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Showtime scores with Episodes, struggles with Shameless

Flush with increasing critical respect and an armload of Golden Globe nominations for the likes of The Big C and Dexter, Showtime starts the new year off right -- and very possibly wrong -- with a pair of new series fronted by old familiars. Their due dates are Sunday, Jan. 9th.

Matt LeBlanc of Friends fame plays himself in Episodes. Thankfully he also follows the scripts, meaning that this decidedly is not yet another voyeuristic "reality" series tour through a celebrity's concocted ups and downs.

Shameless, off-putting premise included, stars William H. Macy as a decrepit, alcoholic father of six. His offspring are mostly left to their own devices while Macy's Frank Gallagher spends most of his time at home in drunk, horizontal snores on whatever floor he passes out on.

Let's look 'em over.

Matt LeBlanc with Brits Stephen Mangan,Tamsin Greig. Showtime photos

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 9th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Matt LeBlanc, Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig, John Pankow, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Mircea Monroe
Produced by: David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik

"For the erudite, verbally dextrous headmaster of an elite boys academy, you're suggesting -- Joey?"

This particular line doesn't sail forth until early in Episode 2 of Showtime's seven-part Episodes. But it's the bottom line gist of this very amusing and splendidly acted comedy about what happens when an American television network mucks up a long-running, award-laden British hit.

Matt LeBlanc, in his first TV series since Friends and its failed spinoff Joey, turns out to be very up to the challenge of playing himself. But Episodes is by no means his show alone. It also draws upon the winning pair of Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, who play the co-opted, husband-and-wife British writing team of Sean and Beverly Lincoln.

Basking in the glow of more trophies for Lyman's Boys, they're approached at an after-party by an effusive U.S. television president named Merc Lapidus. (John Pankow). He wants their show for his network, and pledges that it won't get lost in translation. "I want what's in these amazing British-y heads," he enthuses.

It's all very seductive. Live in Beverly Hills for a short time in a rent-free mini-manse. Make more money than you've ever made in your life.

"My God, you're already starting to tan, aren't you?" Beverly tells Sean during their drive home on a rainy night.

So they have a go of it, with initial assurances that the show's lead role will go to the same portly, middle-aged British actor who has carried the overseas version. Reading for the part in front of Merc and his minions is a mere formality, the Lincolns are assured.

But the esteemed Julian Bullard (Richard Griffiths) sounds a "little too butler-y," says Merc, who in fact has never seen Lyman's Boys at all. How about using an American accent? Things start to go south from there, including the Southern accent that drifts in and out of Bullard's second reading.

LeBlanc is little-seen in the opening half-hour but gets rolling in Episode 2. He initially has no idea why he's been asked to have lunch with the Lincolns. Instead he's preoccupied with the planned expensive launch of a restaurant bearing his name. But Merc and the network fill him with visions of a big "money truck" awaiting his return to television. So why not? And at a subsequent party thrown by Merc, LeBlanc's already wondering whether he might play a coach instead of a headmaster. More specifically, how about a hockey coach? Ergo, the show soon has a new title -- Pucks! (with exclamation point included).

Episodes also is braced by standout work from Kathleen Rose Perkins as Merc's second-in-command, Carol Rance. She's become very adept at going and getting along with all of the Hollywood phonies and phoniness in her profession. LeBlanc connives and manipulates while also remaining a passably likable lug who off-handedly notes in Episode 3 that he has a super-sized private part.

"It's that big?" Beverly asks Sean after his late night return from an impromptu Vegas road trip with LeBlanc.

"It could attack a city," he says.

Episodes' co-creator and executive producer, David Crane, previously worked in that capacity on Friends. Both he and LeBlanc are now having a grand time biting some of the Hollywood hands that made them multi-millionaires. Whether the show goes on beyond its seven-episode order will be up to the resident phonies at Showtime. So far, though, all involved somehow are doing something very right.

GRADE: A-minus

William H. Macy as the ever-besotted patriarch of Shameless.

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum, Joan Cusack, Justin Chatwin, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan, Ethan Cutkosky, Emma Kenney, Steve Howey, Shanola Hampton, Laura Slade Wiggins
Produced by: John Wells, Paul Abbott, Andrew Stearn

This is going to be a very tough sell. Let alone a stark transition from the previous absurdity of Episodes.

Set in Chicago and adapted from a real-life British drama series, Shameless is the antithesis of escapist TV. Its nominal lead character, played by William H. Macy, is a seemingly irredeemable drunkard whose wife is long gone and whose six progeny are hard-pressed to make any ends meet. In the premiere episode, Macy's character, Frank Gallagher, spends nearly as much time horizontal as vertical. He'd be a pitiful figure if he weren't so contemptible.

The family's titular head, twentysomething Fiona (Emmy Rossum), copes and tends as best she can while also finding time to hit the clubs and hook up with a hunky and benevolent guy named Steve (Justin Chatwin). Their budding relationship, which takes an odd and rather discordant twist near hour's end, is the main reason to perhaps stick a bit with Shameless. Then again, many viewers might not want to be subjected to any of this. Life is tough enough, and trying to unwind with a show like this is akin to using a porcupine as a pillow.

Fiona, her younger sister and four brothers are crammed into a creature-comfortless house whose floors serve as Frank's mattresses.

Oldest brother Lip, short for Philip, is a physics whiz who currently enjoys tutoring a nubile neighboring teen blonde in return for under-the-table oral sex. The girl's clueless mother, Sheila, is played by the now well-worn Joan Cusack.

Lip's younger brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is gay and secretive about it until Lip finds some graphic men's magazines under his bed. Lip later discovers that Ian also is pleasuring himself with his employer at a nearby liquor store.

Ten-year-old Carl (Ethan Cutosky) isn't all that much a part of the opening episode, but Showtime publicity materials describe him as a "budding sociopath and arsonist." Toddler Liam is none the wiser to any of this. Youngest daughter Debbie (Emma Kenney) is helping to put food on the table by stealing from the UNICEF donations she's collected.

Any resemblances to the Waltons are obviously non-existent. Shameless instead is about as uplifting as rectal cancer, even though it's hard not to at least respect the gumption and resilience of Fiona. Rossum's performance in this role is all together pretty terrific.

Still, why feel any sympathy at all for Macy's Frank Gallagher? Fiona shows her frustration with him in a too brief scene. But on the other hand, she's also more than willing to drink and smoke pot with her old man, who by all odds should be hunted down by child social services before being thrown kicking and screaming into the clink. Instead he's sleeping another binge off on the kitchen floor in the premiere episode's closing image.

Shameless will sorely test any prospective viewers' compassion fatigue. My guess is that most will turn their backs. Or in my case, decide to pass on the second and third episodes that also were sent for review. Sometimes enough is enough.


FX's Lights Out gives TV its first standout look at the boxing game

Patrick "Lights" Leary delivers one straight to the kisser. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, January 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Holt McCallany, Catherine McCormack, Pablo Schreiber, Stacy Keach, Meredith Hagner, Ryann Shane, Lily Pilblad, Billy Brown, Bill Irwin
Produced by: Warren Leight, Justin Zackham, Phillip Noyce, Ross Fineman

There's no "yo" and no "Adrienne" in FX's Lights Out. But the network certainly isn't about to discourage any renewed visions of Rocky Balboa in this new drama series about a retired former heavyweight champ who, in boxing parlance, "wuz robbed" in his last fight.

It's an invigorating, involving and occasionally wobbly look at life in and out of the ring, with Holt McCallany in rock-sturdy and oftentimes smashing form as Patrick "Lights" Leary. He clearly looks the part of an ex-pug, although the show's producers have acknowledged this indisputable fact: White, American-born heavyweight champs -- outside of the fictional Rocky -- have been non-existent since the long gone days of Rocky Marciano.

Their defense is that they chose the best and most convincing actor for the lead role. And McCallany definitely provides evidence of that. He's tough, appealing, vulnerable and still smarting from a controversial split-decision five years earlier against a black opponent known as Richard "Death Row" Reynolds (Billy Brown).

Reynolds, as was Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed in the early Rocky movies, will be more than a bit player in Lights Out's 13-episode first season. Still, it would have been bracingly against the grain -- while at the same time reflecting current-day realities -- to put an African-American at center stage rather than on the periphery. The "Great White Hope" angle will never run dry, it seems.

Lights Out may be helped by the ongoing critical praise and solid box office receipts for The Fighter, which stars Mark Wahlberg as former real-life light welterweight champ "Irish" Micky Ward.

The Learys are Irish as well, with protagonist Patrick first seen flat on his back in a dressing room, his face bathed in blood while his wife, Theresa (Catherine McCormack), fights back tears. It's the aftermath of the title fight with "Death Row" Reynolds, which "Lights" seemingly had in the bag after the 11th round. But his cornermen, led by trainer/father, "Pops" Leary (Stacy Keach), urged him to hold back because of a nasty cut over his eye. A battered Reynolds thereby survived and was eventually judged the winner.

"I got robbed, Theresa," Lights tells her while she stitches up his cut.

"You could've died out there," she retorts. "I can't do this . . . I love you too much to watch you die. Either you stop -- or we stop."

So he stops. And five years later, Lights, Theresa and their three daughters continue to live in a well-appointed, New Jersey mini-mansion while she makes progress toward becoming a full-fledged doctor. He also owns a boxing gym in partnership with younger brother and business manager Johnny (Pablo Schreiber), whose loose grip on the purse strings turns out to be a sucker punch to the head.

"I'm broke, Dad," Lights tells Pops.


"I don't really know."

There's more bad news. Lights, who's nearing his 40th birthday, is increasingly forgetful. Chalk it up to "pugilistic dementia," his doctor tells him. The diagnosis: His brains could be scrambled eggs sooner, later or not at all.

The ex-champ takes throwaway jobs as a celebrity bingo caller and spokesman for the "Carpet King." By Episode 3, he's hawking his own memorabilia via a QVC-like network, including the gloves he wore during the Reynolds fight.

None of this adds up to much coin. But there are bigger paydays if a strapped Lights agrees to be the "muscle" for a shady "businessman" named Hal Brennan (Bill Irwin). He reluctantly signs on, and has immediate regrets.

This all inevitably builds toward a rematch with Reynolds that will mean a multi-million dollar purse for Lights while at the same time sending his marriage reeling. Still, Lights is a good-hearted lug throughout, doting on daughters Ava, Daniella and Katherine (Meredith Hagner, Ryann Shane, Lily Pilblad) while at the same time taking guff from the oldest of them.

Lights Out is in keeping with FX's male-centric motif while also standing out as the first weekly scripted drama series to take a hard look at the boxing world. The big-screen has taken a number of jabs at the sport, most notably with the Rocky movies, Raging Bull and currently, The Fighter. Keach also took a lauded turn in the ring as the aging boxer of 1972's Fat City, which preceded all of the above.

Now television finally has its own ring-bearer. Lights Out isn't always out and out stellar. It sometimes lapses into the abundant cliches of its genre. Pound for pound, though, you won't see many better dramas this season. Gloves on or off, it keeps scoring points.

GRADE: A-minus

Bob's Burgers is way short on comedy condiments

Bob has a problem in the premiere of Bob's Burgers. Fox photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 9th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Voiced by: H. Jon Benjamin, John Roberts, Eugene Mirman, Dan Mintz, Kristen Schaal
Produced by: Loren Bouchard, Jim Dauterive

The drawing is minimalist and the laughs are decidedly minimal in Fox's Bob's Burgers, latest addition to the network's Sunday night "Animation Domination" lineup.

"Your mom and I have to go downstairs and grind the meat," Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) tells his brood early in the Sunday, Jan. 9th premiere episode. Heh-heh, he said "grind the meat." Heh-heh.

Schlumpy daughter Tina (Dan Mintz) later assures a health inspector that this is "not a euphemism. They're really grinding the meat." You might have a better and funnier time, though, saying "ground chuck" 10 times in rapid succession. It's guaranteed to be smile-inducing.

Tina, if you've paid close attention to the above paragraph, is voiced by a man. As is Bob's beaten-down wife, Linda, for whom John Roberts does the honors.

Youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal) and only son Gene (Eugene Mirman) otherwise match up gender-wise in a dour half-hour that finds the big Labor Day weekend re- re- re-opening of Bob's Burgers jeopardized by rumors that its meat patties are made from human flesh. Little Louise spread this particular word during a classroom show-and-tell. These are the jokes, folks.

In roughly the same mode, Tina informs the family that "my crotch is itchy. I'm just not sure if I'll be any good on the grill with just one free hand."

We pause briefly to ruminate on how The Simpsons was branded "subversive" by some in its early years but now is a veritable Mickey Mouse cartoon in comparison to Sunday night running mates Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show and, urp, Bob's Burgers.

It gets worse for the Belchers when the health inspector, who remains madly in love with Linda, slaps a "Food May Contain Human Flesh" advisory on their already hard-pressed burger joint. Potential customers scream in horror and brandish signs ranging from "Who's The Beef?" to "Don't Taste Me Bro."

Meanwhile, Tina offers an update on her condition: "Now my rash smells like bacon. And it doesn't itch anymore."

My nuts are spicy, for that matter. Not that you'd care to include this as a running joke in a cartoon series. Bob's Burgers has no such reservations, though. The deadpan deliveries of its principal characters can be very moderately amusing at times. But in the end, you probably won't want fries with this one.

GRADE: C-minus

NBC's The Cape falls apart at the seams

Bad-nasty Chess intends to conquer The Cape. NBC photos

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 9th at 8 p.m. (central) with a two-hour "event" before a repeat of same on Monday. The series then moves to its regular Monday, 8 p.m. slot on Jan. 17th.
Starring: David Lyons, Jennifer Ferrin, Ryan Wynott, Summer Glau, James Frain, Keith David, Dorian Missick, Martin Klebba, Vinnie Jones
Produced by: Gail Berman, Lloyd Braun

Cartoonish while also straining to be taken very seriously, NBC's big ticket mid-season series needs both a sedative and a sense of direction.

The Cape, launching Sunday, Jan. 9th with a splashy two-hour "Event," is unfortunately supplanting The Event until its planned Feb. 28th return. The latter is notably superior, even if it's gotten a bit bogged down of late. The Cape, which swoops into its regular Monday 8 p.m. (central) slot on Jan. 17th, is a mash-up of overplayed villains and preposterous goings-on edited disjointedly into an overall slap-happy mess.

The setting is generic Palm City, a too sunny, generic blah of a burg that currently is bedeviled by a masked killer named Chess. A new police chief has been named to restore order but he's quickly dispatched by a thin silver tube of explosive L-9. Framed for the dirty deed is dedicated security cop Vince Faraday (David Lyons), a hometown boy and devoted father who clandestinely reads The Cape comic books with his son, Trip (Ryan Wynott), while wife/mom Dana (Jennifer Ferrin) thinks they're doing homework.

The resident mastermind of all things evil is billionaire Peter Fleming, whose Ark Corporation is intent on privatizing the Palm City police force en route to gaining total control. He also happens to be the masked Chess, and in both cases grossly over-acts. Faraday gets on his bad side after being tipped by a beauteous investigative blogger known as Orwell (Summer Glau from Fox's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). She puts him on the scent of a big L-9 shipment arriving via train and hidden within Pammy Pees dolls. It's dangerous when urine the know, as Faraday quickly discovers while at the mercy of Chess.

"You have one move left. Run," he sneers before our hero is chased down on live television and presumably blown to bits while his wife and kid watch. But Faraday instead drops beneath the city and is delivered unto The Carnival of Crime, a gang of circus acts specializing in costumed broad daylight bank heists. Meanwhile, their imperious ringleader, Max Malini (Keith David), declares, "I've broken 92 bones in search of the perfect illusion . . . You give me your soul, Vince Faraday, and I'll make you the greatest circus act that ever lived."

And so on.

In another ridiculous sequence, Faraday earlier watches his burial service from behind a tree, more or less hiding in plain sight while his grieving wife and son struggle to cope with their sudden loss. He won't rest, of course, until Chess is checkmated. And almost quicker than you can say cockamamie, Faraday has mastered the arts of wielding a cape like a weapon, disappearing in a cloud of smoke and escaping Houdini-like while encased in chains and sent to an underwater tomb by one of Chess's multiple henchmen. Sunday's two-hour premiere introduces both Scales, a disfigured WWE-like villain, and Cain, a pale-faced poisoner extraordinaire.

Eventually in league with Orwell, the resourceful but still overly impulsive Faraday is here, there and everywhere as The Cape. There's even a groaningly cliched scene with son Trip (Sarah Palin's reach apparently is never-ending), in which Dad perches topside in the guise of the kid's sainted comic book hero.

"I know the guilty. And I will not stop until they know justice," Trip is told. And by the way, Dad is innocent and keep up with your school work.

What's supposed to be a taut and many-splendored mythical yarn in league with Heroes instead registers as a topsy turvy laughable feast complete with chapter titles. The Cape just keeps on careening, to the point of absurdity and well beyond. But does it at least stop short of posing its hero atop a skyscraper for the premiere's closing image?

Sorry, that's asking way too much.

GRADE: C-minus

King and his court: Larry says "so long" with help from A-list celebrity gaggle

King with wife Shawn & kids Chance (left) & Cannon. Photos: Ed Bark

His last edition of CNN's Larry King Live provided ready-made news in itself Thursday night. But the host and one of his many big-name drop-in guests, former president Bill Clinton, combined for at least another mini-headline after King noted that "we're both in the zipper club."

Appearing live from Little Rock, Clinton at first guffawed and let it pass. But King, apparently cued off-camera, later explained he was referring to their recoveries from heart bypass surgeries and the leftover scars bisecting their chests.

"I'm glad you clarified that," Clinton said good-naturedly.

"I see what you mean," it finally dawned on King.

King's eight marriages (two to the same woman) and Clinton's White House philandering as president make any King-Clinton "zipper club" reference a double-edged sword. But hey, it added a little old spice to the sometimes goofy proceedings, during which King courtiers Bill Maher and Ryan Seacrest tried to guide him through a mix of surprise send-offs and a big group of guests in New York that King already knew about.

"This is not Larry's funeral . . . This is the end of a show, not the end of a man," Maher said before segueing to a brief appearance from lame duck California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Live from Sacramento, he proclaimed Thursday "Larry King Day" before Maher joked that the proposal had been stalled in the state legislature for two years.

Then came President Obama on tape, lauding the 77-year-old King as "one of the giants of broadcasting" while the anointed took a sip from his always present cuppa coffee.

The guests moved along at fast clips, with Regis Philbin, Donald Trump and Suze Orman next on the docket from a New York studio.

Philbin talked about how King knew just about every old song in the book. But his attempt to engage the host in a sing-along fell flat when King didn't know that particular song.

"We're dyin' here!" Philbin deduced.

Saturday Night Live's Fred Arnisen then showed up to impersonate King while clad in an identical closing night outfit -- black shirt, red suspenders and a red tie with over-sized white polka dots. This didn't go so well either, with a game but confused King at one point telling Arnisen's King, "It's an honor being inside of you." Hmm.

"Can the suspender industry survive the demise of Larry King Live?" Arnisen finally asked lamely.

King pledged to keep wearing them wherever he ends up.

The closing night conveyor belt next accommodated the quartet of Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Brian Williams, all live from New York.

Couric read King a poem and Sawyer told him, "We are your proteges, your groupies, your Pips." You can't make this stuff up.

Seacrest read a congratulatory letter from the Rev. Billy Graham and Dr. Phil McGraw joined the group before Maher noted that today's burgeoning crop of TV talkers is despoiled by "too many windbags and douche bags. This man was never windy or douche-y." Instead King was in the same league as Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite, said Maher.

After a commercial break, King's wife, Shawn, and their two sons, Chance and Cannon, materialized alongside him. Larry and Shawn simultaneously filed for divorce in mid-April, but for now are back together again. At King's insistence, Cannon even did a pretty fair impression of him while everyone laughed it up. Tony Bennett then performed "The Best Is Yet To Come" for the host while onstage at a gig in Louisiana.

King spent his show's last seconds alone at his desk, his voice quavering but not quite cracking.

"You're not gonna see me go away," he promised. "But you're not gonna see me here on this set anymore."

His last words: "Instead of 'goodbye,' how about 'so long.' "

Larry King Live premiered on June 3, 1985 -- well before the launches of Fox News Channel and MSNBC. He exited under his own power, but not really by choice. CNN called it a day for him in times when his once dominant program is being beaten in the 8 p.m. (central) ratings by both FNC's Hannity and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show. Both of those hosts flaunt their respective right and left political views while King got caught in the middle as a guy who asked his questions in as few words as possible and didn't mind listening to the answers.

As King put it in a summer 2007 interview with your friendly content provider, "The best way to judge an interviewer is how often does he or she say 'I?' If they say 'I' a lot, they're not an interviewer. They're interested in themselves. I don't use the word 'I.' I never have all these years."

In today's TV, the "I's" have it. And King doesn't anymore. He pledges to resurface with occasional CNN specials and some "radio work." He also plans to "be around baseball," the sport he's always put first. And oh yeah, more time with the family.

Whatever his future venues, they almost assuredly won't be as visible. The King isn't dead yet, but his heyday is. It happens to just about everyone. How you handle it is what sets you apart.

Over and out: "Instead of 'goodbye,' how about 'so long.' "

Showtime outdraws HBO in Golden Globes TV series nominations

Julia Stiles, Laura Linney of Dexter and The Big C. Showtime photos

Long overshadowed by premium cable's big daddy, Showtime shed its weak sister status Tuesday by scoring twice as many Golden Globes nominations for its series programming than HBO.

Showtime's haul of eight nods, led by three for Dexter, outshone HBO's four nominations, three of them for Boardwalk Empire.

HBO still outscored Showtime overall, playing to its traditional movies and miniseries strengths with an additional eight nominations in those categories while Showtime got shut out. Still, it was a punch to the pride of HBO, which had viewed Showtime as an afterthought until recent years.

AMC likewise came up big in the latest Globe announcements, also whipping HBO in the series categories with five nominations. Its Mad Men and The Walking Dead snared two of the five best drama series nods, with Dexter, Boardwalk Empire and CBS' The Good Wife also joining that field.

The Globes added an extra contender in the best comedy series competition, where Showtime's The Big C and Nurse Jackie will go against ABC's Modern Family, Fox's Glee, CBS' The Big Bang Theory and NBC's perennial 30 Rock.

Showtime had three of the five nominees in the best lead actress in a comedy or musical category. Laura Linney and Edie Falco, the respective stars of The Big C and Nurse Jackie, are joined by Toni Collette of Showtime's United States of Tara, Lea Michele of Glee and Tina Fey of 30 Rock.

Dexter also received acting nominations for Michael C. Hall's title character and Julia Stiles in a supporting role this season as a near-dead victim of serial killers who then teamed with Dexter to hunt down her torturers.

HBO has three of the five finalists in the best miniseries or made-for-TV movie category, with The Pacific, Temple Grandin and You Don't Know Jack. Claire Danes and Al Pacino also were nominated for their starring roles in the latter two films, but The Pacific was shut out of any acting nominations.

The 68th annual Globes, presented by the smallish Hollywood Foreign Press Association, will be telecast Sunday, Jan. 16th on NBC, with Ricky Gervais returning as host.

Here is the complete list of nominations, for both TV and feature films.

HBO's Lombardi is both overdue and missing at least two essentials

Carry on, boys. Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers. HBO photo

"The Pope of Green Bay" -- or "Saint Vinny" as some of us native Wisconsinites prefer to call him -- at last steps up further in class as the latest centerpiece in HBO's already Emmy-laden series of sports documentaries.

What took so long?

The 90-minute Lombardi, premiering Saturday, Dec. 11th at 7 p.m. central, is by no means a substitute for arguably the best sports biography ever. That would be David Maraniss' When Pride Still Mattered, first published in 1999. He's included among the documentary's fresh set of interviewees, but Maraniss' written words carry far more power.

Vince Lombardi, who died of cancer 40 years ago at age 57, also is the subject of a new Broadway play and will be played by Robert De Niro in an upcoming ESPN movie. So the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, after whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, is all of a sudden a hot commodity as both a leader of men and an unbending throwback.

HBO's treatment is compelling while also being curiously deficient. Lombardi's two star running backs -- Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung -- were the prime movers of his famed "Power Sweep." Vintage game footage of both players is included. But Taylor is never even mentioned by name while Hornung, anointed Lombardi's "Golden Boy," only gets named in passing. Neither of the surviving players is interviewed. That's like doing a documentary on Tom Landry without identifying or talking to Roger Staubach.

Lombardi is well-served, however, with interviews of its subject's two children, Vincent Jr. and Susan. Crusty, chubby and gravel-voiced, his daughter is her own highlight reel. And Vincent speaks candidly and movingly about the trials of being the same-named son of a demanding and oft-distant father whose obsession with coaching helped turn his devoted wife, Marie, into a home alone alcoholic on weekdays.

"God forbid she miss a football game," Susan says of her mother. "She never missed one. Not one."

The Packers were stinko when Lombardi arrived in Green Bay for the 1959 season. They had gone 1-10-1 in the previous season despite a nucleus of players that included future Hall of Famers Taylor, Hornung, quarterback Bart Starr, linebacker Ray Nitschke and center Jim Ringo.

Starr remembers Lombardi's first team meeting, in which he told the players, "Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection" even though it's ever elusive. He was immediately sold, Starr said. And the Packers went 7-5 in Lombardi's first year as coach, the storied team's first winning season since 1947. Two years later they won their first of five NFL championships under Lombardi, who coached through the 1967 season. The first two Super Bowls also were dominated by Lombardi's Packers against the American Football League's Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.

Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor are largely left out of Lombardi.

The two games leading up to Super Bowls I and II were hard-fought, last-play-of-the-game wins against the Dallas Cowboys.

Your friendly content provider was on leave from the Marines when the indelible 1967 "Ice Bowl" game was played in Green Bay. I remember walking a few blocks to a friend's house in Madison, Wisconsin. The cold and the winds were unbearable. And all these years later, it's still hard to believe they played such a stirring game under nigh impossible conditions, with Green Bay winning 21-17 on a quarterback sneak by Starr with 13 seconds remaining.

Lombardi of course includes footage from that classic encounter. Almost as evocative, though, are color home movies from the weekly post-game Sunday night parties at the Lombardi home. At last the tightly wound coach could unwind, laughing boisterously amid the clanking of hard liquor drinks and mushroom clouds of cigarette smoke. But by Monday he was back into the grind, cajoling, yelling and bestowing head pats whenever a player got too down on himself.

"It's a game for mad men, and I'm the biggest mad man of them all," a chuckling Lombardi says in audio comments sprinkled throughout the documentary.

He was a man's man and a player's coach. And Lombardi makes it clear that the color of a man's skin was irrelevant to him, as long as you could perform on the field. Black defensive lineman Lionel Aldridge was worried that the NFL would drum him out of the league if he followed through on his plans to marry a white woman. But Lombardi supported him unwaveringly, Aldridge's widow recalls, even standing up to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who fretted about the league's image.

Old before his time and in increasingly poor health, Lombardi had one more memorable season after leaving Green Bay. He coached the 1969 Washington Redskins to a 7-5 record, the team's first winning season since 1955. But on the eve of the 1970 season, Lombardi died of cancer.

His feisty daughter, Susan, finally gives in to her emotions, sobbing as she remembers Dad squeezing her hand for the last time. Former New York Giants star Frank Gifford and Lombardi's brother, Harold, also choke up.

The Packers again are contending for a playoff spot this season. And outside Lambeau Field, a commemorative statue of Lombardi still seems to tower over the history-rich playing field.

"He was amazing. He really was amazing," Harold Lombardi says.

Flaws and all, he truly was. Now HBO needs to get busy on that Tom Landry documentary. And be sure to interview Roger Staubach.


TNT's Men of a Certain Age again winningly serves up a triple shot of angst -- but not a lotta whining

Romano, Braugher and Bakula try to walk the walk. TNT photo

TNT's best ever drama series -- the show that defies all conventional wisdom about what should work on TV -- finds its way to Season 2 Monday night.

Amazingly, Men of a Certain Age (9 p.m. central) has nothing to do with fatalities, legalities or life-saving medical procedures. Its three middle-aged central characters -- Joe Tranelli, Owen Thoreau Jr. and Terry Elliott -- respectively are a party store owner, a car dealership manager and a fading actor turned car salesman. Not a lot of made-for-TV jeopardy there in times when all 12 of CBS' drama series are either crime- or courtroom-related.

Created by Ray Romano and Mike Royce, Certain Age makes for a fine mess of male angst. But no one's in a fetal position just yet. The midlife struggles of Mike (Romano), Owen (Andre Braugher) and Terry (Scott Bakula) are relatable without ever being overbearing. A little whining is permissible but only in short bursts. These aren't pathetic sad sacks. But yeah, they do have issues.

Mike, a newly divorced father of two, has curbed his enthusiasm for sports gambling and hopes to join the senior pro golf tour. In real life, Romano is an avid swinger/putter, so he looks pretty good with a club. His Joe's Party Depot is of increasingly less interest to him.

Owen, married with two young sons, is striving to be an effective bossman at the dealership his domineering dad (Richard Gant as Owen Sr.) built from the ground up. His newest employee is Terry, who still finds it relatively easy to get laid. Meanwhile, his acting career has fallen down and can't get up.

The three of them otherwise go on weekly hikes and hang out not at a bar, but at Norm's diner. This allows for ample banter and grousing, with Joe newly embarrassed by the reading glasses he needs to decipher the menu.

Terry is chided about his "bang-zoom" sex life, but protests that "I don't bang-zoom." Joe's re-entry into the dating world and its attendant bedrooms is aided by a chance meeting in Monday's Season 2 opener. Owen and his wife, Melissa (Lisa Gay Hamilton), remain happily if sometimes fitfully married. She wants to re-enter the work force; he doesn't know if it's time yet.

The touch remains light, but never farcical, throughout the new season's first two episodes. Bakula's Terry initially resonates a bit more than his mates, particularly in a second episode that has him enduring dealership slings and arrows from a ridiculous old commercial that lately has gone viral on youtube.

TNT is owned by Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., which also runs TBS. And it's clear there's a product placement deal in place with Chevrolet. Twenty new Chevy Cruzes currently are part of a contest giveaway on TBS' Conan. And a Cruze also has a bit part in Monday's episode of Certain Age.

Romano, whom virtually everyone knows from Everybody Loves Raymond, has succeeded in fashioning quite a second act for himself. Not that his increasingly sturdy dramatic acting is any threat to the likes of Sean Penn or Johnny Depp.

Still, the ways in which Certain Age charms and disarms are a major accomplishment in the current prime-time scheme of things. Weekly tales of three life-challenged middle-aged men would be laughed out of the programming suites at CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox. What's the hook, how 'bout the crooks, whose life is threatened, who's being two-timed, where's the heat? In short, how the hell do we sell this thing?

Romano and TNT have found a way, drawing a robust-for-cable average of 4.2 million viewers per episode for Certain Age's first season. All of TNT's seven other first-run dramas are about cops, docs or freelance vigilantes. The lone exception remains exceptional.

GRADE: A-minus

It's "Bingle" all the way in new collection of Crosby Christmas specials

Just five weeks before his Oct. 14, 1977 death, a crooning, cardigan-sweatered ghost of TV Christmas specials past performed a well-worn carol with an androgynous, cutting-edge rock star who was 44 years his junior.

Bing Crosby and David Bowie doing "The Little Drummer Boy" still seems slightly more incongruous than Santa Claus performing "O Holy Night" with Twisted Sister. Or Perry Como combining forces with Ozzy Osbourne on "Ave Maria."

But they somehow got through it, and the end result is a small but obviously essential part of the new Bing Crosby: Volume Two -- The Christmas Specials. The two-disc set, which is somewhat misnamed, retails for $29.98 but can easily be found at discounted prices.

All in all, is it worth giving or receiving it? Well, first of all, it's fairly important to have actually heard of Bing Crosby. So that might deal out about half the population at this point. Otherwise I'd give this collection a marginal yes, but not because of the Bing-Bowie interlude on an otherwise almost unbearable Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas (which originally aired 47 days after his death on Nov. 30, 1977).

The real treat here is the half-hour Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank, first telecast on Dec. 20, 1957. This was Sinatra's show, but Bing was his only guest. And according to an accompanying mini-booklet, their collaboration was shown in black-and-white but also filmed in color for a planned theatrical release. That never happened, but the rich color version was unearthed decades later and is part of this collection.

Frank starts it off by taking a stab at trimming a tinsel-choked Christmas tree, dropping an ornament in the process. He also sings "Mistletoe and Holly" before welcoming Bing to his made-for-TV bachelor pad for a "little toddy for the body" and exchange of gifts.

The banter is fairly minimal, though. Frank and Bing mostly sing, both with carolers and in duets and solos. Crosby became very proprietary with his show-closing holiday anthem, "White Christmas." So it's always him alone at first, with others then allowed to join in. Frank gets his cue via Bing's "Well, don't just stand there." They're terrific together before Frank serves up another drink. Then the two of them sit down for dinner, with a white-jacketed waiter wheeling in a golden brown turkey as the final credits roll. It's pure show biz hokum, but both legends are still at the tops of their games during this convivial and very watchable feast of songs and trimmings.

Also included is a quartet of one-hour Crosby Christmas specials, which in those days had actual running times of over 50 minutes. Subtract 10 minutes from that total in today's commercial-infested times.

Crosby's first official holiday outing hit prime-time on Dec. 11, 1961, in black-and-white from England. But only its original air date is Christmas-y. In fact there are no seasonal songs at all until Bing's climactic "White Christmas." His guests otherwise are a collection of British personalities, plus a "surprise" appearance by Bob Hope as Bingle's "Aunt Matilda."

One of the Brits, Ron Moody, also shows up on Crosby's final Merrie Olde Christmas, a positively creaky hour plagued by too little music and way too much lame exposition and comedy.

Crosby was a gaunt 74 at that point, and for several years had included second wife Kathryn Grant and their kids, Harry, Nathaniel and Mary Frances (who went on to shoot J.R. Ewing on Dallas) on his annual Christmas special guest list. Twiggy chimes in, too, at one point playing Tiny Tim. And Bowie also has a self-standing and primitive-looking music video in which he sings his then newly recorded "Heroes."

Bowie does not participate in the big end-of-the show Christmas medley. Perhaps he'd had quite enough at that point. Bing then walks off to sing "White Christmas" by his lonesome -- for what turned out to be the last time. So it's quite poignant in that respect -- and you might want to fast-forward to get there. This would spare you the joke about the "creamed pheasant, country style" cooking on the stove.

"And you serve it stewed?" Kathryn asks the veddy English cook, played in drag by veteran British character actor Stanley Baxter.

"Oh, you got to," she/he replies. "It tastes dreadful if you're stone cold sober."

Only one of the included four specials, 1971's Bing Crosby and the Sounds of Christmas, has a full wall-to-wall holiday motif. Besides his wife and kids, Bing welcomes Robert Goulet, opera star Mary Costa (who's quite good) and The Mitchell Singing Boys choir.

Goulet is a classic over-singer, but pretty much keeps a lid on it here. The thoroughly leisurely pace allows a seeming eternity for a musical interpretation of O. Henry's "The Cop and the Anthem" story. Bing is down-and-out in a designer bum's outfit, longing to spend a night in jail on a bitter cold Christmas Eve. Goulet plays several parts, and the overall result is kinda sorta affecting.

Meanwhile, the Crosby kids play a little intendedly discordant holiday music on pots, pans and glasses while Dad grimaces and impersonates Jack Benny's famed chin-in-hand deadpan. Later, Harry plays acoustic guitar while Bing sings "The Christmas Song." He gets an affectionate head pat at song's end before Bing pretends that Harry's hair is full of greasy kid's stuff.

The fourth special, The Big Crosby Show for Clairol, originally aired on Christmas Eve, 1962, with guests Mary Martin and Andre Previn. It's his first full-color outing but oddly omits Christmas music until the closing segment.

Martin, mother of Larry "J.R." Hagman, otherwise gets more than ample time to display her considerable talents. So if you've heard of her --- and like her -- this is quite a showcase. There's also a bizarre "Doin' the Bing" production number in which Crosby and a gaggle of dancers cavort while seated in light orange swivel chairs. Perhaps Bing was smokin' something other than tobacco in that trademark pipe of his.

One more thing. Crosby should be credited with being somewhat ahead of his time in terms of making Christmas an inclusive experience. The Christmas medley portion on the Clairol hour features an appearance by the United Nations Children's Choir, a multi-ethnic ensemble brought in to help illustrate a Crosby-Martin song about how the Christ child is perceived in many different colors worldwide.

"White Christmas" again serves as Crosby's inimitable closer. This collection has six different renditions of a song that knows but one color. And more than 33 years after its crooner's death, there are still no good reasons to accept any substitutes.

GRADE: B-minus

Babs back in prime-time spotlight with back-to-back specials

TV's reigning First Ladies: Babs and Oprah. ABC photo

Barbara Walters and ABC's prime-time domain aren't quite done with one another.

She's given up her yearly pre-Oscar specials, but hasn't yet relinquished her clout when it comes to big-time hobnobbing. So here comes ABC's "One Night, One Big Event" -- namely back-to-back Dec. 9th Babs specials in which she first spends an hour with Oprah Winfrey and then presents her 18th "10 Most Fascinating People" of the year extravaganza.

A Barbara Walters Special: Oprah, the Next Chapter will be the first of innumerable salutes to the daytime TV queen. ABC promises a revealing interview, an "exclusive preview" of Winfrey's new OWN cable network (which launches in January) and "the most memorable moments" from Winfrey's groundbreaking talk show, which is ending its 25-year run next year. In other words, Tom Cruise will be seen jumping up and down on her couch again.

Then comes those fassssssssss-inating people, with ABC and Walters as usual keeping No. 1 a secret. Otherwise making the cut are Betty White, Kate Middleton, LeBron James, Justin Bieber, Sarah Palin, Jennifer Lopez, Sandra Bullock and the cast of Jersey Shore. OK, that's only eight, so maybe they're still firming things up. Or perhaps Snooki and "The Situation" count for two, even if their collective IQs may not amount to much more than an igloo's room temperature.

ABC notes that Palin is the first and only person to be fascinating for three consecutive years. Among other things, she tells Walters, "There's also rumors that Trig isn't my son. There's also rumors that Track went to Iraq to avoid jail. There is a lot of BS out there. I don't want to just believe that it comes with the territory, when you put yourself forward, in the name of public service, that you have to take that kind of garbage that's out there."

Please stop putting yourself out there, then.

***ABC also has announced a premiere date for Dana Delany's Body of Proof series, which originally had been given a Friday night berth on the network's fall schedule. Better late than never, although a March 29th premiere date is a long time in coming. Delany plays a self-centered neurosurgeon who becomes a female Quincy after suffering serious injuries in a car accident. Perhaps ABC views the show itself as a train wreck?

***ABC's new winter blunderland version of Wipeout likewise has a launch date. It's on Thursday, Jan. 6th in the 7 p.m. (central) slot once occupied by the very short-lived and made-in-Austin My Generation.

The network warns viewers to "expect an avalanche of laughs as (contestants) take on a spinning ski lift, try to outrun polar bears and avoid hockey pucks to the head -- all in a completely new winter Wipeout Zone and amid a snowy blizzard."

Given the confounding popularity of the summertime version, it definitely has more than a snowball's chance in hell of working.