam," she says. Instead the show keeps digging itself a hole.

Other Parks and Recreation regulars include Knope's anti-government boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman); city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), with whom she once slept; and bored college intern April (Aubrey Plaza).

They all make for a pretty dreary mix. And it doesn't get any better when Knope falls head over heels -- not for a co-worker but into the giant pit. Lucy Ricardo she's not.

Maybe this somehow can be salvaged, although a poorly executed first episode generally bodes ill for the entire enterprise. Poehler has much the same inherent comedic appeal as former SNL castmate Tina Fey, but her 30 Rock was spot-on funny from the start.

Parks & Recreation is more reminiscent of Michael Richards' first post-Seinfeld effort for NBC, in which he played bumbling L.A. private eye Vic Nardozza. That went very badly for all concerned. And this show very much looks to be on the same path.

GRADE: C-minus

Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz in new police drama Southland.

Premiering: Thursday, April 9 at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Ben McKenzie, Michael Cudlitz, Regina King, Tom Everett Scott, Michael McGrady, Kevin Alejandro, Shawn Hatosy, Arija Bareikis
Produced by: John Wells, Christopher Chulack, Ann Biderman

NBC's best new police drama since Boomtown may be too grittily real even for viewers accustomed to the random medical gore of ER.

Southland, which takes ER's spot, is also from the same producer, John Wells. It takes viewers on a hardly magical, mystical tour of L.A., where conscience-less gangs and assorted other scum have turned veteran patrol cop John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) into a coarse, seen-it-all street sweeper.

"It's like drivin' through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat, right?" he tells rookie trainee Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie from The O.C.).

Southland bleeps some of its profanity but otherwise is very much in the mode of FX's recently deceased The Shield, which had its series finale last year. Most of the cops and detectives are strung out and beset with personal problems. Still, Cooper relishes his "front row seat to the greatest show on earth" while Sherman vomits at the sight of a decaying corpse that's been partly dismembered by a pair of dogs left behind.

The premiere episode also includes the broad daylight shooting of a young black kid who barely says "I don't bang" before he's perforated by a group of drive-by vermin. A woman bus driver witnesses the shooting but is afraid to give up any information. "Shoot, we got our own war on terror right here," she says of her neighborhood.

Later a cop is felled at close range, forcing young Ben to come quickly of age. He's supposedly from a rich family, but so far we don't know why he's chosen to protect and serve a populace that's often at war with itself.

Southland's opening hour is as uncompromising as any broadcast TV drama can dare or afford to be. Forty TV seasons ago, NBC's long-running Adam 12 premiered with basically the same premise -- streetwise cop schools probationary rookie. But that show was a Disneyland ride compared to the grime and slime besetting the network's newest boys in blue.

"You're a cop because you don't know how not to be one," the senior partner eventually lectures the rookie after earlier ridiculing him as a wussy "Tori Spelling." "If you feel that way, you're a cop. If you don't, you're not. You decide."

Viewers who decide to stay the course will be in for some tough duty. Warts and all, Southland has the potential to be an exceptional police series. But it also risks being a turn-off in already dispiriting times. In that all too real context, who needs this?

GRADE: A-minus

FX's Rescue Me blazes anew in Season 5

Season 5 brings fireworks between Denis Leary and Michael J. Fox.

Delayed almost interminably by last year's writers' strike, FX's Rescue Me returns in a big way Tuesday with a bounteous, 22-episode Season 5.

Denis Leary's combustible Tommy Gavin and his fellow NYC firemen haven't been seen since the fourth season flamed out in mid-September 2007. Lest we forget, Tommy's still on the wagon and his belittling father remains newly deceased as the series reboots with an episode titled "Baptism" (9 p.m. central, repeated at 10 p.m.).

Before getting into more particulars, let's note that Leary's Rescue Me Comedy Tour, also featuring appearances by co-stars Lenny Clarke and Adam Ferrara, will touch down in Dallas on Thursday, April 9th. Complete details are here.

Leary's standup act remains exceptional, but his Rescue Me work trumps all that. He's terrific as Tommy, particularly during a group-watch of home movies with teary-eyed family members.

Everyone's feeling sentimental about John Gavin Sr. (Charles Durning) and even Cousin Mickey's (Robert John Burke) less than housebroken dog, Bootsie. But Tommy still sees his father as a full-blown demon who made his life an inferno before making nice at a baseball game and then dying in his seat. His profane/funny/heartrending screed cuts right through home screens.

There are other developments.

The firefighter known as "Black Shawn" (Larenz Tate) is clandestinely dating Tommy's daughter, Colleen (Natalie Distler), but intentionally postponing sexual relations with her.

"The next ass I tap is the ass I marry," he says in what amounts to a Hallmark card sentiment on Rescue Me.

Tommy's ex-wife, Janet (Andrea Roth), also has a new man. He's wheelchair-bound Dwight, played forcefully by guest star Michael J. Fox.

There's also a coffee table book in the works tied to the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11. A comely French journalist named Genevieve Lazard (Karina Lombard) is intent on interviewing the crew of 62 Truck, but Tommy initially wants no part of it. Leary again has a cathartic, bravura scene in next week's Episode 2, discoursing at length on why an illustrated, commemorative tome is a dead issue with him. Still, he can't close that chapter. So their dance continues.

FX's The Shield is now history and Nip/Tuck isn't what it used to be. That leaves Rescue Me as the envelope-pushing network's signature series, with Leary turning in the most under-acknowledged work of any lead actor in an ongoing television role. He's the indispensable hook and ladder of Rescue Me, which looks more fired up than ever as its longest season beckons.


Surviving Suburbia gives Saget another ABC port

New Bob Saget sitcom has little curb appeal. Hardy hoo-hah!.

Premiering: Monday, April 6th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Bob Saget, Cynthia Stevenson, Jere Burns, Jared Kusnitz, G Hannelius, Dan Cortese
Produced by: Kevin Abbott, Michael Hanel, Mindy Schultheis

Maybe Bob Saget has incriminating pictures of ABC execs from his lovable single dad days on Full House.

Or perhaps he has compromising footage from his tenure as host of the network's America's Funniest Home Videos.

Or could it be that ABC simply has a lingering soft spot for Saget, who drops in Monday night as the still boyish-looking 52-year-old star of a comedy series that even The CW network junked before it could air?

The company behind Surviving Suburbia, Media Rights Capital, briefly had been in charge of CW's entire Sunday night schedule until the network abruptly cut ties last fall.

That left Surviving Suburbia without a home and seemingly with little hope of finding one. The show's surprise emergence on ABC -- in a cushy slot following Dancing with the Stars no less -- might remind some viewers that this is the network that once made its bacon with laugh track-driven family sitcoms such as Full House, Growing Pains, Roseanne, Home Improvement, Who's the Boss, Family Matters and According to Jim.

You can't go home again, though -- at least not with this one. Surviving Suburbia begins as Home Improvement often did -- in a fake backyard on a soundstage.

Saget's character, father-of-two Steve Patterson, is quickly afflicted by his next door neighbor, a strip club owner named Onno played by the once semi-promising Dan Cortese.

"Whew, it smells like crap back here," he proclaims. "It's like the back of your house farted."

"It's the fertilizer -- mostly," Patterson deadpans.

We could stop right here after noting that Surviving Suburbia likewise is a real stinker. But let's tarry just bit longer.

Steve and his wife, Anne (Cythia Stevenson), apparently have recently moved to the 'burbs, where he's having a hard time adjusting. Or at least that's what he says near the end of the first episode, noting that wifey never minded him being a "screwup" until they left the inner city.

Earlier in these proceedings, Steve and his dim pal, Jim (long-suffering Jere Burns), think they could be royally screwed after inadvertently setting Onno's house on fire while feeding his fish. Instead they make up a story about saving the place from burning. This makes Steve a hero, leading to more lameness and a few crude jokes at the expensive of a heavy-set woman who loves both Scotch and heroes. Steve presumes she means a sandwich. Ba-da-boom-thud.

In its own dumb, stupid, idiotic way, Surviving Suburbia might be just a bit better than ABC's In the Motherhood, which premiered last month. That's largely due to Stevenson's portrayal of Anne Patterson. She knows the comedy ropes, and makes the best of what's given her.

Saget, who's gone blue in his nightclub act, plays Steve Patterson as a hapless semi-sourball whose character's timing is bad in this punishing economic downturn. Stressed viewers might be in the mood for simple-minded comedy requiring no mental exertion. But bitching about life in the cushy 'burbs isn't likely to resonate in any way, shape or form.

Nor, for that matter, is the sight of Burns' character sprawled nude on the Pattersons' couch in the show's climactic money shot. Guess you'll have to be there.


The Tudors and In Treatment are back in play on Showtime, HBO

Jane Seymour and Henry VIII; Drs. Gina Toll and Paul Weston.

Premium cable's warring big shots, HBO and Showtime, each return estimable series Sunday night.

Showtime weighs in with the third season of The Tudors while HBO launches Season 2 of In Treatment. They're pitted against each other at 8 p.m. (central), but cable subscribers with On Demand capabilities can tune in anytime.

This isn't so much a review as a reminder that both series are well worth your time. Although I do prefer the palace intrigues and histrionics of the newly divorced King Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to the angst and soul-searching of the newly divorced Dr. Paul Weston (Garbriel Byrne).

Henry, who rid himself of second wife Anne Boleyn at the close of last season, takes on his third wife, Jane Seymour (Annabelle Wallis), at the start of this one. Meanwhile, he's beset by a commoner rebellion of Catholics who resent the destruction of their places of worship at the order of Henry's principal deputy, Sir Thomas Cromwell (James Frain).

On In Treatment, Weston has relocated his therapy practice from Maryland to Brooklyn, where he sees returning and new patients in his brownstone. John Mahoney from Frasier will play one of them.

Weston, not entirely of sound mind himself, also will resume his therapy sessions with Dr. Gina Toll (Dianne Wiest), who still has her hands full with him.

The Tudors of course is far more picturesque, sometimes breathtakingly so. In Treatment, with its intimate confines, could just as easily be a stage play.

They're two more good reasons why HBO and Showtime are worth their extra costs. In these tough times, though, share with a friend if you can.

ER checks out after lasting long enough to go on Medicare

Toasting, 1, 2, 3. Charter ER cast member Noah Wyle is at center.

ER seems older than Eeyore as it prepares to close shop tonight after 15 seasons on NBC.

The onetime medical marvel will bow out (Thursday, April 2nd, 8 p.m. central) as the longest-running prime-time doctor drama in TV history. Yet it's not even the senior partner on NBC, whose Law & Order pre-dates ER's Sept. 19, 1994 premiere by four falls.

Both award-winning dramas harken to the onetime glory years at NBC, and perhaps of broadcast network TV in general. And each series has managed to go on and on without any remaining members of its charter cast.

Noah Wyle was one of ER's first-season mainstays. And his Dr. John Carter, recipient of a kidney transplant a few episodes back, will be dropping in on tonight's two-hour farewell, subtitled "And In the End." So will Eriq LaSalle's oft-testy Dr. Peter Benton, who also knew the power and the glory of ER during its decade as a Top 10 series in the yearly Nielsen ratings.

ER likely won't even win its two-hour time slot tonight. ABC is laying back with repeats of its two medical shows (Greys Anatomy and Private Practice), but CBS is firing away with new episodes of CBS: Crime Scene Investigation and Eleventh Hour.

Regardless, NBC won't have much available space next season for the storied 9 p.m. (central) dramas of its relatively recent past. Jay Leno will be occupying that slot five weeknights a week next fall. NBC once populated that hour not only with ER, but with hallmark dramas such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, Miami Vice and its Law & Order franchise, which for the most part will have to relocate.

ER also set another kind of gold standard, as the most expensive drama series ever to air on a broadcast network. NBC had underpaid for the series in its early years. But Warner Bros. Television later cashed in big-time, commanding a $13 million per episode license fee from NBC in times when the Peacock was willing and able to pay it.

Those days are long gone, with NBC estimating that Leno will cost the network roughly one-third or less of what it took to fuel the 9 p.m. hour with scripted drama series.

Many of the high-quality, buzz-worthy dramas now are on cable networks, even if their audiences come nowhere near the 30 million viewers per episode that ER averaged in its first four seasons. But cable networks collect twice, via on-air advertising and the carriage fees they receive from cable operators. It's reached the point where NBC Universal's once proud broadcast arm has become a loss leader while its cable properties, including the USA, Sci Fi, Bravo and MSNBC networks, are showing increased profits.

With just its last episode remaining, ER ranks 50th in the prime-time universe this season with 8.4 million viewers a week. That would still be a smash on any and all cable networks. But it's just a bit more than one-third the audience being drawn by each of Fox's two weekly doses of American Idol, which may be the most cost-efficent series ever.

ER can still bow out with head held high, though. It's been a decade since County General Hospital sustained the loss of George Clooney's Dr. Doug Ross. Critics and viewers alike wondered if the show could go on without its marquee star and cover boy, the Dr. "McDreamy" of his day.

But ER has continued to operate at a high level, sustaining other major cast departures but always replenishing itself. Losing those high-priced stars in many ways helped to keep ER in business on NBC, which now looks fondly upon The Biggest Loser as one of its few on-the-cheap moneymakers.

So yes, it's all too true. The network of ER is left with few vital signs these days. You might say it's lapsed into critical condition, hoping against hope that Leno's unprecedented prime-time venture will also be a health care package. Meanwhile, NBC's doctors are out -- ending an era and a way of doing business that is all but DOA.

Osbournes: Reloaded -- What the @#$%&* was that *&%$#@ pile of #@$%*&?

Ozzy expresses himself on Tuesday's Osbournes: Reloaded. Fox photo

Mercifully delayed until 24 minutes past the hour Tuesday, the first Osbournes: Reloaded special spewed onto Fox with all the class and style of Ozzy relieving himself on the Alamo.

Perhaps that's to be expected of a show that wasn't made available for review. Fox has aired some dreadful stuff over the years, but Osbournes: Reloaded proved to be shockingly inept and unfunny from the instant mom Sharon and daughter Kelly shared ice-breaking bleeped profanities while a studio audience howled with laughter. What'd they give 'em -- Acapulco Gold?

Much of the 36-minute thing, presented after an American Idol performance show, was devoted to a guy named Nick and his tired-of-waiting girl, Lily. Kelly first noted that his name rhymed with (bleep). Then Lily purportedly surprised Nick with an ultimatum: either marry her or she'd leave him.

Nick, who frankly didn't look like much of a catch, got sent backstage to ruminate while the show unfortunately went on. Offal included Ozzy and Kelly in a filmed segment as profane, food-throwing drive-in workers followed by cursing kids of kindergarten age playing "The Littlest Osbournes." Earlier came a presumably fake Ozzy break-dancing, pulling a muscle of some sort and farting.

Meanwhile, Sharon busily milked the Nick/Lily denouement as though the fate of the universe hung in the balance. The would-be bride at last appeared teary-eyed in a wedding dress while her lug slipped into a tux. Family members gathered onstage as a "pastor" popped the big question to Nick: "Do you take Lily to be your wedded wife?" (Note that "lawfully" was omitted.)

He paused for effect while everyone acted as though they were in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Then came the answer you knew was coming from a guy who was probably an actor anyway. "I'll marry you," Nick grudgingly told her, prompting an audience eruption before Ozzy sprayed everyone with foam. Then a doused Sharon said goodnight.

There are supposed to be more periodic Osbournes: Reloaded specials, but Fox surely can't be serious about that. Please just pop in one of those old Alien Autopsy specials instead. We'd all be better served.