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New series review: The Sarah Silverman Program (Comedy Central)

An unsettling apprehension creeps in and quickly claims squatter's rights: Anyone who watches The Sarah Silverman Program surely is going straight to hell.

It's way too late for this reviewer, who's already both laughed and cringed his way through the first two episodes of Comedy Central's diciest effort ever. Even South Park must bow to the sheer audacity and bad taste of a show whose heroine beds the very amorous "Black God" and then dumps him in Thursday's first episode (9:30 p.m. central, 10:30 eastern).

Just to be clear, we're not talking euphemistically here. This really is an all-powerful Supreme Being from on high who had a "really, really good time" with Sarah and wants to take her on a second date to heaven, where he'll introduce her to Thomas Jefferson. Her disinterested response: "All right, so I guess I'll see you around some time."

It won't get any tamer in next Thursday's second episode, which bitch-slaps viewers with this opening ditty from the comedian also known as Jimmy Kimmel's girlfriend: "I always wake up with the morning sun. I always take my pills with herbal tea. I always never cry and I've always wondered why I always have to watch myself when I go pee. I really love my life and I'll also tell you what. If I find a stick I'll put it in your momma's butt. And pull it out and stick the doody in her eye."

That pretty much covers the landscape of a show that just doesn't give a damn whom, what or when it offends. There's value in that and box office multi-millions in Borat. But Silverman is no Sacha Baron Cohen when it comes to turning outrageousness into mega-belly laughs. She shoots and scores, but only about 20 percent of the time.

Otherwise her comedy clangs and bangs away, with a seemingly brilliant mind lurking beneath bits that should be beneath her. These include a merry farting contest at a diner between gay friends Brian and Steve (Brian Posehn, Steve Agee). Sarah gamely joins in but instead ends up singing, "I just tried to be like the others but I pooped instead." Not exactly a gas.

Sarah's character, named Sarah Silverman, is an intensely self-absorbed, jobless slacker who sponges off her nurse sister Laura (real-life sibling Laura Silverman). Thursday's opener more or less is built around the title character's attempt to buy batteries for her TV's remote control. Unfortunately for her, the entrance to Fan-Tasti-Mart is being blocked by a wheelchair race and two wisecracking cops. (Look for Masi Oka, now a hot star on Heroes, in a brief role as the convenience store clerk.)

Black God eventually gives battery-thieving Sarah a reprieve, turning the two cops into boxes of Bugles. She quickly snacks on them, which is funny. Then it's time to hit the sack with the Creator in a sequence that just might lead to no small number of thundering pulpits this Sunday. Silverman clearly could give a crap.

The second episode finds Sarah with a cold and sister Laura again providing the scratch she needs to buy some cough syrup. She happily slugs down some industrial strength, nighttime-only stuff, sending her on an inventively funny hallucinatory trip to outer space in which she meets a friendly orange Loch Ness monster.

Soon, though, we're back to fart and vagina humor. Sarah also messes up Laura's budding romance with Officer Jay (Jay Johnston). She can't stand it that her sister is going to dinner with him on a night when they always watch Cookie Party! together on TV.

Through it all, Silverman is thoroughly unafraid to make an ass of herself, both as the character she plays and the material she purveys. There's no other comic like her, which in a way is a good thing. Still, she's got balls as well as the vagina to which she regularly refers. And sometimes that's a winning combination.

Grade: B-minus

"From zeros to Heroes:" Sudden success beats the alternative

Hayden Panettiere of Heroes: A little makeup can work wonders.

PASADENA, Calif. -- Hayden Panettiere, all of 17, has been in show business almost since conception.

"Eight months old I started in this nuts business," she says, referring to her first screen appearance in a Playskool commercial.

Fellow Heroes star Masi Oka, a comparatively grizzled 32, also knew the spotlight at an early age. As a 12-year-old, he appeared on a 1987 Time magazine cover titled "Those Asian-American Whiz Kids."

Still, both were far more anonymous than not until NBC's Heroes became a breakout hit this season. Panettiere's seemingly indestructible Claire Bennet ("Save the cheerleader, save the world") and Oka's time-shifting Hiro Nakamura since have catapulted both actors to full frontal fame.

Oka already will be doing a sendup of his Heroes character on Monday's (Jan. 29) episode of NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. On the same night he'll be sharing scenes on a new Heroes episode with Star Trek's George Takei, who is playing Hiro's father.

"I kind of wish it was gradual, so I had a chance to like acclimate myself," Oka says at a recent NBC party. "I've come from a zero to all of a sudden a hero in many ways."

Sarah Paulson and Masi Oka on the Jan. 29 episode of Studio 60

Until Heroes, Panettiere's most visible TV role was leukemia victim Lizzie Spaulding on The Guiding Light. Much earlier, as a four-and-a-half-year-old, she played Sarah Victoria "Flash" Roberts on another daytime soaper, One Life to Live.

A small role in 2000's Remember the Titans brought her a bit of recognition, but Heroes is "the deciding factor that really got me over that hump, which often you catch yourself on."

She says this while surrounded two dozen or so TV critics after a crowded interview session packed with 10 Heroes stars and producer/creator Tim Kring.

"It's a new sort of thing," Panettiere says of the fame Heroes has wrought. "You know things are happening when you walk out of your apartment and there are two cars full of paparazzi who had followed me home. It was sort of a scary feeling . . . I didn't know whether to be completely flattered or kind of nervous about it. Then another person actually followed me all the way to work and started running red lights. I was calling my parents and going, "Oh my God!' "

She hasn't hired a bodyguard and doesn't want to go that route. "When you have them, it's almost like people want to get to you more. They fight harder and it becomes really dangerous. As opposed to if you just give yourself to the public. Then it's almost like they become your protection.

"It's not like I go wandering down dark alleys at night by myself. I usually have friends with me, and people are usually very courteous. Hopefully nobody really thinks I'm invincible and tries to do something rash."

Pre-Heroes, Oka had been kicking around in lesser fare such as One Sung Hero, God Wears My Underwear and House of the Dead II: Dead Aim. No one of any import ever praised him for this work. But at the Jan. 15 Golden Globes ceremony, "suddenly I was in the same room with all of this amazing talent. Tom Hanks came up to us and said, 'We love your show.' And Steven Spielberg, too. That's surreal."

He does miss being left alone in restaurants.

"I go out to eat by myself a lot, so I can collect my thoughts and read scripts and things. It's like my moment of zen and peace," Oka says. "But now I can't do that. People come up to you. Sometimes they'll just sit right down across from you and ask, 'Can I eat with you?' "

At least no one's asked him to time-shift yet. And Oka figures it's better to have "passionate fans" than rampant disinterest. He's still a nobody in his homeland, though, where Heroes isn't yet on home screens.

"I can still be anonymous in Japan," he says. "Which is the irony of it all."

Oscar's TV past: Will SNL finally break through?

The TV set: Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Will Smith.

Many an Oscar winner made his or her first big mark on the lowly small screen.

To name a few: Sally Field (Gidget/The Flying Nun), Clint Eastwood (Rawhide), Helen Hunt (Mad About You), Denzel Washington (St. Elsewhere), Robin Williams (Mork & Mindy), Tom Hanks (Bosom Buddies), Jamie Foxx (The Jamie Foxx Show), George Clooney (ER).

The newest nominees again include previous winner Eastwood, this time as best director for Letters from Iwo Jima. Otherwise the acting categories are strongly represented with TV expatriates looking for their first Oscars.

Leonardo DiCaprio only peripherally counts. Nominated as best actor for Blood Diamond, he logged 23 episodes in the recurring role of Luke Brower during the closing two seasons of ABC's Growing Pains. That show didn't make him a star. But it did give him a li'l leg up in Hollywoodland.

Of more interest is Eddie Murphy, who has to be the early favorite in the best supporting actor category for his showy role in Dreamgirls. He's the fifth Saturday Night Live regular to be nominated, but would be the first to win. The others are Joan Cusack (Working Girl), Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy), Robert Downey, Jr. (Chaplin) and most recently, Bill Murray (Lost in Translation).

Will Smith, who starred for six seasons on NBC's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, seems like a longshot to win for The Pursuit of Happyness. But the other two TV personages have solid chances to make acceptance speeches.

American Idol semi-finalist Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) would be a surprise non-winner in the supporting actress slot. Not that Idol needs any more publicity, but a Hudson victory would further solidify the show as a starmaking ratings Goliath.

In the best actress category, Helen Mirren first hit it big on these shores as Det. Supt. Jane Tennison in a series of seven PBS Prime Suspect movies, the first in 1991. She looks like a lock for her title role performance in The Queen.

There's also Sacha Baron Cohen, who has a best adapted screenplay nomination for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. HBO first put him on the map with Da Ali G Show. But Cohen's recent testicles/anus acceptance speech at the Golden Globes may have put Academy voters off their feed.

If not, it could be a very long night for the seven-second delay button. After all, Cohen hasn't even touched on the female anatomy yet.

New series review: Armed & Famous (CBS)

Back in uniform: a paunchier "Ponch" cops to a new reality show.

Premiering: Wednesday night, Jan. 10th (7 central, 8 eastern) on CBS
Starring: Erik Estrada, La Toya Jackson, Jack Osbourne, Trish Stratus, Jason "Wee-Man" Acuna
Produced by: Tom Forman

No C-list celebrities were unduly harmed during shooting of the new CBS reality series Armed & Famous.

Darn the luck. And make that D-list.

Seriously, though, there oughta be a law against making cops of Erik Estrada, La Toya Jackson, Jack Osbourne, former wrestler Trish Stratus and skateboarder Jason "Wee-Man" Acuna. All that's required of them is minimal made-for-TV training by the oughta-know-better Muncie, Ind. police department. But away we go anyway, with this desperate-for-exposure quintet grandly arriving in a limousine escorted by a caravan of marked cars.

"Who are these brave new recruits?" asks an announcer who sounds like a cross between Dragnet's late Jack Webb and the voice of God from an old Biblical epic. We then learn that one of them, La Toya, has long yearned to both work at a McDonald's and be a police officer. Oh the things they expect us to swallow.

Their training ground is a "world away from Hollywood," viewers are told. This is illustrated with video of an actual squirrel eating an actual nut. Man, they might as well be in Siberia.

Armed & Famous spends about half of Wednesday's first episode on what's billed as a rigorous training regimen. This affords Estrada a chance to loudly pass gas during a hand-to-hand combat session. Enormously amused is "Wee-Man" Acuna of Jackass fame.

"Ponch just farted," he giggles, referring to Estrada's old make-believe cop on CHiPs. The five of them then go to a laundromat, where La Toya can't quite master the dollar bill changer. She is, however, allowed to carry a firearm.

Back in training, all five recruits are required to sustain a jolt from a stun gun. Estrada sums up the experience beautifully: "Ya know, one of my testicles has enlarged from getting zapped by a Taser."

We pause briefly to remind you that Armed & Famous actually is airing on CBS, not Spike TV. You know, "The Tiffany Network."

Burly Sgt. Rick Eber says he won't tolerate any messing around by his recruits. This doesn't deter "Wee-Man" from loudly partying with a bunch of ecstatic young Muncie-ites who seem pathetically thrilled to be in his vicinity. Wow, what would happen if Joe Piscopo ever blew through Muncie? Pandemonium, that's what. Or at least that's the impression created.

Quick as a lick, the five get their badges and guns at a public ceremony attended by a cheering throng of cops and townies. Taskmaster Eber is suddenly fuzzy-wuzzy: "You guys have far exceeded anything I thought you were capable of doing."

Imagine how very, very low his expectations must have been. But La Toya's got the power, and baby, it sure beats another failed CD.

"We're going to be out there on the streets fighting for our lives and other people's," she marvels.

Each of them gets a partner, just like in Adam 12. Estrada and a comely blonde officer quickly arrest a toothless, elderly woman after a SWAT raid on her alleged drug den.

"This is the wrong way to have to meet you, Ponch," she giggles while being squeezed into a squad car. "I wouldn't miss one movie (sic) on that show."

La Toya later braves a less than five-star eatery during a dinner break with her partner.

"You're not going to find many places with tablecloths here," she says of Muncie before asking for some cover and a finger bowl, too.

The show's announcer further sets the table by intoning, "Midnight on the streets of Muncie. Crime doesn't sleep, and neither do our celebrity cops."

And so it goes, with the heartland portrayed as Hooterville on a show that might be a hoot if it weren't such a sorry sham. After a "special" Thursday episode, Armed & Famous will air weekly on Wednesdays unless someone at CBS somehow has the good sense makes a house arrest.

Otherwise it's "Holy moley, La Toya Jackson and guns!" in the words of Wee-Man Acuna.

Grade: D

New series reviews: The Knights of Prosperity and In Case of Emergency (ABC)

Dolts, Incorporated: Donal Logue and David Arquette keep screwing up in ABC's The Knights of Prosperity and In Case of Emergency. The comedies debut Wednesday at 8 and 8:30 p.m. (central time).

It's going to be loser night on ABC -- ratings-wise and otherwise.

The network's two newest comedies, The Knights of Prosperity and In Case of Emergency, celebrate the timeless ineptitude of the male species, with a shapely babe thrown in as a bauble atop their dunce caps. Premiering Wednesday (Jan. 3rd), their chances of success are sub-scant or less in a time slot that once belonged to Lost and lately is a halfway house.

In Case of Emergency, lesser of the two, at least is aptly titled. This indeed is an emergency for ABC, which had hoped to keep the serial drama Day Break in place until Lost returns on Feb. 7. But the Nielsen numbers said otherwise, prompting ABC to throw these two into the breech while moving Lost back an hour (to 9 p.m. central time). It's starting to look like bad planning all around, even if a later Lost will give local late night newscasts a booster shot.

Knights of Prosperity (8 p.m.), which used to be called Let's Rob Mick Jagger, had been part of ABC's fall schedule until the network rebooted. Off-kilter but also off-putting, it stars Donal Logue as hapless career janitor Eugene Gurkin.

"It's my 20th anniversary of doing this crappy job," he proclaims while cleaning urinals.

Gurkin dreams of owning his own bar, but is basically penniless. So he concocts a plan to rob Mick Jagger's apartment while watching the old Rolling Stone showcase his digs on the E! network. Jagger has several moderately amusing cameos in the first episode, but hasn't committed beyond that. Even so, he's listed as one of Knights' executive producers, along with David Letterman and Rob Burnett (producer of Letterman's CBS Late Show). Knights' theme song is by Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer.

Gurkin quickly recruits a band of fellow misfits after pep-talking them in front of a vintage poster of Loni Anderson in a bikini.

"I was born with a plastic fork -- in my ass! Just like the rest of you," he bellows.

OK, got it.

Gurkin's gang members at least are inventively named. There's loudmouth Francis "Squatch" Squacieri (Lenny Venito); easily irked Gourishankar "Gary" Subramaniam (Max Jobrani); nebbish Louis Plunk (Josh Grisetti) and terminally hungry Rockefeller Butts (Kevin Michael Richardson). The last recruit is saucy waitress Esperanza Villalobos (Sofia Vergara), who basically is the show's Loni Anderson.

Knights is funny in spots and also gets by without a laugh track, as does In Case of Emergency. Still, the preposterous premise already is wearing very thin by Episode 2. So is the caliber of the cameos, with Mick Jagger giving way to Sally Jessy Raphael.

ABC's followup act is harder to bear. A quartet of 1987 high school grads haphazardly reconnect at a time when their lives are sloppy messes. But In Case of Emergency is an even sloppier mess, with none of its four central characters worth rooting for or caring about.

Harry Kennison (Jonathan Silverman), a divorced greeting card writer, is first seen getting a massage parlor hand job from a woman who turns out to be his graduating class's valedictorian. She's Kelly Lee (Kelly Hu), whose regularly showcased bare midriff at least bears a little watching.

Meanwhile, financier Jason Ventress (David Arquette) is caught up in a corporate scandal. Facing possible imprisonment, he drops into a gun shop to buy a pistol he plans to put to his head.

"I'm gonna blow my brains out," says Jason.

"I've got just the thing," says the proprietor.

Oh, that is so not funny, particularly in these times. But Jason instead shoots himself in the foot, prolonging both his misery and ours.

The fourth misfit is diet guru Sherman Yablonsky (Greg Germann from Ally McBeal), whose Eating for Mommy is a big bestseller. Alas, he returns to his palatial pad to find it stripped bare by his wife, who's dumping him. This sends Yablonsky into a pastry-eating binge that's caught on tape after he steals a bakery truck.

The first two episodes are top-heavy with physical humor and assorted cuts, bumps and bruises. Silverman's character sustains a broken nose from Kelly's brutish boyfriend, who's a cop. Arquette takes a bedpan to the head and Germann has to wear an eye patch after being swatted by a purse in Episode 2.

Through it all, Silverman chews scenery with a zeal almost matched by Germann's re-addiction to junk food. He seems to think he's Jack Lemmon in a wacky feature. But it's the show that's a lemon, overreaching, over-acting, over-everything.

As with Knights of Prosperity, you wonder where this show is going. The easiest answer is off the air by February. Wednesday's twin premieres are assured of finishing no better than fourth in a time slot opposite CBS' Criminal Minds, NBC's Deal or No Deal and Fox's presentation of the Sugar Bowl game between Notre Dame and LSU.

That kind of start will ensure a quick finish for both of 'em.

Grades: Knights of Prosperity -- C; In Case of Emergency -- D