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Picky Picky (Vol. 17)

Joe the Plumber, who by now needs no further introduction or identification, has signed a management deal with an eye toward becoming a show biz personality.

"Joe the Plumber is fast becoming a brand," a representative of Nashville-based Pathfinder Management tells The New York Times. "He is a dynamic speaker and an everyman who has become an overnight celebrity."

Fine. But we ask you, which of the above will still be part of the conversation 10 years from now? Or maybe even six months hence. Your "votes" and elaborations can be cast in our Comments section. And as always, your email address is not visible to either unclebarky.com or any readers. All that appears is your name or "name." All righty then. In alphabetical order, here are our esteemed nominees:

A. Chuckles the Clown (real name, Chuckles the Clown)
B. Dog the Bounty Hunter (real name, Duane Chapman)
C. Joe the Plumber (real name, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher)
D. Larry the Cable Guy (real name, Daniel Lawrence Whitney)
E. Or you can write in ________ the ____________

Life's too short to waste on Lifetime's new Rita Rocks sitcom

Premiering: Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Lifetime before moving to regular Tuesday 7:30 p.m. slot next week
Starring: Nicole Sullivan, Richard Ruccolo, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Natalie Dreyfuss, Kelly Gould, Raviv Ullman, Ian Gomez
Produced by: Nastaran Dibai, Jeffrey B. Hodes, James Berg, Stan Zimmerman

What's the best to be said about the new Lifetime sitcom Rita Rocks?

Arguably, it's possibly harmless in the grand scheme of things. But don't hold me to that.

MADtv alum Nicole Sullivan, a standout during her six seasons on the longrunning Fox late-nighter, has nabbed the title role in this four-star clinker. Yes, she deserves better, but this is her choice, not ours. Boy, the checks had better clear.

Sullivan plays homebound, harried mom Rita Clemens, who "used to have such dreams" for herself. Instead she's mostly stuck in prototypical '80s sitcom hell with bratty teen daughter Hallie (Shannen Doherty lookalike Natalie Dreyfuss) and her ever-present, dim bulb boyfriend, Kip (Raviv Ullman), whose first words are "What ups?"

There's also a cute, bespectacled pre-teen daughter named Shannon (Kelly Gould) and hubby Jay (Richard Ruccolo), a breadwinner otherwise devoted to his Fantasy Football league activities.

Through luck of the draft, he's got Tom Brady on his team, Jay brags.

"Yay for your fake thing," Rita says gamely.

Little does she know -- but maybe the producers do -- that Brady suffered a season-ending injury in the New England Patriots' first game. So perhaps they could dub in Tony Romo? Wait, that might not work either.

Rita Rocks, which of course is equipped with an annoying laff track, gets its title from mom's latent interest in revisiting her garage band youth. And it just so happens that saucy postal carrier Patty (Tisha Campbell-Martin from My Wife and Kids) plays a "mean organ" for a church choir.

First, though, Patty riffs briefly on a pit bull that "took a chunk out my ass" while she walked her mail route. Remarkably, Kip isn't around in this particular scene to again rejoin, "What ups?"

Rita, a guitar strummer, eventually joins Patty and unemployed next door neighbor Owen (Ian Gomez) in singing "Try a Little Tenderness." Kip chips in on some makeshift drums, re-birthing The Partridge Family shorn of any blood relatives.

Sullivan tries awfully hard to make a go of Rita Rocks in times when the once dominant sitcom genre is gasping for air time on both broadcast and cable networks. Gasp, no wonder.


Crash emerges as wreckage in weekly Starz version

Dennis Hopper adds another psycho to his portfolio in Starz's Crash.

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on Starz
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Jocko Sims, Nick E. Tarabay, Arlene Tur, Moran Atias, Ross McCall, Brian Tee, Clare Carey, Luis Chavez
Produced by: Paul Haggis, Bobby Moresco, Glen Mazzara, Bob Yari among many.

Crash's featured passengers are mostly twisted metal, ready to be totaled.

Dennis Hopper of course wants to be a big part of this. Notching another wacko on his bedpost, he has top billing as record producer Ben Cendars, whose first act is to expose himself to his female limo driver before laying a little heavy-duty profanity on her.

What fun. "Inspired" by the same-named, 2006 Oscar winner (in a controversial upset over Brokeback Mountain), Crash re-emerges as the Starz cable network's first original drama series. None of the movie's stars have returned. Neither have any of its characters -- at least not by name.

The closest resemblance is Ross McCall in the role of "charming, irresponsible street cop" Kenny Battaglia. He's an obvious carryover of Officer John Ryan, terrifically played on the big-screen by Matt Dillon.

Near the close of Friday's premiere episode, Battaglia figuratively has oral sex via a Breathalyzer test. "No teeth," he instructs a beautiful woman driver. "Just the tip, baby."

Paul Haggis, who both wrote and directed Crash the movie, tosses his name in the mix as a co-executive producer of Crash the series. That makes him one of 11. Haggis otherwise has steered clear of this, leaving Friday's opening hour at the mercy of two directors and three writers.

The setting again is L.A., "a city that throws people together" whether they like it or not. Haggis stretched credibility in some of these random collisions, but in the end showed us the humanity.

Crash's TV offshoot seems much more thrown together. Maybe it'll sort itself out during a planned 13-episode run. But Friday's premiere is off-putting to the point of spoiling its audience's appetite for any more of this. Hopper's unhinged music mogul -- "I carry a lot of damage with me" -- amounts to a sour milk appetizer preceding a main course of rotted sea bass. The immediate inclination is to push yourself away from this table.

Axel Finet (Nick E. Tarabay) is a "cocky lieutenant with no respect for the law." Or to put it another way, he's Crash's Vic Mackey, only nastier. Mackey, for all his excesses on The Shield, probably would draw the line at unblinkingly murdering a pair of young Asian crooks, one of them a woman. Finet has no problem pulling the trigger.

Brentwood mom Christine Emory (Clare Carey) is the spawn of a belittling, contemptible father who takes delight in verbally assaulting her husband, Peter (D. B. Sweeney). She's already starting to snap by episode's end.

Inez (Moran Atias), who's given no last name, is a "dangerous, manipulative adulteress." Anthony Adams (Jocko Sims), hired as Cendars latest limo driver, seemingly has a shot at becoming a halfway sympathetic character. Still, Starz describes him as a "street-smart" hustler who obviously needs to stay on Cendars' "good side" -- which Cendars doesn't have.

Starz is a premium network without commercials, as are HBO and Showtime. This provides a wide berth for profanity and nudity, so consider that done.

Advertiser-supported AMC's Mad Men, nearing the end of a super-terrific second season, keeps showing how an adult drama should be done. Crash looks like yet another wearisome, pointless wallow. Will you care a whit about any of its aggressively imperfect characters?

That answer should be clear from this end. On the whole, I'd rather watch my car overheat in rush hour traffic. Not to tempt fate.


Mr. Robinson we assume: NBC's Crusoe a truly great escape

An outnumbered Friday and Crusoe prepare to defend their Alamo.

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 17th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC before moving next week to regular 8 p.m. slot
Starring: Philip Winchester, Tongayi Chirisa, Sam Neill, Anna Walton
Produced by: Justin Bodle, Jeff Hayes, Michael Prupas, Genevieve Hofmeyr, Phillip Key

Filmed in England and South Africa, NBC's new Crusoe looks like anything but a nickel-and-dime backlot production.

It's a visually rich and rousing adventure with vivid, colorful characters to match. You won't see a more purely entertaining new series this fall. Crusoe is stimulating without making your head hurt.

Unlike fellow newcomers Fringe, Life on Mars and most especially the Peacock's own My Own Worst Enemy, you'll comprehend Crusoe from the very start -- flashbacks and all. It's been updated for a "21st century audience" without turning one of literature's most famous exiles into an enigmatic mad scientist, double agent or benumbed time-traveler.

Friday's two-hour premiere quickly makes its presence felt. Title character Robinson Crusoe, well-played by Philip Winchester (Flyboys), is the lone survivor of a shipwreck that left his shipmates strewn near the shore line. He has a dog for company, but his best and only human buddy is the resourceful, formidable Friday (Tongayi Chirisa).

They're quickly put to the test when a band of cutthroat pirates hits the beach in search of buried gold. A cleavage-brandishing wench named Judy (guest star Georgina Rylance) also is one of their kind. Crusoe's producers aren't above providing a little eye candy. But Judy also proves to be quite a character, expertly wielding both a sword and a sharp tongue. So welcome aboard.

Crusoe and Friday alternately are captives and escapees before making a stand in their very well-fortified tree house. By that time, a group of no-good Spaniards likewise has dropped anchor to go for the gold. But Howie Mandel doesn't show up with a bevy of briefcase-holders. So despite all this incoming traffic, the story still holds together remarkably well.

There's also ample action and numerous contraptions on the island. Crusoe and Friday haven't whiled away their days playing beach volleyball. An elaborate pulley system enables Crusoe to move at a pace rivaling Tarzan's vine-propelled travels. And a variety of traps have been pre-set in preparation for any dangers afoot.

Crusoe also includes flashbacks to its namesake's days as an impressionable boy, young lover and eventual husband and father. He yearns to return to wife Susannah (Anna Walton), although their all too brief life together "seems ever more like a fading dream."

Look for a smaller taste of the younger Crusoe's mentor and patron. His name is Jeremiah Blackthorne and he's played by durable Sam Neill, last seen as scheming Cardinal Wolsey in Season 1 of Showtime's The Tudors.

Humor has its place, too, but not to the point of over-diluting the jeopardy at hand. Crusoe and Friday aren't above a little banter. And the pirates' sinister bossman has a little wry bred in him.

NBC's press materials say that Crusoe has a pre-set, 13-episode lifespan. More hours could be ordered, of course, if the series finds an appreciable audience on a night not known for attracting viewers in droves.

Crusoe is the last of just 13 new series being launched this fall by the Big Four networks. As such, though, it's hardly the least. This is a highly engaging adventure yarn that also sports the look of a big-screen feature. Your time will be well-spent and your brain won't be taxed to the breaking point in trying to figure out who's who, what's what -- or where this show might be going.

GRADE: A-minus

David Alan Grier paints it black in Comedy Central's Chocolate News

David Alan Grier strikes poses as anchor of Chocolate News.

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 15th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on Comedy Central
Starring: David Alan Grier
Produced by: David Alan Grier, Robert Morton, Fax Bahr, Adam Small

Anchor David Alan Grier promises uncompromising dark comedy on the new Chocolate News, touted as "the only source for pure, uncircumcised realness from an Afro-centric perspective."

He's pretty much got the premise right. Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show is long gone, leaving a space that the former In Living Color alum hopes to fill in with all due outrageousness.

Wednesday's opening half-hour, the first of 10 scheduled weekly episodes, is hardly comedy gold. Nor is it a cheap counterfeit. Grier makes some inroads, particularly with his costumed impression of a grandiose Maya Angelou spouting portions of a rough draft poem she hopes to recite at Barack Obama's inauguration.

She's far less prepared for a John McCain swearing-in. And "Ain't this a bitch?" isn't much of a start.

Grier doesn't have a news desk. His anchor does standup, beginning with a heavily-bleeped rap on what he sees as the death of hip-hop. 50 Cent, for one, lately is pitching vitamin water. In Grier's view, "That's like Jerry Lewis saying, '(bleep) those (bleepin') kids. This weekend I'm barbecuing.' "

A subsequent sketch that wears thin in a hurry, with Grier disguising himself as a rap artist named Phat Man. He booty pops his way through a public service spot for "No Child Left Behind" before using the same approach on behalf of "Teen Suicide Prevention."

There's also a tribute to late special correspondent Roger Dunn, the "only drop of Vanilla" in the Chocolate News mix. A highlight reel finds him on the receiving end of assaults and punch-outs from black gangs and gangstas. But he always got the story.

Also included: an extended, leaden bit on a "multi-epithet mega-trade" for free use of the n-word and some closing newsreel footage of America's long-forgotten first black candidate for president, straw-hatted Lucius Trenton Johnson. He perhaps miscalculated by announcing his intentions in the Deep South, viewers learn. "Unfortunately," says Grier, "his campaign lasted just seven-and-a-half minutes."

Chocolate News has roughly the same amount of at least passably amusing material. But it's a start and a welcome addition to a network that's already thriving on Anglo-centric news spoofs.


NBC's My Own Worst Enemy: a brain-twister that ties its knots too tight

Christian Slater's mind is pretty much blown. How about yours?

Monday, Oct. 13th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Christian Slater, Alfre Woodard, Madchen Amick, Tom Grady, Saffron Burrows
Produced by: John Eisendrath, Jason Smilovic, David Semel

At last here's a drama series that makes even Lost seem about as densely plotted as Deal or No Deal.

Complex to the point of incomprehensibility, NBC's new My Own Worst Enemy might give Albert Einstein a headache. Monday night's premiere, facing both CBS' CSI: Miami and ABC's Boston Legal, scores points for being ultra-daringly different. As for ratings points -- well, that may be a Mission: Impossible.

Christian Slater, in his first weekly TV series role, plays both run-of-the-mill efficiency expert Henry Spivey and trained-to-kill operative Edward Albright. It's a mindbending proposition, with elements of The Manchurian Candidate, The Bourne Identity and The Prisoner. Or maybe not.

It feels deep, looks great and certainly pushes the envelope to the point of bursting it into little pieces. The only problem is figuring out what the hell's happening. And that may be an insurmountable mountain to climb from almost the very first minutes.

NBC press materials describe My Own Worst Enemy as a tale of "polar opposites who share only one thing in common -- the same body. When the carefully constructed wall between them breaks down, Henry and Edward are thrust into unfamiliar territory where each man is dangerously out of his element."

Also along for this wild, bumpy ride is the estimable Alfre Woodard as Mavis Heller, a blunt-talking puppetmaster holed up at "Janus Headquarters."

"You ARE the experiment," she tells Henry after he literally poses the same question asked by Ross Perot's running mate James Stockdale, at the start of the 1992 debate with Al Gore and Dan Quayle : "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Indeed. Slater/Henry, unknowingly Edward Albright, begins in Paris by bedding a comely femme fatale.

"Am I the girl of your dreams?" she asks him.

"I don't dream."

"You're a bastard."

She then tries to kill the bastard, but instead takes his single shot to the forehead. Then it's off to L.A. -- in a flash.

Throughout the first hour, Henry is battered and terrorized by thugs who think he's Edward. Meanwhile, back home, Henry's wife, Angie (Madchen Amick), and their two children are utterly unaware of the double life that's threatening to drive him mad.

NBC can't be accused of playing it safe with My Own Worst Enemy. It's beyond distinctly different, with more twists and turns than a State Fair taffy-making machine.

As for what's going on, you tell me. This is an oddly mesmerizing, but super-perplexing opening hour that unfortunately looks like way too much trouble to puzzle out.


Ex-cellent: The Starter Wife returns in even better form than before

Starter Wife mainstays Judy Davis and star Debra Messing

There's no sex in her city. Well, there is, but Molly Kagan's still not having any.

As USA's The Starter Wife begins a 10-episode first season Friday, its newly divorced heroine is holding to the "virgin queen" vows taken at the end of last year's crowd-pleasing miniseries. Repeat after her: "I am swearing off men. No dating. No sex. Not even petting."

You won't find a better, brighter, yet still serious-minded series anywhere else on the much-trumpeted "Networks of NBC Universal." That especially includes broadcast Big Daddy NBC, where signs of life currently are undetectable.

Star Debra Messing, who plays Molly, already has a signature series in the Peacock's Will & Grace. Still, Starter Wife in time may replace it as her shining hour. Friday's two-hour re-launch (8 p.m. central) is graced by consistently clever writing, crisp pacing and invigorating performances from its principals.

Messing sets the pace, with perfect accompaniment by the returning Judy Davis as her best friend, Joan. Davis has never been bad in anything, and was memorably superb as Judy Garland in the acclaimed 2001 ABC miniseries.

In Starter Wife, she's a recovering alcoholic married to a caring yet increasingly lifeless husband played by durable Ronny Cox and aptly named Pappy. Their closing scene Friday night is a stark awakening for her. Take away line: "You're outsourcing me!" Hmm, but how?

Molly's ex-, young Hollywood producer Kenny Kagan (David Alan Basche), shares a seven-year-old daughter with her. Once bankable, he's gone nearly bankrupt backing a stinker.

Her refuge is a writing class presided over by a strapping dude named Zach (Hart Bochner). That's predictable, as is his budding, less than platonic interest in her. Obviously this is going somewhere, but don't expect the obvious.

Messing amassed five best actress Emmy nominations for Will & Grace, and won once. She also was in the running for the Starter Wife miniseries, but went home trophy-less.

There'll be a next time, though. Her opening night performance in Starter Wife's return is sterling from start to finish, whether she's quipping with pals or turning up the intensity in scenes with her ex-husband and a hoped-for new friend named Liz (Danielle Nicolet).

Davis also crackles in exchanges with besotted actor David Shea (Daniel Gerroll), whom she's trying to help after reluctantly taking on a part-time job at a rehab center.

Lifetime would kill to have Starter Wife in its lineup. It'd be a magnet for that network's female target audience.

On broader appeal USA, the show's percentage of male viewers still might be lower than George W.'s approval rating. Don't worry, though. You won't lose your fastball if you're one of 'em.

Grade: A-minus

Fighting crime on CBS: Eleventh Hour is just the latest practitioner

Crime timers: CSI's William Peterson, Eleventh Hour's Rufus Sewell.

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Marley Shelton
Produced by: Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman

Nicely nestled behind the godfather of "procedural crime" series, CBS' Eleventh Hour looks like another long-distance runner on a network that shot itself in the foot last season by trying something new.

Its viewers responded by recoiling from the likes of Cane, Viva Laughlin, Moonlight and Swingtown, none of which resorted to collaring crooks on a weekly basis. So nuts to all that and back to the bread and butter.

Imported from abroad -- but of course -- Eleventh Hour puts Brit Rufus Sewell in the role played by famed Brit Patrick Stewart in the British original. Sewell's still playing a Hood, but now goes by the first name of Jacob instead of Ian. After all, the latter three-letter moniker might seem just a bit too -- British.

Detroiter Jerry Bruckheimer of course is the executive producer of Eleventh Hour. The rajah of this genre (basic weekly crime-cracking without all those messy serial additives) already bosses the three CSI juggernauts, Without A Trace and Cold Case. His lone aberration -- The Amazing Race -- gives Bruckheimer seven of CBS' 22 prime-time hours. And he's not even breathing hard.

Thursday's premiere of Eleventh Hour finds Hood and partner Rachel Young (Marley Shelton) on the track of sinister human cloners. He's the FBI's "special science advisor." She's the muscle, whether kneeing uncooperative suspects in the groin or barking at Hood when he seems to be zoning out.

"Don't push me, Hood," she commands. "I won't let you wear me down like you did the others before me."

The guy always has a lot on his mind, including the observation that "to clone anything takes science stroked gently with artistic hands."

Anyway, the two of them mesh when it counts, as do all of CBS' crime-solving teams. Wrongdoers must be brought to justice within the allotted time limit, no matter how believably the good guys make their cases.

The deductions on Eleventh Hour seem somewhat more grounded than those on CBS' new The Mentalist, where the color of one's tie can be clear, incriminating evidence in the eyes of cocksure, pseudo-psychic Patrick Jane.

That show's already a ratings hit, though. So really, what's the dif?

Grade: C+


Thursday's most-watched attraction won't be any of the night's new or returning series. It'll be CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which begins its ninth season with a strikingly powerful and compelling episode.

At issue is the shooting of forensic investigator Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan), left to die in the arms of mentor and role model Gil Grissom (series star William Petersen).

The pursuit of his killer, overlaid with the grief of Brown's fellow team members, make this an indelible, riveting hour. At its core is Petersen, who will be leaving CSI early next year under his own power and by his own choice. Laurence Fishburne then will join the series as a new character.

Petersen is very much the driving force tonight, particularly during the episode's opening and closing segments. He's never won an Emmy (or even a nomination) as Grissom, an essentially stoic character whose emotions are mostly kept in check.

This is an exception, and Petersen's performance is well beyond exceptional. For him, that's probably reward enough. But some way, somehow, his body of work on CSI should be recognized beyond that.

Kath & Kim: at best it stinks

Kath's in love; daughter Kim's an abhorrent bitch. Next question?

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 9th at 7:30 p.m. on NBC
Starring: Molly Shannon, Selma Blair, John Michael Higgins, Mikey Day
Produced and written by: Michelle Nader

"Would it make you feel better if you got up and made us some nachos?"

This is Kim Day's way of reaching out to enabling mom Kath after putting on a behavioral display that damn near merits a congressional investigation.

Then again, most viewers may not get that far. The urge to click to something more pleasant -- Saw IV maybe -- is nigh unto overpowering throughout Thursday's premiere of NBC's new Kath & Kim. I'm trying to be charitable.

Desperately adapted from an Australian sitcom, this half-hour from hell co-stars Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon (who's really a very nice person off-camera) and Selma Blair (Hellboy 2).

Basically put, Kim is a contemptible, whiny, super-indulgent home- and happiness-wrecker who runs back to momma after fleeing a six-week marriage that just asked too much of her.

"I didn't sign up for cooking dinner or being interested in how anyone's day was," she explains.

This later prompts abandoned hubby Craig (Mikey Day) to plead, "Maybe you can microwave dinner once in a while?" But no, this remains an irreconcilable difference.

Meanwhile, affection-starved Kath finally has met "my knight in shining armor," Sandwich Island owner Phil Knight (John Michael Higgins). He's lost copious weight of late, prompting Kim to ask, "Do you have any pictures of you as a load?"

Kim's one-joke cloak chokes any life out of NBC's lone new fall comedy. So much so that the sap-happy Kath-Phil relationship -- his tolerance for Kim's guff is bottomless -- actually comes off as endearing. Actually, let's downgrade that to "palate-cleanser."

Kath & Kim is described in NBC press materials as the saga of a "hilarious and iconoclastic mother-daughter duo" immersed in a "love/hate, push/pull dysfunctional relationship that only a mother and daughter could share."

The hilarity lasts about as long as Kim's opening whine on the state of her marriage: "It's over. O-V-U-R."

No wonder NBC keeps replaying that line in its Kath & KIm promos. Basically, it's all they've got.

Grade: D (on the curve out of sorrow and pity for Molly Shannon)

Life on Mars launches (but can it take off?)

Coppers Sam Tyler and Annie Norris hook up in ye olde 1973.

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 9th at 9:01 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Jason O'Mara, Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol, Jonathan Murphy
Produced by: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Scott Rosenberg

Earth to ABC: Life on Mars doesn't look sustainable. Even so, Thursday's premiere is by no means unwatchable.

American TV's latest British import (the acclaimed original ran for a tidy eight episodes) gets launched on ABC after some much-publicized creative differences and casting changes. That's rarely a good sign, but it's not always a death warrant either. Touched By An Angel had its entire pilot scrapped and a new creative team brought in before CBS finally shrugged and put it in play. A nine-season run ensued.

Mars may be fortunate to last nine episodes, even in a less than daunting time slot populated by NBC's already long-faded ER in its final season and CBS' Eleventh Hour in its first. Magical, mysterious time-travel, with Mars the latest practitioner, is starting to seem as played out as Idol judge Randy Jackson.

We begin, of course, in the present. New York detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) and his partner/lover Maya Daniels (former Cosby kid Lisa Bonet in a recurring role) are heading toward an alleged killer's lair while squabbling over commitment issues.

Once on the scene, Sam's quickly in hot pursuit of the suspect. Catch him if you can, which of course he does. While they grapple, a little black kid shouts, "Kill the pig, 'Freak Show'." What possibly can be the point of throwing in a line like that?! ABC can and should excise it from the "rough cut" version of Mars made available for review.

Police questioning of the really guilty looking Colin Raimes (Michael Bertolini) hits a dead end when a casino video shows him shooting craps at the time of the murder. He's freed, with Maya still tailing him before the cops make an eye-opening discovery. Meanwhile, Maya appears to be the victim of foul play before a guilt-ridden Sam is hit by a car.

He awakens not on Mars, but in NYC, circa 1973.

"I need my cell," Sam tells an officious cop.

"You need to sell what?" he retorts.

It's tough to get sold on what follows, even though one of befuddled Sam's new acquaintances is instantly a very winning character. She's brainy Police Women's Bureau recruit Annie Norris, played with considerable appeal by Gretchen Mol. She quickly embraces Sam platonically, although we know where this is going if Mars lasts long enough to get there.

Alas, the show's two marquee cast additions are one-note at best in Thursday's premiere. Hard-boiled Harvey Keitel (Means Streets, etc.) finally succumbing to his first TV series gig, plays super-gruff, big boss lieutenant Gene Hunt. No one expects Keitel to take on anything resembling a genteel role. But it'd be nice to see him as something more than a door-kicking, suspect-punching old-schooler to whom nuance is having an Irish coffee.

Also dropping in and out is Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos fame. Sporting a thick mustache and thicker, longish hair, his detective Ray Carling is a veritable Pez dispenser of off-color wisecracks -- and next to nothing more.

"You look like you've seen a ghost, and he was ballin' your mother," he says by way of greeting the super-befuddled Sam, who becomes a member of the squad because almost everyone apparently knows him although he knows no one. He even has an apartment in the Village, to which Annie escorts him. Cannon's playing on the TV.

Sam of course yearns to return to the present -- and Maya. And he's convinced that seeds sown in 1973 hold the key to protecting her in the future. He hears voices, but are they real? And how about that weird, black-and-white scientist dude who suddenly pops up on the tube and speaks spookily to him before dissolving to a test pattern. Yeah, why not throw in a little Lost while we're at it?

The sinking feeling is that we'll never learn much of anything during Sam's entrapment in 1973. Maybe he'll periodically "escape," only to return against his will. In Thursday's opener, though, he's left stuck 35 years removed from 2008, haunted by Maya imploring him to "Come home. Come back home."

Mars' opener at least had enough pull to drag me like a balky mule to next week's episode. Its stitching seems too threadbare, and it's likely going nowhere in particular. Still, watching Sam and Annie interact and evolve seems worth the price of submission. Even if maybe she's from Venus.

Grade: B-minus

Tina trifecta: her third Palin sendup in four weeks gets even better with strong support from Jason Sudeikis as bravura Biden

Tina Fey risks putting herself in a Sarah Palin lockbox with three perfectly played parodies in the first four Saturday Night Lives of the season.

But if the snowshoes fit, wear 'em.

It's not just her, though. Even Fey needs a capable foil. For the first two outings, gal pal and SNL regular Amy Poehler navigated Hillary Clinton and then Katie Couric. Saturday's Palin-Joe Biden debate spoof squared her off against SNL trench warrior Jason Sudeikis, who more than held up his end. Queen Latifah dropped in as an unannounced guest to prime the pump as book-hawking moderator Gwen Ifill.

NBC says that SNL's ratings are up 49 percent nationally compared to last season's first four shows. No wonder. Palin's the gift that keeps on giving, but Fey must be wondering how long she can go on. Wonder Woman also has to carry NBC's Emmy-winning 30 Rock , which might be feeling just a bit needy by now.

Here's the latest: