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Endowment fun: HBO's Hung also scores with appealing sign-of-the-times storyline

Thomas Jane is anything but half-cocked in HBO's Hung.

Premiering: Sunday, June 28th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Thomas Jane, Jane Adams, Anne Heche, Eddie Jemison, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Charlie Saxton, Rebecca Kreskoff, Loren Lester
Created by: Dmitry Lipkin, Colette Burson

HBO's next big thing really is.

It's a terrific new series, Hung, about a down-and-out former high school sports stud with a prodigious penis. (Insert Members Only joke here.)

Launching Sunday with an elongated -- OK, I'll stop -- 45-minute episode, this is nowhere in the vicinity of Boogie Nights or the porn industry. Instead, Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) is a divorced Detroit high school basketball coach whose team stinks and to whom other bad things also happen. At rope's end, he finds himself heeding the call of a would-be poet and recurring bedmate (Jane Adams as Tanya Skagle), who upbraids him by saying, "You want to be a millionaire? Why don't you go market your dick?"

Jane, who played Mickey Mantle in the acclaimed HBO movie 61*, manages to play this role -- and do this role-playing -- in an appealing, all-but-guileless manner that's almost guaranteed to make you root for him from start to finish. Adams is likewise letter-perfect as a somewhat plain Jane who ends up being both his confidant and marketer. Or pimp if you will. It's a deft reversal of business as usual.

Narration and flashbacks get viewers to this point without tarrying too long.

Ray use to be married to Jessica (Anne Heche), who since has left him to marry a prosperous dermatologist named Ronnie Haxon (Eddie Jemison).

After the divorce, Ray moves into the now well-worn lakeside home he inherited from his parents. His twin teen children, Damon and Darby (Charlie Saxton, Sianoa Smit-McPhee), prefer living with dad until a middle-of-the-night electrical fire leaves his abode in severe disrepair. They scurry back to mom after Ray pitches a tent on the front lawn while wondering how he'll ever get enough money to rebuild the home, on which he allowed the insurance to lapse. He's also being squeezed hard by an adjustable rate mortgage.

"What happened to my life?" narrator Ray wonders. "I used to be a big deal. I used to be goin' somewhere. Now all I ever seem to do is try not to drown."

Millions of American know the feeling, and Hung's creators are fully aware of this. The series opens with shots of a badly decaying Detroit, where the once venerated Tiger Stadium is being torn down while unemployment keeps going up. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So Ray impulsively places an ad promising that "Big Donnie will give you every inch of his love."

Tanya eventually decides to throw in with him, and that's when Hung really starts to roll. Episode 2 (which won't air until July 12 because of the Fourth of July weekend) finds Ray grudgingly succumbing to some of her marketing ploys. Not that this is his first rodeo.

"My technique is fine," he insists. "I've been pleasing women for decades. You're not my only screamer."

Hoping to take their budding business to a new level, Tanya calls on a former law firm colleague named Lenore (Rebecca Kreskoff), who's been making a mint as a professional shopper for "recession proof" wealthy women. Perhaps they'd also like to enjoy Ray's services? Lenore first wants to test the merchandise, and their liaison is wickedly funny.

None of this is even remotely coarse or sophomoric. Hung has ample profanity but scant nudity in these first two episodes. It's funny, smart and even touching in ways that HBO's other ex-jock comedy, Eastbound & Down, clearly has no hopes of matching.

This then is a series that doesn't think with its penis. The writing, acting and overall thrust are of a higher mind than that. Ray may be a "man whore," as Tanya at first calls him. But in the end he just wants to pay his bills and get his basketball team a few stinkin' wins.


Farrah Fawcett dies of cancer

Farrah Fawcett, the Corpus Christi-born golden girl whose iconic poster and showy Charlie's Angels role made her a mega-star, died Thursday at age 62 after a prolonged and highly publicized battle with cancer.

Fawcett's own movie about her travails, Farrah's Story, was shown just last month on NBC. ABC already has scheduled a Barbara Walters special, Farrah Fawcett: Her Life, Her Loves, Her Legacy, for tonight at 9 p.m. (central). Earlier Thursday on ABC's Good Morning America, Walters had said, "I'm not sure if she's going to make it through the day. She's had her last rites."

NBC is countering with a two-hour combined Dateline special (8 p.m.) tied to the deaths of Fawcett, and late Thursday afternoon, Michael Jackson. And the network will re-broadcast Farrah's Story on Friday, June 26th at 8 p.m.

Fawcett starred as glamorous gumshoe Jill Munroe for only the first season of Angels, which became an instant eye-catching hit on ABC after premiering in fall 1976. Her abrupt decision to leave, in pursuit of big-screen stardom, sparked lawsuits and an eventual settlement that required Fawcett to make occasional guest star appearances during the show's next three seasons.

When Angels soared to No. 5 in the prime-time ratings during its first season, "I figured it was our acting," Fawcett told TV Guide after leaving the show. "When we got to be No. 1 (actually its highest season-ending finish was No. 4), I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra."

Her feature film career never took wing, with flops such as Saturn 3, Sunburn and Somebody Killed Her Husband sending her back to the friendlier confines of television.

Ryan-Farrah all aglow and the actress behind bars in Burning Bed

Fawcett's coming-out party as a "serious" actress was in the 1981 NBC miniseries Murder In Texas, where she received favorable reviews as the ill-fated Joan Robinson. She went on to earn two Emmy nominations, as battered housewife Francine Hughes in NBC's 1984 movie The Burning Bed and as murderess Diane Downs in the 1989 ABC miniseries Small Sacrifices.

All three projects, each based on a true-life story, conceivably could have been made for the big screen. But Fawcett already had become a realist by then.

"I don't think those parts would have been offered to me," she said in a 1989 interview with this writer. "They would look for somebody like Meryl Streep, who has a record of carrying a film."

Fawcett had tried to escape her cheesecake image by deglamorizing herself in these roles. In The Burning Bed, for instance, she wore what was described as a $1 K Mart top.

By 1992, though, she had grown weary of playing victims or victimizers. So she took on the role of hard-talking defense attorney Jessie Lee Stubbs in ABC's Criminal Behavior movie.

"I was looking for something to do that was not based on a life-or-death true story, which we've been inundated with in the past couple of years," Fawcett said in a second interview with this writer.

"I find it difficult to break out of those kinds of roles, because unfortunately they usually are the best-written scripts. Right after I did Murder In Texas, I tried to get The Burning Bed made, and no one would do it for three years. You try so hard to get something done at a particular time, and it doesn't get done. And then the very thing you fought to get done is now the very thing you're fighting against doing.

"It's really a vicious cycle. The things they offer you are the things you've had success in. But why do it again? I'm slightly offended that we keep getting offered these victim or crazy women roles. We deserve the right to be in something that's entertaining."

Fawcett, who attended the University of Texas at Austin in the mid-1960s but didn't graduate, had a long and often problem-plagued relationship with actor Ryan O'Neal, who was with her at the end. But her only marriage was to actor Lee Majors, with the couple divorcing in 1982.

Fawcett and O'Neal teamed as dueling sportscasters and former lovers in the 1991 CBS sitcom Good Sports, which was quickly canceled but received generally good reviews.

"It's the last, the very last TV series I'll do," she said a year later. "I need to be creatively stimulated and challenged, and for me to repeat the same character, it's not interesting for me. We were never able to do exactly what we wanted. We would get script changes at 3 o'clock in the morning. We were so off-balance, we didn't have time to say we didn't like it."

In later years, Fawcett mostly made news playing herself in attention-getting projects such as 1997's Playboy: Farrah Fawcett, All of Me and the 2005 TV Land reality series Chasing Farrah, which the network will be repeating in part on Saturday night.

Fawcett also made a decidedly discombobulated appearance in 1997 on CBS' Late Show with David Letterman, during which she offered a rambling discourse on escaping fans in Central Park.

Mostly, though, she'll be remembered as the blonde bombshell who put the "jiggle" in Charlie's Angels during times when the then Big Three broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- controlled 90 percent of the television viewing audience while cable was still being birthed.

"You break one image and then you're stuck with another," Fawcett said in our 1989 interview. "I've always had people feel very strongly about me -- one way or the other."

Earth shifts: Dave outdraws Conan in third week of late night faceoff

Post-writers' strike and pre-rivarlry, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien returned to work with beards. Last week, Old Gray's Late Show beat Big Red's Tonight for the first time in total viewers.

It's too early to predict any wholesale shifts in the late night terrain. But David Letterman's first national win over Conan O'Brien in Week 3 of their new rivalry is still a pretty big whoop for CBS.

For the week of June 15-19, Letterman's Late Show averaged 3.463 million viewers to nip O'Brien's Tonight Show (3.320 million). In the previous week, O'Brien had 3.771 million viewers to Letterman's 3.669 million.

CBS says it's the first time Letterman has won since the week ending on December 2, 2005, when Oprah Winfrey made her much-publicized first appearance on Late Show.

NBC in turn touts O'Brien's continued advantage among 18-to-49-year-olds, although the margin is very slowly shrinking.

In Week 3, Tonight drew 1.763 million viewers in the 18-to-49 age range, with Late Show averaging 1.058 million. For Week 2, it was O'Brien with 2.013 million and Letterman, 1.126 million.

O'Brien may get a big boost Thursday (June 25th) from an appearance by Sacha Baron Cohen in character as the outrageously gay Bruno. Conan might want to be very afraid, but the ratings payoff should be worth it.

NBC's The Philanthropist is a do-gooder that needs to get better

James Purefoy plays a billionaire Good Samaritan on needy NBC.

Premiering: Wednesday, June 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: James Purefoy, Jesse L. Martin, Neve Campbell, Lindy Booth, Michael Kenneth Williams, James Albrecht
Produced by: Tom Fontana, Peter Horton, Barry Levinson

Robbing some of his riches to give to the poor is good for a tormented billionaire playboy's soul. It leads him through the Nigerian jungle and beyond in Wednesday's premiere of The Philanthropist.

Drawn from various real-life exploits of big businessman Bobby Sager, this is something less than g-r-r-r-eat drama. Still, its distant travels and overall good intentions are a quantum improvement on NBC's jungle-bound I'm A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here, which finally has its season finale as the Peacock's Wednesday night leadoff hitter.

Philanthropist begins with Teddy Rist (James Purefoy from HBO's Rome) racing through remote Nigeria on a motorcycle before his transportation is shot out from under him. Viewers then learn that Rist earlier had an epiphany after saving the life of a young Nigerian boy while on a business trip. A hurricane and flash flooding prompted the impromptu rescue.

Rist relates this story to a comely, skeptical, hinterland bartender who keeps filling his shot glass with whiskey. He cavalierly offers her $1 grand to keep listening and pouring.

"I'd spent my life watching from a distance, from behind tinted glass," Rist tells her at one point. But now that's no longer an option -- at least not all of the time. Rist's cathartic turnabout also is fueled by the year-ago death of his young son and the dissolution of his marriage.

Philanthropist is heavy on narration, flashbacks and the creature comforts to which Rist has become accustomed. While scheming to singlehandedly deliver medicine to the Nigerian boy's devastated village, Rist also stays in luxury hotels, demands a more civilized whiskey than Jim Beam and apparently participates in a fivesome after four beautiful young Nigerian women are delivered to his quarters by an influential local.

He also meets a conveniently beautiful African doctor (played by Bonnie Henna), who initially views him as a self-centered Good Samaritan who enjoys dirtying his hands a bit before returning home to tell his rich friends "how meaningful his life is compared to theirs."

Ah, but Rist of course ends up delivering the goods before the doctor treats his snake bites.

"How will I ever repay you?" she asks. Rist gives her a look before he's seen telling the bartender that they made passionate love that very night. Altruism has its privileges, but this really doesn't sit very well at all. Will our hero be bagging a native or two in every episode?

Rist's stateside corporate team includes two familiar TV faces. Jesse L. Martin, who recently quit Law & Order, plays business partner Philip Maidstone. And Party of Five alum Neve Campbell is both Philip's wife and head of the charitable foundation set up by the two men.

Purefoy and company all turn in capable performances in a series that ends up being only minimally compelling on night one. Its spirit is willing, but the execution is a bit weak. Shedding a good deal of the narration/flashback motif might help some. But in the end, maybe Rist is just too much of a wolf in chic clothing. A do-gooder without the right stuff.


NBC's Merlin gets olde in a hurry

Colin Morgan stars as an apprentice Merlin in new NBC series.

Premiering: Sunday, June 21st at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Anthony Head, Richard Wilson, Katie McGrath, Angel Coulby, John Hurt
Produced by: Julian Murphy, Johnny Capps,Jake Michie, Julian Jones

It's been 11 hardly magical years between NBC's two Merlins.

The lavishly mounted 1998 miniseries received 15 Emmy nominations, won four of them, starred Sam Neill in the title role and featured John Gielgud, Helena Bonham Carter, James Earl Jones, Miranda Richardson, Martin Short, Isabella Rossellini and Rutger Hauer.

In succeeding seasons, NBC has tumbled from first to fourth in the prime-time ratings and lost much of its luster via attractions such as Fear Factor, The Biggest Loser, Deal or No Deal, Celebrity Apprentice and the ongoing I'm A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here.

Into this cesspool steps NBC's second Merlin, a 13-episode scripted series originally scheduled to premiere last winter but now relegated to the hot summertime. Launching Sunday with back-to-back one-hour episodes, it stars newcomer Colin Morgan as a wide-eyed kid sorcerer who resembles an early Beatle. He also could be a formative Mr. Spock if his prominent ears were pointier.

Young Merlin arrives in Camelot just in time to witness a beheading ordered by nasty King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head), who has banned all magic from his realm after bad things happened in earlier times.

This makes Merlin pretty blue.

"If I can't use magic, what have I got?" he asks his wizened mentor Gaius (Richard Wilson). "I'm just a nobody, and always will be."

We pause for this brief commercial message regarding "product placement," which is all the rage at NBC in particular. But Merlin would appear to offer few if any opportunities in this arena. Medieval times weren't known for brand names, or even indoor toilets. And even in a "re-imagined" tale such as this, it might be unseemly for Merlin to tout the virtues of "ye olde Big Mac."

Back to our review and a further introduction of characters. A cocky Prince Arthur (Bradley James) initially delights in bullying the nerdish Merlin while plucky Guinevere (Angel Coulby) -- "But most people call me Gwen" -- decides to befriend him.

Merlin also has an ally in The Great Dragon (voiced by John Hurt), who's been chained in a cave by Uther as an "example" that the old ways no longer will be tolerated. The Dragon tends to talk in mysterious ways, but makes it clear that Arthur cannot succeed as the eventual King without Merlin by his side. By the end of Episode 1 -- as in NBC's earlier series Kings -- Merlin gains a position in the royal palace after saving the life of the future king with a major assist from his magical powers.

Sunday's second episode, built around a sword-fighting tournament, plods along with utmost predictability after introducing a villain who blows into town with poisonous snakes embedded in his shield. Can Merlin save Arthur again? And in the process will he typically be ordered to "get out of my sight?" You'll quickly get the drift.

Merlin is touted in NBC publicity materials as "an imaginative and enthralling new twist on a legend that is as old as time." In truth, it's at best a moderately entertaining little talkie that lacks majesty but beats watching a shirtless, slobbified Stephen Baldwin on I'm a Celebrity.

That's pretty much what it's come to on NBC, which in the years between Merlins has gradually been upstaged by NBC Universal's most-watched cable property, the USA network. Its summertime fare includes new seasons of Burn Notice and In Plain Sight plus a fun, breezy newcomer in Royal Pains.

The Peacock's broadcast arm can't say nearly as much of late. Even Merlin isn't capable of waving a magic wand and making it all better. He's just a magician, after all, not a miracle worker.


Here's to his health care: ABC News draws GOP fire for extensive coverage next week of Obama's prescription

ABC's Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson will be joining President Obama in the White House for a prime-time Q&A on health care.

President Obama's second prime-time tour de force this month is drawing fire from the Republican National Committee, which contends that ABC News risks being behind a "glorified infomercial to promote the Democrat agenda" on health care reform.

At issue is Questions for the President: Prescription for America, scheduled on June 24th from 9 to 10 p.m. (central). The program will originate from the White House East Room, with ABC anchors Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer joining the president.

ABC also will telecast that day's Good Morning America from the South Lawn of the White House and that evening's World News from the White House Blue Room. Nightline also will join in with a continuation of the prime-time special.

During the GMA segment, Sawyer will have an exclusive interview with Obama while the program's co-host, Robin Roberts, again goes one-on-one with First Lady Michelle Obama, as she did on Inauguration night.

An ABC News publicity release says that during the prime-time special, Obama "will answer questions from an audience made up of Americans selected by ABC News who have divergent opinions in this historic debate."

But RNC chief of staff Ken McKay, in a letter to ABC News president David Westin, says the GOP is "deeply concerned and disappointed with ABC's astonishing decision to exclude opposing voices on this critical issue."

McKay says that a request Monday to "add our Party's views" was rejected by ABC.

"I believe that the President should have the ability to speak directly to the American people," McKay said in the letter. "However, I find it outrageous that ABC would prohibit our Party's opposing thoughts and ideas from this national debate."

Absent any input from the GOP, ABC's "prime-time informercial should be paid for" by the Democratic National Committee, McKay wrote.

The network quickly responded Tuesday via a statement from ABC News senior vice president Kerry Smith.

"ABC News prides itself on covering all sides of important issues and asking direct questions of all newsmakers -- of all political persuasions -- when others have taken a more partisan approach and even in the face of criticism from extremes on both sides of the political spectrum," Smith said in part. "ABC News is looking for the most thoughtful and diverse voices on this issue. ABC News alone will select those who will be in the audience asking questions of the president. Like any programs we broadcast, ABC News will have complete editorial control. To suggest otherwise is quite unfair to both our journalists and our audience."

One thing is certain. Obama remains a ratings magnet, as downtrodden NBC can attest. The network's two-part Inside the Obama White House, telecast in prime-time on June 2nd and 3rd, respectively drew 9.2 million and 9 million viewers nationally. That was good enough to rank 7th and 8th in the prime-time Nielsen ratings for that week.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams hosted those programs, and certainly couldn't be accused of being a buzzsaw. But similar deferential Inside the White House specials also aired on NBC during George W. Bush's administration.

ABC's health care sit-downs with Obama obviously are more politically charged. But in truth, there's more of a perception problem -- in this view at least -- with originating World News from the White House Blue Room. That seems to go well beyond cozy in terms of a free press's relationship with a sitting government.

Whatever your view, count on Fox News Channel and MSNBC to go their usual partisan routes, at least in prime-time.

FNC will assail ABC News for being a lapdog. MSNBC will pet ABC and say, "Good dog." CNN again will be caught somewhere in the middle -- to its ratings detriment, of course. And these beats go on.

Back on its heals: TNT's HawthoRNe adds more meds to summertime cabinet

Jada Pinkett Smith takes charge as head nurse Christina Hawthorne.

Premiering: Tuesday, June 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Vartan, Suleka Mathew, David Julian Hirsch, Vanessa Lengies, Christina Moore, Hannah Hodson
Produced by: John Masius, Jamie Tarses, Mikael Salomon, Jada Pinkett Smith

There are doctors in your house this summer. And no shortage of nurses either.

TNT's HawthoRNe is the fifth new medical-themed series in the last three weeks. So far they've ranged from first-rate (Showtime's Nurse Jackie) to breezily entertaining (USA's Royal Pains) to pretty decent (Fox's Mental) to coma-inducing (NBC's The Listener).

HawthoRNe, which precedes Tuesday's third season premiere of TNT's Saving Grace, has a very game Jada Pinkett Smith going for it. She's all over the role of chief nursing officer Christina Hawthorne, a firm, fair, caustically compassionate caregiver who might want to hook up someday with Edie Falco's pill-popping, hell-on-wheels Jackie Peyton. No imperious or incompetent doctor would stand a chance.

Hawthorne is considerably softer, though, even when telling a pair of cops, "Get off of me. I'm a nurse, dammit!"

Her Bones McCoy is Dr. Tom Wakefield (Michael Vartan), chief of surgery at Richmond Trinity Hospital. He feels the pain of Christina's big loss after treating her late husband, who's been dead for a year as HawthoRNe begins unfolding. She's had insomnia ever since, we learn. And her prototypically rebellious daughter, Camille (Hannah Hodson), is prone to blaming mom for dad's death.

Christina compensates by working long, selfless hours and upbraiding doctors when it's called for (which is often). She also befriends a homeless lady with child and tries to keep her nursing staff out of harm's way while always demanding their full devotion to duty.

Principal among them is nurse Bobbie Jackson (Suleka Mathew), a beauty who views herself as "damaged goods" because of a prosthetic leg. There's also hard luck male nurse Ray Stein (David Julian Hirsch), blubbering rookie Kelly Epson (Vanessa Lengies) and yummy Candy Sullivan (Christina Moore), who otherwise makes a fairly minimal impression in the first two episodes sent for review.

Smith, wife of A-list movie star Will Smith, is given every opportunity to shine here. Her acting range can't yet be called far and wide. But she makes for an appealing lead character amid briskly paced proceedings. HawthoRNe can't be accused of dawdling, even if it occasionally spoons on the sap. Then again, what hospital drama doesn't?

Most viewers also will recognize a few veteran guest stars. In Tuesday's premiere, Joanna Cassidy (Six Feet Under) drops in as Christina's demanding mother-in-law, Amanda, who's also on the Trinity hospital's board of directors. Next week's episode brings former Cosby kid Malcolm-Jamal Warner as a brain aneurism patient and Emmy-laden Cloris Leachman as -- what else -- a crusty, impossibly demanding, bed-ridden banshee.

HawthoRNe, co-produced by former ABC entertainment president Jamie Tarses, may not be quite the cure for your summertime blues. Still, it's a better than average effort with some star quality presence in the title role. Believe Christina Hawthorne when she says, "We are here to take care of the sick -- no matter what."

A little more care with scripts and characterizations would be a nice touch, too.


Big Saturday Night dawns on still little GSN

Fred Roggin and Cat Deeley host new games on Big Saturday Night.

Formerly and more aptly called the Game Show Network, GSN is still striving and struggling to make a name for itself.

So much so that TV critics across the land recently received a yellow, fully inflated easy chair in an attention-getting shipping box big enough to hold a doghouse. Emblazoned Big Saturday Night, it heralds a three-hour GSN programming initiative of the same name.

The box also housed a review copy of The Money List and some printed superlatives on 20Q, which isn't available for advance screening. The two new game shows, respectively hosted by veteran sportscaster Fred Roggin and So You Think You Can Dance's Cat Deeley, will be surrounded by live comedy and music performances and interactive opportunities for viewers to "win big," says GSN.

It all starts, appropriately, on Saturday (June 13), from 7 to 10 p.m. central. 20Q premieres at 7 p.m. on that night, with Money List slotted at 8:30. GSN is promising nine weeks worth of Big Saturday Night for "entertainment hungry audiences."

Well, the night certainly can be barren. Three of the Big Four broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC -- mostly use Saturday nights for repeats and castoffs, save for CBS' first-run 48 Hours Mystery. Fox has been programming COPS and America's Most Wanted for forever and a day.

GSN's BSN at least is entering the Saturday night ring with something more than reruns of Family Feud and Joker's Wild. But the network's grand prize money remains fairly skimpy, even though it's upped the ante considerably from the hard cover dictionaries given to winners of an early interactive horse race game on the old Game Show Network.

Money List, which turns out to be both an addictive and brainy enterprise, pits two-member teams against each other in a list-building competition. The first team to win two out of three gets a chance to win between $10,000 and $50,000 per round-- or nothing at all. But the victors get to keep playing regardless.

Roggin, 52 and still nicely preserved under a spiky haircut, says things like, "Off to your pod, you go." Each team occupies one during the course of game action, with Roggin milking whatever suspense can be mustered as contestants come closer and closer to pay dirt.

It's fun, though. On the Money List sent for review, Robert and Anastasia said they could name 10 "Meryl Streep Movies." Their competitors, Shannon and Young, dared them to do it. Which they did/didn't.

Refreshingly, competitors receive no simple-dimple hints. In other words, Roggin isn't there to say, "One of the movies repeats the name of a madcap character played by Michael Richards on Seinfeld before he committed career suicide." Um, Kramer vs. Kramer? Right you are!!!

Contestant Anastasia, a geophysicist turned comedy writer, says she'd use any prize money to first help her sister and then get liposuction and collagen injections. Oddly enough, this makes her appealing.

The winning team in this particular competition must correctly name 15 European capital cities to win $50,000. This is accomplished in three-name increments, progressing from $5 grand to $10 grand to $15 grand to $25 grand to $50 grand. Unlike Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, you lose everything if you stumble enroute.

Other categories on Money List include "Female Grand Slam Tennis Singles Champions from 1968-2008" and "The 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time," as chosen in a Comedy Central special.

More than a little brain power is required in many instances, making Money List a keeper with possibilities beyond GSN if Big Saturday Night turns out to be a bust.

20Q might be a diamond in the rough, too, but for now it's sight unseen. The game is based on the handheld and Internet game in which a player's chosen word is revealed via 20 questions. GSN doesn't say how much prize money is at stake, but Deeley likely can be counted on to inject this game with the same energy she brings to Think You Can Dance.

So all in all, this seems like a good try by a network that's still looking for a true signature show or event. If you've never run into GSN before, maybe now's the time.

Nurse Jackie the latest big booster shot for Showtime

Premiering: Monday, June 8th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Edie Falco, Eve Best, Peter Facinelli, Anna Deaver Smith, Merrit Wever, Dominic Fumusa, Paul Schulze, Haaz Sleiman, Ruby Jerins, Daisy Tahan, Stephen Wallem
Created and produced by: Evan Dunsky, Liz Brixius, Linda Wallem

Summertime's best new series again shows how far Showtime has come.

Once a Lilliputian to HBO's Gulliver, Showtime has all but reached parity on the series front with Weeds, Dexter, The Tudors, Californication and now Nurse Jackie.

What's more, it's plucked one of HBO's all-time biggest stars to play the title role. Edie Falco segues from Carmela Soprano to Jackie Peyton, a hard-edged, pill-popping, unfaithful but dedicated healer who'd someday like to be heaven-worthy.

"It bears repeating," she narrates at the close of Monday's Episode 1. "Make me good, God. But not yet."

Jackie's domain is the ER at Manhattan's All Saints Hospital, where she's long become accustomed to the truism that "life is full of little pricks." Showtime sent the first six half-hour episodes for review, and your friendly content provider ended up devouring them with the same appetite that Jackie has for her illicit prescription meds.

They're provided by hospital pharmacist Eddie Walzer (Paul Schulze), who also serves as her workplace sexual liaison. Unbeknownst to him -- Jackie never wears her wedding ring on duty -- she's married to a fine, upstanding bar-restaurant owner (Dominic Fumusa as Kevin Peyton). They also have two young daughters, with the oldest, 10-year-old Grace (Ruby Jerins), already suffering from anxiety.

All of this hardly makes Jackie a textbook good person. But she's a crackerjack nurse and caregiver who will break rules and circumvent doctors in pursuit of optimum patient care -- or at least something in the vicinity.

Falco, her hair very boyishly cut and parted, makes a complete break from Carmela in what's billed as a "dark comedy" but has more meat on it than that. Jackie's a taskmaster without being an out-and-out prick about it, particularly during exchanges with impressionable first-year nurse Zoey Barkow (wonderful work by newcomer Merritt Wever).

"I don't like chatty," she informs the kid. "I don't do chatty. I like quiet. Quiet and mean. Those are my people."

Jackie doesn't quite mean that, and Zoey more or less knows it. Not so Dr. Fitch "Coop" Cooper (Peter Facinelli from Six Feet Under), the latest young stud doctor to sometimes make a mess of things at All Saints. He also has a penchant for grabbing women staffers' breasts and blaming it on occasional flare-ups of his Tourette's Syndrome.

"I've seen hundreds of you jerk-offs blow through these doors," Jackie informs Cooper while upbraiding him for a costly patient mis-diagnosis. But Cooper gradually emerges as more than a one-note, vainglorious screw-up. And Jackie is professional enough to tell him that.

The series has another delicious character in veteran Dr. Eleanor O'Hara (Eve Best). She's a self-absorbed, materialistic Brit who's also Jackie's best friend and lunch companion at various upscale restaurants at which the doc presumably always buys. There's also ER administrator Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith), a fire-breather who's more than a little too cartoonish during the course of the first six episodes.

Episode 6 so far is the best of all. It features a terrific guest performance by Judith Ivey as a profane, cancer-ridden, former battle axe nurse who wants Jackie's help in dying. Blythe Danner and Swoosie Kurtz also appear in this half-hour as Cooper's lesbian mothers.

Each episode is a little slice of life -- or death -- while also advancing the story of Jackie's very unkempt personal travails. Paired with Weeds, whose Season 5 premiere precedes it, Nurse Jackie gives Showtime another upgrade in its persistent battle to someday upstage HBO. This is the series that might finally put it over the hump at Emmy Awards time.

Nurse Jackie really is that good. And as these first six episodes show, it keeps getting better.


Conan twits tweeters -- nets laughs

Conan O'Brien's second Tonight Show included clear signs of progress. It featured a great example of what he can do -- and what Jay Leno wouldn't. Namely, the very inventive "Twitter Tracker." It's very much in keeping with the desk-originated humor O'Brien regularly brought to Late Night. And for me, this one worked almost flawlessly, with use of vacuous, real-life celebrity tweets from Ashton Kutcher, Miley Cyrus and Dennis Haysbert.

See what you think after first sitting through an obligatory 30-second commercial. It's all courtesy of the unparalleled hulu.com.
Ed Bark

Royal Pains gives USA network another breezy summertime bright spot

Mark Feuerstein (orange shirt) heads the cast of USA's Royal Pains.

Premiering: Thursday, June 4th at 9 p.m. (central) on USA
Starring: Mark Feurstein, Paulo Costanzo, Jill Flint, Reshma Shetty
Produced by: Andrew Lenchewski, Michael Rauch, Rich Frank, Paul Frank, Jeff Kwatinetz, John P. Rogers, Jace Alexander


NBC Universal's biggest loser -- and loss leader -- continues to be its once formidable but now last place NBC broadcast network.

Meanwhile, the Peacock's cable constellation both makes money and in some cases holds its head high, too. None more so than the USA network, which launches a bright fish-out-of-water doctor series Thursday night while also returning fave rave Burn Notice for a third season.

In contrast, NBC is filling Thursday's prime-time holes with another hour of its sub-putrid I'm A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here and the first two episodes of The Listener, a series better left unheard and unseen.

USA's likable newcomer is Royal Pains, which gives its star, Mark Feuerstein, a third crack at prime-time longevity after flopping in NBC's Good Morning, Miami and CBS' 3 lbs.

This time could be the charm. Feuerstein plays ER doc Hank Lawson, who's drummed out of Manhattan's medical establishment after a billionaire hospital trustee dies on his watch while he saves someone else.

His blonde bombshell fiancee soon pans out as a golddigger, although Hank proves to be a vexing, world class moper. He spends his days drinking beer, watching old movies and seeing most of his belongings repossessed before younger brother Evan (Paulo Costanzo) shows up to inform him that his pad "smells like a moose had sex with a bucket of Chinese food."

That perhaps beats the alternative of smelling like a muskrat passing gas after having relations with a week-old anchovy pizza. But point taken.

Costanzo's one-liners and zeal to be a playa give Royal Pains a quick picker-upper. His latest scheme is crashing a party at a mega-mansion in the Hamptons.

Older brother Hank plays along -- reluctantly, of course -- before fate intervenes in the shapely form of a socialite who collapses in the midst of revelers. Hank accurately vetoes the diagnosis of the local Dr. Feelgood, which immediately makes him the playland's latest A-list MD.

Can he feel good about himself, though? Well, yes, because a comely hospital administrator named Jill (Jill Flint) convinces Hank that he also can administer to the Hamptons' less fortunate, most of whom are employed in menial jobs by the rich.

Also co-starring is Reshma Shetty as the willful Divya, who insists on becoming Hank's physician's assistant. Li'l bro Evan can't believe their good fortune, even if big bro is the one attracting all the interest from various pretty ladies.

Royal Pains is little more than a fun, breezy summertime escape. But it's well cast in this role, thanks to some clever writing and winning performances, principally by Costanzo.

The newcomer also has a crowd-pleasing warmup act in Burn Notice, which returns in the 8 p.m. (central) slot. It gives USA a nicely matched pair of weekly warm weather destinations while sibling network NBC washes ashore with more flotsam.


NBC's The Listener -- not on my watch

Craig Olejnik has lots on his mind as the star of NBC's The Listener.

Premiering: Thursday, June 4th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC, with another episode at 9 p.m.
Starring: Craig Olejnik, Ennis Esmer, Colm Feore, Mylene Dinh-Robic, Lisa Marcos
Produced by: Christina Jennings, Scott Garvie, Michael Amo, Tom Chehak, Clement Virgo

It's sometimes OK for a TV show to be preposterous. Just don't be listless, too. NBC's The Listener is both.

Premiering Thursday with belatedly scheduled back-to-back episodes, Listener inevitably begins with a slice of narrative from its wan lead character, paramedic Toby Logan (Craig Olejnik).

"Ever wonder what people are thinking?" he asks all of us out here in TV land. "I don't. I know."

Not that you'll care. Toby's "gift," which also allows him to envision fiery car wrecks and the like, apparently comes and goes in fits and spurts. And no one's the wiser except an older dude named Dr. Ray Mercer (Colm Feore), who's Toby's mentor, confidant and probably deep, dark manipulator of some sort.

In Thursday's scene-setter, Toby and his paramedic pal, "Oz" Bey (Ennis Esmer), are trading lame banter before coming upon an overturned car in what looks to be the middle of Manhattan but actually is cost-efficient Toronto. Amazingly, no one else pays any mind to this, even though it's daytime on a major thoroughfare. Extras apparently aren't in The Listener's budget. Neither is plausibility.

Anyway, Toby soon deduces that the woman they rescue also had a young boy with her. But now he's missing, giving Toby further reason to get his head in this game.

Meanwhile, we also meet his snippy would-be girlfriend, Dr. Olivia Fawcett (Mylene Dinh-Robic), and a no-nonsense woman cop named Charlie Marks (Lisa Marcos). She's prone to badgering Toby and also fond of tight, low-cut tops. But even her intermittent scenic beauty can't make The Listener watchable. There's no spark at all here amid a plodding plot populated by characters who succeed only in boring the hell out of anyone daring to watch.

Thursday's second episode of The Listener wasn't available for review. Thanks at least for that, NBC.


So-so, but over and done: O'Brien notches his first Tonight

Conan O'Brien basks in his first Tonight Show ovation. Photo: Ed Bark

The hardest part is just getting through it.

After more than three months on layaway, Conan O'Brien re-emerged on a grander stage Monday to become just the fifth permanent host of NBC's Tonight Show.

Leaning somewhat top-heavily on three taped bits and a star turn by first guest Will Ferrell, he made it to the finish line with his auburn pompadour in full bloom but not his comedic talents. That's going to require an adjustment period, with O'Brien feeling his way at a new time, on a new coast and in the midst of an amusement park.

O'Brien made his entrance on a very bluish new Tonight set built from scratch at Universal Studios, where tram rides are part of the outdoor decor. He predictably took one for a ride during a pre-packaged segment that had him stepping in as tour conductor. It went on a little too long, but Conan did get off one inspired line as the tram wheeled its way through one of several man-made disasters.

"Either that's a flash flood or the Octomom's water just broke," he cracked.

O'Brien cold-opened the show by brushing his teeth and running down a checklist of other things to do before his first Tonight dawned. The last one, "Move to L.A.," caught him flat-footed. Still in New York City, he made a headlong cross country run, with a swim and a quick stop at a Victorian Doll museum thrown in. Encountering a locked studio door, he then climactically drove a mini-bulldozer through it. Not a bad way to start.

O'Brien has brought the Max Weinberg 7 and his old NBC Late Night theme song with him. And his original sidekick, Andy Richter, is back in play as the new Tonight Show's announcer and banterer.

Richter cackled a little too loudly at times during his boss's unexceptional first monologue, which included one of predecessor Jay Leno's old standbys, a Los Angeles Clippers joke. Once at his desk, O'Brien made it a point to thank Leno for his 17 years of service and for being "a very good friend to me."

Leno will be back in September to host his new Monday-Friday prime-time show from the Burbank lot that previously housed Tonight. O'Brien said he'd be glad to again have Leno as his lead-in, but we'll see about that after the competition for guests inevitably heats up between the two NBC shows.

After a third hit-and-miss taped segment -- O'Brien drove his battered '92 Ford Taurus about town -- Ferrell arrived Cleopatra-style on a throne carried by four bare-chested minions.

"I didn't want to upstage you. I just wanted to come in low-key," he explained.

Ferrell also of course wanted to promote his new movie, Land of the Lost, which comes out Friday. And on Sunday he'll be up for a Tony award for his one-man portrayal of George W. Bush in You're Welcome, America. The competition includes Liza Minnelli, who should win, Ferrell said. Still, he wanted America to know she's a Communist, which she isn't. But it made for a pretty funny riff.

O'Brien contentedly chuckled along before almost reverentially introducing the night's musical guest, Pearl Jam. They're promoting something, too, a new CD titled "Backspacer." But lead singer Eddie Vedder's vocals seemed notably muffled, rendering the band's performance distant and muddied.

"Wow, that went very quickly," O'Brien said at show's end.

Even so, he's probably thrilled to have it behind him. The first one's always a gut-churner.