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Eastwood steals the show -- and what's really so wrong with that?

The chair has the floor, too: Clint Eastwood pointedly addresses his stand-in for President Obama at GOP convention. Photo: Ed Bark

It could have been much worse. It could have been Jerry Lewis up there.

But was it really all that bad? Upon further review, no, it wasn't.

Clint Eastwood's rambling, gambling performance theater stint on closing night of the Republican National Convention has triggered a big gang of naysayers from all political perspectives.

Even a good number of prominent Republicans are wondering what got into the Romney forces. Why was Eastwood given so much leeway? Why didn't the Mitt Romney biographical film or those touching testimonies from fellow Mormons find their way into the sainted one-hour "prime-time window" of convention coverage from ABC, CBS and NBC?

I watched Eastwood Thursday night and rewound him for a closer look Friday morning. And my takeaway is this: he stumbled a bit too much after a strong start. He could have done without the anatomical jokes at the expense of the empty chair representing President Obama. At times he even seemed like an 82-year-old man who couldn't quite remember the third government agency he'd shut down as president. By the way, would you rather have had Rick Perry up there?

What Eastwood accomplished, in no small measure, was to turn the choreography on its ear and walk a tightrope of his own making. He occasionally lost his balance but never fell. And for the first time in ages, a national political convention went nakedly script-less.

But now the same people who carp about the infomercials these conventions have become are aghast about how GOP convention organizers could have gone so badly "off script." Why in the world did they allow this to happen? Where was the lockstep discipline, the second-by-second management of every speck of stage time?

Oh the horror. Eastwood should have been a dutiful, well-practiced plow horse, not Bronco Billy. And boy oh boy, now all anyone's gonna talk about is Eastwood's "bizarre" performance -- as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said with obvious distaste -- rather than Mitt's game attempt to sell himself via Teleprompter as a really good guy who gets things done.

But so what if we're mostly talking about Eastwood over the weekend? By going long, he gave the Republicans 20 minutes more coverage than they would have had on ABC, CBS and NBC. Romney didn't finish his speech until 10:13 p.m. (central), with the broadcast networks then sticking around for several more minutes to chew things over. Some commentators now are acting as though the nominee was pushed way deep into the night and well beyond the bedtimes of many hard-working Americans. By not ending precisely at 10 p.m., the Republicans had blown an opportunity to reach the widest possible audience.

What a load. What Eastwood did was to give this convention a pick-me-up, an adrenaline shot. He was by no means entirely off the rails, but his train decidedly wasn't going to run on time. Viewers perked up, wondering what he might do next. Are there any Republicans -- or Democrats for that matter -- who would have been man or woman enough to tell him, "Now Mr. Eastwood, we need you to be short and sweet and get off the stage precisely on schedule. Can you handle that?" Grrrrrrrrrrr, that's not how this old warhorse works. And some of his very best work -- Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, J. Edgar -- has been accomplished after he turned 70. For the most part, he still kind of knows what he's doing.

Eastwood scored some points, and they weren't all during his first half. Recalling Obama's "Hope and Change" acceptance speech four years earlier, he said, "Everybody's crying. Oprah was crying. I was even crying. I haven't cried that hard since I found out that there's 23 million unemployed people in this country. Now that is something to cry for."

The empty chair gambit sort of worked at first. "I'm not gonna shut up. It's my turn," he told "Obama" to big applause from the Republican faithful.

But then it got more than a little too coarse: "What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. He can't do that to himself. You're absolutely crazy. You're gettin' as bad as (Vice President Joe) Biden. 'Course we all know Biden is the intellect of the Democratic Party. Just kind of a grin with a body behind it."

The slap at Biden in actuality was no worse than what the late Ann Richards said about George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Democratic convention: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." The crowd roared then, too.

Eastwood got back on track by saying he didn't like the idea of attorneys being president. "A stellar businessman" -- namely Romney -- would be far better equipped. Lawyers just muck things up.

But then came another ham-handed anatomical reference. Eastwood knows all about cutting room floors -- and that's where this one also should have landed.

He finished stronger than many people will choose to remember. "You, we. We own this country," Eastwood said with conviction. "Politicians are employees of ours. When somebody does not do the job, we gotta let 'em go."

That got the biggest response of the night -- at least in terms of Eastwood's speech --- before he finally bowed to a renewed chant of "Make My Day."

"I'll start it. You finish it," he said. Which he did. And they did.

Then came Florida senator Marco Rubio. He rather blandly restored some prototypical decorum before introducing Romney. But how many viewers really heard much of what he said. How many instead were still buzzing about Eastwood's live wire act?

A couple more points about ABC, CBS and NBC. Does anyone really think they would have sat still for those Mormon testimonies to Romney's essential goodness? These were terrific little stories from people unaccustomed to being in the spotlight. But the sight of elderly Ted and Pat Oparowski immediately would have put all three networks off their feed. Broadcast networks don't do old anymore. They undoubtedly would have filled that portion of their prime-time windows with commercials or blab from their anchors, analysts and reporters.

The Romney biographical film would have been a crapshoot. In the past, some broadcast networks have boycotted such films as propaganda -- or at best joined them in progress. Some also have aired them in full. It's varied from convention to convention on ABC, CBS and NBC. There are no guarantees.

No network -- either broadcast or cable -- was about to turn away from Dirty Harry, though. He commanded everyone's attention. And from this viewpoint, a lot of everyday Americans lapped it all up. As did a majority of convention delegates -- or so it seemed.

And what do you think some of the younger ones are going to tell their grandchildren a generation from now? It's not going to be, "I was there when they played the Mitt Romney film." Or "Let me tell you about the time I heard Marco Rubio speak at the Republican convention."

No, their takeaway is Clint Eastwood -- now and many years from now. We supposedly live for these moments. And then when they happen, a lot of media types wonder how such a thing could happen.

Hey, this has been a helluva lot of fun to write. Thanks, Clint. Appreciate it. But you probably shouldn't try this again.

Here comes A&E's Coma, so knock yourself out (literally)

Lauren Ambrose acts stunned -- possibly by the script. A&E photo

A&E's two-part remake of Coma is best experienced while unconscious. Or at least in a Grade A stupor. That'll make the time pass faster.

Plodding and stupefying when it's not being laughable and poorly acted, this is entertainment fit for an alternative to water-boarding. It's also notable for being one of the last celluloid contributions by the late Tony Scott, who's the principal co-executive producer along with his brother, Ridley.

Coma, adapted from the Robin Cook novel and initially a 1978 feature film with Michael Douglas and Genevieve Bujold, premieres on Labor Day, Sept. 3rd at 8 p.m. (central) and for some reason returns on the following night at the same hour.

It's only saving grace is its borderline brevity. Although housed in two-hour time slots on both Monday and Tuesday, the commercial-less review DVD sent to TV critics provides barely 75 minutes of befuddlement in Chapter 1 and just over 80 minutes in Chapter 2. That leaves an enormous amount of space for commercials -- even in these ad-clogged times.

A&E and the Scott brothers have put together something of an all-star cast, although four of the familiar faces are pretty much past the tops of their games.

Richard Dreyfuss pops in and out as a very tired looking college professor named Hillside.

James Woods is Dr. Theodore Stark, a chief of staff whose role in this yarn is never really clarified. Woods, lacking the energy or perhaps will power to even bother chewing scenery, basically checks himself out of this thing early in Part 2.

Geena Davis is Dr. Agnetta Lindquist, the cougar-ish, devious head of psychiatry at Peach Tree Memorial Hospital.

And Ellen Burstyn crackles ever so slightly as Mrs. Emerson, who runs the day-to-day operations at the mysterious Jefferson Institute.

Burstyn is a six-time Oscar nominee who's won once. Dreyfuss has two Oscar nominations and one win, as does Davis. Woods perhaps is the piker of this group. He's never won an Oscar, but does have two nominations. And his two Emmy wins at least are nice consolation prizes.

The four of them sadly traipse through Coma in ill-fitting supporting roles. Which leaves Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under fame and Steven Pasquale (Rescue Me) to shoulder the heaviest loads. She plays inquisitive medical transfer student Susan Wheeler while he's her studly medical resident supervisor, Dr. Mark Bellows. Nary a spark flies between them, even though they're attracted to each other and briefly share a bed. This is a duller relationship than a plastic knife and fork.

Coma gives off a lifeless vibe from the very start, initially taking what seems like forever to get anywhere. Part 2 is then dominated by an interminable and completely nonsensical chase sequence in which Ambrose's Susan is pursued by a psychopath patient of Dr. Lindquist.

The overall storyline appears to be glued together with non-stick melting butter. Or perhaps my brain became way too calcified at some point to even attempt to make sense of this. It's all more disjointed than a Julia Child chicken.

At one point in Monday's Part 1, Ambrose's heroine character has a sack put over her head by the aforementioned psycho case. Perhaps she pleaded with the director to let the poor girl suffocate?

No such luck. She's left to carry on while all those older hardware winners at least can say they've managed to largely stay out of the picture. In that context, Woods is the canniest of all. His best scene finds him screaming en route to his character's death. Probably out of pure joy.


GMA's Robin Roberts begins extended medical leave

Robin Roberts says goodbye for awhile on Thursday's GMA. ABC photo

Robin Roberts, dean of network morning TV's women anchors, began her extended medical leave Thursday after a group goodbye from Good Morning America's staffers and on-camera talent.

"This is just 'See ya later, see ya soon,' " an upbeat Roberts said.

The leave is beginning a day earlier than expected so that Roberts and her sister, Sally-Ann, can be with their ailing 88-year-old mother, Lucimarian, who lives in storm-tossed Mississippi.

Sally-Ann, a news anchor for WWL-TV in New Orleans, will be Robin's bone marrow donor. She is hoping to make a full recovery from myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disorder.

Two of Roberts' principal GMA mates, co-anchor George Stephanopoulos and weathercaster Sam Champion, said goodbye from afar via satellite during Thursday's sendoff, Stephanopoulos is at the Republican National Convention in Tampa and Champion is in New Orleans reporting on the after-effects of Hurricane Isaac.

GMA continues to wage a close battle with NBC's Today for the top spot in the morning news ratings race. Today had been dominant for nearly two decades before GMA broke its long winning streak earlier this year.

ABC said that Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters and Elizabeth Vargas will take turns filling in for Roberts during her absence, which is of undetermined length.

The network said that "a headline-making roster of stars will also pitch in to keep the show's momentum going." They include Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, Kelly Ripa and Rob Lowe.

ABC News president Ben Sherwood, in a memo to staffers, said that Roberts, 51, is "the captain of our GMA team and heart and soul of the program. We'll be with her every step of her new journey."

The former standout college women's basketball player first joined GMA in 1995 as a reporter and was promoted to co-anchor in 2005.

ABC has set up a website, gma.yahoo.com/robin, to provide updates on her condition.

Sheen gets the green

Charlie Sheen and dad, Martin, in recent Anger Management episode. FX photo

Charlie Sheen's Anger Management sitcom has met "a very high ratings bar that included some additional hurdles," says the FX network.

Therefore he gets the big payoff -- a promised 90-episode order that will bring the grand total to 100 episodes in just two years' time if Sheen can stay on track.

It caps a remarkably quick comeback for the volatile actor, who less than a year-and-a-half ago had a mega-meltdown tied to his firing from the hit CBS comedy Two and a Half Men.

Anger Management, loosely adapted from the same-named movie that starred Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler, features Sheen in the lead role of an "untraditional therapist" grappling with his own temper traumas. The series recently finished its Season 1 run as this year's most-watched cable comedy series, with an average of 4.5 million viewers per episode and 2.5 million of them within the 18-to-49-year-old motherlode.

"Charlie Sheen and the entire cast did an amazing job in the first 10 episodes, which were produced in a very tight window," FX executive vice president Chuck Saftler said in a publicity release Wednesday. "I have no doubt that the producers and cast will be able to pull off the Herculean task of producing 90 episodes over the next two years."

That's roughly twice as many half-hours as the standard order of 44-48 sitcom episodes over a two-year period. The deal is similar to the one Tyler Perry struck with TBS for his House of Payne sitcom. The Lionsgate Television Group is a partner with FX in the production of Anger Management.

Production on the series is scheduled to resume on Sept. 24th, FX said, with Anger Management going into off-network syndication in September 2014. The deal means a multi-million dollar haul for Sheen, whose proclamations of "winning" are good as gold for now.

Chris Matthews: braying donkey or impassioned truth-teller?

Note to self: don't immerse yourself in politics on this site because it's a no-win exercise. You'll either be dismissed as a right-wing nut or commie pinko by dug-in partisans from both sides.

But I've crumpled up that memo and thrown it away because the spectacle of Chris Matthews again is too irresistible to ignore.

Most politicos know by now that Matthews bull-dozed his way through GOP national chairman Reince Priebus Monday on MSNBC's Morning Joe. In no uncertain terms, he kept telling Priebus that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is wantonly playing the race card on the issues of both President Obama's birthplace and his stance on welfare reform. And he, Chris Matthews, is damned tired of it.

The hosts of Morning Joe -- Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski -- didn't try to hide their embarrassment. Guest Tom Brokaw looked a little queasy, too. Matthews kept going, of course. Any valid points he may have made as usual were drowned out by the sound of his own bellicose voice. The kind of voice that thrills him no end. The kind of voice that police should play on an endless loop whenever they need a holed-up bad guy to surrender without any further resistance.

Matthews' comportment on Morning Joe resumed on his Monday edition of Hardball. And that's when he met his match in -- of all people -- Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich, as big a media baiter as Matthews is a grandstander, made a very telling point when MSNBC's Great White Father kept insisting that Romney's welfare reform riffs were thinly disguised attacks against America's black people.

"Why do you assume food stamps refer to blacks?" Gingrich asked him. "What kind of racist thinking do you have?" He also told Matthews that most food stamp recipients in fact are white.

Matthews first resurrected Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign comments on "welfare queens." Then came his big finish: "You've got that diabolic(sic) smile of yours," he informed Gingrich. "And I know you think you're winning. But everybody out there who's black or white knows exactly the game that's being played here."


A number of websites openly supporting the re-election of President Obama decry the stereotyping of blacks as welfare cheats or welfare "queens." In fact they cite census bureau statistics to the contrary that say whites comprise the majority of food stamp recipients.

So if you're an African-American, shouldn't Matthews' contention be seen as insulting? Is he championing blacks, as he so grandly proclaims? Or is he dumping blacks into the same old hopper while at the same time railing against Republicans for race-baiting?

Matthews is no dummy. Just ask him. But he's also a consummate blowhard, self-aggrandizer and serial chauvinist who was depicted as such in a devastating 2008 cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

So my problem with Matthews again is the messenger. Namely him. He lectures, he bullies, he interrupts -- all in the interests of the greater glory of Chris Matthews. Sometimes he cuts through the B.S. But he's your worst enemy as an advocate because he keeps doing it so artlessly.

Those who think I've got a political ax to grind should know that I think roughly the same of Sean Hannity. Or Ed Schultz. Or the idiots on Fox and Friends. Increasingly thanks to Fox News Channel and MSNBC, we're becoming a country divided to the point of no return. But in the view of the people who run these networks, this is a "good business plan." Pure and simple.

There are ways to ask sharp, pointed questions. Matthews asks not. He mostly filibusters and makes an ass of himself. And then he cites those who say they love his courage and how he practices "real journalism" while others shy away from confrontation.

Ted Koppel practiced real journalism during the glory days of Nightline. Chris Matthews is no more than a gaudy neon "Live Nude Girls" sign in comparison.

Here comes Harvey Keitel in Lifetime's Fatal Honeymoon (huh?)

Harvey Keitel uneasily walks his daughter (Amber Clayton) to the altar in the fact-based movie Fatal Honeymoon. Lifetime photo

Not that many years ago, the chances of Harvey Keitel doing a Lifetime movie might have been less than Don Ho being voted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

But times change, edgy actors get older and everybody wants to feel wanted. And Keitel at least gets the extra-special "And Harvey Keitel" treatment in Lifetime's Fatal Honeymoon (Saturday, Aug. 25th at 7 p.m. central). Brides just can't catch a break on this network.

The movie is based on the 2003 drowning death of Tina Watson, who was on an Australian honeymoon with David "Gabe" Watson. Keitel effectively plays her aggrieved, suspicious father, Tommy Thomas, in a film that disjointedly meanders back and forth without ever answering a very central question: Why on earth would a beautiful blonde sweetheart like this marry such an arrogant, hot-tempered, unfeeling lug?

Gabe (Billy Miller), a certified rescue diver, subsequently was charged with Tina's murder after she sunk to the bottom while they joined other couples in a scuba diving expedition off the Great Barrier Reef. Tina (Amber Clayton) had been a very uneasy participant and eyewitnesses felt that Gabe did very little to save her. Was he looking to cash in on her life insurance policy?

A review DVD sent to TV critics sets the stage with a police grilling of Gabe before a prototypical sequence of flashbacks and flash forwards. The first time travel -- "2 Years Earlier" it says on the screen -- depicts the initial meeting of Gabe and Tina on the University of Alabama campus.

But later in the film, a "4 Years Earlier" segment shows them making out on his couch while she wonders if he's ever going to pop the question. Maybe someone will notice this and fix it before Fatal Honeymoon premieres on home screens.

Keitel's Tommy understandably distrusts Gabe from the start. He's a cocksure big boor throughout the film, but Amber keeps coming back for more even though her magazine cover girl looks are hardly a barrier to meeting other men.

At one point, Gabe points to a mini-bag that supposedly has an engagement ring inside. He'll bestow it upon her when "the timing is right."

"I can't wait to tell my dad," Tina coos.

"Found a way to ruin the moment," he curtly responds.

That should have been the time to to run run run away for good. But after a brief breakup, she's oddly under his spell again and ready to walk the aisle while daddy rightly keeps smelling a skunk.

The questions surrounding her diving death made national news. So the movie sprinkles in a few glimpses of Anderson Cooper, Larry King and other CNN personalities. Odds are they don't even know they're in this thing, but the so-called "fair use" doctrine makes all of them fair game.

Keitel, previous co-star of enduring heavy duty films such as Mean Streets and Reservoir Dogs, supplies what little heft this film has. And he seems to be giving it all in a scene where he's first informed of his daughter's death. Keitel's visceral reaction fully conveys his character's grief. He also gets to deliver a sermon to Australian reporters after Gabe slides off the hook.

Fatal Honeymoon otherwise is mostly a lightweight rehash that basically serves to convict Gabe Watson while reducing his deceased bride to something of a simpleton. Keitel's inclusion makes it more than a complete throwaway. But in the end, it's all very disposable.

GRADE: C-minus

GSN's American Bible Challenge: An appealing do-gooder without preachments

Team Minnie's Food Pantry of Plano celebrates a correct answer with host Jeff Foxworthy on The American Bible Challenge. GSN photo

Premiering: Thursday, August 23rd at 7 p.m. (central) on GSN (Game Show Network)
Starring: Host Jeff Foxworthy and 18 faith-based teams competing for various charities
Produced by: Michael Davies, Tom Forman

"I'll take "Daniel in the Lions' Den' for $300, Alex."

GSN's new The American Bible Challenge doesn't work quite that way. And it's hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, not Alex Trebek. But there are big boards, categories, buzzers and three-way face-offs on each episode. Word plays also are in play, as in "What Do You Noah 'Bout the Ark?"

The Man Upstairs might groan a bit at that one. But surely He'd approve of this first-of-its-kind "game show of biblical proportions," as one of GSN's slogans bills it.

I'm no man of the cloth, save for soft cotton. But the spirit moves me to say that American Bible Challenge is an entertaining, enlightening, feel-good weekly hour in which 18 teams of three members apiece are playing to "love on somebody else" and perhaps eventually come away with the show's $100,000 grand prize.

Religion is the foundation but no one's trying to convert anybody. Oozing wholesomeness but not slobbering it, American Bible Challenge may well be a genuinely genius idea with widespread appeal for viewers of all ages. If so, GSN (formerly Game Show Network) will have its first "branded" destination show after years and years of trying to break through.

Two of the teams are from North Texas, with Plano's very appealing and animated Team Minnie's Food Pantry featured on the Thursday, Aug. 23rd premiere hour along with Team Surburban Saints from Sacramento and Team Gospel Geezers of Charlotte, NC. The Power Team of Dallas will compete on a later episode.

Foxworthy, who logged considerable game show experience as the host of Fox's Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, seems mighty glad to be associated with this one. And why not? Thursday's winning team, which will advance to two semi-final games before a three-team grand finale, takes home a not-too-shabby $20,000 for its designated charity.

Team Minnie's Food Pantry is representing its own same-named food-for-the-poor center while the Suburban Saints play for the non-profit City Crossroads and the Gospel Geezers brave Old and New Testament quizzes on behalf of Samaritan's Purse. Each team goes home with something on Thursday's premiere.

The Minnie's Food Pantry trio are Cheryl Jackson, Lynette Shofner and Lanett Patt, who's easily the most demonstrative when something goes right for her team. Not in an off-putting way, though, even if she sometimes makes a Let's Make A Deal contestant seem like a church mouse in comparison.

Early questions are fairly elementary. For instance, what mountain did Noah's Ark eventually rest on? One of the four multiple choice answers is Mountain Dew.

Foxworthy goes easy on the redneck humor, at least in the premiere episode. Unfortunately, he can't resist a very lame one-liner after one of the teams correctly names Moses as the answer to, "Whose Faithbook page would most likely feature a friend request from The Burning Bush?"

"I'm so thankful it was Moses instead of Larry the Cable Guy," Foxworthy rejoins. " 'Cause he would have had a hot dog on the end of a coat hanger during the whole thing."

A forgiving God holds back on sending any lightning bolts his way. And in truth, this is a small quibble. Questions in the second half of the first episode get appreciably tougher after a brief dip into a category dubbed "In the Name of the Lord of the Rings."

In the challenging one-minute "Final Revelation Round," each of the two surviving teams separately fields the same questions on "Women of the Bible." They're definitely not easy. So don't expect anything like, "Who rode the donkey while husband Joseph made his way toward Bethlehem?"

Whatever your religious beliefs -- or lack thereof -- The American Bible Challenge is good for the soul. It's also the best new game show in years. Contestants compete to serve various greater goods while Foxworthy both extolls their virtues and jokes around a little. Not everything comes out perfect. But surely there's room for a show like this in the vast and often ghastly prime-time firmament.


Late night shocker: Nightline being pushed back an hour to make way for Kimmel

Jimmy Kimmel with recent guest Lisa Kudrow. ABC photo

The new year will bring a classic good news/bad news scenario for ABC's Nightline.

The good news: the long-running late night news program will be getting a weekly Friday prime-time berth, starting on March 1st.

The bad news: In what amounts to Ted Koppel's worst nightmare, Nightline and its trio of anchors will be pushed back an hour to 11:35 p.m. (central), beginning on Jan. 8th. The network's Jimmy Kimmel Live will move up to 10:35 p.m. to go directly against CBS' Late Show with David Letterman and NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

ABC announced this sea change early Tuesday afternoon, saying it will be "capitalizing on ratings momentum, advertising demand and increased revenue potential for entertainment programming."

Nightline in many ways has become a de facto entertainment program of late, and its ratings generally are stronger than the first half-hours of Leno and Letterman. But according to Disney/ABC Television Group co-chair Anne Sweeney, Kimmel's "passionate fan base" in addition to the show's "ratings and creative momentum this season" convinced the network that "the time is right to make this move."

Nightline's Friday prime-time exposure will begin on March 1st in the 8 p.m. (central) slot preceding ABC's 20/20. The network otherwise is positioning the demotion behind Kimmel as a way for viewers to "begin and end their day with ABC News."

The network says the Kimmel shift is timed to take advantage of the "built-in promotional platforms" provided by Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest and the Monday, Jan. 7th college football national championship game on sister network ESPN.

Kimmel also will be hosting the Sept. 23rd Prime-Time Emmy Awards ceremony, with ABC taking its turn as this year's host network.

The trailblazing Nightline premiered on March 24, 1980 as an extension of ABC's late night The Iran Crisis --America Held Hostage programs. Koppel anchored Nightline from its inception until his sign-off on November 22, 2005. In his closing remarks, Koppel said in part, "You've always been very nice to me, so give this new anchor team for Nightline a fair break. If you don't, I promise you the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot. Then you'll be sorry."

That will now come to pass early next year, even though Nightline's notably softer approach has served to keep its ratings up.

In a September 2011 interview with Seattle ABC affiliate KOMO-TV (before being presented with the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award in Broadcast Journalism), Koppel said of the new Nightline: "It's no secret they have become hugely successful because they are doing precisely what I didn't want Nightline to do. It's become a show that's heavily oriented into entertainment, more than it is in the direction of information and news."

ABC News President Ben Sherwood, whose division's Good Morning America has regularly been whipping former morning kingpin Today in the weekly ratings, said that Nightline's weekly prime-time perch coupled with its otherwise later start time is a recipe for continued prosperity.

"I'm confident Nightline and its dynamic anchors, correspondents and staff will enjoy many successes for years to come," he said.

Whether that in fact happens, Sherwood now will be forever known as the news executive who whistled a happy tune while his network's entertainment division pushed Nightline into the near wee hours after almost 33 years as ABC's late night lead-off hitter.

Michael J. Fox coming back to weekly TV and the Peacock (not Fox) has him

Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton on NBC's Family Ties.

Michael J. Fox, who became a star in the early 1980s via NBC's Family Ties, will be returning to the network some 30 years later in a new as yet untitled comedy series.

NBC announced the deal early Monday evening after the Peacock, ABC, CBS and Fox all reportedly were involved in a bidding war for his services. Earlier reports also say that Fox has found a blend of medications that have helped him to curb the tremors from his Parkinson's Disease, with which he was diagnosed in 1991.

Fox disclosed the illness publicly in 1998 while starring in ABC's Spin City, for which he won the best comedic lead actor Emmy in 2000 as mayoral image-maker Mike Flaherty. He then left that series in 2000, and was replaced by Charlie Sheen.

NBC said it has ordered 22 episodes of Fox's new series, which is set to premiere in fall 2013. He'll play a New York-based husband and father of three "dealing with family, career and challenges -- including Parkinson's -- all loosely drawn from his real life," the network says.

"I'm extremely pleased to be back at NBC with a great creative team and a great show," Fox said in a publicity release. The show's executive producers are Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits, The Loop) and Sam Laybourne (Cougar Town, Arrested Development).

Fox came to fame as kid conservative Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, winning three Emmys for the role. The character had a picture of William F. Buckley Jr. over his bed. Fox stayed with the series for its entire 1982-'89 run.

Family Ties gave NBC a three-wheeled juggernaut on Thursday nights, in tandem The Cosby Show and Cheers. With Bill Cosby's sitcom the driving force, the shows ranked one-two-three in the 1986-'87 TV season, with Family Ties in the runner-up spot ahead of Cheers.

Fox most recently has appeared in Boston Legal, Rescue Me, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He's received Emmy nominations for all four of these guest actor roles, so far winning the statue for his performance in Rescue Me. In this year's prime-time Emmy competitions, Fox is nominated for both Curb and Good Wife. Results will be announced next month.

R.I.P. Phyllis Diller: July 17, 1917 to Aug. 20, 2012

Phyllis Diller, who took self-deprecating humor to new highs (or lows if you prefer), died on Monday, Aug. 20th at the age of 95.

She was a staple stand-up act on a wide variety of prime-time variety hours and late night talk shows, making numerous appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Bob Hope specials and The Tonight Show among many. Diller's trademark jabs at her supposedly non-existent sex appeal helped to smooth the way for the likes of Joan Rivers, Minnie Pearl and Rodney Dangerfield. A high-pitched laugh punctuated many of her one-liners.

Diller also starred in ABC's short-lived mid-1960s sitcom, The Pruitts of Southampton.

Below is a clip from her first-ever television appearance, with Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life. A latter day Diller also offers a little commentary on the experience.
Ed Bark

MTV's The Inbetweeners is at best uneven -- just like the teens it depicts

The misfit toy teens of new sitcom The Inbetweeners. MTV photo

Premiering: Monday, Aug. 20th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on MTV
Starring: Joey Pollari, Bubba Lewis, Zack Pearlman, Mark L. Young, Alex Frnka (correct spelling), Brett Gelman
Produced by: Brad Copeland, Aaron Kaplan, Damon Beesley, Iain Morris

MTV's teen comedies -- unlike those on ABC Family or Disney Channel -- are the ones that most parents don't want their teens to watch.

They tend to highlight adolescent behavior in its most primitive forms. And The Inbetweeners, adapted from the same-named hit British series, duly includes projectile vomiting (on a little kid no less), a restroom embarrassment, heavy drinking and heavier-duty sex talk in its premiere episode.

It gets better with age, though, not that the four featured high school boys show any undue signs of maturity. The three episodes provided for review might even provoke a few guilty grins from the smattering of moms and dads taking MTV for a spin Monday night.

Will McKenzie (Joey Pollari), the principal star and narrator, is newly arrived at Grove High School, where his preppy dress habits make friends hard to come by. So he settles for:

***An obese, sex-crazed Sam Kinison in training (Zack Pearlman as Jay Cartwright).

***A doofus long-haired dude reminiscent of Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Mark L. Young as Neil Sutherland).

***A reasonably well-adjusted third wheel who's still hopelessly in love with a girl he's known since they both were eight-year-olds. (Bubba Lewis and Alex Frnka as Simon Cooper and Carly D'Amato).

Mishaps and mis-understandings pile up faster than the prototypically snide remarks from bearded principal Mr. Gilbert (Brett Gelman). Some of them are amusing, not including the projectile puking. And The Inbetweeners really should lose the recurring and thudding "My dad is not gay!" protestations from Neil.

Episode 2 includes a trip to the nearby Sunshine Mountain amusement park, where some fairly funny stuff happens after Simon's first car, a very nerdish yellow Sport Edition, has its passenger side door clipped off in the parking lot.

This half-hour also includes an indelible exchange between Neil and Jay after Carly's dark bra is exposed when her shirt is wetted down. Jay notes it's a model that can be unsnapped from the front before Neil adds admiringly, "I watched Jay chew his way through the bra department at Ross."

"Gotta practice somewhere," Jay adds.

You don't get those kinds of high schooler riffs on ABC Family or Disney Channel. But The Inbetweeners isn't quite as coarse as it often sounds. Will is a decently relatable sort with a hot divorced mom whose husband unaccountably left her for someone else. And Simon is worth rooting for in fits and spurts. Even if Carly's boyfriend is a hunk who also happens to be a very decent guy. That may be a teen comedy first.

Monday's Episode 1 unfortunately doesn't make a very good first impression. But next week's amusement park yarn is an improvement and the subsequent "Wrong Box" episode hits on a few more cylinders after the boys decide to form a cooking club in hopes that their fave Grove High crushes will happily join in. Food fight!

In this respect, The Inbetweeners seems to be experiencing the growing pains of its principal characters. A better start would have been preferable, but at least the show's weekly slings and arrows are pointing upward.


Copper rises to the top as BBC America's first original scripted series

Co-stars Franka Potente & Tom Weston-Jones couple up in Copper, a new Civil War era crime & punishment drama. BBC America photo

Premiering: Sunday, Aug. 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on BBC America
Starring: Tom Weston-Jones, Franka Potente, Kyle Schmid, Ato Essandoh, Kevin Ryan, Anastasia Griffith, Dylan Taylor, Kiara Glasco
Produced by: Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, Will Rokos

Stirring sex, violence, race, crime and corruption in a smoldering period piece pot, Copper makes a vivid impression as BBC America's inaugural original scripted series.

It's not about the no-holds barred race to mint the first Lincoln penny. But he's still president in 1864, the start point of this Civil War era depiction of uneven justice in class-divided New York City.

The central character is rough and ready detective Kevin "Corky" Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish immigrant who boxed for a living as a younger man before going off to fight for the Union side. His six-year-old daughter was murdered during that time while his wife went missing.

But the war raged on and Corcoran couldn't escape it until finally being mustered out. Now he's understandably obsessed with both finding his wife and apprehending his daughter's killer while also solving other crimes. His refuge from the madness is saloon/brothel madame Heissen (Franka Potente), who operates out of the city's raggedy, mayhem-ridden Five Points neighborhood.

"I'll be gone a week or so. Don't use too many of the girls," she advises before leaving town on a recruiting drive.

"You're the only one I want," Corcoran assures her.

BBC America is advertiser-supported, so the sex is somewhat tempered save for a lingering shot of a male behind. Advertisers seem to turn the other cheek when it comes to violence, though. And Copper certainly doesn't scrimp on that front in its opening episode or the following week's Part 2.

A bloody bank robbery is served up for starters. And Corcoran isn't above beating suspected wrongdoers or even possible informants into submission. In turn, he suffers greatly in Episode 2, feeling his searing physical pain in ways that are uncommonly vivid for a lead character in a weekly series.

The principal architects of Copper are better known than any of the cast members. Barry Levinson directed Diner and Rain Man among his many feature films while Tom Fontana has Homicide: Life on the Street and St. Elsewhere on his resume. Together they invest Copper with grit, grime and crimes whose culprits tend to reside above the law in upper crust enclaves.

The victim in Episodes 1 and 2 is a pre-teen girl who's found with a hole in her head. Corcoran initially is on the wrong track regarding her identity. But at the mid-point of Sunday's opener, he realizes that a runaway minor named Annie Reilly (Kiara Glasco) is still very much alive and in peril.

The series' clandestine forensics expert is Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), an African-American who has forged a relationship with both Corcoran and the privileged Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), a fellow Civil War veteran who returned home with a peg leg.

Freeman now works undercover, aiding Corcoran in his investigations with the primitive tools available to him in those times. His deductions include how the girl was killed and how tall the perpetrator had to have been. Some of this isn't altogether convincing, but neither are many of the machinations in TV's contemporary "procedural" crime dramas.

Corcoran drives Copper with a Mike Hammer-esque intensity, even though his looks remain boyish rather than hard-boiled. Justice will be served on his terms if necessary. And he's not above skimming a little off the top where cash-laden dead bank robbers are concerned.

BBC America has ordered 10 episodes for Copper's first season. Descriptions in network press materials indicate that the series will be typical in terms of its hardscrabble hero uncovering various clues on his path toward finding his wife and avenging his daughter's murder while also dealing with other weekly messes within his jurisdiction. There's also a definite dirty-to-the-touch Deadwood feel throughout the first two episodes.

Still, Copper doesn't seem like a copycat. It's both a promising and foreboding series, with class warfare an ever-present force that wants no part of any idealized forms of truth, justice and the American way. It's all prelude to an Episode 10 subtitled "A Vast and Fiendish Plot." Rose Gardens need not apply.

GRADE: A-minus

Starz's Boss is back in business, with Grammer still reason enough to watch

Kelsey Grammer is still in fine, glowering form in Boss. Starz photo

The Ewings of Dallas are done for this season and USA's Political Animals is concluding its limited run this Sunday. So viewers looking for a backstabbing serial soap to wind down their summers might want to next turn to the Starz network's Boss.

The Kelsey Grammer-paced saga of a corrupt Chicago mayor with a terminal hallucinatory brain disease returns on Friday, Aug. 17th at 8 p.m. (central) with its at times loopy gravitas also intact. It takes itself very seriously without any of the knowing winks of the aforementioned potboilers. But there's no shortage of wheeler dealer double-crossing, with Grammer's mayor Tom Kane leading the charge as an increasingly unhinged contemporary King Lear determined to build monuments to himself while perhaps amending at least a few of his evil ways before he dies.

(Side trip: Grammer won a Golden Globe for this role but was snubbed in last month's Emmy nominations. On Wednesday's Tonight Show, he told Jay Leno that it may be because he's "a declared out of the closet Republican in Hollywood."

Grammer piled up 10 Emmy nominations as the star of Frasier, winning four times as best lead actor in a comedy series. But his last win, in 2004, came just before he outed himself as a Republican, Grammer told Leno.

He may have a point. Patricia Heaton, likewise an outspoken Republican in recent years, received seven Emmy nominations and won two -- in 2000 and 2001 -- for her work in Everybody Loves Raymond. But she's been shut out ever since, even though her ongoing comedy series The Middle, has received widespread critical acclaim in its three seasons on ABC. Neither the series or any of its cast members have ever been nominated for an Emmy.

Tom Selleck, another vocal Republican, received five Emmy nominations for Magnum, P.I., winning in 1984. His far better work in CBS' series of Jesse Stone movies has got him just one nomination (in 2007), but not a win. And Selleck was snubbed altogether for his against-the-grain but very well received portrayal of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2004's Ike: Countdown to D-Day.

We live in increasingly polarized times, with the above three actors clearly in Hollywood's minority in terms of their political affiliations. So fair is fair, and it's valid to raise the question. Even though Grammer comes across as somewhat vainglorious for doing so. And it would be hard to subtract one of this year's six nominees -- Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire); Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad); Michael C. Hall (Dexter); Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey); Damian Lewis (Homeland; Jon Hamm (Mad Men) -- for the purposes of including Grammer. Personally, though, I would have left Hall off the list this time around.)

All right, back to the Boss review. In Friday's opener Kane reprieves the doctor he had exiled, only to learn his disease is "progressing -- faster than expected."

"You're not God," she tells him.

"Purpose. I have purpose," he replies to no avail. "Mr. Mayor, you have to know," he's informed. "Your best days are behind you."

Through the course of five episodes made available for review, Kane remains hell-bent on ramrodding through his two pet projects -- an expansion of O'Hare Airport and the demolition of the Lennox Gardens public housing project, which is crime-infested and dominated by drug dealers.

The honest poor residents distrust his vow to relocate them in affordable residences while the project is being razed and rebuilt. So Kane persuades Mona Fredericks (Sanaa Lathan) to join his staff as an emissary. She grew up in Lennox Gardens and had opposed Kane's relentless push to implode. But a deal with the devil may result in a better deal in the end, she rationalizes.

Just about everyone rationalizes in Boss. Kane's former aide, promiscuous Kitty O'Neil (Kathleen Robertson), also hops between the gubernatorial campaigns of slick, duplicitous Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) and charisma-challenged opponent Catherine Walsh (Amy Morton).

Kane's impossibly green new aide, young Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff), has the requisite dark secret while also plotting to impress his volatile boss by any means necessary. The mayor's estranged wife, Meredith (Connie Nielsen), has learned of his debilitating illness and hopes to use it to her advantage. Their drug-addicted daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware), still pretty much despises both of her parents. But she uses as well as being a user. And Chicago Sentinel investigative reporter turned editor Sam Miller (Troy Garity) has morphed into the kind of boss that any staffer would love to guillotine. How far will he go for a scoop, though?

There's also Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan), the longtime right-hand man who double-crossed Kane last season and wound up seemingly murdered in the finale. He is in fact dead. But Stone continues to haunt Kane, both goading and lecturing him with increasing frequency as the mayor's mind melts further toward mush.

The scenes with Kane and Stone aren't supposed to be comical. But they come ver close at times. Too many TV characters are talking to dead people these days, with Kane regularly telling Stone, "You are not here!" before again succumbing to his advances. This stuff can get old.

Kane's ramped up conversations with people who aren't really there regularly occur in front of staff members. But they just as often respond with quizzical looks that border on being laughable -- until they actually become so. Believable or not, the mayor's all-encompassing powers -- and powers of intimidation -- keep him out of the loony bin. By Episode 5, though, a rather public blow-up may end up being one too many.

Grammer has proven that he's more than just a comedic actor. His center-ring performance pulls Boss along even when it gets bogged down. The supporting actors likewise are all capable, although Grammer's glower clearly is the series' tower of power.

Starz renewed Boss for a second season before the first one even aired. But the ratings have been a considerable disappointment, making it highly probable that this second season will be the last. If so, Kane's dementia will have to be accelerated in the interests of closure.

Last season's finale found him flat on his back and seemingly physically incapacitated. In the end he may have to curl up into a little ball before being bounced out to make way for Chicago's next prototypically amoral mayor.


CW's The Next is TV's newest -- what else -- search for a superstar singer

Mentors Nelly, Gloria Estefan, Joe Jonas and John Rich. CW photo

Premiering: Thursday, Aug. 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Gloria Estefan, Nelly, John Rich, Joe Jonas
Produced by: Queen Latifah, Dave Broome, Shakim Compere

Even as it slowly runs out of gas, American Idol's traffic jam of derivative singing and dancing competitions shows no imminent signs of stoppage.

Next in line is The CW's The Next, in which "Fame Is At Your Doorstep" for up-and-coming singers looking to "finally make the leap from opening act to headliner."

Their escorts are yet another batch of "superstar" mentors who dispense wisdom such as "If this is where your heart is, then take it and run."

That numbingly familiar pick-up line comes from Joe Jonas. He's joined by Gloria Estefan, Nelly and John Rich in this six-city search for someone worthy of the show's grand prize -- a recording contract with Atlantic Records. This perhaps beats a homemade, "gone viral" youtube video. But if so, not by much. Ask Justin Bieber.

Thursday's one-hour premiere episode brings the four established singers to the House of Blues in Orlando, Fla., where a wildly excited crowd awaits their grand entrances. Host Allison Hagendorf of Fuse TV then opens the games by announcing, "America" -- pause, one, two -- this is The Next." Audience eruption guaranteed.

Briefly, here's the deal. Six cities will be visited by The Next, including Dallas down the road. Besides Orlando, the other venues are Baltimore, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Four singers looking for a big break will spend 72 hours with one of the mentors (72 hours in TV time is perhaps an afternoon) before singing their hearts out at a popular local venue (willing to waive any costs to The CW in return for free publicity). Judging from the opening hour, the four stars will effusively praise each and every performance on each and every episode before the audience picks weekly single winners via the climactic "Cricket Wireless Vote."

The six survivors -- plus a lone wild card who didn't make the first cut -- will then gather in Los Angeles for the semi-finals. And so on until a winner likely destined to become a trivia question -- Who won Duets this summer on ABC? -- emerges to take his or her very long shot at becoming music's next big supah stah.

These aren't pikers, though. Country singer Michael Ray has sold out Orlando's House of Blues four times and once ranked No. 2 in popularity on ReverbNation. He's under the wacky John Rich's wing, and actually is quite good in performance.

Another fame-saker, 18-year-old Taylor Buono, has a "good online following," Joe Jonas notes. And Cori Yarckin has both opened for The Jonas Brothers and has a MySpace page. Yowza.

Most of the supplicants get a designated affliction. But so far it's not one of those sappy pre-fab back stories in which Lolo Lala has overcome the heartbreak of psoriasis after first battling the rejection that comes from being born with just nine toenails.

Instead, Yarckin has "performance anxiety" while Ray "over-thinks everything." Their superstar mentors bravely intend to fix those faults.

Added piffle: the would-be superstars still have to grind away at their daily lives. So Gloria Estefan helps Yarckin mow the lawn (for a few seconds at least) while Nelly accompanies Itzy Rodriguez to her day job at a sunglasses shop and Joe Jonas helps his protege to babysit a dozen or so star-struck little girls.

All of this seems about as authentic as a Snooki Polizzi endorsement of Encyclopedia Britannica. But good luck to the eventual winner, I guess. The Next probably can't hurt anyone's budding career. Nor is it likely to help in any real way.

GRADE: C-minus

It's game on with The CW's Oh Sit!

Racers slip/slide their way to the "Sit List" on Oh Sit! CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Aug. 15th at 7 p.m. (central) on The CW
Hosted by: Jamie Kennedy, Jessi Cruickshank
Produced by: Phil Gurin, Richard Joel, Deena Dill

Networks in full-blown desperation mode perhaps are entitled to present Oh Sit!, whose competitors race around a slippery, body-banging course in hopes of remaining on the show's "Sit List."

Or as co-host Jamie Kennedy tells viewers up-top: "Twelve weekend warriors who are in shape and out of their minds will put their asses to the test."

Yes, we're talking about summer programming on The CW, a network whose fortunes continue to sink a dink a do. Still, Oh Sit! more or less qualifies as a perfectly acceptable answer to the likes of ABC's Wipeout or NBC's recent summertime flop, American Ninja Warrior. Constants fall down, go boom while commentators either make sport of them or commend their grit.

On Oh Sit!, the once promising Kennedy shares a desk with Jessi Cruickshank, who initially comes off as the WORST HOST EVER but eventually settles in with lines such as, "You have a very lucky cornfed bum."

This is in reference to a competitor who keeps sitting in the "Chair Island" chair with the most monetary value. To explain further would be fruitless.

Each hopeful is given a nickname, the most riotous being McPushy Pants. There's also Jenni From the Block ("I can be a bitch') and The Beard, who has a big black one modeled after San Francisco Giants reliever Brian Wilson. Correspondent Tanika Ray, who interviews him, is credited by Cruickshank with "some spectacular, beard-related journalism."

The show may be a joke, but the various obstacle courses look legitimately grueling. Even an Olympic decathlete might get pretty gassed after a while. In Wednesday's premiere outing, one competitor almost immediately gives up while another gives his ankle a serious twist. After each elimination round, a host is usually inclined to say, "Let's take a look at the Sit List."

The races are accompanied by live band music and even a performance from "multi-platinum artist" Kevin Rudolf. When the music stops, competitors scramble to cross various bridges for a coveted seat on "Chair Island." Those who don't make it to the next round are fated to dive into one of the show's many pools of water for a brief "Swim of Shame."

The winner-takes-all grand prize adds up to a not-so-shabby $32,250 on Episode 1. "This is the best thing that's ever happened to me," says the recipient.

That's good for a laugh. And although its title is needlessly sub-juvenile, Oh Sit! does manage to be stupidly entertaining during its small handful of best moments. The CW will take that, particularly when one of its other hot weather attractions, Remodeled, was seen by a ridiculously paltry 392,000 viewers nationally Monday night.

Oh Sit! certainly has a fighting chance to beat that mark. It had better, lest it truly be in a world of s*it.


PROGRAMMING NOTE -- Lifetime's five-part series The Week The Women Went premieres Tuesday, Aug. 14th at 9 p.m. (central) after originally being scheduled for a June 6th launch. Silly me, that's when my review was posted. So if you'd like to take a look -- or another look -- you can find it right here.

Syfy's Collection Intervention may well be another addictive series about addicts

Host Elyse Luray talks down a Barbie collector. Syfy photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Aug. 14th at 9 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Hosted by: Elyse Luray
Produced by: Pam Hesley, Jim Berger, Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees

A Star Wars addict named Consetta frequently weeps at the thought of giving up even one of her "friends."

Mark, a dedicated Catwoman collector, is similarly traumatized by the idea of parting with any of the treasures he's amassed. Even though they've long been out of sight in stacked cardboard boxes filling nearly every inch of a decaying garage.

These people aren't jokes. Nor are their situations. As an off-and-on collector of sports cards, myriad TV stuff, old LPs and Chip Hilton sports books devoured in grade school years, I'm not about to make fun of Syfy's Collection Intervention. It hits a little too close to home, although of course I could part with all of these possessions with nary a second thought. Just don't ask me to do it today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. Or next month.

Hosted by Elyse Luray, formerly an executive with the famed Christie's auction houses, Collection Intervention is getting an initial run of six one-hour episodes. Both of the collectors featured in Tuesday's premiere have spouses with varying levels of tolerance.

Mark's wife, Lolly, wants him to junk his entire cache in hopes they can climb out of debt with the proceeds.

Consetta's husband, Garet, is much more of a kindred spirit. The couple were married in Star Wars costumes and have a preserved wedding cake in the form of a Star Wars ship.

"And it won best Star Wars wedding cake from the Stars Wars Insider, 2008. Yay!" Consetta tells Elyse. OK, that's sick.

Still, hubby's ready to part with the thousands of Star Wars purchases jamming virtually every available space of their modest-sized home. At least they're all neatly displayed while Mark's collection is out of sight but never really out of mind.

It's Elyse's job to guide them with a firm hand toward the cash money that will result from downsizing. Consetta is made to realize that other Star Wars fans likewise would love to have some of what she's got.

"Why not let somebody else feel that joy?" she asks.

But for the very reluctant Consetta, saying goodbye to even her miniature Wicket the Ewok is almost akin to losing a first-born child. Mark is shaky, too, despite not really knowing what he has.

"If you don't remember buying them, then we should really be selling them. Right?" Elyse asks him. Well, um, maybe, but er . . .

These kinds of shows hardly ever end miserably. So let's just say that both Consetta and Mark eventually come to grips with their demons. Meanwhile, viewers get to see what they've all got and what some of it is worth. Which continues to be addictive viewing in itself as the hoarder, pawn shop and abandoned storage unit shows just keep piling up.


Say what? NBC idiotically dumps The Who from prime-time Closing Ceremonies

Brian May of Queen revs up for "We Will Rock You." Photo: Ed Bark

Last impressions count, too. And NBC re-inflamed its Olympics antagonist, #NBCFail, with a stupendously bad programming decision during its Sunday night telecast of the Closing Ceremonies from London.

It was bad enough to not include performances by Kate Bush, Ray Davies of The Kinks and Muse, which performed the official song of the XXX Olympiad. A second song by George Michael also got edited out of NBC's two-and-a-half hour tape-delayed presentation after the full ceremony was streamed live earlier Sunday on NBCOlympics.com.

But then came an inexplicable bungle. Principal host Bob Costas had noted earlier that the ceremony's pop/rock music theme would "pick up a bit later with The Who" after dignitaries went about the business of solemnly extinguishing the Olympic flame.

He should have said "a whole lot later." Because just before 10 p.m. (central), Costas copped a plea and said that The Who's Olympics-capping performance would air one hour later as part of NBC's late night wrapup. Huh? A commercial-free showing of the new
fall sitcom Animal Practice and various late night local newscasts then filled the gap.

Let's look closer at the incredible idiocy involved here.

Number one: The Who's surviving members, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, played for a grand total of seven minutes, ending with "My Generation." But NBC couldn't fit this in? The Peacock instead opted for a redundant, padded 90-minute highlight package of what most viewers had seen over and over during the past two weeks. It ran from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and easily could have been trimmed if the network didn't want Animal Practice to get too late a start.

Number two: A majority of viewers had to return to work the following morning. But screw them. Those who wanted to see the grand finale instead were forced to stay up an extra hour for what turned out to be The Who (and their new backup members) followed by a Costas benediction. None of the other spliced performers were re-admitted during NBC's late night tack-on.

Number three: Talk about a buzz-kill. The Brits put on a terrifically entertaining closer, filled to the brim with music, splendorous visuals and a little light comedy from Eric Idle of Monty Python fame. His "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" turned out to be a bigger sing-along than Paul McCartney's "Hey Jude" curtain-closer at the July 27th Opening Ceremonies. All in all it was a thoroughly joyous occasion -- until NBC crapped all over it with one of the dumbest editorial decisions in broadcast TV history.

NBC had been rolling along with prime-time ratings that exceeded their fondest expectations and turned what seemed to be a certain money-losing Olympics into a break-even proposition. An average of 31.1 million viewers had watched the Peacock's previous 16 nights of the Summer Games, up 12 percent from the 2008 Beijing Games (27.7 million). In short, NBC was getting the last laugh at the expense of many of its detractors.

Then they went and did this. And now NBC is getting hammered anew. It couldn't happen to a nicer last-place network.

Lehrer, Schieffer renew Texas connections to presidential debates

Bob Schieffer and Jim Lehrer will moderate this fall's first and last presidential debates. Both have strong North Texas ties.

Network mainstays and former Texas newsmen Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer have been named to moderate two of this season's three presidential debates.

The third choice, CNN's Candy Crowley, will be the first woman since ABC's Carole Simpson hosted a 1992 town hall format debate among President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

Lehrer, who formerly worked for The Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Times-Herald and KERA13's groundbreaking Newsroom program, again has been unable to say no after insisting that a 2008 stint would be his last. Instead, the opening Oct. 3rd face-off between President Obama and Mitt Romney will be his record 12th presidential debate.

Lehrer said a new format -- six segments of 15 minutes each -- lured him this time around.

"I share the Commission on Debates' belief that the format has the possibility to open up the debates for a more spontaneous and deeper exchange of positions and ideas," Lehrer said in a PBS statement. "I could not say no to trying to make that work to the fullest. It was truly an offer I could not refuse."

Schieffer is a former reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who has Texas Christian University's school of journalism named after him. This will be his third presidential debate. He currently hosts CBS' Face the Nation while Lehrer is executive editor of the PBS NewsHour, which he previously anchored for many years. Lehrer will moderate the first debate and Schieffer the last.

The lone vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will be moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News.

Here's the schedule:

Presidential Debate No. 1 (domestic policy) -- Wed., Oct. 3rd, University of Denver in Denver, Colo.
Vice Presidential Debate -- Tues., Oct. 11th, Centre College in Danville, Ky.
Presidential Debate No. 2 (town hall format) -- Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.
Presidential Debate No. 3 (foreign policy) -- Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

NBC's Stars Earn Stripes blazes into view after 21-gun Olympics promo campaign

Todd Palin and Laila Ali are among combatants in Stars Earn Stripes. NBC photos

Premiering: Monday, Aug. 13th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Eight real-life military operatives and celebrities Dean Cain, Laila Ali, Todd Palin, Terry Crews, Picabo Street, Nick Lachey, Eve Torres, Dolvett Quince
Produced by: Mark Burnett, Dick Wolf, David Hurwitz

Dean "Superman" Cain, absent his cape and made-for-TV ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, is the celebrity who gets to say, "This is not a joke. I know there's a chance I could die."

Well, that wouldn't be much of a mission accomplished for NBC's much-hyped Stars Earn Stripes. Instead of extolling America's fighting men and women, the Peacock would be dodging bullets about being the first "reality" series to trigger a real-life fatality.

That isn't going to happen, although Cain and seven other celebrity participants are encouraged to take pride in their bumps and bruises after engaging in "missions reminiscent of counter-insurgencies that have taken place all over the world."

NBC has been drum-beating Monday's two-hour premiere throughout its Olympic coverage. But the network waited until late Friday morning to make Stars Earn Stripes available for review via a password-protected web screening. That's too late for many TV critics' deadlines. But as a former U.S. Marine, your friendly content provider is duty and honor bound to take a close look and then report back to readers. So "Ten-hut!" Or if you prefer, "At ease."

Cain is being joined by Todd Palin, Laila Ali, Eve Torres, Picabo Street, Nick Lachey, Terry Crews and Dolvett Quince. Each will be paired with a real-life former or current military operative. They range from ex-Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle to present-day U.S. Navy specialist Talon Smith. Two ex-Marines also are in the mix. A pair of Green Berets, too.

NBC has asked that reviews not reveal the celebrity/military pairings, which seems to be taking things a little too far in the interests of full-blown viewer enjoyment. We can tell you, however, that former presidential candidate and retired General Wesley Clark ramrods the series with help from Samantha Harris, the onetime Dancing with the Stars co-host.

"Real heroes. Real bullets. Real danger," Clark proclaims in the early going. So never mind the fine print disclaimer at the end of the show, which says in part that "Portions of the program may include non-lethal ammunition used in conjunction with live weapons fire."

Celebrities will be "dismissed" week by week following "elimination shoot-outs" (at targets) between the two weakest links. Those who continue will get a stripe, with each one worth $10,000 toward a star's designated charity. The last man or woman standing (figuratively) will take away a $100,000 charitable contribution.

The two principal executive producers of Stars Earn Stripes unequivocally have earned their own stripes in TV's cut-throat prime-time combat zone. Mark Burnett's name is on Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice. And Dick Wolf created NBC's Law & Order franchise.

This results in a picturesque endeavor that otherwise suffers from a lot of padded redundancy. The celebrities repeatedly say how much they now appreciate the military. Their military mentors repeatedly say how much they appreciate the grit shown by their pupils. And Monday night's principal mission -- an amphibious assault on an enemy encampment -- has a sameness to it after being shown four times with different stars undertaking the mission.

Not to give away a whole lot, but Stars Earn Stripes does add a strong element of truth to the common perception that a majority of black men aren't much for swimming. In one such instance, the hard-charging Palin is left to hit all of the enemy targets on his own.

"Todd's an animal. Good God!" says Cain.

"He's just straight up Rambo," adds an admiring operative. At last some props for a male Palin.

After his initial appearance in the field, Clark repairs to his Mission Control observation area, where he supposedly watches the individual missions on a big video table while occasionally issuing orders such as "Pull him out" and "Carry on with the mission."

Following the fireworks, the eight stars and their military partners gather Survivor-style for a way too long Q&A conducted by Harris. Everyone's all for one and one for all. Over and over again.

Stars Earn Stripes has an outwardly noble intent, even if its "look at modern warfare" (as Clark puts it) tends to come off as one big gung-ho combat high accompanied by a chain rock score.

Humans are involved, so this is no video game. And it's certainly not easy jumping from a helicopter into a river in full combat gear. A little "reality" series trickery can never be entirely discounted, though. It's amazing, for instance, that in each of the four missions, the military pros hit their comparatively tiny targets the first time, every time.

Following Monday's two-hour launch, Stars Earn Stripes will continue with weekly one-hour episodes on the same night at 8 p.m. (central). The overall objective is to honor military service and reward worthy charities. So the show can be saluted in that context while also being fairly critiqued for not doing an overall better job of it.


Still room at the inn: Hotel Hell makes it four Fox series for raging Gordon Ramsay

The meanie cometh again in his fourth Fox series. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, Aug. 13th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Gordon Ramsay and the hapless saps on the receiving end of his expletives
Produced by: Gordon Ramsay, Ben Adler, Patricia Llewellyn, Adeline Ramage Rooney

It's too bad in a way that Gordon Ramsay's latest Fox series, Hotel Hell, arrives way too late to help Dick and Joanna Loudon whip their Vermont-based Stratford Inn into shape on CBS' old Newhart series.

Imagine what profanities also would have rained down on Larry, Darryl and Darryl, let alone bumbling handyman George Utley.

Ramsay's opening target instead is Windsor, Vermont's real-life Juniper Hill Inn, whose owner is prototypically pathetic. Not only that, "You're a disrespectful, disgusting man," Ramsay informs Robert Dean II.

Fans of this guy -- and there are many -- thoroughly know the drill by now. Ramsay's Fox success stories, Hell's Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef, are all made from the same broth. He rages profanely at the sheer ineptitude with which he's been presented. Only the strong survive, learning from their belittling taskmaster in the primitive ways that little boys from bygone years supposedly were straightened out by spankings from a stiff belt.

Severe verbal abuse likewise is the mother's milk of Hotel Hell, which otherwise presents what Fox publicity materials call a "new world" of hotels, inns and B&Bs. They all serve food, of course, so there's again ample time in the kitchen, too.

Premiering on Monday, Aug. 13th, this first gulp of Hotel Hell unfolds in two parts on back-to-back nights. Tuesday's hour completes the process of transforming the Juniper Hill Inn from a money-hemorrhaging, visitor-starved embarrassment into a well-oiled, customer-friendly oasis.

But gee, at one point Ramsay drives off in disgust. Will he actually give up after saying of a weepy Dean, "The guy is maddening, and I don't know if I've got it in me to fix the place."

Cue the U-turn, because the star of the show is really a cursing, hot-tempered, demeaning Good Samaritan at heart. "I've come back," he grandly informs the beleaguered inkeeper. "Not for you, but for the staff."

Swell guy he is.

The inn's main financier -- and Dean's boyfriend as well -- is haughty, short-spoken Ari Nikki. He's an elderly Finn, but looks and sounds more like one of the last surviving Nazi war criminals.

"Why are you running an inn when you're so bitter?" asks Ramsay, who's merely high-strung and super-condescending.

One can't watch any of this, particularly Tuesday's second part, without wondering how Ramsay magically transforms things so fast. He re-arranges entire rooms in a made-for-TV flash to the complete "surprise" of Juniper Hill's owners and staff. All this and a guest room that initially smells like sewage. Amazingly, this is the one room that Dean checks him into. Or not so amazing when considering the by now obvious fact that unscripted TV series are every bit as scripted as scripted ones.

Ramsay still knows what he's doing, though. He's got a brand to sustain, and Hotel Hell is every bit as watchable -- in a morbidly fascinating way -- as his other Fox crock pots.

See him spew anew while the over/under on bleeped profanities again offers an entertaining companion parlor game. He's Gordon Ramsay, and Fox is very, very glad to have him. The expiration date on his expletives remains in the far-off future.


TNT's Major Crimes emerges as committed, quality extension of The Closer

At odds: Capt. Sharon Raydor and Lt. Det. Louie Provenza. TNT photo

Premiering: Monday, Aug. 13th at 9 p.m. (central) following the series finale of The Closer on TNT
Starring: Mary McDonnell, G.W. Bailey, Tony Denison, Michael Paul Chan, Raymond Cruz, Phillip P. Keene, Graham Patrick Martin, Kearran Giovanni
Produced by: James Duff, Greer Shephard, Michael M. Robin

Would it be a punishable offense, or a mere wrist-slappping misdemeanor, to say that the continuation of The Closer under a new title might be a better series without Kyra Sedgwick but with just about everyone else?

TNT's longest-running drama series ends its seven-season run Monday night. But not really, because here comes the immediately following Major Crimes, with Mary McDonnell continuing her role as taciturn, by-the-book Capt. Sharon Raydor.

McDonnell is so understatedly good in this role that she almost makes Sedgwick's deputy chief Brenda Johnson seem like a scenery-chewer in those times when she's not indulging her trademark sweet tooth.

TNT says it was Sedgwick's decision to leave the role. And the network sends her off in gripping style during a closing episode that re-confronts Brenda with serial killer Phillip Stroh (Billy Burke before segueing to the hero's role in NBC's new fall drama Revolution).

Their scenes together spur an hour that also introduces a new character, abandoned teenage street kid Rusty Beck (Graham Patrick Martin), who will be a regular cast member of Major Crimes.

Johnson's departure is well-handled in an emotional group goodbye before most of her seasoned L.A. detectives more or less rally around McDonnell's Capt. Raydor, who joined The Closer in 2009 as a recurring character. The notable exception is crusty Louie Provenza (G.W. Bailey), who considers himself her superior and is not at all on board with a new cost-saving measure that prioritizes plea bargaining over expensive court trials.

Bailey, the pride of Port Arthur, Texas, has a coming out party of sorts in Major Crimes. He teams with McDonnell to drive the action during the first two episodes sent for review. It's similar to supporting player Jonathan Banks' big step forward during the ongoing new season of AMC's Breaking Bad. Both of these actors have been around the block more than they can count. And now their accumulated wisdom and expertise is coming to the fore with Emmy caliber performances in ramped-up roles.

Monday's Episode 1 of Major Crimes pivots on a band of young military veterans who have turned to robbery in their disenchanted civilian lives. The following Monday's hour begins with a bloody scene at a fitness club, whose proprietor has been found suspended upside down from an exercise apparatus, his head badly bashed in. His name was Chad, prompting Provenza to deadpan, "What do you know, hanging Chad." These jobs require a sense of humor.

Besides Bailey, the other Closer regulars returning to Major Crimes are Tony Denison (Lt. Andy Flynn); Michael Paul Chan (Lt. Michael Tao); Raymond Cruz (Det. Julio Sachez); and Phillip P. Keene (Buzz Watson). Slated to occasionally drop in are Jon Tenney (Special Agent Fritz Howard and Brenda's husband) and Robert Gossett (Commander Russell Taylor).

Besides newcomer Martin as the embittered Rusty, Major Crimes is adding a brown-nosing new detective named Amy Sykes (Kearran Giovanni). Provenza doesn't like her either, and Rusty continually chafes under the home rule of Capt. Raydor, who's taken him in and expects to be obeyed. Their newly induced relationship so far looks like another strong point, with McDonnell equally impressive showing glimpses of her character's off-duty personal side.

Major Crimes has the makings of a very sturdy reboot outfitted with a built-in philosophical debate over how justice is served. Supporting characters are newly invigorated, particularly Bailey's Provenza. It just could be that very rare occasion when a spinoff equals or even exceeds the quality of the original, as Frasier did off a Cheers springboard. Can't ask for any better than that.


Too little monkey business in NBC's human-infested Animal Practice

Which of the above stars of Animal Practice gets paid in bananas? NBC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Aug. 12th following Olympic closing ceremonies on NBC
Starring: Justin Kirk, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Tyler Labine, Bobby Lee, Kym Whitley, Betsy Sodaro, Crystal the monkey
Produced by: Scott Armstrong, Ravi Nandan, Joe and Anthony Russo, Gail Lerner

Yes, this is the one with the monkey. And no, he (played by a she) doesn't get enough screen time.

NBC's Animal Practice, being sneak-previewed on Sunday (Aug. 12) after the Olympic closing ceremonies, instead is too messy with oft-clunky human interaction. The Elephant in the Room is the tiny Capuchin monkey known as Dr. Rizzo. Like many a critter, he's a scene-stealer. But in its first episode, Animal Practice steals too much from him. His signature scene has Rizzo riding on a toy ambulance through the halls of Manhattan's Crane Animal Hospital ("He's doin' his rounds"). But in just a few seconds he's out of the picture. For the most part so is the funny.

NBC has a quartet of new needy male sitcoms on its fall schedule, U-turning from the female-centric activities on returnees 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Whitney.

The previously reviewed Go On (sneak-previewing Wed., Aug. 8th) stars Matt Perry as a grieving widower ordered to undergo group therapy. Coming this fall are The New Normal (gay male partners yearn to have a baby) and Guys With Kids (a trio of thirtysomething first-time fathers desperately try to "remain dudes").

In Animal Practice, head veterinarian George Coleman (Justin Kirk after several mile high seasons on Weeds) relates to his patients but doesn't much care for two-leggers. That's because his heart was broken two years ago when the girl of his dreams left him.

Wouldn't you know it, though, Dorothy Crane (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is now back in his life. She's inherited Crane Animal Hospital from her grandma, and intends to run it efficiently. So George wants out. Cue the very standard issue, emptying-out-the-office/cardboard box routine until the inevitable second thoughts kick in.

Coleman's co-workers also are the usual menagerie of misfits. Dr. Doug Jackson (Tyler Labine from Fox's dreadful Sons of Tucson) just doesn't seem to have any luck with the ladies. Tart nurse Angela (newcomer Betsy Sodaro) talks bluntly about everything, but mostly about sex. Dr. Yamamoto (Bobby Lee of Harold & Kumar) is the resident over-reacting, easily fooled goofball Asian, a growing stereotype likewise evident in CBS' 2 Broke Girls and NBC's Community.

Crystal the female Capuchin monkey, who plays Dr. Rizzo, has better credits than any of these supporting humans. Namely The Hangover Part II, We Bought A Zoo, both Night At the Museum movies and Community. Most of her limited number of scenes in Episode 1 also include Kirk's Dr. Coleman. Which is unfortunate because Kirk just doesn't click in the lead role. Nor do most of the words he's given, particularly during this odd verbal product placement exchange:

Coleman -- "People are incapable of reason. Why do you think they keep eating at Arby's?"

Dorothy Crane: "Only you eat at Arby's."

Coleman: "You still won't admit that Arby's is delicious!"

Garcia Swisher as Dorothy is an improvement over the actress who played this part in the pilot, proving that "notes" from network "suits" sometimes can be a good thing. Her character also gets to kiss off Coleman in a decidedly different way when he softens and asks her out for a drink. In the original Animal Practice, she told him of her impending marriage before getting into a cab. That's been changed to "No, it's never just a drink with us."

Nurse Angela still has the same coarse kicker, though, telling her boss, "She wants you to put your bread into her basket."

The first episode also includes snippets of a pregnant Bengal tiger; a python wrapped around hapless Dr. Yamamato; a suicidal cat; a sick Yorkie with a bad habit of eating strip club coasters; and turtle races with mice jockeys (Rizzo gets to hold the money). But no NBC peacock yet.

In recent remarks to TV writers, co-executive producer Anthony Russo went into the usual human shell in saying, "This show is definitely like a smart, fast-paced, character-driven comedy that happens to have a monkey in it. You know, it's not the other way around."

Although no doubt a giving actor, Crystal would prefer to see it the other way around -- as a riotous, monkey-driven comedy that just happens to have humans in it.

The crowd cries out for more -- of her/him. Or at least suckers for monkeys do. But so far Crystal is on the losing end. As is Animal Practice, where the extended human byplay so far is no match for the minimal monkey business.

GRADE: C-minus

TNT's Dallas wraps up Season 1 Wednesday with cliffhanger opposite Olympics

The olds and news of Dallas put an end to Season 1 on Wednesday. TNT photo

Restraint's not an option when it comes to Dallas. So take it from TNT's publicity department, the Wednesday, August 8th Season 1 cliffhanger "will leave everyone shocked and on the edge of their seats."

I've seen it, and it's not bad. Nothing like the time J.R. Ewing sustained a gut-full of bullets from a would-be assassin. But not bad, even if your jaw doesn't drop enough to win Olympic gold.

As with last week's penultimate episode, the first-year's closer will go against NBC's Summer Games coverage from 8 to 9 p.m. (central) after the preceding nine episodes air in sequential order beginning at 11 a.m. on TNT. That's tough competition even for Larry Hagman's many-splendored eyebrows, the best in the business since Andy Rooney's death.

Last Wednesday's Dallas drew 3.24 million viewers nationally opposite the Olympics, good enough to rank it as cable's No. 1 original series for the night. But the Ewings' double-pronged June 13th premiere averaged 6.86 million viewers for the back-to-back episodes.

If that's a gusher, then current ratings for Dallas' highly publicized return engagement are the equivalent of mineral deposits. TNT isn't complaining, though, renewing Dallas for a 15-episode Season 2 way back on June 29th.

All in all, it's been a high, wide and handsome production, with old hands Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy sharing decent-sized chunks of screen time with the new version's younger recruits, most of them former regulars on Desperate Housewives. What might have been a fiasco has turned into a solidly entertaining romp through multiple back-stabbings, bed-hoppings, Bobby Ewing's cancer scares and two fatalities after the opening seconds of Wednesday's season finale reveal who emerged from last week's lethal tussle between Christopher Ewing's estranged, duplicitous pregnant wife, Rebecca and her rotten "brother," Tommy.

We'll throw in one more tidbit about Wednesday's cliffhanger. Ken Kercheval's Cliff Barnes again is listed as a guest star, and his eventual appearance re-greases a lot of moving parts for next season.

Here's how Dallas has fared in the national Nielsen ratings for the nine episodes leading up to Wednesday's season-ender:

June 13th (two episodes) -- 6.86 million viewers
June 20th -- 4.76 million
June 27th -- 4.08 million
July 4th -- 3.36 million
July 11th -- 3.63 million
July 18th -- 3.88 million
July 25th -- 3.25 million
Aug. 1st -- 3.24 million

Postscript: The Season 1 finale, in which Christopher Ewing's estranged wife, Rebecca, was revealed to be Cliff Barnes' daughter, drew 4.29 million viewers nationally to rank at the top of all that night's cable programming.

Matthew Perry's Go On gets a post-Olympics "sneak" that most viewers still may not know about

Matthew Perry hopes to cope in Go On. NBC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Aug. 8th at 10 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Matthew Perry, Laura Benanti, Tyler James Williams, John Cho, Julie White, Suzy Nakamura, Brett Gelman
Produced by: Scott Silver, Todd Holland, Karey Nixon, Jon Pollak

What NBC has here is a possibly more commercial Community fronted by a better-known star who very much or maybe desperately wants another sitcom hit.

Friends alum Matthew Perry, whose ABC sitcom Mr. Sunshine went into quick eclipse, is back in play as a snappy sports talk radio host whose wife died just a month earlier. Ryan King (Perry) thinks he's ready to roll again as the main man of Go On. But his radio station boss, Stephen (John Cho), orders him to undergo a minimum 10 sessions of group therapy before letting him back on the air.

As in Community, Ryan soon finds himself in the midst of a group of mostly misfit toys, all of whom have suffered recent losses. The most appealing among them is former Everybody Hates Chris star Tyler James Williams, who's now a young man with a bass voice.

NBC so far has done an odd job of hiding the fact that Go On is being sneak-previewed at 10 p.m. (central) following the network's Wednesday, Aug. 8th Olympics coverage. Promos for the series only tout its Sept. 11th premiere, when it will be part of NBC's revamped Tuesday night lineup following a potent lead-in from The Voice.

The therapy group is called "Transitions." Ryan predictably is above it all for starters while Perry himself is over-the-top in his early scenes at the radio station. But Go On begins to click when he takes over the session in the brief absence of its group leader and conducts a NCAA brackets-style competition to determine who has the best sob story. Williams' character, Owen, comes up with a name for it -- "March Sadness." Not bad.

Ryan's overall foil -- and probable love interest in time -- will be group leader Lauren (Laura Benanti), who's initially territorial. But the first episode finds her already easing off the throttle after admitting to Ryan that her credentials are suspect at best.

"You're a very nice lady. I'm gonna send you all my sad friends," he says while begging her to sign his release form.

Patients also include the gratingly creepy Mr. K (Brett Gelman), who looks as though he's going to be to Go On what Chevy Chase is to Community. Unfortunately, TV vet Bill Cobbs is not listed as part of the regular cast, although his blind George character gives the pilot a nice boost.

Back at the radio station, Terrell Owens guest-stars as himself. And he's on the receiving end of a terrific one-liner after Ryan blows up at him and the two nearly come to blows. "Oh, oh, you're gonna hit me?" Ryan taunts. "Be careful. You might get thrown out of the indoor unemployment bunny rabbit league."

Well, that's already happened, but it's hoped they'll keep that line in there.

Go On will be using the therapy sessions as its hub, with side trips to Ryan's talk show in future episodes. It's billed as a "touching new comedy" in NBC publicity materials but can be just a bit cloying as well. The first episode also ends rather lamely.

Still, this is a better vehicle for Perry than Mr. Sunshine. It's also a more structured, grounded form of Community, with NBC striving to invest its new comedies with broader appeal in hopes of rising above the level of cult followings.

Community, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock all have their dedicated fan bases, but haven't been able to build on them. Go On obviously won't be off the charts ratings-wise, as Friends was for most of its run. It might settle in, though, with Perry still a solidly capable comedic actor looking to nest a while.

GRADE: B-minus

Gold medal spoof: The Wall Street Journal's "Homemade Highlights" from Summer Games

NBC's exclusive rights to the 2012 Olympics, for which it paid a bit over a billion dollars, hasn't stopped rival media outlets from presenting their own views of the Summer Games.

The Wall Street Journal stands atop the medal stand with its daily "Homemade Highlights." Brilliant, as the British are fond of saying. Here's a capsule look at Thursday's big moments, topped by U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas' first place finish in the all-around individual competition. Even Queen Elizabeth might let loose with at least one uproarious laugh.
Ed Bark

R.I.P. Gore Vidal: Oct. 3, 1925 to July 31, 2012

Gore Vidal was very seldom warm to the touch -- and only during highly irregular weak moments.

Full of himself and even fuller of ideas, one of literature's master preeners is dead at the age of 86. He went quietly, which wasn't his thing. And he left behind an extraordinary output of words put to page and then often to screen.

This is a television website, so that's the prism through which I remember the very singular Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. He wrote more for television than most people might remember. Even if in the end he became more famous for a storied spontaneous encounter with William F. Buckley Jr. during ABC's coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Still a Lilliputian compared to CBS and NBC, struggling ABC had sought to spice up its presentation by inviting Vidal and Buckley to have at each other. The network got far more than anticipated when Vidal referred to Buckley as a "crypto-Nazi" after earlier telling him to "shut up a minute." Buckley responded in kind: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." CNN's Crossfire wouldn't come along until 1982, but the seeds had been sown.

Vidal wrote for television in two big spurts. His first credit, during the so-called "Golden Age of Television," was an episode titled "The Jinx Nurse Case." It was for the 1953-'54 season of Janet Dean: Registered Nurse, a wholly forgotten syndicated drama series about a young RN who soothed patients' psyches while also treating their ailments.

He wrote prolifically for TV during the '50s and early '60s, putting his name to vintage anthology series such as Omnibus, Goodyear Playhouse, G.E. True Theater, Armchair Theater and Sunday Showcase.

Gore re-directed his prose back to television in the latter half of the 1980s, writing the teleplays for two NBC miniseries, Dress Gray and Lincoln, and the quirky TNT western Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, starring Val Kilmer.

He seemed to be proudest of Lincoln, a 1988 adaptation of his same named book with Sam Waterston in the title role and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln.

During a telephone interview on the day of the Land of Lincoln's presidential primary election, Vidal said he had no abiding interest in who succeeded Ronald Reagan.

"Why should I be if nobody else is?" he asked. What do you think I am, some sort of freak? It's appalling."

He actually said that rather pleasantly.

Vidal twice ran unsuccessfully for political office, the last time in 1982 against Jerry Brown for the Democratic Senate nomination in California.

"We still have real issues," he said of the 1988 race for the White House. "But if you discuss them you're out of the race. (Democratic candidate Richard) Gephardt is the only one who's interesting, in his totally phony way."

He tried to warm up to Jesse Jackson. But as only he could put it, Vidal said, "He is getting so consensus-minded that I expect by the time of the convention he will be a platinum blonde. He doesn't seem to be very useful anymore."

As for NBC's version of Lincoln, "I was stunned by the intelligence of it," Vidal said.

Although homely and plagued by insecurities, Lincoln was "a master of the media, the first real PR president," in Vidal's view. "He was a very smooth article, and a standup comic, too. If you ever see a Will Rogers movie, you will see the Lincoln style. He'd be marvelous on television."

NBC kept Lincoln out of a frenetic "ratings sweeps" period, instead airing it in late March of 1988 opposite a made-for-TV movie starring Ricky Schroder.

"I don't think we'll have any trouble," Vidal sniffed when told of his principal competition.

Although he professed surprise at the quality of the finished product, NBC pared away much of the sub-plotting that enriched Vidal's Lincoln book.

"Well, television has its priorities, you see," Vidal said. "Shirley MacLaine must have eight hours to say she is God. Whereas four hours is quite enough for Abe Lincoln." (Actually, ABC's adaptation of MacLaine's best-selling Out On a Limb ran for five hours.)

One of Vidal's last TV hurrahs, although precious few remember it, came in October, 1995 with A&E's Gore Vidal's Gore Vidal, a two-hour documentary tied to his memoir Palimpsest. Those were the days before A&E gave itself over to Dog the Bounty Hunter, Storage Wars, Hoarders and the like.

Vidal served as an on-camera tour guide to some of his favorite locales -- New York City, Washington, D.C. and Ravello, Italy, where he wrote most of his latter day books in virtual seclusion.

Friends of Vidal's also weighed in, including the late author Kurt Vonnegut. He opened the program by telling viewers, "He's the wittiest of all American writers. Most of us aren't witty at all. He has a rather prickly personality. How popular do you expect a porcupine to be?"

Vidal feigned amazement: "I am startled to read how venomous I am. Vitriolic, Vicious."

And thoroughly one of a kind. In A&E's monthly programming guide for October, 1995, Vidal said of himself: "I'm exactly as I appear. There is no warm lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water."

The man who was "no good at being a child" is now no longer among us. Nor are his two principal antagonists -- Buckley and Norman Mailer, whom Vidal once compared to Charles Manson. They made most of today's shouting matches seem rather banal. So let's go to the tape a final time for one of the most famous exchanges in television history.

NBC's prime-time Olympics ratings still on a high while blogosphere detractors continue to tar/feather the evil Peacock

Summer Games prime-time host Bob Costas and the "Fab Five" of Gold Medal winning U.S. women's gymnastics team. NBC photo

Continuing to exceed its lowered expectations for the 2012 Summer Games, NBC Universal chieftains say they now are on track to possibly break even on the network's $1.18 billion investment.

Absent any live events in prime-time, the Peacock had projected a 20 percent ratings decline from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where a 12-hour time difference enabled NBC to air some marquee events live, including swimmer Michael Phelps' chase of a record eight gold medals.

The five-hour difference between New York and London basically makes that impossible, unless the International Olympic Committee consented to create an uproar by starting some events after 1 a.m. in merrie olde England.

Still, through five nights of entirely taped prime-time coverage, NBC is averaging 35.6 million viewers per night, up from both Beijing (34 million at this point in the competition) and the 2004 Athens-based Olympics (30.1 million).

NBC is running a bit behind the paces set by the 1996 Atlanta games and the 1976 Montreal Olympics, both of which had a wealth of live prime-time coverage due to identical time zones in terms of U.S. viewership.

NBC's gains have come despite a full-blown uproar from those who believe the network has sinned grievously by not televising some of the showcase events live during daytime hours. Such wall-to-wall coverage is available in unprecedented fashion on NBCOlympics.com, but one has to have a cable or satellite subscription in order to sign up and gain admission. Events such as Tuesday night's main audience lures -- the women's team gymnastics final and Phelps' two swims for a record number of overall Olympic medals -- in fact were available in their entirety on NBCOlympics.com.

I signed up at the outset, via my Verizon Fios user name and password, and so far have not encountered any technical difficulties despite the relatively geriatic age of my computer, a 2006 iMac desktop running on a backup hard drive after the original one died.

But others say they've had problems while still more seem to think NBC should simply provide live streaming free to everyone whether or not they pay for home delivery of the "Networks of NBC Universal." Save for NBC, they're available only via cable or satellite. Roll call, please: CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, Telemundo and the NBC Sports Network, which until recently was Versus. All are providing Olympics coverage, much of it live during daytime and wee hours. The NBC broadcast network likewise offers live Olympics competition during mornings and afternoons before its prime-time Big Tent skims the cream.

None are more vociferous in their demands than the so-called "Cord-Cutters," who use their computers as TV sets and seem to want free access to everything without paying any monthly cable or satellite bills. They're outraged that NBCOlympics.com isn't letting them on board. Many have vented in no uncertain terms on the twitter page #NBCFail.

Your friendly content provider also took a flogging after daring to defend NBC's overall Olympic strategy in a requested guest column for cnn.com. It's drawn 1,281 comments to date, with a clear majority of them saying either that NBC's coverage stinks in any form or that the revolution is now and that the Peacock is a money-grubbing vulture for not allowing every last second of the Olympics to be a shared free experience.

Said one of the aggrieved: "Ed, you can live in the dark ages if you want. Companies will have to eventually give in to everything viewers want, period. There is no compromise."

He or she kind of reminds me of myself -- back in the 1960s and early '70s. But as a somewhat more moderate old coot, let me make just a few basic points:

***When you cut the cord, you fend for yourself -- unless you're a baby (or a cry baby). Those carping about not being able to watch live events on NBCOlympics.com without a cable or dish subscription would likewise be shit out of luck if it the site didn't exist. Because they wouldn't have any of NBC Universal's cable networks on their TV -- if they even have a TV. So stop whining.

Those who pay monthly cable or satellite bills would justifiably cry foul if NBC Universal let everyone watch msnbc, Bravo, NBC Sports Network, etc. for free during the entire 2012 Olympics. Cut your cord if you want. But don't expect to be rewarded for it while others still foot the bill. It's akin to telling a friend, "Hey, I'm coming over to dinner for the next two weeks so I can eat your food and drink your beer without paying you a cent. Hey, c'mon, we're all part of the human race. What's your problem?"

***There are in fact a number of live Olympic events every day on NBC and its cable cousins. Most of them, because of their length, just wouldn't work in prime-time. But they're not all duds. On Wednesday alone, TV viewers could pick and choose among the following live events:

-- The U.S. women's basketball team's game against Turkey in addition to five other games matching other countries.

-- The U.S. vs. Spain women's water polo match.

-- Three soccer games in their entirety, including defending champ Brazil against New Zealand.

-- The U.S. women's indoor volleyball team vs. China.

-- Men's beach volleyball, featuring the U.S. team of Gibb/Rosenthal.

-- Various boxing elimination bouts.

***Other critics of NBC's coverage complain that it's too U.S.-centric. Seriously? One can argue with the caliber of the commentary, but why is it still surprising to some that NBC would focus on athletes from this country? How many of these carpers would really rather watch Kazakhstan battle Bulgaria in prime-time coverage of the women's weightlifting competition? (But you in fact could do that earlier in the day Tuesday on MSNBC. So there.)

***NBC's Olympics coverage isn't perfect. Far from it. Nor is it as all-encompassing "horrible" as its non-stop detractors proclaim. So far the network is doing more than just fine in the ratings with its decision to withhold some of the more popular events from TV screens in order to serve a prime-time audience. That decision will continue to fuel #NBCFail until the (TAPED!!!) Closing Ceremonies finally bring an end to it all on Sunday, August 12th.

Take it from Lizabeth S. Tucker, who as of this writing has a whopping 200 followers but has tweeted 22,955 times. Her latest: "Since @NBC has decided to ignore the people who help keep them on the air, I guess my #NBCFail rants are useless. Like the network, I guess."

Believe what you will. Because this sure as hell is still a free country.