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Spike TV's low-overhead Factory punches in and works a funny shift

Factory hounds Gus, Gary, Smitty and Chase

Premiering: Sunday, June 29th at 9 p.m. (central) on Spike TV
Starring: Mitch Rouse, Michael Coleman, Jay Leggett, David Pasquesi, Mark Beltzman, Rick Hall, Christopher Allen Nelson, Eliza Coyle, Tracy Foley
Produced and directed by: Mitch Rouse

Comedy isn't pretty, and Factory is both smart and dumb enough to know this.

Not that you were expecting fine cuisine from Spike TV, which targets a young male audience with an array of keg party fare.

Factory, arriving Sunday as the network's first homegrown scripted comedy series, turns out to be more than a mere guilty pleasure. Loosely scripted and largely improvised, it beats to the drums of noisy, broken-down cars, dismal, dead-end jobs and a quartet of coarse yet resilient sad sacks whose lives barely scrape along.

Working without a net -- a k a laugh track -- the first two episodes are more than amusing enough to make Factory the comedy find of the summer. Just don't let its opening scene drag you down. A supervisor named Ronald "Ron" McKenzie is fatally sucked into a pneumatic bander that first grabs onto his tie. From there it's quickly open season on his job, with pals Gary (Mitch Rouse), Gus (Jay Leggett), Smitty (David Pasquesi) and Chase (Michael Coleman) all in the running.

Rouse, who co-created Comedy Central's storied Strangers With Candy, works a double shift as Factory's behind-the-scenes mastermind and pivotal co-star. In the show's July 6th second episode, he manfully carries a good deal of the action after buying a used car for $2 grand from town shyster/sight gag Tovar Plotts (Mark Beltzman).

The thing immediately breaks down, of course, forcing Gary to push it all the way to work after Plotts says no deal to taking it back. His exhausted pantomime before his three buddies is comedy silver, if not gold.

Subplots abound. Smitty continues to live with his belittling ex-wife, Meg (Eliza Coyle), because he can't afford to rent a second place. His drab life seems to brighten a bit when Meg's stepdad's sister's daughter (Tracy Foley as Tracey) moves in with them.

Meanwhile, Gus keeps trying and failing to propose to the woman he's been dating for a dozen years. And the deceased Ronald's son, Don (Christopher Allen Nelson), desperately strives to be one of the guys.

He briefly gains entry by fixing Gary's lemon for $4 with the understanding that he'll also get to hang out with the show's not-so-fab foursome. Unfortunately, the repair job requires Gary to keep his smoke-belching, parts-rattling auto running at all times.

Factory manages to invest its louts with at least a distant relative of dignity. It's crudely funny without being dirty to the touch. And in our current, seriously unfunny economy, at least these guys have jobs. Killer pneumatic banders and all.

Grade: B+

Ross Perot: 78 RPMs

Dallas billionaire Ross Perot, who turned the 1992 presidential race on its and his ears, makes it to his 78th birthday on Friday, June 27th.

Perot's much-parodied brand of belligerent, pie chart politics got him 19 percent of the vote in a three-way match with victor Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush. It might have been much more had Perot not dropped out of the race during the Democratic National Convention in New York City and then dropped back in later. In the interim, how many of his once loyal supporters dismissed him as a nut?

Here's video from a vintage Perot commercial in which he also brandishes his "voodoo stick:"

Gray area: Not much separates fictional Grey's Anatomy from real-life Hopkins

Real-life surgeon Brian Bethea: McDreamy comparisons inevitable and probably welcomed on ABC's new, non-fiction series Hopkins.

Premiering: Thursday, June 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: real-life doctors at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital
Produced by: Terence Wrong

ABC is cannily advertising Hopkins as the real-life summertime medical drama being watched by the fake docs of Grey's Anatomy.

That's not too much of a stretch. Except that the hit show's stars actually might think they're watching an alternate universe's Grey's Anatomy.

Replete with originally composed music and a soap-ish storyline tied to a hunky resident's troubled marriage, Hopkins is an ABC News production aimed at those who supposedly won't sit still for one of those unadorned, old time religion news docs.

It's eight years removed from the network's acclaimed Hopkins 24/7. And since then, "there has been a revolution within the culture of the hospital," say ABC press materials.

The network's news presentations likewise have undergone a fairly radical transformation. Nightline, absent Ted Koppel, is much lighter on its feet. And ABC's latter day weekly news series now carry Barnum-ish titles such as Primetime: The Outsiders, Primetime: Crime and Primetime: What Would You Do?, which is returning next season.

Hopkins, premiering Thursday, presented in high-definition and scheduled to run for six weeks, mixes state-of-the-art medicine with the out-of-hospital angst of cardiothoracic surgeon Brian Bethea. Since filming he's accepted a position at the Dallas-based University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Bethea, clearly positioned as the show's "Dr. McDreamy," has been married for 13 years to Amber, whom he's known since the sixth grade. They have three daughters, but lately don't seem to be "meshing well," as Brian puts it.

During the course of the first three episodes, he moves into his own apartment and talks with his drinking buddies about the prospects of meeting some "hot nurses." But the Betheas also are trying to reconcile their differences, and Brian clearly doesn't relish the prospect of breaking up his family.

Whether in or out of surgery Hopkins is never too far from composer Matthew Puckett's often verbalized musical interludes. It can get more than a little cloying, in no small part because Grey's Anatomy operates under the exact same procedure throughout its episodes.

Episode two, for its part, ends with middle-aged Brenda Thompson walking in a park with her loving third husband after undergoing life-saving lung surgery. Accompanying lyrics from a female vocalist go like this: "Just you and me and a bright blue sky . . . And I feel so high-i-i." Oh ugh.

Hopkins nonetheless packs plenty of drama under its own power. It can be humorous, too, as when Hopkins' first woman urologist, Karen Boyle, tells viewers about the hospital's tried-and-true "pornography stash."

One of her patients, whose vasectomy she's just reversed, will have to supply in-hospital sperm samples to make sure his weapon is firing properly again. "If they get yucky, we throw them out," she says of the magazines he'll be using.

Episode 1 also introduces elite brain surgeon Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinjosa, who two decades ago entered the U.S. illegally to pick fruit in central California. He's come an astonishingly long way since then, but otherwise "I'm the same crazy sonofagun I was 20 years ago," he says.

One of his patients is Michael, whose life has had plenty of bumps of his own making. He has no idea where his two children are after "their mother took off with them years ago," Michael tells the camera.

He's also capable of making a finely rendered paper rose out of a napkin, which he demonstrates. The scene speaks to the talents we all have despite appearances to the contrary.

Hopkins is without narration, save for a weekly Law & Order-esque introduction informing viewers that "inside one of America's greatest hospitals there are endings and new beginnings every day."

They're culled from nearly 1,500 hours of footage, says ABC. Artificial flavoring then is added, but not to the point of invalidating this very ambitious effort. Both the graphically depicted surgeries and the constant mood music can be hard to handle at times. But Hopkins' saving graces are its terrific human interest stories and jaw-dropping medical advances.

Whatever its imperfections, this series still resides at the very highest end of summer's ongoing onslaught of unscripted and often unsightly diversions.

Grade: B+

Survey says: Celebrity Family Feud is kinda cringe-worthy

It's the Rivers clan vs. Ice T's posse during opening night play.

Premiering: Tuesday, June 24th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Hosted by: Al Roker, with 24 celebrity family teams
Produced by: Gaby Johnston, Toby Gorman

It's still not too late to retitle it Celebrity Family Lewd.

Ice T and his notably buxom wife, Coco, push that particular button in the opening minutes of NBC's Celebrity Family Feud, premiering Tuesday, June 24th.

She's spilling out of a low-cut yellow dress and host Al Roker immediately takes notice.

"You don't buy a Ferrari and then drive it around with the car cover on it," Ice T theorizes. True, says Roker. As long as nobody is allowed to check under the hood.

Coco gets a big kick out of that one before Ice T and Joan Rivers square off for the first round of a charity competition pitting his crew against hers.

"Name something that's slippery and hard to hold onto," Roker challenges.

Ice T responds with a word that's bleeped from a review DVD sent by NBC. Roker then does the old one-two double take before telling Ice T, "I need this job."

No you don't. Not really. Today already pays plenty.

Things settle down a bit after that, although Wayne Newton's elderly mother-in-law later shouts out "boobs!" during the night's second battle between the Newtons and Raven-Symone's family.

Still later, a member of one of the winning teams says "a hooker" in answer to "Name something an older woman buys for her boy toy."

NBC has moved Celebrity Family Feud up a week from its original premiere date to take on the premiere of ABC's Wipeout, which leads into the network's unveiling of I Survived A Japanese Game Show.

Neither of these summertime dollops was made available for review, but promotional clips from the shows leave no doubt that each gleefully trades in fall-down-go-boom contestant humiliation. Wipeout has them tumbling into putrid-looking mud-water. Japanese Game Show coats them in various other goops. Are we having fun yet?

At least Celebrity Family Feud is for charity. And Tuesday's potential beneficiaries include the American Red Cross, the USO and Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Roker presides amiably if sometimes awkwardly, with a good number of the families of course headed up by the stars of NBC Universal properties. So if you haven't already seen enough of Christopher Knight on NBC's ongoing Celebrity Circus, you can catch the former Brady Bunch kid and company taking on an American Chopper contingent in a future Feud.

Meanwhile, "name something you'd never want to see your father wearing."

Thankfully, Ice T isn't a part of that particular game.

Grade: C

Fabric softener: Michelle Obama guest hosts The View

For starters Michelle Obama initiates a "fist bump." ABC photo

Michelle, their belle. And on Paul McCartney's 66th birthday, too.

ABC's The View embraced Michelle Obama as a guest host Wednesday, with The New York Times touting the visit as the first in a series of efforts aimed at "softening her reputation."

The gabfest's grande dame, Barbara Walters, displayed the front page article -- "After Attacks, Michelle Obama Looks for a New Introduction" -- after the wife of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama sat down and immediately said with a big smile, "I have to be greeted properly. Fist bump, please."

She was then treated deferentially -- very deferentially -- from the "Hot Topics" segment that consumed the first half of the show to a closing "Breakfast Manifesto" portion in which Michelle revealed, "We're bacon people."

It's hard not to look softer when sitting next to View co-host Joy Behar, the show's only remaining hard-boiled egg now that Whoopi Goldberg has mostly gone poached. Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the conservative in residence, made it a point to say that people of all political persuasions can get along just fine otherwise. Michelle readily agreed, of course, later clasping Hasselbeck's hand.

Impeccable in a flattering black-and-white print dress, Michelle even praised First Lady Laura Bush for defending her hotly debated comments at a Wisconsin campaign rally where she said, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country."

"I was touched by it, and actually I sent her a note," Michelle said, declining to discuss the contents because Mrs. Bush may not have received it yet, she said.

The comment was made in mid-February, presumably giving even the much-derided U.S. Postal service ample time to get it delivered. But whatever the case, Michelle said she greatly appreciated the First Lady's "calm, rationale approach . . . She doesn't fuel the fire." Husband George got left out.

Growing up on Chicago's South Side as the daughter of dutiful, working class parents has made her "proud of my country, without a doubt," Michelle emphasized. Her remarks at the rally were aimed more at the country's political system and the intense interest in the Democratic primary, she said.

Her husband's opponent, Hillary Clinton, was on the receiving end of some sexism, she allowed. But there also were "elements of racism," Michelle added before Walters obligatorily asked whether Mrs. Clinton should be Barack's running mate.

No answer was expected and none was given. Instead, Michelle said she wanted nothing at all to do with that decision.

Co-host Sherrie Shepherd then told her, "You look gorgeous. Everything you wear."

"It's fun to look pretty," Michelle replied, noting that she has "some high-end stuff" but that this outfit was purchased at a chain of stores that specializes in selling black-and-white outfits. The Black and White Store no doubt will appreciate the free plug.

Goldberg praised the guest host for breaking the stereotype of black women on TV who "have no teeth."

"I just want to say thanks," she told Michelle, who accepted.

Perhaps the show's signature moment came when Walters began talking about the pros and cons of panty hose. She sometimes dons them, sometimes doesn't. But "out of respect for you, I put on panty hose," said Walters, who then noted that Michelle wasn't wearing any.

The camera then cut to a less than decorous, under-the-table shot of Michelle's bare, sculpted legs before she confided, "I stopped wearing panty hose a long time ago because it was painful and they always ripped."

After that, guests Matthew Broderick and dietician Elizabeth Somer seemed pretty anti-climactic. It all ended with the six hosts back behind the show's official "Hot Topics" desk, with Michelle praising Walters, Goldberg, Behar, Hasselbeck and Shepherd as "phenomenal ladies."

It's hard to imagine looking much softer. The "new" Michelle Obama, if one in fact is required, got just the launch pad she needed Wednesday. Now on to Rachael Ray, maybe. No sense in wasting all this momentum. Time to whip up a 30-minute meal.

West Texas awl bidness gets reality check on truTV's Black Gold

Peanut the "Worm," bossman Gerald and the dirty work they do.

Premiering: Wednesday, June 18th at 9 p.m. (central) on truTV
Starring: Three competing teams of oil drillin' West Texas roughnecks
Produced and narrated by: Thom Beers

My rig's bigger than yours.

That's pretty much the basic drill in truTV's Black Gold, where the narration and production values pretty much match the crudeness of the oil and the West Texas roughnecks going after it.

On Wednesday's premiere of this multi-part series, a bossman named Tim gets blind drunk celebrating his 31st birthday at a honky tonk. Tim and most of his men then lay out the next day, forcing the overnight shift at the Big Dog rig to pull a double.

"My daddy was scheduled for a triple bypass today, and I can't even be there," laments one roughneck.

And there you have it. Originating from West Texas' oft oil rich Permian Basin, Texas Gold shows that just about anything can be turned into a reality TV competition. In this case, three competing rigs -- the Longhorn, Viking and Big Dog -- get 50 days to strike it rich 3,000 feet below. It's a rough, tough, dirty business, which narrator and executive producer Thom Beers keeps slamming home.

"They fight the clock, the machines and their own inner demons," Beers tells viewers after perhaps having a few.

Crusty Gerald, veteran head of the Longhorn team, remembers losing part of his thumb in barely a second. So his men are schooled in the art of not putting a thumb where you wouldn't put "your pecker."

Frequently bleeped for profanity, Texas Gold is a natural extension of last year's big-screen oil fable, There Will Be Blood. Men are men and rookies are "worms." Diminutive "Peanut" is one of 'em. The show delights in repeatedly showing him getting dinged in his hardhat by a wayward chain. It scrambled his brains a bit, but the kid'll be all right.

"There's Peanut, you hard-workin' little fart," Gerald says with all due affection. A-w-w-w.

But Peanut later is very late for work, prompting Gerald to bark into his phone, "You better be bleedin' or I'm killin' your ass."

Their work is both important and expensive in times when gas prices are making many consumers bleed money. Texas Gold is pretty good at detailing the costs -- up to $60,000 for a "high-end" drill bit -- and the risks to oilmen Mike LaMonica and Autry Stephens, who are bankrolling the three rigs during their journeys to the center of the earth.

The production values and overall narrative writing could use a clean shave. Still, the show has its own roughhewn appeal. These are coarse but dedicated men doing very necessary work that few can accomplish and most wouldn't try.

You won't get any All-Star editions of Texas Gold, because a pseudo celebrity's "journey" would soon end with a limb or appendage subtracted. Let's have a big hand for Danny Bonaduce. Whoops, he just lost one.

This show's cast of characters at least is authentic. Peanut, for one, will have to be buying the beer after showing up late. But bossman Gerald first will delight in ragging on him all day.

On Texas Gold, that's entertainment. Other than the digging, there's nothing very deep about it. But at times it all works pretty well.

Grade: C+

Katie gets slapstick-y on own youtube channel

Katie Couric figuratively wears a corset while anchoring the CBS Evening News. But she's been cutting loose on her own youtube channel with video vignettes of her various travels.

In one recent addition, she's shown shuttling to an appearance on NBC's Today show for a joint "Stand Up To Cancer" appearance with rivals Charles Gibson and Brian Williams.

"I'm trying to get into the 21st century, Charlie. It's not easy," she tells Gibson backstage of her youtube sideline.

"But I'm not," a smiling Gibson rejoins. "I'm still in the 19th."

Couric and her camera person later encounter Kathie Lee Gifford being made up for the fourth hour of Today, which she co-hosts.

"Kathie Lee, turn around. You're beautiful without makeup," Couric teases. In fact it's something of a horror show, although Gifford plays along in a way that Couric assuredly wouldn't were she surprised in this way.

Still, it's a game effort, on Couric's part at least, to "humanize" herself in the eyes of those who see -- or don't see -- that side of her on the Evening News. Meanwhile, her ratings remain brutal.

In the latest weekly Nielsens (June 9-13), the Evening News averaged 5.74 million viewers in again running far behind the NBC Nightly News (7.98 million) and ABC's World News (7.50 million).

Couric also finished a distant third with the younger viewers she was supposed to attract. Among 25-to-54-year-olds, the target advertiser demographic for news programming, Nightly News hauled in 2.54 million, followed by World News (2.33 million) and Evening News (1.76 million).

In trying times and with her long-term future in serious doubt, Couric at least puts on a happy youtube face. Here's the aforementioned video:

Showtime's Secret Diary of a Call Girl neither takes off -- or takes off

Billie Piper precariously straddles two worlds as Belle/Hannah.

Premiering: Monday, June 16th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Billie Piper, Cherie Lunghi, Iddo Goldberg, Toyah Willcox, Stuart Organ
Created by: Lucy Prebble

The title suggests a considerable baring of the flesh. Not so.

Showtime's Secret Diary of a Call Girl, premiering Monday after previous exposure in the United Kingdom, is sexually charged but otherwise notably chaste.

Previous Showtime series, including The Tudors, Californication and The L Word, have been explicit in both words and deeds. Call Girl, with its first eight episodes written by women, is more likely to fleetingly show male clients' backsides than star Billie Piper's (Dr. No) private eyefuls. Turnabout is fair play perhaps, although a series of this sort might be expected to be more in sync with its suggestive title on a premium pay network without advertiser limitations.

Piper, living in two worlds as Belle the whore and Hannah the sister/daughter, has most of her assignations while clothed. Even while in a tub, she chastely covers her breasts. The series otherwise finds her frequently talking to the camera or narrating her various observations on life and pay-for-play sex. The language can get explicit even even as the visuals shy away.

"I love London," Belle says for openers. "I love its rudeness, its lack of community, its impatience."

Her character is drawn from the real-life diaries of "Belle De Jour," who like "Gossip Girl" blogs anonymously. Frankly, she's been a bit of a slacker lately. Her June 16th post is the first in five months.

The TV episodes run just 22 minutes apiece but still seem to go on a bit much. The first three put Belle in some perspective without making her all that compelling. We learn that she doesn't drink on the job, uses men's deodorant but not perfume, has a friend, Ben (Iddo Goldberg), who's apparently clueless about her profession and has "never been a very good girlfriend in real life."

When on assignment, "the perfect partner is one where I never have to be myself."

In that respect, she's deft at pleasing a cumbersome bloke who fantasizes about having sex on a farm. But in Episode 2, Belle quickly grows impatient with a client who takes her to a "prestigious adult party" but doesn't want to participate until she grows "desperate" to have him off-site.

Piper resembles a vintage Bardot, which is a nice start. But Call Girl otherwise seems bottled up, thinking itself to be far more intoxicating than it really is.

The first three episodes also provide glimpses of Belle's imperious madame, Stephanie (Cherie Lunghi), and a sister who's just delivered a baby boy while mom and dad (Toyah Willcox, Stuart Organ) display disparate degrees of interest.

The series supposedly was a ratings hit in the UK -- isn't everything? -- but might not arouse much interest here. Whatever the case, it's being paired on Mondays with Weeds, which returns for a fourth season at 9 p.m. (central).

Californication, last summer's better suited Weeds running mate, is tentatively due sometime this fall.

Grade: C

Carvey's still got a little somethin' somethin'

So how much does he have left?

Quite a bit as it turns out.

Dana Carvey, one of Saturday Night Live's all-time MVPs, has not deteriorated into Joe Piscopo, Tim Kazurinsky or lately, Norm Macdonald. His Saturday, June 14th HBO special (9 p.m. central and repeated throughout June) returns him to the living after a bungled heart surgery and a desire to spend more time with his family kept him mostly out of public view for the past decade.

Now 53, Carvey performs before an enthusiastic full house at the Wells Fargo Center of the Arts in Santa Rosa, CA. It's not exactly Carnegie Hall, but seems like a nice enough venue for a special that's titled Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies.

He quickly unloads a few f-bombs, just so you don't think he's the Church Lady anymore. Thankfully, Carvey doesn't dust off that relic, but eventually gets around to an array of politician impressions, including both George Bushes, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Ross Perot, Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They're all well-woven into a routine on a "Reagan Oracle" who masterminds future presidencies.

Still, a good portion of his nearly one-hour act is devoted to Carvey being Carvey. And it's reasonably funny stuff on subjects ranging from parenting to aging to new-age religions. The latter is where the "Squatting Monkeys" reference comes in.

Carvey retains his buoyancy and overall boyish charm. His diction is sharp and assured, but his delivery seems more impromptu than carefully memorized. It all makes for a pleasant surprise. What could have been cringe-worthy instead is a nice little amusement.

Grade: B

Hillary and sexism. Couric and Matthews. Showing and telling

Did sexism help to undo Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign? Or did she just bungle things entirely on her own?

There's much ado about this lately. Embattled CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, whose bosses say she's being penalized because of her gender, weighed in this week with a video "Notebook" commentary on her network's web site.

One of the "great lessons" of the hotly contested Democratic presidential campaign is "the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media," Couric said in part.

There's a poster boy to buttress her argument. He is, of course, Chris Matthews, MSNBC's hee-hawing, braying jackass. In much-criticized comments after Clinton's New Hampshire primary victory, Matthews said on the network's Morning Joe program that she wouldn't be a senator from New York or a candidate for president if her husband hadn't "messed around."

"She won because everybody felt, 'My God, this woman stood up under humiliation, right?' " Matthews blathered while others tried and failed to interject.

Matthews later more or less apologized in typical rambling fashion. Meanwhile, he continued to swoon at the sight of Barack Obama, memorably telling Keith Olbermann on the night of the "Potomac primaries" that he "felt this furrowing up my leg" after watching his speech. "I don't have that too often."

Here are videos of Matthews' take on Clinton and Couric's contention that sexism fouled the presidential primary season. Maybe Couric's being more than a little sanctimonious. Perhaps even Matthews has a bit of a point. See for yourself.

A commentary on Fox News Channel's history of not commenting

Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes runs a tight-lipped ship.

"Don't ask, don't tell" has another high-profile practitioner -- Fox News Channel.

This odd bit of business by a worldwide media company was reinforced anew in a Thursday (June 12th) New York Times article headlined "Networks Firm Up Convention Lineups."

Reporter Jacques Steinberg, well-experienced in news media coverage, offered a nuts-and-bolts roundup of how much time ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC tentatively plan to devote to this summer's national political conventions. Representatives of those five networks talked to him. Fox News Channel didn't, prompting Steinberg to write, "A Fox News spokeswoman, Dana Klinghoffer, refused to discuss the channel's plans."

Does that make any sense, particularly in times when your ratings aren't quite so all-powerful anymore? Wouldn't you want to be included in a prominently played story that basically sought only basic information?

OK, maybe you're thinking that FNC views the Times as a liberal enemy of all it stands for. So why would they cooperate?

But FNC pretty much behaves this way with media reporters in general. The network likes to pitch its own story ideas, and often isn't at all shy about telling recipients where and when those stories should run. But FNC historically clams up when reporters initiate contact. It simply doesn't play well with others, which makes it all the easier for spurned reporters to lob a few grenades.

Steinberg, for instance, could have used the less incriminating "declined" rather than "refused." But why be nice to a newsgathering network that doesn't want news gathered about it?

It should be noted that Klinghoffer is one of FNC's more approachable publicists, even though she regularly has her guard up. But her marching orders are from on high, whether she particularly likes them or not.

FNC star personality, Bill O'Reilly, of course gets all outraged when his subjects of interest choose to bypass "The Factor." What are they afraid of? How dare they? Etc., etc.

This isn't a particularly good time for O'Reilly's network to play hard to get, though. The latest national weekly cable ratings (June 2-8) from Nielsen Media Research aren't particularly great news for the long-dominant lord of the cable news universe.

FNC averaged 1.703 million viewers in prime-time for that eventful political week, with CNN close behind at 1.418 million and long-downtrodden MSNBC making a little noise with an average of 1.016 million.

For the total programming day last week, FNC drew an average of 940,000 viewers, with CNN at 747,000 and MSNBC falling out of the weekly top 20.

In both instances, FNC's numbers are up from a comparable week one year ago (June 4-10, 2007), when it averaged 1.564 million viewers in prime-time and 897,000 for the total programming day.

Its competitive edge over CNN has shrunk, though. A year ago, CNN failed to even make the top 20 of either cable list, which respectively bottomed out with ESPN (1.001 million viewers) and Comedy Central (604,000 viewers). This time around, CNN ranked 8th and 11th, with presidential politics no doubt helping the ratings of all three all-news networks.

Also of interest: the top 40 cable programs for last week.

CNN had the No. 3 attraction with June 3rd's election night edition of Anderson Cooper 360 (4.523 million viewers). It also had the No. 16-ranked Election Center (3.788 million viewers).

FNC had no program in cable's latest weekly top 40. Nor did MSNBC.

There may come a time, in the not so distant future, when FNC will want and even need media coverage. Human nature being what it is, some reporters may in turn be less than receptive.

Funny business: Bill Engvall cut his comedy teeth in Dallas before taking a bite out of big time

Bill Engvall: paying the bills with his name in the title. Photo: Ed Bark

Bill Engvall, his TV wife and their three kids seem like dinosaurs walking an otherwise barren prime-time terrain.

Their nuclear family comedy series, returning for a second season Thursday (8 p.m. central) on TBS, is the only one of its kind unless you're counting Fox's cartoon Simpsons.

Sitcoms of any sort are in increasingly short supply on broadcast or cable networks. ABC has only one, the returning Samantha Who?, on its entire fall schedule. Kids, let alone married moms and dads, are scarcer than teen viewers of 60 Minutes.

"I find myself in the position of defending doing a wholesome family show," Engvall says during a stop in Dallas, his old stomping grounds. "But I'm going to keep doing this. I've made a career out of being clean."

The Bill Engvall Show premiered last July to the tune of 4.1 million viewers on opening night. That's a nice-sized hit by basic cable standards, giving the 50-year-old star another comfortable hammock in addition to his standup comedy act and recurring appearances with Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy on "Blue Collar Comedy" tours.

Engvall's family moved from Galveston to North Texas during his sophomore year in high school. He graduated from Richardson High and had planned to be a teacher before impulsively taking the stage at Dallas' Comedy Corner in 1980. He perfected his standup comedy act for four years before heading to L.A.

"I owe a great deal to Dallas, because that's where my comedy roots began," he says. "I still have friends here. I'm a huge Cowboys fan. I can't say that someday I wouldn't like to move back here."

For now he lives with his wife and two kids in Manhattan Beach. But Engvall still pines for a defining seal of approval. In his view, that would be nothing less than the cover of D Magazine. Honest.

"They've written little blurbs on me and stuff, but I would like to have that cover," he says. "It kind of shows that you have made it, and you are a Dallasite. There's a great deal of pride for me in being from Texas. I make no bones about it."

On The Bill Engvall Show he plays a somewhat befuddled family counselor named Bill Pearson. Home base is a Denver suburb, where Dad, wife Susan (Nancy Travis) and offspring Lauren, Trent and Bryan (Jennifer Lawrence, Graham Patrick Martin, Skyler Gisondo) clash over issues ranging from cleaning up the garage to the politics of parental permission.

"I don't feel there's that much dysfunctionality," Engvall says of the show. "Nancy's not playing the finger-wagging, overbearing wife and I'm not your basic, mentally challenged husband. And the kids don't run the house, like you see in most sitcoms. I have people coming up to me all the time saying, 'Thanks for bringing 'family' back to TV.' "

Viewing isn't heavy-lifting. The Bill Engvall Show, which co-stars Saturday Night Live alum Tim Meadows as a family friend/hair replacement specialist, equips its episodes with broad comedy strokes and a frequently deployed laugh track. That makes it both a formulaic throwback and a uniquely positioned novelty.

Engvall, still marveling at how far he's come, remembers buying Buckhorn beer in Dallas for $1.50 a case. He's now sipping a better brand at a Dallas restaurant while pledging allegiance to what he knows best and what still works for him.

"We're just going to deal with issues that the American family deals with," he says. "I think you can be funny and clean, and still keep it relatable."

Fox's Dance finalists include six feet from North Texas

Dance finalists Comfort Fedoke, Joshua Allen, Chelsea Traille

Uniquely named Comfort Fedoke of Carrollton is stepping into Fox's So You Think You Can Dance as one of the summertime reality hit's 20 finalists.

Born in Fort Worth and raised in Laos, Nigeria, the 20-year-old hip-hopper is a graduate of Dallas' Booker T. Washington Performing Arts High School. She's also been a performer on Metro PCS Dance Club 21, shown on Sundays at 10 p.m. on TXA21.

Two other North Texans also are in the show's fourth season foot race for $250 grand and the negotiable title of "America's Favorite Dancer."

Joshua Allen, 19, is a "hip hop/popping" dancer from Fort Worth. Chelsea Traille, a 23-year-old Houstonian now living in Flower Mound, specializes in jazz funk and contemporary dance. She also hit hardwoods as a member of the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks dancers and has a bachelor's degree in business administration/marketing from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Wednesday's first Dance performance show (7 to 9 p.m. locally on Fox4) will lead to Thursday's opening eliminations of a male and female dancer.

Bill & Star of Flint, TX and mug shots of the dozen furry finalists

***There's also a Texas dog/human duo in CBS' upcoming Greatest American Dog, scheduled to premiere on Thursday, July 10th.

They are Bill McFarlin and Star of Flint, TX. He's a pressure washer and his dog is a seven-year-old Brittany. Twelve teams are after $250 grand and bragging rights.

Swingtown flops around in a sea of sex, drugs and dreary characters

Sex at the deep end: Tom and Trina Decker have an "open" marriage.

Premiering: Thursday, June 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Grant Show, Lana Parrilla, Molly Parker, Jack Davenport, Miriam Shor, Josh Hopkins, Shanna Collins
Produced by: Mike Kelley, Alan Poul

More seamy than steamy, CBS' Swingtown is a pretty limp retro-fit for the sexually aroused '70s.

Its principal provocateurs, Tom and Trina Decker (Grant Show, Lana Parrilla), have an "open" marriage that initially permits hubby to lure an airline stewardess to their lair while flying high on July 2, 1976.

"Your wife is gonna kill me," she tells him.

"My wife is gonna love you," he says. The next scene then offers a fleeting glimpse of a threesome before Trina evacuates and tells her husband to "carry on."

Originally set as a midseason replacement, Swingtown was waylaid by a combination of the writers' strike and the network's likely realization that it's just not very good. What might have been provocative on CBS' corporate cousin Showtime is mostly lost in translation on an advertiser-supported broadcast network where the best you can do is peek-a-boo.

That's not the only impediment, though. The main characters in this unnamed "upscale" Chicago suburb, whether adults or teens, seem wan, washed-out and prototypical. Even the swingers are dullards and the '70s mood music is force-fed to fit the situations at hand. "Saturday in the park, every day's the Fourth of July" plays on Bruce Miller's convertible radio as he and wife, Susan (Jack Davenport, Molly Parker), leave their old neighborhood behind with a holiday block party in progress.

Waving goodbye are Swingtown's third adult couple, Janet and Roger (Miriam Shor, Josh Hopkins). She's gratingly uptight and he's pretty much a nonentity. So imagine the standard-issue horror when Janet stumbles into the "playroom" during a freewheeling Fourth of July party being thrown by those devilish Deckers.

"Susan, I'm not kidding. They are sick!" Janet trumpets after seeing an unclothed guy entangled with at least two women.

But the Millers decide to stay. And before you know it, the amazingly pliable Susan is ripe for Tina Decker's deal-closer.

"Why don't the four of us go someplace a little quieter?" she says. Presto, change-o, with Bruce and Susan giggling giddily the following morning from the chaster confines of their own bedroom. Meanwhile, back in the old neighborhood, clenched-up Janet is furiously scrubbing because "we live in a pigsty." Out damn spot, sha la la la la.

On the kid front, the Millers' teen daughter, Laurie (Shanna Collins), has an obvious crush on a philosophy teacher who looks young enough to be her kid brother. But she's still dating a lout whom she tells, "You're an idiot. You don't know anything about me."

"I know enough to get in your pants every night," he knee-jerks before Laurie runs off, strips down to her panties and jumps into the surf. Symbolism anyone?

The producers of Swingtown, Mike Kelley and Alan Poul, want TV critics to know that their show aspires to be fraught with meaning.

"Our characters will struggle to do the right thing, to reach for happiness while remaining grounded in such a heady time," they say in press materials. "And they're in for the ride of their lives -- a high energy, convention-busting awakening of the senses, all set to the incredible music of the era -- a soundtrack that shaped and expanded the consciousness of an entire generation."

Oh, knock it off. Swingtown's opening hour falls well short of exciting any senses. Fox's That '70s Show fared far better by not taking itself seriously. This one's just a downer, whether Bruce is accepting a Harvey Wallbanger or wife Susan is popping her maiden quaalude.

Grade: C-minus

Chill in the air: Fear Itself registers on 'ooh scary' meter

Nasty neck wounds abound in first two episodes of Fear Itself.

Premiering: Thursday, June 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Various thespians in weekly suspense/horror anthology tales
Created by: Mick Garris

Goose bumps rise to the surface and the flesh occasionally crawls.

These are key indicators that NBC's new Fear Itself, a 13-episode suspense/horror anthology series, is making a pretty good stab at delivering on its title.

Dark, brooding and graphic within broadcast network confines, the first two episodes have a nice tingle to 'em. Each hour is helmed by a different director, with Breck Eisner (Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Brad Anderson (The Machinist) taking charge of the first two.

Thursday's opener, subtitled "Sacrifice," begins with four young criminals on the lam in a rickety truck. One has a gaping chest wound, and the vehicle soon breaks down. But in the near-distance, across a wide expanse of snow, is a sprawling old fort that turns out to be inhabited by a trio of pasty but nubile young blondes. So they make a break for the place, where bad things soon keep happening.

The most recognizable star, Jesse Plemons from NBC's Friday Night Lights, brings his halting speech patterns to the role of a semi-dense crook nicknamed "Lemon." Rachel Miner of Showtime's Californication plays one of the seemingly diabolical blondes. It's all very bleak and foreboding, which of course is the basic idea.

Next week's "Spooked" episode centers on veteran scenery-chewer Eric Roberts, first seen as a cop torturing a punk who supposedly knows the whereabouts of a missing boy.

Roberts is something of a revelation here. His performance is notably restrained and thoroughly effective as a single-minded enforcer haunted by a formative tragedy.

"Sometimes you gotta do a wrong to make things right," his character rationalizes before being drummed off the police force. The episode then picks him up 15 years later as a dissipated but still sought after private investigator who specializes in fingering cheating spouses. Larry Gilliard from The Wire plays his young accomplice.

The gumshoe's latest client is yet another woman who says she wants the goods on her philandering husband. An abandoned house across the street will be perfect for spying on him, she says. So he sets up shop and soon starts hearing voices from within the spooky dump. Fear Itself doesn't scrimp when it comes to houses housing dark secrets.

We eventually learn what has driven Roberts' character to the brink of madness. And while somewhat predictable, this episode still has some bite. In a summertime sea of mostly reality junk, Fear Itself stands apart as an adventuresome attempt to get dark and dangerous. Forgive a few storytelling flaws and you just might find yourself spellbound.

Grade: B+

What were the odds? TV wild man Chuck Barris turns 79

Somehow still standing, legendary game show creator and host Chuck Barris turns 79 on Tuesday, June 3rd.

Best known for presiding over The Gong Show, Barris also made hits of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. In 2003, George Clooney directed an adaptation of Barris' autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Man, in which he claimed to be a CIA operative.

Here's a clip from his last episode of The Gong Show, which NBC canceled on July 21, 1978 after recurring battles with the host over the show's less than rarefied content. Barris appears as the climactic contestant, singing Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It" with the so-called Hollywood Cowboys.

Was he gonged? What do you think?