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Another "Dick"-ensian moment on MSNBC, with analyst Mark Halperin the latest suspendee

You apparently haven't arrived on MSNBC unless you've been suspended.

Political analyst Mark Halperin was the latest to join the list Thursday, even though he first was goaded by Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

Halperin first asked if the seven-second delay button was operative before he ventured to say what he really thought about President Obama's press conference Wednesday. Both hosts urged him to go ahead with assurances that anything too dicey would be bleeped out. Halperin then said, "I thought he (Obama) was kind of a dick yesterday."

Scarborough, previously suspended for making unauthorized donations to Republican candidates, was somewhat taken aback.

"What are you doing!?" he exclaimed. "I was joking. Don't do that!"

The hosts then chastized an on-camera guy in the control booth after he said he'd pressed the wrong button.

Halperin, author of the best-selling 2008 presidential campaign chronicle Game Change, quickly apologized both on the air and in a subsequent MSNBC news release announcing his indefinite suspension as one of the network's analysts. "We apologize to the President, the White House and all of our viewers," the MSNBC statement said in part. "We strive for a high level of discourse and comments like these have no place on our air."

The "high level of discourse" part is particularly funny.

"Um, we're going to have a meeting after the show," a frozen-faced Brzezinski said on the air Thursday. That was funny, too.

Keith Olbermann, former host of MSNBC's Countdown, also was suspended by the network -- for unauthorized contributions to Democratic candidates. He then left MSNBC and launched a new version of Countdown earlier this month on Al Gore's Current TV network.

Olbermann should have a field day with this, provided that you can find Current on your cable or satellite menu. Countdown airs at 7 p.m. (central).

MSNBC hosts David Schuster and Ed Schultz also received badges of honor, er, suspensions, for what were deemed inappropriate mouth movements. Schuster accused Hillary Clinton of "pimping out" daughter Chelsea during the 2008 campaign while Schultz branded analyst/author Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut."

Here's video of Halperin's Morning Joe moment.

"Actors and Their Roles" for $100, Alex: It was the last scripted series to rank No. 1 for a full television season

Judge Christina Aguilera busts it up for The Voice; throngs attend recent Dallas auditions for fall's The X Factor. NBC/Fox photos

Thespians hate hearing this, and rightly so.

But we've probably reached the point where a scripted drama or comedy series has no realistic chance anymore to rank as prime-time's most popular attraction in either the traditional "regular" or the increasingly competitive summer TV seasons.

It hasn't happened since the 2002-'03 regular season, when CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation finished No. 1.

Since then, from 2003-'04 on, the annual prime-time ratings champ has been Fox's American Idol. In the past 12 TV seasons, only two scripted series -- CSI and NBC's Friends -- have been top of the heap. Friends reigned in 2001-'02, with ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and CBS' Survivor: The Australian Outback ranking No. 1 in the two seasons before that.

Idol obviously is the multi-million dollar gorilla here. But it's not the only so-called "reality competition" series making a big footprint.

In the latest ratings week -- June 20-26 -- prime-time's top 5 shows were three editions of NBC's perennial summertime hit, America's Got Talent, and two helpings of the Peacock's new "reality competition" grabber, The Voice.

They also held those spots among advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds while ABC pulled into sixth place in this key demographic with the premiere of its latest unscripted concoction, Expedition Impossible. E I also ranked 14th in the overall total viewer ratings. And Fox's So You Think You Can Dance likewise continues to be a strong summer performer, as does CBS' Big Brother, which returns on July 7th for its 13th edition.

Summer is only the half of it, of course. The Voice, which premiered in the spring, already has been renewed for midseason, where in January it will begin taking up two hours of NBC's Monday night schedule.

Another imposing "reality competition" newcomer, Fox's Simon Cowell-fueled The X Factor, is set for a two-night, four-hour launch on Sept. 21-22 (Wed.-Thurs.).

ABC's most popular series, Dancing with the Stars, will start its 13th season on Monday, Sept. 19th. And CBS' Survivor: South Pacific, firing up on Wednesday, Sept. 14th, will be the 23rd go-around for that reality-competition granddaddy.

All of these shows can be contracted or expanded at will, with the majority of them running on multiple nights per week. And their overall costs, despite some hefty judges' salaries, are still cheaper than most one-hour scripted dramas. They largely originate from the same sets every week after, in some cases, early audition rounds in various cities. And the amateur talent on these shows gets paid peanuts, with only Dancing with the Stars forking out any real money in the form of "appearance fees" to its celebrity hoofers.

The broadcast networks also are investing fairly heavily in new scripted series for the upcoming season. But none has even a scant chance of climbing to the No. 1 spot, let alone reaching prime-time's top 10 list.

It's telling that NBC's only good prime-time news in the past year has been the sudden ascendance of The Voice. And that the biggest tub-thumping campaign for this fall will be on behalf of The X Factor.

End result: scripted dramas and comedies worth watching increasingly are moving to cable networks such as FX, TNT, AMC, USA and the two long-time premium channels, HBO and Showtime. Their audiences may be a relatively small fraction of those for Idol, Dancing with the Stars, America's Got Talent and their ilk. But series such as True Blood, Mad Men, Burn Notice, The Closer and It's Only Sunny in Philadelphia all have solid fan bases. You just have to pay extra to see them.

Meanwhile, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox continue to look for the next big reality competition extravaganza. It's the easiest way to hit jackpots that will keep on spewing cash. It's also harkening back to TV's formative years, when popular series such as Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour sought to make stars of commoners.

Gladys Knight and Pat Boone were among Amateur Hour's grand prize winners. And Talent Scouts incubated the likes of Boone (who took a double dip), Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Roy Clark, Connie Francis and Patsy Cline.

By the way, as this is being written, The Hollywood Reporter has just confirmed that NBC will be bringing back host Joe Rogan and Fear Factor for at least eight episodes.

Another sign of the times.

USA's Necessary Roughness could use a sand-blaster

A hand-on-hip Callie Thorne heads cast of Necessary Roughness USA photo

Premiering: Wednesday, July 29th at 9 p.m. (central) on USA
Starring: Callie Thorne, Marc Blucas, Mehcad Brooks, Scott Cohen
Produced by: Liz Kruger, Craig Shapiro, Kevin Dowling

Further sanding, preferably followed by a power-washing, is required on USA's Necessary Roughness. It also should be ashamed of its cheap epilepsy joke, which begs for a total removal before air time.

USA network's latest summer addition, paired with Wednesday's Season 3 premiere of Royal Pains, has a capable and authoritative lead actress in throaty Callie Thorne. Her many prime-time travels have taken her through regular or recurring roles on Rescue Me, Prison Break, The Wire and ER among others.

But the extended 75-minute pilot episode of Necessary Roughness tends to collapse around her, even though it's based on a real-life psychotherapist named Dr. Donna Dannenfelser.

Dannenfelser's way too big a mouthful for a prime-time TV character, so Thorne instead is named Dani Santino. By any name she's a messy mix of jilted wife, manic mother and budding shrink to the stars.

Early in Wednesday's opener, Dani deduces that her husband has been unfaithful. And in their own bed to boot, which he fails to re-make properly on at least one telltale occasion. She immediately demands a divorce, drawing little sympathy from battle ax mother, Angela (the recurring Concetta Tomei).

"Ma, he cheated on me, more than once!" Dani protests.

"But less than Tiger Woods," mom reasons.

Dani's best pal, a floozy named Jeanette (Amanda Detmer), tries to offer wiser counsel. "You need to pop your cherry into the next life," she tells Dani at a bar. No sooner said than done. Dani's quickly in the sack with a handsome dude named Matthew (Marc Blucas), who also happens to be the trainer of a made-for-TV pro football team called the Hawks.

Dani's a whiz at other things, too, such as curbing Matthew's smoking habit through hypnotism. He's impressed enough to recommend her as a therapist for the Hawk's star receiver, a very thinly disguised, cocky Terrell Owens knockoff named Terrence King (Mehcad Brooks).

"I got me a superstar wide receiver dropping balls faster than an epileptic juggler," says the Hawks' quick-tempered head coach. Putting a crude joke like that in the script merits a season-long suspension. So get rid of it.

Meanwhile, Dani's two teenage kids, Lindsay and Ray (Hannah Marks, Patrick Johnson), are pretty much left to fend for themselves in the immediate and traumatic aftermath of their parents' sudden split-up. Dani seems to have no professional skills at all when it comes to her troubled daughter. She instead strong-arms her with all the dexterity of the "namby pamby land" drill instructor turned therapist on those Geico commercials. Still, Dani informs her soon to be ex-husband that she doesn't want his money, but "you try to take my kids and I will kill you." Root for the Lothario to prevail.

Wednesday's unwieldy premiere also includes some sort of Hawks team "fixer" named Nico Careles (series regular Scott Cohen). He mediates between Dani and the recalcitrant King, an insult machine who says he ain't gonna be "talkin' to some bony ass Dr. Phil wannabe."

King of course is going to melt down, but only after first stiffing Dani at a New Jersey strip club where he's enjoying the private company of a bevy of practitioners.

Dani is supposed to end up being, as USA publicity materials describe it, "the most sought-after therapist for high-profile clients," with a rich client list of "athletes, entertainers, politicians and others living in the spotlight." Given that setup, it's hard to see how the aforementioned Hawks' triumvirate of Terrence, Nico and Matthew will all somehow fit in and fulfill their billings as the series' three other regular weekly characters.

Thorne's performance occasionally threatens to rise above this mess. But it's tough to overcome a narrative opening line that goes like this: "My dad used to say life is like a football game. There's winners and there's losers."

How profound. And Necessary Roughness is never quite able to rebound.

GRADE: C-minus

NBC'sLove in the Wild gives hapless beauties more legs up over just plain folk

Meet yet another batch of lovelorn beautiful people. NBC photo

Premiering: Wedneday, June 29th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Hosted by: Darren McMullen
Produced by: Tom Shelly, Liz Schulze, Eric Gardner, Mark Allen

Sometime in the very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very distant future, a group of genuinely ordinary looking singles will star in a network TV "reality competition" show about people who just can't seem to find a sustainable date or mate.

An added plus would be at least a semblance of believability. Dream on. The latest gambit in this genre, NBC's Love in the Wild, features another collection of sculpted beautiful people who supposedly are doomed to tread water in the universal dating pool unless they're thrown together in a Costa Rica jungle for a series of competitions spiked by snippy comments.

"How well they work together will determine if they're meant to be together," trills host Darren McMullen, who also helms the Australian version of Minute to Win It.

The 20 singles are first paired up as couples via a previous random numbers drawing. For the record, a 27-year-old hotel guest services rep named Dawn gets the first pick and takes 28-year-old student Jared. Either looks as though they could walk into a singles bar, snap their fingers and tell anyone on the premises, "You're comin' home with me." And that would be a done deal. But for the purposes of Love in the Wild, they're both desperately seeking mates after repeated failures off-camera.

The next step is a Survivor-like challenge. Contestants must build rafts and then paddle through what host McMullen says is a crocodile-filled river. No problem. Everyone paddles with their legs dangling in the water. And when a croc is sighted, it might as well be a mechanized creature from an NBC Universal theme park thrill ride. Still, one longs for a severed limb or two, even if most of the river's denizens might well prefer one of those much fleshier humans from NBC's The Biggest Loser.

The winning couple -- a map-aided jungle excursion also is required -- are immune from an Episode 1 eviction. They also get to spend a blissful night together in "The Oasis" before enjoying a nice lunch next to a waterfall that allows for further physical intimacy in swimwear. "I'm kinda giddy about it. I'm just goin' with it," says the winning woman before returning to another round of smooching -- and who knows what else -- with the winning man.

All of the runner-up couples get smaller two-person accommodations but of course have a communal hot tub at their disposal. Hot tubs are to TV dating competitions what ripe necks are to vampires. Gotta have 'em.

One couple eventually is sent home, with all of the contestants first getting a chance to change partners as part of their noble quests for true love.

Weepy Vanessa, who's also possessive, notes that "I'm looking for someone to spend the rest of my life with." Or at worst, at least a night, perhaps with protection from NBC Peacock brand condoms and/or contraceptives.

This is, however, one of those shows that a viewer easily can love to hate. And in that context, Love in the Wild is very well equipped to both go the distance and even be invited back next summer. By the way, the grand prize is a "first class trip around the world" for the last couple left standing. Even if Anthony Adonis ends up abandoning Candy Coating for Lucy Lush somewhere on a nude beach in Ibiza.

GRADE: C-minus

R.I.P. Peter Falk (Sept. 16, 1927 to June 23, 2011

American television's Sherlock Holmes, always resplendent in a rumpled tan raincoat, is now without the man who seemingly was born to play him.

Peter Falk, first seen as lieutenant Columbo in the February 20, 1968 movie Prescription: Murder, has died at the age of 83. That makes two iconic TV actors in less than three weeks. James Arness, likewise etched on small screens as Gunsmoke's Marshal Matt Dillon, died on June 3rd at the age of 88.

Columbo seemingly bumbled through every murder mystery he ever solved. But his appearance and demeanor of course were deceiving. "Just one more thing" or ""I'll tell ya what's botherin' me," he'd invariably get around to telling a wrongdoer. Audiences always knew the killer's identity from the start. Columbo's deferential line of questioning slowly reeled in his prey -- hook, line and stinker. They all initially thought he was an easily bamboozled rube. Wrong.

TV critic colleague Mark Dawidziak, in his excellent 1988 book The Columbo Phile: A Casebook, noted that the character's creators, Richard Levinson and William Link, at first wanted Lee J. Cobb to play Columbo. They then offered the role to Bing Crosby before settling on Falk. Um, wise choice.

Falk told Dawidziak that he bought Columbo's inimitable raincoat himself on a rainy day in New York. He kept it in a closet of his Beverly Hills home after the series ended its initial NBC run in 1978.

"I have a great deal of affection for it," he said. "I take great care of it. I've been known to say I put out a saucer of milk for it every night."

He loved the Columbo character, too, of course.

"What a mind," he told Dawidziak. "Who has a mind that sharp? Maybe Sherlock Holmes is that clever. It's a photo finish."

Falk won four acting Emmys as Columbo, the last in 1990. He was nominated an additional six times for the role. But his first Emmy win came in 1962, when he starred as Dimitre Fresco in The Dick Powell Theatre presentation of "The Price of Tomatoes."

Falk last played Columbo in 2003 in a movie titled Columbo Likes the Night Life. Jorge Garcia, who went on to play "Hugo" Hurley on Lost, had a supporting part in the film.

"Lieutenant, you're priceless. You're a gem," a murderer played by Dick Van Dyke told him in 1974's Negative Reaction. "A little flawed and not too bright, but you're one of a kind."

He definitely got the "one of a kind" part right.

Here's a brief video by which to remember the late great Peter Falk, who caught crooks without guns, browbeating or any other strong-arm tactics. He simply stripped them bare, one little thread of evidence at a time.

Linney still a knockout in Round 2 of Showtime's The Big C

Laura Linney, John Benjamin Hickey of The Big C. Showtime photo

Laura Linney remains a wonder on The Big C, where her lead performance as afflicted Minneapolis schoolteacher Cathy Jamison merits another Great Big A.

Television's one and only dark comedy about Stage 4 cancer returns to Showtime (on Monday, June 27th at 9:30 p.m. central) for what looks to be a better than ever Season 2. Although it's still tough to buy the idea that Cathy's stinky, slovenly, trigger-tempered bipolar brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) would attract the full-blown interest of Cynthia Nixon's lustrous, blonde and pretty beauteous Rebecca. So much so that he's now her new baby daddy, terminally infected toe and all.

Nixon's segue from her long run as Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City is of great help to Linney's Cathy. They niftily play off one another, with Nixon billed as a "special guest star" in the majority of this season's episodes, including the first four sent for review. She has a way of blurting out that Cathy has cancer. Or of telling her in Episode 2 that now's the time to have a baby shower, "before I get fat and you get all -- cancer-y."

In Showtime press materials, executive producers Jenny Bicks and Darlene Hunt say that Season 2 focuses on Cathy's angry determination to fight her grim prognosis after the first season dealt with grief and denial. To that end, Linney wears big red boxing gloves in one of the show's publicity photos.

Her champion will be the somewhat prickly Dr. Atticus Sherman, a cancer specialist and part-time magician played by Alan Alda. He's recommended by young Dr. Todd Mauer (Reid Scott), who violated the boundaries of patient/caregiver by impulsively kissing Cathy last season. Sherman has a new clinical cancer drug trial ready to roll, with Cathy counting herself in. No guarantees, though.

The Big C literally unfolds in seasons. So summer has given way to fall as Cathy begins gearing up for the battle of her life. Husband Paul (Oliver Platt) is fighting it with her, with the Jamisons under the same roof again after she finally let him in on her not-so-little secret. He's now her "cancierge," in his words.

Their son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), remains troubled and aggressively flatulent at times. And by Episode 3, there's a fourth wheel when one of Cathy's high school students, Andrea Jackson (Oscar-winner Gabourey Sidibe returning from last season), is invited to move in with them when her parents go on a missionary trip to Ghana.

Sidibe (Precious) has mastered the deadpan approach, telling Paul that "I'm cool with jokes about my weight. It's the elephant in the room. That's a joke, too." But it's no joke when she later tells Cathy, "I for one think you've a pretty brave bitch."

Linney's also brilliant in this role, rendering Cathy a sympathetic figure absent any sugar coating. There's a scene in Monday's Episode 1 where she laughs hysterically and at length while on a medicinal marijuana high. I'm not sure how many takes that took, but to do this convincingly is no small task for an actor.

Linney is equally adept at communicating rage, particularly after self-destructive brother Sean cruelly lashes out at her for not telling him face-to-face that she has cancer.

One small complaint. It's be nice if if TV series would get over the idea of having characters not only envision the dead, but converse with them. In this case, Cathy is haunted by crotchety old neighbor Marlene (Phyllis Somerville), who killed herself near the end of last season. Let's give her -- and this plot device -- a good long rest.

The Big C otherwise is a series that cries out for more attention than it's receiving on Showtime, which most viewers don't have in their homes. Its 13-episode Season 1 is available on DVD and via numerous other means, though. And Season 2 eventually should be making its way to itunes, netflix, etc.

You're strongly encouraged to buy in by whatever means necessary. Not everything is letter-perfect about The Big C. But Linney sure is -- and that's more than enough.

GRADE: A-minus

Season 4 of HBO's True Blood is still more than a false positive

Vampire Bill Compton has a new post on True Blood. HBO photo

It's getting a little long in the tooth now, but new blood is still capable of energizing True Blood.

So as HBO's latter day most popular series enters its fourth season, look for a fresh coven of witches to bedevil the Bayou State's ever-vexed vampire population. It all re-starts on Sunday, June 26th at 8 p.m. (central).

TV critics are being asked to assume the usual position -- namely bending over backwards to refrain from putting out any "spoilers." Creator/executive producer Alan Ball specifically asks that no one reveal "where Sookie has gone" (at the end of Season 3); "how long she is there before returning to Bon Temps; and Bill's new position in the vampire hierarchy."

OK, got it. So let's just say that Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) returns quickly but has been gone for much longer than she thought. And that her broken relationship with 173-year-old vampire Bill Compton (real-life husband Stephen Moyer) is going to remain unhealed for a while if not forever more.

The first three episodes available for review introduce a new and increasingly powerful middle-aged witch named Marnie (Fiona Shaw), who ends up greatly spooking the usually impervious Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard). This enables Ball, who wrote the third episode, to indulge in a little word play that wouldn't have been possible in the early stages of True Blood.

That's because MTV's Jersey Shore didn't exist back then. Now unfortunately it does. So an obviously dazed and confused Eric can get away with saying, "I know I'm a vampire, Snooki."

"It's Sookie," she retorts.

All of the other principal characters are back in Bons Temps for more macabre goings-on, although Sookie's best friend, Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), has been away for a while. She's also lately inclined to swing the same way sexually as her gay brother, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis).

Lafayette still cooks at the bar and grill establishment of Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), who finds himself entranced with a fellow shape-shifter named Luna (new cast member Janina Gavankar). But Sookie's trouble-prone brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), is fated to get into a life-threatening, grisly predicament with "werepanther" Crystal (Lindsay Pulsipher) and her hillbilly batch.

The thrill of discovery is long gone for True Blood. But the thrill of a new season is still very much in play. The first three episode of Season 4 had just enough pulling power to keep me in the fold. But as with Ball's Six Feet Under, the series also is starting to sag somewhat in its mid-section. A dozen new episodes will bring the grand total to 48.

That's only about two seasons worth in a broadcast television environment. But in vampire years, one or two more after this one likely will be more than enough. True Blood hasn't been sucked dry just yet. But it's getting close to having one foot in the coffin.


Suits suits USA, which again knows how to dress itself

The lawyers in Suits are dressed to kill the opposition. USA photo

Premiering: Thursday, June 23rd at 9 p.m. (central) on USA
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Patrick J. Adams, Meghan Markle, Gina Torres, Rick Hoffman, Sarah Rafferty
Produced by: Doug Liman, Aaron Korsh, David Bartis, Sean Jablonski

Struggling NBC hasn't had a full-blown scripted series hit since Joe Biden's boyhood, it seems, with all of last fall's newcomers failing to reach second seasons.

But on its corporate cousin, the USA network, they keep 'em coming like chocolates on an I Love Lucy assembly line. New seasons of Burn Notice, Royal Pains, Covert Affairs and White Collar all are launching this month. Three other holdover dramas, Fairly Legal, Psych and In Plain Sight, also have been green-lighted for new seasons. Abject failures have been few and far between.

Now USA tries on the new Suits, premiering Thursday after the Season 5 premiere of Burn Notice. (If you intend to record it, note that the extended pilot runs to 10:22 p.m. central.)

USA publicity materials say that Suits "pushes the boundaries of the USA genre." In the language department perhaps. Suits, which originates from a cutthroat Manhattan corporate law firm, journeys to FX land with early droppings of s-words, a "Goddamn," double dips of "ass" and "rat's ass" plus a "dickhead" and a "douche." Which very likely means that McDonald's won't be buying in, but Mike's Hard Lemonade might be.

Suits starts a little sluggishly, with its two principal protagonists still worlds apart. Attorney Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), affixed with an immovable Bob's Big Boy hair wave, is first seen throwing his weight around as "the best closer this city's ever seen." Meanwhile, brilliant college dropout Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) is getting paid to take a final exam under a false identity. He later gets involved in a dangerous drug delivery after learning that his beloved ill grandma is in danger of being put in a dreaded "state facility" unless he comes up with $25 grand.

Under a fairly ridiculous set of circumstances, an on-the-lam Mike ends up interviewing for a job as the cocksure Harvey's associate. But the firm only takes Harvard law grads, whom Mike prefers to call "Harvard douches."

"What if I told you that I consume knowledge like no one you've ever met -- and I've actually passed the bar," Mike tells Harvey. Well, in that case, let's give it a go. Just don't tell anyone.

Suits eventually starts to find its footing after introducing sexy paralegal Rachel (Meghan Markle) -- "Too busy ogling me to hear anything I said" -- and Harvey's sinister law firm rival, a bullet-head named Louis (Rick Hoffman). There's also hard-edged managing partner Jessica (Gina Torres), who doesn't like it at all when Harvey uses Mike as his gofer on a pro bono case involving a sexual harassment charge.

Macht is suitably imposing as Harvey while also looking great in impeccably tailored dark suits. Adams shows off a soft serve 'tude that wears pretty well during their characters' brushes against one another. The kid also, of course, has a conscience, which seeps into play after Harvey informs him, "It's not about caring, it's about winning."

"Why can't it be about both?" he wonders. On paper this might be groan-inducing. On screen it works pretty well.

Next Thursday's episode digs into Louis' dirty tricks bag while Harvey squares off against an imperious, blackmailing judge. It's a solid hour that improves on the promise shown in the opener.

Both USA and TNT continue to roll along this summer with their respective slogans of "Characters Welcome" and "We Know Drama." The USA formula generally calls for breezier, brighter sky outings while TNT goes for a little more bite.

Suits is made of somewhat sterner stuff than other USA originals. But it always gets down to how well the lead characters hold up. Once again, it looks as though we have a winner on a network that knows what it's all about while big brother NBC keeps stumbling on TV's main stage of actors and their roles.


Welcome to poo corner with FX's Wilfred

Doggie nag: Elijah Wood, Jason Gann in Wilfred. FX photo

Premiering:Thursday, June 23rd at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Elijah Wood, Jason Gann, Fiona Gubelmann, Dorian Brown
Produced by: Jason Gann, David Zuckerman, Jeff Kwatinetz, Rich Frank, Paul Frank, Joe Connor, Ken Connor

Lassie, come home. But no.

It's also irresistible to note that this dog won't hunt. Which the title character in Wilfred won't. But the show itself does have its oddly coarse charms, even without a standard issue fire hydrant joke in the first three episodes sent for review.

Wilfred's star canine is a blunt-talking, pot-smoking mutt of some sort with an acquired taste for anal sex and an ability to sniff out excrement in all its forms. Only one person sees him that way, though. That's Jason (Elijah Wood), a down-on-his-luck, suicidal nebbish in whose care Wilfred (Jason Gann) is left by comely next door neighbor Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann). She still sees him in all-fours dog form, as does everyone else.

There's a passing resemblance to the 1950 chestnut Harvey, in which Jimmy Stewart's Elwood P. Dowd became best pals with a giant invisible rabbit. But FX's Wilfred is borrowed directly from the same-named Australian hit comedy, in which Gann also put on a dog suit. So he knows what he's doing by now. And it shows in both his delivery and incredible ability to maintain a straight face while wearing a ratty looking dog suit.

The overall idea here is to restore Ryan's manhood and overall self-confidence via constant goading and taunting by Wilfred. Each episode has a one-word subtitle drawn from what's supposed to be a timeless quote. Thursday's premiere, which precedes the Season 2 return of FX's Louie, extrapolates "Happiness" from Mark Twain's observation that "Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination."

Who knows what Twain would have thought of Wilfred? Your friendly content provider thinks it has its moments, some of them of laugh-out-loud caliber. It's also more than a little weak downstairs at times, particularly with a final Episode 1 image of "Happiness" that has Wilfred humping a big stuffed bear while smoking a cigarette.

Wilfred and Ryan are usually puffing pot, though. Much more so than the ensemble cast of That '70s Show. In Episode 3, Wilfred rejects Ryan's gift of a big, scented rawhide bone. "You want me to be excited, Ryan? Buy me a new bong," he demands.

Lucky for them then, they've discovered a big crop of killer "purple thunder paranoia" marijuana in the home of super-loutish next door neighbor Spencer (guest star Ethan Suplee from My Name Is Earl). Spencer's other passions are "porning out" and strip clubs, all of which eventually persuade Ryan to man up in order to shuck Spencer as his new best friend.

Suplee played idiot brother Randy for several seasons on Earl, and remains a solid practitioner. But it's probably time for him to branch out a bit.

Other guest stars in Season 1 include Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen, Rashida Jones, Peter Storemare and Dwight Yoakam. There'll also be plenty of presumably fake pot on hand to aid and abet Wilfred's weekly lessons on life.

In the end, all of this may amount to little more than a one-trick dog and pony show. But Gann can be irresistibly gross at times while Wood is good at being hapless. Together they sometimes make quite a comedy team. Almost as good as Turner & Hooch.

GRADE: B-minus

ABC's 101 Ways to Leave A Game Show might also inspire 102 ways to avoid it

Jeff Sutphen hosts 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show. ABC photos

Premiering: Tuesday, June 21st at 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Hosted by: Jeff Suphen
Produced by: Matt Kunitz, David Goldberg

ABC continues to be the proud purveyor of the stupid summertime game show.

Now more than ever, with 101 Ways to Leave A Game Show premiering Tuesday night after a new episode of Wipeout. Can you say I Survived A Japanese Game Show? ABC had that one, too, a couple of summers ago. And in a slightly different genre, who can forget another of ABC's hot weather brain drizzles -- Dating in the Dark? Or the midseason gem Conveyor Belt of Love, which gets funnier every time you say it.

101 Ways, five of which are deployed Tuesday, is touted by host Jeff Sutphen as "the most insane game show in the history of television." He probably yearned to say "inane." But ABC then might have fired him and brought in Joey Lawrence.

In return for chasing a not-so-grand prize of $50 grand, eight contestants agree to risk soiling themselves. The first evictee for example is strapped standing to the top wing of a biplane. "I like to call this one 'A Wing and a Prayer,' " Sutphen smirks before said contestant is sent screaming in terror, never to return.

Besides his "I like to call this one" tagline, Sutphen also regularly parrots "And here's how" before revealing the show's next exit strategy. Two of them involve explosions, prompting one of the gamers to worry that he might throw up on himself.

Viewers can also gain some valuable knowledge. Such as learning how much the eventual buyer paid for William Shatner's kidney stone, which was auctioned off for charity.

I hope this isn't giving away too much, but a Houston contestant named Jasmine manages to avoid being the first one evicted. She then tells Sutphen, "Black folks don't stand on wings. We eat 'em." To which the host replies, "Well said. Well said."

Excuse me while I pound a nail into my head. There, much better.

101 Ways, despite some of its explosive ejections, is gratingly slow-paced and infested by commercial breaks just before host Sutphen reveals who's next to be axed. It must be said, though, that some of the questions are kind of intriguing. Such as "Which two of these celebrities have been arrested at least five times?" Your choices are Mel Gibson, Martin (not Charlie) Sheen and George Michael.

It all ends with the "Drop of Terror," which will claim three of the final four contestants. But before that happens, viewers will learn which two of the following items have actually been sold on McDonald's menus: McLobster. McEgg Roll. Spam McGriddle. The losing contestant is blasted out of a chair and high into the air in what Sutphen likes to call "You Fuse, You Lose."

We'll close by asking which one of these fun game shows would make a great addition to next summer's ABC lineup.

1. I'm With Stupid
2. The Great American Booger Pick
3. What Color is an Orange? (Wait, Don't Tell Me)
4. How Long Can You Hold It?
5. Are You Happy to See Me -- Or Is That Just Your Twitter Feed?
6. Hot Coals, Thin Ice, Head Lice
7. 4th Quarter One-on-One with LeBron James
8. Cut the Cheese!
9. Who Wants to Have Sex on a Giant-Sized Hoagie?
10. Your Bazooms are Bodacious


ABC's Combat Hospital is a drama without all that Capital T Trauma

Michelle Borth, Elias Koteas play docs in Combat Hospital. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, July 21st at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Michelle Borth, Elias Koteas, Luke Mably, Deborah Kara Unger, Terry Chen, Arnold Pinnock
Produced by: Daniel Petrie Jr.

It could be much worse for newly arrived, sleep-deprived Dr. Rebecca Gordon. She catches a break, though, when the colonel in charge of Southern Afghanistan's only advanced care surgical hospital turns out not to be a typically blustery, emotionally cold taskmaster.

That's one of the beauties of Combat Hospital, a smart, sedate Canadian production imported by ABC for a summertime run. Set in 2006 and premiering Tuesday, it calmly depicts the trials and traumas of a team of surgeons from the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and other allied countries. The oft-forced melodrama of Grey's Anatomy has no place here. Even though the just-landed Gordon (Michelle Borth) does have a few personal problems to sort out.

But the real revelation here is Elias Koteas as Col./Dr. Xavier Marks. Sturdy as they come, he's also a caring guy who gets results without unduly raising his voice. This is the sort of boss that everyone aims and wants to please, and not because they fear what might befall them if they don't. Koteas instantly registers in the role, giving Combat Hospital a unique authority figure without all those prototypical prime-time additives. But he is willing and able to shoot a snake that somehow makes its way into the operating room.

Meanwhile, Gordon has a snap in her step and sometimes in her tongue. She arrives in Kandahar with fellow tenderfoot Bobby Trang (Terry Chen), a designated trauma team leader who initially battles the shakes.

"I am never too tired for surgery," Gordon says while nearly dead on her feet from exhaustion. But she's grown weary of getting cell phone messages from her former fiance, whom she now calls a "stalker."

ABC plans to air 13 episodes of Combat Hospital, which is without the gallows humor of M*A*S*H and the ramped-up pace of China Beach. It doesn't just lay there, though. Marching at its own deliberate pace, this is a medical drama with a quiet confidence in itself.

Its two lead characters, M.D.s Gordon and Marks, quickly gain traction without throwing themselves at you. Being in either doctor's care is far easier on living room patients than recently failed medical dramas such as Off the Map and Miami Medical. Prescriptions for summertime success on a broadcast network lately haven't included anything in the key of low-key. Maybe Combat Hospital will prove to be a bracing exception.


Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals gives Oprah's OWN a stiff pour

Father and daughter happy together. But for how long? OWN photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on OWN
Starring: Ryan and Tatum O'Neal
Produced by: Tatum O'Neal, Ryan O'Neal, R. Greg Johnston

Oprah Winfrey's still struggling OWN network may have a winner here. Although that's an odd thing to say about a series that tracks all the father-daughter fireworks and heartaches caused by Ryan and Tatum O'Neal.

It's tempting to root for a Hollywood ending here after Tatum decides it's time to reconcile with her combustible dad after an estrangement that endured for a quarter-century. But it's also nigh impossible not to wonder how much of this might be Hollywood artifice in the interests of two career resurrections. What's really to be believed anymore in times when confessional, bare-all "reality" series are standard operating procedure?

The eight-part Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals just so happens to be premiering on Father's Day. And the first hour compellingly sets the stage with Tatum's 47th birthday party and her decision to invite her dad -- whom she mostly refers to as Ryan -- as one of a small group of guests.

Will he come? Well, yeah, he will. Because otherwise there's no launch pad for the seven episodes to come. By the way, her birthday was on November 5th, almost two months before the New Year's Day launch of OWN. So this show has been marinating for a while, assuming that nothing's been re-enacted.

Ryan, now 70 but remarkably well-preserved, is still very much both a showman and an elephant in the room. The man who loved the late Farrah Fawcett remains a big personality in his own right.

"Ya know, it isn't all red carpets. There's some black carpets," he says during the opening re-introductions of father and daughter, who made Paper Moon together way back in 1973. Tatum remains the youngest performer ever to win an acting Oscar for her role as headstrong Addie Pray. Ryan already was a major star at the time, courtesy of Love Story. Remember? Maybe not. Hence the repeated flashbacks of the way they were during Sunday night's scene-setter.

Tatum eventually had three children with tennis star John McEnroe during their otherwise very ill-fated marriage. Lately she's a recovering drug and alcohol addict who's been sober "for almost a year now." Her move back to L.A. from New York, coupled with Fawcett's death in June of 2009, supposedly prompted a decision to reach out to her father. Tatum's earlier 2004 autobiography, A Paper Life, was not received well by Ryan, who said in a statement, "It is a sad day when malicious lies are told in order to become a best-seller."

The prospect of seeing him again makes Tatum's stomach churn, but not turn. She also asks herself, "Can I have a relationship with my dad and not jeopardize my sobriety?"

Complicating matters is Ryan's recent blowup with Tatum's son, Sean. So she seeks a little counsel from one of her longtime friends, Peter Morgan, who also helps her pick out a birthday party dress. Meanwhile, Ryan is holed up in his longtime Malibu home, drinking white wine in a tank top as a lithe blonde pal named Marketa pops in. She's been asked to find some old Paper Moon pictures of the O'Neals, which he's sure will make a great birthday gift.

"I always believed that was something that would hold us together," Ryan says of the film. Instead they both carry more personal baggage than Oprah would on a two-week trip to Tahiti.

The birthday dinner, thrown by Tatum's raspy-voiced gal pal, Tarleton, is duly pumped up as a possibly transformative event in any daughter-father reconciliation. He's the last to show up, but is in good humor. But then Ryan asks, "Hey, where's Sean?" A little heart-pounding music kicks in, leading, of course, to a commercial break. Upon return, his question is repeated, just in case anyone's forgotten what happened a couple of minutes ago.

Nontheless, all of this is "good TV," at least within the confines of the "reality" genre. Ryan and Tatum end up meeting again at his house. And even with the cameras busily rolling, their back-and-forth dialogue seems to flow naturally. Then again, they are both actors.

Previews of coming attractions highlight both good and bad times ahead for the O'Neals. On the one hand, they joyously see Paper Moon together. On the other hand, he blows up at restaurant and walks out while Tatum weeps.

Damned if it doesn't pretty much work. The O'Neals are still quite a duo, whether they end up staunching a lot of those old wounds or opening new ones. OWN needs a watchable series like this to attract both audiences and advertisers. And in Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals, the network has both a head-on collision for rubber-neckers and a life-affirming reunion that adheres to the uplifting Oprah "brand."

GRADE: B-minus

TNT's Falling Skies is nothing new under the sun, but still an invasion worth investing in

Noah Wyle powers a band of resistant earthlings in Falling Skies. TNT photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 19th at 8 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Noah Wyle, Moon Bloodgood, Drew Roy, Maxim Knight, Will Patton, Connor Jessup, Seychelle Gabriel, Collin Cunningham, Sarah Sanguin Carter, Mpho Koahu, Peter Shinkoda
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Graham Yost, Robert Rodat

Earth had just gotten the sinister alien invaders of V out of the way via the ultimate in lethal weaponry -- network cancellation.

It's always something, though. So another big group of creatures from another planet comes calling in TNT's Falling Skies, a big budget sci fi spectacular with the Steven Spielberg imprimatur.

Scheduled for an eight-week run, the Us vs. Them drama begins with Sunday's reasonably involving two-hour scene-setter. Thankfully, there's a silver lining. Falling Skies gets better as it goes along, judging from two subsequent one-hour episodes -- "Prisoner of War" and "Grace" -- airing on June 26th and July 3rd in the drama's regular 9 p.m (central) slot.

TNT has gone to unusual lengths in reminding TV critics to stifle themselves. Besides the standard request to "refrain from revealing any spoiler information," the network adds this yellow light on review DVDS: "If you have a question about whether something is considered a 'spoiler,' please contact your TNT representative."

Um, well, er, um, Falling Skies is a talkie. And it's in color, too. Thanks, you've been a great audience.

OK, let's reboot.

Unlike V, the invaders of Falling Skies haven't taken on any human forms in hopes of duping earthlings into thinking they've come in peace. Instead it's six months after their wanton attack, with groups of teens already enslaved in spine-gripping "harnesses" while their parents are left wondering whether they're dead or alive.

The aliens maraud in two forms. Giant, insect-like creatures dubbed Skitters are Raid-resistant but can be killed with a big dose of automatic weapons fire or a well-aimed explosive. Their giant-sized metallic robots, known as Mechs, are a lot tougher to bring down. But there aren't nearly as many of them. The invaders also have set up imposing skyscraper-sized command posts around the globe. Still, they seem to be incapable of tracking the broad daylight troop movements of their surviving human prey.

Most of the action in Falling Skies originates from the Boston area, where hard-pressed earthlings of the "2nd Mass" are headquartered at John F. Kennedy High School. Principal among them is Noah Wyle, a veteran of both NBC's ER and TNT's series of Librarian movies. He stars as Beantown history prof Tom Mason, whose wife died in the invasion but whose three sons live on. One of them, Ben (Connor Jessup), has been captured by the invaders and turned into a harness-wearing automaton. There's also precious little eight-year-old Matt (Maxim Knight) and oldest son, Hal (Drew Roy), a hunky sort who now fights alongside his pop.

Falling Skies begins effectively, with kids recounting the invasion via their drawings. "They didn't want to be friends," viewers are informed. "Now moms and dads have to fight."

Wyle's Mason is the resident true believer while gruff Capt. Weaver (Will Patton) serves as the cliche-spouting cynic.

"You know, your optimism is starting to get a little annoying," Weaver barks in the "Grace" episode.

Pardon Mason for enjoying a little laugh before replying, "Would it help if I was a pessimist?"

It would help more if Falling Skies had an edgy, cocksure scene-stealer. And fortunately it does in ex-con John Pope (Collin Cunningham), who also learned how to cook while incarcerated. Pope sounds like Gene Simmons and also has a scraggly mop of hair, but without any mousse. He begins clashing with Mason during the second half of Sunday's premiere. This breathes considerable life into the proceedings. By Hour 4, Pope can get even get away with saying, "This thing is drier than a nun in West Texas." A man like this of course can't be trusted.

Redoubtable Steven Weber (Wings, Brothers & Sisters, etc., etc., etc.) also effectively pitches in as a guest-starring doctor who both knows his stuff and is at odds with Mason because, well, that would be a "spoiler." Look for him in the June 26th episode if you find Falling Skies worth a weekly investment.

Spielberg has become pretty set in his ways as to the way these things should proceed. Appealing kids are part of his formula, as are higher callings and extraterrestrials who also might be able to teaching earthlings a little something. The invaders of Falling Skies are hardly cuddly, but communicating with them could be the key to sending them back where they came from. Sorry about all that destructions, folks, but all we really wanted was a complete set of Sex and the City DVDS. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, the special effects are better than decent and the ensemble cast wears pretty well as Falling Skies begins to hit its stride. Wyle is sturdy enough, whether he's being an action hero, a doting dad or the budding love interest of pediatrician Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), whose only child was taken from her in the initial alien attack.

There's also the faith, hope and charity embodied by a young college student named Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel), who openly prays for ways in which she can best serve God, not vice-versa. Or to put it JFK's way, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

That's the overall gist of Falling Skies, with Wyle's Mason also keeping the faith in a secular way by preaching his psalm that history is full of "inferior forces" who have prevailed. He gives a few examples, including the Boston Red Sox after being down 3-0 to the New York Yankees in their indelible 2004 post-season series.

The creatures featured in Falling Skies seem a lot more formidable than the Yanks, but also susceptible to a few well-placed bean balls by the resistors. TNT has a lot invested, too. This is the "We Know Drama" network's most ambitious series to date. And in due time, it starts to take hold, telling its timeworn alien invasion tale in ways that might well pull you along -- despite any and all inclinations to resist.


Happily Divorced leaves TV Land stuck in clunky retro gear

Fran Drescher and co-stars Rita Moreno, Robert Walden. TV Land photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 15th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on TV Land
Starring: Fran Drescher, John Michael Higgins, Rita Moreno, Robert Walden, Tichina Arnold, Valente Rodriguez, D.W. Moffett
Produced by: Fran Drescher, Peter Marc Jacobson, Franco Bario, Ben Raymond

Fran Drescher of The Nanny fame still talks as though she's just gargled with glass shards.

Which might be an overall healthier choice for you than watching her new comedy series, Happily Divorced. It's TV Land's latest effort to mix and match familiar stars of bygone TV hits. And perhaps it's time to stop for a while after striking gold with Hot In Cleveland before sinking to Retired at 35 and now this. That sprightly old-time sitcom-y feeling has quiickly lost its retro-bounce. What's old isn't new again. It's just pretty dreadful.

Happily Divorced, premiering Wednesday after a new episode of Hot In Cleveland, is Drescher's first weekly series since the now defunct WB nework's short-lived Living with Fran, which was axed in 2006. She's Fran again this time out in a comedy ripped from the headlines of her real-life discovery that husband Peter Marc Jacobson was gay.

They split up in 1999 after 21 years of marriage, but remain friends and collaborators on Happily Divorced, which co-stars John Michael Higgins (Kath & Kim) as Peter.

"What's the mattuh, Petuh?" Fran asks for openers after he can't seem to sleep.

"It's just that I think I'm gay," he says.


"I'm gay."

"What? . . . But we just had sex after Leno. How gay can ya be?"

That's never quite explained during these very labored early minutes. But it turns out that Fran's parents, Dori and Glenn (Robert "Lou Grant" Walden, Rita "West Side Story" Moreno), knew all along that Peter preferred the company of men. So Dori counsels, "Sweetheart, don't throw away a good marriage over nothing."

Peter, a realtor, can't afford to move out just yet. "You're gay! Go to the YMCA!" Fran protests as the laugh track goes into hyper-howl. Six months later, they're divorced but still living together while Fran laments to her best pal, Judi (Tichina Arnold), "I haven't had sex since Peter dropped the bomb."

Just about everything drops like a rock in this bomb, with the gay jokes and stereotypes piling up in tandem with Fran cooing over a lug named Elliott (D.W. Moffett segueing from his ruthless quarterback's dad role in Friday Night Lights.) Alas, he's destined to have a severe allergic reaction on a dinner date to a truffle that Fran thought was a black olive. Wah, wah, wah. You can't make this stuff up. But unfortunately they have.

One line is possibly grin-inducing. "I love her voice," a recovered Elliott tells Peter.

"Give it time," he rejoins, again to the complete merriment of a laugh track that otherwise badly needs a long vacation in Cancun.

It's hard to imagine the "give it time" line applying to Happily Divorced, which is more ham-handed than an Erick Dampier jump shot. Drescher still looks good a dozen years removed from the last season of The Nanny. But the lines coming from her mouth are too obvious for words.

TV Land might want to brain storm its way into the 21st century at some point rather than reverting to recycled stars wedded to tired old formulas. It was kind of cute for a short while. Now it's time to grow up.


Lifetime gets deadly with its first weekly crime series

Tisha Campbell-Martin and Ally Walker smell a crook on Protector. Lifetime photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 12th at 9 p.m. (central) on Lifetime
Starring: Ally Walker, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Miguel Ferrer, Chris Payne Gilbert, Thomas Robinson, Sage Ryan, Terrel Tilford
Produced by: Jeffrey Bell, Gene Stein

Now it's Lifetime's turn to go the partners-in-crimesolving route.

The aimed-at-women network of Army Wives, Drop Dead Diva, Love Handles and sob story movies had resisted any previous urges to catch killers on a weekly basis. The Protector alters that course, with the former star of NBC's Profiler at its steering wheel.

Ally Walker, who also had featured roles on FX's Sons of Anarchy and HBO's sex-charged but short-lived Tell Me You Love Me, resumes the prime-time grind as Gloria Sheppard, a divorced, do-it-her-way L.A. homicide detective with two young sons.

Her recovering alcoholic brother Davey (Chris Payne Gilbert) lives under the same roof and impulsively buys expensive espresso coffee makers to help keep his hard-charging, sleep-deprived sister on a soothing caffeine high. It can be tough when duty calls for the mom side of Sheppard to stay up all night making a costume for her youngest son's school play. But this cop just can't cop a plea after a long day of brow-furrowing detective work.

Walker is starting to look a little wan as she nears her 50th birthday this summer. And her co-star, Tisha Campbell-Martin, has gotten notably chunkier since her days on ABC's My Wife and Kids.

In a completely color-blind, research-free world, Campbell-Martin would be Protector's principal drink-stirrer as Sheppard's saucy detective partner, Michelle Dulcett. Instead, her considerable energy and charm are in a second banana capacity, although she does get ample screen time in Sunday's premiere episode (which follows the Season 5 finale of Army Wives).

A hedge fund dude with money problems turns up dead in the early minutes after Sheppard first informs an inquiring neighbor that she's not into solving lawn ornament thefts.

"Now if you find a severed head, you give me a call," she says. "I've had lots of success with severed heads."

The corpse is allowed to keep his head while dying from a skull fracture. Sheppard quickly starts deducing while of course being hamstrung by two sour-tempered, middle-aged male lawmen. Tried-and-true Miguel Ferrer, a pro when it comes to steely glares, will be a regular character as grouchy Lt. Felix Valdez.

"You just love pissin' people off, don't you, Sheppard?" he inquires.

"Yeah, that does seem to happen a lot, doesn't it?" she retorts.

Protector will be solving murders while also maintaining that light Lifetime touch. The accompanying music is chirpy, insipid and more in keeping with Desperate Housewives than any of those hardcore CBS procedural crime dramas. And the banter between Sheppard and Dulcett is constant and sometimes fairly enjoyable. That's primarily due to Campbell-Martin, whose way with words is missed when she's not in the picture.

Lifetime has ordered 13 episodes for Protector's first season. It's hard to imagine it having a rabid following, although there's nothing terribly wrong with it. Campbell-Martin very ably acquits herself while Walker runs a little low on overall oomph. Together they're less than dynamite, but capable of a few sparks.


King of all late night: in key audience demographics, it's Jon Stewart across the board

Who's the undisputed king of late night TV among audiences that "matter?"

In May it was Jon Stewart, whose The Daily Show beat all broadcast and cable rivals in three key demographic food groups, including 18-to-49-year-olds.

Comedy Central distributed Nielsen numbers for the month of May in handy chart form. They show Stewart to be a Colossus in the realm of cable's late nighters and a bit ahead of both Jay Leno and David Letterman among 18-to-49-year-olds, still the most sought after target audience for advertisers.

But where's Conan O'Brien and his TBS Conan show?

Let's take a few looks.

In the 18-to-49 demographic, Daily Show averaged 1.344 million viewers in May, barely ahead of NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1.340 million) and with a bit more breathing room between CBS' No. 3 Late Show with David Letterman (an average of 1.124 million).

Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, which follows Stewart, ranked fourth with 978,000 viewers in this measurement while Conan placed eighth overall with 701,000.

Conan moved up to third place, though, among 18-to-34-year-olds and with male viewers in that age group.

Overall with 18-to-34-year-olds, Stewart averaged 754,000 viewers, followed by Colbert (585,000) and Conan (467,000).

In the race for 18-to-34-year-old males, Stewart had 499,000 in establishing a healthy lead over second place Colbert (398,000) and Conan (278,000).

Comedy Central piled on by noting that Stewart's Daily Show also has the richest viewers of any late night show. Their median household income is $78,000, with Colbert again second ($73,000) and Conan sliding to a fifth place tie ($53,000) with Letterman, Leno, NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live.

All of this adds up to higher prices for commercials on The Daily Show, which otherwise trailed both Leno and Letterman in total viewers while still ranking No. 1 in the cable universe with an average of 2.337 million in May. Conan ranked third among cable entries, with its 975,000 viewers edging the E! network's Chelsea Lately (942,000).

Svetlana gives HDNet a singular and single-minded woman of the night

Iris Bahr stars in the whore-ific comedy series Svetlana. HDNet photo

A Russian whore with a dirty mouth continues to give Mark Cuban his money's worth while the Dallas Mavericks wage their ongoing war of attrition in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.

Svetlana, midway through its second season on Cuban's HDNet, has emerged as the network's signature unscripted comedy series. It can be wildly uneven but is frequently as funny or funnier than many of its peers on broadcast or cable. That's all due to Iris Bahr, a one-woman dynamo who plays the title role while also producing, directing and writing each episode. Catering apparently is left to someone else, assuming it's in the budget.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Bahr has been around, but not so much that you'd know it. She's had a small, recurring role on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm as an Orthodox Jewish woman named Rachel Heinemann while also dropping in as a guest star on episodes of Friends, Commander In Chief and The Big Bang Theory.

But Svetlana is her David-ian tour de force, with Bahr exaggeratedly playing a former mail-order bride who got hitched in Minnesota before ditching hubby and relocating to Los Angeles to open a brothel dubbed the St. Petersburg House of Discreet Pleasure.

As Svetlana Maksimovoskaya, Bahr pronounces her H's as though she's clearing her throat. She's easily upset, exceedingly vain and regularly profane. But in her own way, she also nurtures daughter Marina (Angela Gots) and bosomy Natasha (Irina Voronina), both of whom join her in turning tricks. There's also Svetlana's layabout latter day spouse, Vlad (Alex Veadov), who's long of hair but short on ambition.

The half-hour series airs Wednesdays at 7 p.m. central on HDNet, with the June 8th episode (seventh of 12) subtitled "Milking It." Natasha decides she wants to have a baby, but Svetlana is averse to having her on the shelf for that long. So they agree to adopt a kid, paging through an adoption agency booklet that in Svetlana's approving words has "a nice assortment. Really all colors and sizes."

But the new adoptee instead shows up in the form of an adult man who at first greatly enjoys breast-feeding and watching Natasha at work, but isn't at all fond of his diaper changes.

It's all basically preposterous, although perhaps not all that much more so than some of Curb's fuller blown flights of fancy. Bahr has a knack for making these things work, at least in fits and spurts. And she's certainly willing to make fair game of herself, whether battling her homemade implant leaks in an earlier "Corkage Fee" episode or going on a crash diet after a corpulent client called the "Commander" tells her, "You let yourself go when I was away. It's like your way of saying, 'I don't care about the American troops.' "

Bahr isn't unduly concerned -- if concerned at all -- about political correctness. In the previously aired "Me Love You Decent Amount of Time" episode, she faced down a threat from a copycat whorehouse run by an Asian madame. They ended up dueling with rubber penises.

Svetlana isn't good enough yet to be unabashedly recommended as a half-hour of largely undiscovered comedy gold. But it's making progress, with Bahr fashioning a central character who's brassy, sassy and sexy, even when daughter Marina tells her, "Mom, you look like Peter Pan" after her implants are removed without any substitutes added.

Bahr throughly runs the show, and there's no equivalent anywhere else of a woman doing all of the on- and off-camera heavy lifting. So bravo for that, and here's hoping that Svetlana will see a new and further improved Season 3 with Cuban's HDNet as its continued benefactor and beneficiary.


Scott Pelley sobers up the CBS Evening News on his opening night as anchor

Scott Pelley signs off from his first outing as anchor of the CBS Evening News Monday. It was no-nonsense all the way. Photo: Ed Bark

An all-business, notably serious CBS Evening News hit the air Monday, with former D-FW reporter Scott Pelley the latest Texan to sit in "The Chair."

Pelley made no small talk either at the start or finish of a telecast that began and ended with war stories. On the same day, his predecessor, Katie Couric, officially joined forces with ABC, which will be giving her a much chattier daytime talk show scheduled to start in September 2012.

CBS is promoting its latest incarnation of the Evening News as a no-frills repository for "the world class original reporting of 60 Minutes -- now every weeknight."

Pelley, who had been a featured correspondent on 60 Minutes, is a San Antonio native who worked at both KXAS-TV and WFAA-TV in D-FW before joining CBS in 1988. He's made it clear that his journalistic heroes are the news division's two principal patron saints, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. His first CBS Evening News began somberly, with Pelley telling viewers, "Tonight the U.S. shows its firepower along Pakistan's border."

That lead report came from correspondent Mandy Clark, embedded with the Fox Company (the troopers, not the network) in Afghanistan. Seasoned reporters David Martin and Lara Logan followed with companion stories on war developments before Pelley turned to Dr. John Lapook for a story on advances in cancer treatments. It wasn't exactly a cheery first segment.

The Evening News also carried portions of Congressman Anthony Weiner's (D-NY) weepy admittance that he had in fact tweeted a lewd picture of himself. Pelley then turned to correspondent Nancy Cordes, asking her rather awkwardly, "Nancy, help us to understand why Congressman Weiner matters."

Pelley's first edition ended with a D-Day anniversary story on a now 89-year-old World War II veteran who journeyed back to the site of his heroics in Normandy with longtime CBS correspondent Anthony Mason in tow.

The newest Evening News anchor follows Cronkite (who cut his journalistic teeth in Texas), Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer (both native Texans) and Couric, an Arlington, VA native who failed to lift the program out of third place in her five years on the job.

Pelley made no note of any of this, signing off with, "And that is theCBS Evening News for tonight. I'm Scott Pelley. For all of us at CBS News all around the world, good night."

Earlier efforts by CBS executives to attract a younger audience to the Evening News apparently have been abandoned in the interests of building on the mostly AARP-eligible viewers still in the habit of watching one of the three dinner hour news digests.

The lineup of advertisers continues to reflect that basic fact, with Pelley's opening edition buttressed by commercials for a variety of advanced age products aimed at warding off or relieving heart attacks, strokes, arthritis, denture slippage, bladder control problems, joint pain and hemorrhoids.

It is not known if Pelley, 53, is yet dependent on any of these remedies. On Monday he was a lean, dark-suited, silver-haired picture of health, taking the CBS Evening News back to its elemental basics. Perhaps a little humor will come in time. But the new anchor doesn't seem to be in any big hurry on that front.

Couric joins ABC, which will give her both a daytime talk show and visibility on various news programs

Katie Couric makes another multi-million dollar deal. ABC photo

As expected, Katie Couric is taking her talents to ABC, where she'll host a new daytime talk show scheduled to premiere in September 2012 and co-produced by her old NBC boss.

ABC made the announcement of her "multi-platform deal" Monday, with news president Ben Sherwood touting himself as a pal of Couric's for 14 years in a memorandum to staffers. "Even with all of her success, I'm confident that her best days, biggest scoops and most powerful journalism lie directly ahead," he said.

Her success story hit a rut at CBS, where she achieved a first while remaining last in the dinner hour network news ratings race. Couric left a long and profitable co-host position at NBC's Today show to become the first woman to solo anchor a broadcast network's flagship newscast. But the CBS Evening News remained in a ratings ditch throughout her five-year tenure, trailing the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and ABC's World News, now helmed by Diane Sawyer after Couric initially went into battle against Charles Gibson.

Couric's new job was made official on the same that Scott Pelley is set to replace her as anchor of the Evening News. Couric also will contribute to various ABC News programs as "the ultimate utility player," in Sherwood's words. Her daytime talker already has been cleared in the post-Oprah landscape by ABC's eight owned-and-operated stations, where it will air at 3 p.m. weekdays, the network said. Those stations, led by New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, cover nearly 23 percent of the country's TV households.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, ABC affiliate WFAA8 appears to be the prime candidate to house Couric's as yet untitled new show. The station will begin going Oprah-less in September with a planned 3 to 5 p.m. lineup of the new Anderson Cooper talk program followed by Dr. Oz.

Couric began her TV news career in 1979 as a desk assistant at ABC, which both she and Sherwood noted Monday. Her new syndicated show, to be distributed by Disney/ABC Domestic Television, will be produced by Couric and Jeff Zucker. He's the former Today producer and NBC Universal chairman who was bounced after Comcast officially took ownership of the Peacock this year.

"It was a blast working with Katie at Today and I'm excited to do it again," Zucker said in a publicity release. "And besides, it should be more fun spending time with Katie at 3 or 4 in the afternoon than at 3 or 4 in the morning."

Couric, 54, is "one of television's iconic figures," Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney said. In her companion statement, Couric bypassed any descriptions of herself as a "utility player." She instead lauded the "creative freedom" ABC has provided her while also welcoming her contributions to a "vibrant, innovative news division."

"I can't wait to be part of this incredibly talented, visionary team," Couric said.

So far she's batted .500 in her two previous high-profile assignments at NBC and CBS. Couric's third time at bat as a star player will be closely watched in media circles. But will enough viewers also partake?

It's very much an open question with an interesting historical backdrop. Jane Pauley, who also was a Today star, went the daytime talk route in 2004 with The Jane Pauley Show. It was canceled after a single season, with Pauley pretty much dropping out of sight in the years since.

R.I.P. James Arness (May 6, 1923 to June 3, 2011)

James Arness as Matt Dillon with Amanda Blake's "Miss Kitty."

James Arness, who towered over the prime-time landscape for two decades as Gunsmoke's Marshal Matt Dillon, has died at the age of 88.

Dillon and "Miss Kitty" Russell (Amanda Blake), proprietor of Dodge City's Long Branch Saloon, had television's longest-running platonic relationship. She yearned to make it more than that, but Matt never quite succumbed.

Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955-'75 on CBS, ranked as TV's most popular show from the 1957-'58 through the 1960-'61 seasons. It finished in prime-time's top 10 for 13 of its 20 seasons, with a resurgence in popularity during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Gunsmoke also helped launch the long-running careers of Dennis Weaver and Burt Reynolds, who respectively played limping deputy Chester Goode and blacksmith Quint Asper.

Arness was recommended for the role of Matt Dillon by John Wayne, who didn't want to do a weekly TV series. Gunsmoke was prime-time's last remaining western series when it left CBS in 1975. During its highest-rated season, 1957-'58, four other westerns joined it in the top 10. And another entry, the Ronald Reagan-hosted General Electric Theater, traded in cowboys and horses more often than not.

Arness, a native Minnesotan whose real surname was Aurness, received three Emmy nominations as Matt Dillon, but never won. But Weaver and fellow supporting actor Milburn Stone (who played Doc Adams), each took home one.

CBS made five Gunsmoke movies after the series was canceled, with Arness starring in all of them. He also played Jim Bowie in NBC's 1987 The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory and reprised Wayne's original role of Thomas Dunston in TV's 1988 remake of Red River. Arness also went the contemporary route in NBC's McClain's Law, a short-lived 1981 crime series in which he played detective Jim McClain. He hadn't acted since 1994's last roundup as Dillon in Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice.

Arness' younger brother, Peter Graves (best known as agent Jim Phelps on TV's Mission: Impossible), died in March of last year at age 83.

Although he occasionally branched out, Arness' is indelibly linked to Matt Dillon in the same ways that the late Carroll O'Connor will always be Archie Bunker and the still kicking Larry Hagman is really no one other than J.R. Ewing of Dallas.

"I just sort of went along and a job would come up," he says in the brief video interview below. Maybe so. But in the annals of prime-time television, his boot print will always be deep and enduring.

Bobby Fischer Against the World is a thoroughly world class HBO documentary

Bobby Fischer kept checkmating himself in game of life. HBO photo

Chess master Bobby Fischer had a beautiful mind that made him its pawn.

In his angry and largely pathetic post-game period, he came to believe that everyone had conspired against him, most particularly the Jews. The superb documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, premiering Monday, June 6th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO, recaptures his life in painstaking but never pointless detail. Its director and co-producer, Liz Garbus, has authored a masterpiece replete with exceptional footage, images and insight.

Fischer, who died on Jan. 17, 2008 at age 64, remains a unique and unduplicated giant in a sport that demands a singular blend of strategy and staying power. His 1972 matches against Russian grand master Boris Spassky were an international sensation, with the former crewcut teenage U.S. champion matching wits and eccentricities with a heretofore unbeatable foe.

Estranged from both his mother, Regina, a communist activist, and his absentee father, Paul Nemenyi (whom he never really knew at all), Fischer grew up playing chess by himself, beginning at age 6. He wasn't "socialized the way the rest of us were," understates Shelby Lyman, who anchored and analyzed public television's original coverage of the Fischer-Spassky faceoff.

The 93-minute HBO film includes footage of 15-year-old Bobby as a guest on a 1958 episode of I've Got a Secret. He's a cute but painfully shy kid, as well as the new U.S. chess champion.

Early Bobby, even the one in his early 20s, is reasonably conversant and appealing while also always looking at least a bit ill at ease on camera. In one old black-and-white interview, he reveals that he doesn't watch TV because he's heard it can emit radiation. But he's an avid reader of Confidential magazine.

Fischer was 29 and notably more "difficult" by the time he took on Spassky in a best of 24-game match in Reykjavik, Iceland. He at first was a no-show and then a very demanding participant. The film brilliantly recaptures both the thrill of the competition and its backdrop as an even bigger mind game between a Communist superpower and the "decadent West." Daily results of the matches regularly led the network evening newscasts.

Bobby Fischer Against the World also exhibits a treasure trove of still pictures by Life magazine photographer Harry Benson, who was granted up-close access to Fischer during his training for the 1972 matches. Many of the photos are being shown publicly for the first time.

Fischer also can be seen in an interview with Johnny Carson, who notes that "the entire world knows the name Bobby Fischer by now." Still, it must be a letdown for him now that the showdown with Spassky is over, Carson tells him. Fischer agrees that he "felt different" after his triumphant return home to the U.S. "Something had been taken out of me."

He was never the same, dropping out of public view and forfeiting his world championship by refusing to play No. 1 contender Anatoly Karpov. Another Russian chess ace, Gary Kasparov, says in a new interview that Fischer may have been "unable to cope with his own invincibility."

He resurfaced in 1992 to play Spassky again, but author David Edmonds compares it to "watching two old boxers come back into the ring for one last payday." Their comparatively dull matches were played in Yugoslavia in violation of United Nations-imposed sanctions against the country. Indicted by the U.S. government, Fischer became a fugitive abroad before making one last round of public appearances in 2005 after returning to Iceland.

By this time, Fischer was a bearded, balding, embittered know-it-all with anti-Semitic views on just about everything. The film includes his confrontation with Jeremy Schaap, son of world class sports writer/reporter Dick Schaap. The elder Schaap acted like a "typical Jewish snake" in first befriending him and later betraying him, Fischer tells Jeremy Schaap during a press conference. Specifically, Dick Schaap said publicly that Fischer was without a "sane bone in his body."

Jeremy then leaves Fischer speechless by telling him in a matter-of-fact tone that judging from what he's seen firsthand, his father indeed was correct.

Nonetheless, the announcement of Fischer's death is poignant, in large part because we've seen the shy kid and young adult he used to be before fame and his own self-destructive demons undid him. Bobby Fischer Against the World shows us all of it, and in never less than riveting fashion. So far it's the televised documentary film of the year, with its truths stranger than fiction from opening move to checkmate.


TNT's Franklin & Bash has a fun time with the law without exceeding the legal limit

Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Malcolm McDowell and Breckin Meyer star in the appealingly breezy new legal drama Franklin & Bash. TNT photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 1st at 8 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Breckin Meyer, Malcolm McDowell, Reed Diamond, Dana Davis, Kumail Nanjiani, Garcelle Beauvais
Produced by: Jamie Tarses, Jason Ensler, Kevin Falls, Bill Chais

This is Mark-Paul Gosselaar's sixth co-starring role in a television series since Saved By the Bell -- and he's still only 37.

He's known the glory of NYPD Blue, the ignominy of Hyperion Bay and D.C., and the shaggy hair of TNT's Raising the Bar, a 2008-'09 TNT legal drama in which he played crusading attorney Jerry Kellerman.

The network with the "We Know Drama" slogan also knows full well that Gosselaar remains a strikingly good-looking TV commodity who can carry the ball when called on. So here he is again as a lawyer in TNT's Franklin & Bash, a lively, quippy and broadly entertaining new series that premieres Wednesday night in tandem with the returning Men of a Certain Age.

Gosselaar has trimmed his locks, which remain almost criminally thick, to play the somewhat more grounded member of a hard-charging legal duo. He's Peter Bash to Breckin Meyer's freer wheeling Jared Franklin, son of a legendary trial lawyer.

"You're F. Lee Bailey meets Barnum & Bailey," Franklin is told by flamboyant legal potentate Infeld Daniels (Malcolm McDowell having a really good time). He's intent on recruiting both sides of him -- plus Bash -- for his high-powered L.A. law firm. Properly irked is Infeld's stuck-up nephew and law partner Damien Karp (Reed Diamond). It's a thankless task for any actor -- playing an uptight, imperious naysayer who's seen as a buffoon by the rascally new imports.

TNT has been bitten a bit by the FX bug, with Franklin & Bash pushing the new show's language and visuals into sometimes eyebrow-raising territory. Viewers are given a generous glimpse of Bash's bare, firm behind after he emerges from a hot tub. And Franklin gets to call Bash "scrotum face" for grins while also remarking on a "bitchy little barracuda" who nonetheless has "good movement in the lumber yard."

The elongated form of B.S. is also deployed. And in an eye-catching courtroom scene, the voluptuous star of a suggestive mattress ad strips down to her red bra as part of Bash's courtroom presentation while jiggling and touching her primary assets.

Franklin and Bash also employ two legal aides, sassy Carmen (Dana Davis) and agoraphobic/verminophobic Pindar (Kumail Nanjiani). And when not holding team meetings -- or holding forth in the courtroom -- the two stars regularly inhabit a junk food diner to compare what they'd do for the privilege of bedding a favorite female celeb.

Would Franklin, for instance, take a punch in the face from an in-his-prime Mike Tyson as the price for spending a night with Scarlett Johansson? They're still debating that one at the close of Wednesday's premiere hour. Actress Marisa Tomei's name also gets dropped -- in both the first and second episodes.

Next week's adventure, subtitled "She Came Upstair to Kill Me," centers on an actress accused of murdering her weak-hearted older husband by using nightly sex with him as her principal weapon of attack. Ubiquitous Fred Willard drops in to play the deceased's pal. For him it's a rare serio-comic turn instead of another exercise in full-blown farce. Willard kinda sorta pulls this off, but it's a struggle

Franklin & Bash sometimes tries too hard to be edgy, suffering some paper cuts in the process. It's otherwise a good deal of fun delivered with an abundance of energy. Gosselaar and Meyer nicely play off one another, with McDowell a considerable bonus as their vain but supportive patriarch. So as law dramas go, this one makes a better case than expected. Even if the title sounds more like a wrestling team.