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Fall TV: Worst Week does its best to break CBS' Monday night comedy mold

What a fine mess Worst Week makes -- at least on opening night.

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 22nd at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Kyle Bornheimer, Erinn Hayes, Kurtwood Smith, Nancy Lenehan
Created by: Matt Tarses

Loosely put, Meet the Parents meets Everybody Loves Raymond in a new CBS comedy that otherwise is something of a square peg.

That's largely because the often very funny Worst Week dares to work without a safety net -- no laugh track -- on a network where canned giggles are virtually in the drinking water. Monday night's three preceding returnees -- The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men -- are all thus equipped.

Worst Week is the first CBS fall comedy to go au natural since -- damned if I can remember. It's akin to Woody Allen trying to survive on Big Brother. He'd be laughed out of the house.

The newcomer's creator is Matt Tarses. His principal credits have been as a co-producer on two critically acclaimed but ratings-starved comedies -- Scrubs and Sports Night.

Worst Week, intendedly a comedy of errors, is built around a budding bride and groom with a baby on board.

Sam Briggs (Kyle Bornheimer) and Melanie Clayton (Erinn Hayes) haven't yet clued her parents in on their marriage plans let alone her six-week pregnancy. And nothing ever seems to go remotely well when Sam is in close proximity to Dick and Angela Clayton (Kurtwood Smith, Nancy Lenehan).

"Last time I was there, I burned down their house," gun-shy Sam recalls as they plan to break news on both fronts. It goes only marginally better this time, with our dogged sad sack arriving very late to dinner in makeshift garbage bag briefs after some post-traumatic stress from an office party.

Smith, playing the prospective father-in-law, already is etched in stone as cantankerous, browbeating Red Foreman from many seasons of Fox's That '70s Show.

He looks even sterner here, but doesn't really erupt in Monday's premiere. There's good reason for that, but to elaborate would ruin things. Let's just say that Dick Clayton finds himself with a little down time shortly after deadpanning, "I'm just gonna rinse the urine out of my hair, and I'll be off."

Worst Week takes a while to build up steam, lurching a bit enroute. Characters sometimes seem way too accepting of what's befallen them. But it ties together in the stretch run for viewers willing to hang in there.

Doing this every week will be a big challenge, though. Worst Week risks being a one-trick pony if Sam Briggs is fated to make a hapless horse's ass of himself in each and every episode.

Asking viewers to laugh under their own power can only make it tougher. A CBS audience is used to first getting goosed.

Grade: An A for effort and a B for execution.

Asner still acting and punching with his left as presidential campaign carries on

Ed Asner subtly sounds reveille in the upcoming Generation Gap.

Liberal actor/activist Ed Asner and Republican presidential nominee John McCain are kindred spirits on at least two counts.

Both are war veterans and computer illiterates.

"I became weaned of wedding myself to the computer when I had an assistant that would 'watch' it all day," the entrenched TV icon says in a telephone interview with unclebarky.com. "She had a terrible personality and she didn't have any use for anything except her computer. So I vowed to never be that person. And I've been computer illiterate ever since."

Asner, 78, plays an irascible grandpop in the Hallmark Channel's Generation Gap, scheduled to air on Oct. 25th. Fellow seniors Rue McClanahan, Ralph Waite and Hal Williams also appear on the last living network, cable or otherwise, to pledge allegiance to older stars from earlier eras. Their hangout is a small-town VFW club, with Asner still a commanding presence as WWII veteran "Colonel" Bart Cahill.

"Yeah, it's the last hurrah," says Asner. "I stand in amazement at the exclusion of older performers for the most part. I've been hearing about it ever since I was active in the union (as president of the Screen Actors Guild). But to witness it first-hand is a bit different. I can't leap tall buildings anymore, but I'm a better actor than I ever was in my life."

Asner doubled-dipped as Lou Grant in two classic TV series. The Mary Tyler Moore Show birthed the character in 1970 as the boss of a Minneapolis television newsroom before Lou Grant made a Los Angeles newspaper editor of him. In real life, Asner became SAG's politically outspoken liberal president during the time MTM left and Lou Grant began. He hasn't mellowed.

"I think in many shapes and forms, the lunatics have taken over the asylum," he says. "There's a great chaos in the country. We have a manufactured war that never should have taken place. Basic fundamentals of freedom and liberty are banished. Torture is approved. So tell me where the sanity is, where the standards are."

"We're in free fall. Wall Street is evincing it, just like everything else. We're in deep ca-ca."

He's told that the stock market had just plunged another 450 points on the Wednesday of our interview.

"Oh Jesus!" Asner exclaims. "It's all over!"

His views of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin are as predictable as Sean Hannity's deferential treatment of her during a Wednesday night interview on Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes. We live in times of manifest polarization.

"I think it's a joke," Asner says of Palin's selection. "The women are so starved to get a national candidate out there that they're flocking to her colors as though it's a great breakthrough in the glass ceiling."

Palin "may be terrific" in the looks department, he says. "She may be a helluva -- I call it a 'hottie.' But I echo (McCain advisor) Carly Fiorina in saying she can't run a corporation."

Fiorina, the former ousted head of Hewlett-Packard, inadvertently stuck her foot in a shredder this week after being asked whether Palin could run a corporation such as Hewlett-Packard. No, she answered, before belatedly adding in later interviews that neither could McCain or the Democratic team of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Subsequent scheduled TV appearances were canceled.

Asner agrees that his hardly surprising views will be dismissed by those who still see him as an irrelevant old Commie or worse.

"They'll say what they want to say," he says.

And furthermore . . .
Asner has won seven acting Emmys and been nominated for another nine. But he won't be watching Sunday night's 60th annual prime-time ceremony on ABC.

"Nope," he says. "I haven't seen most of the shows and I guess you can say if I can't walk the red carpet, I don't wanna look at it."

His all-time favorite TV series all were nominated in their day, and many took home hardware.

Asner names Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Honeymooners, Barney Miller, Cheers and Frasier as some of his personal favorites. What he didn't like much were I Love Lucy or Sex and the City.

His list of drama greats includes The Sopranos, Gunsmoke, The Defenders, The Senator, Masterpiece Theatre and Deadwood. Not that he liked the way Deadwood creator David Milch holstered the show.

"I was enraged at the way he ended it," Asner says. "I thought it was the biggest copout in the world, the way he sacrificed this fantastic piece of work."

And the Emmy goes to -- frankly, will anyone give a damn?

Star-crossed couples from Mad Men and the Dallas Cowboys.

Let's say you're the Emmy Awards. But for your sake, let's hope you're not.

Sunday night's 60th self-congratulatory celebration of prime-time's allegedly best programming is also an odds-on bet to be the least-watched ever.

While ABC hunkers down in Hollywood, NBC will be presenting a Sunday Night Football matchup with optimum marquee value. The D-FW ratings obviously will raise the roof again, but a national audience likewise is going to be flocking to see unbeaten Dallas vs. unbeaten Green Bay at sacred Lambeau Field.

ESPN likewise has a potential heavy hitter in play. Its Sunday night baseball matchup between the Orioles and the Yankees isn't just any game. It's the last one to be played at ultra-historic old Yankee Stadium before the new one begins fleecing fans next season. A pretty big TV crowd is sure to gather.

The Emmys, to be hosted by a quintet of reality show hosts, air on the eve of a strike-damaged fall TV season with the fewest new series ever. So the buzz has been zzzzzzz. Nor does it help that the three programs with the most Emmy nominations -- HBO's John Adams, AMC's Mad Men and NBC's 30 Rock -- have been seen by only a relative handful of America's TV-watchers.

It's kind of like the past winter's less than blockbuster Oscar telecast. You shouldn't have to be wildly popular to be nominated, but big crowd-pleasers do help to ring the Nielsen ratings register. Oscar had little of that, and the Emmys probably have less.

Last year, Fox's Emmy telecast drew 12.95 million viewers nationally, barely beating the all-time low of 12.23 million for the 1990 festivities on Fox.
Emmy's all-time high was 35.78 million viewers for NBC's telecast of the 1986 ceremony.

ABC will face an uphill fight to stay out of the all-time basement Sunday night. With that in mind, unclebarky.com's Emmy picks in select major categories will be bold-faced without further elaboration in the nominee lists below. It's who we think should win, not necessarily who will. Not that many are likely to be keeping score -- or a close watch.

Boston Legal
Mad Men

Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Office
30 Rock
Two and a Half Men

A Raisin in the Sun
Bernard and Doris
Extras: The Extra-Special Series Finale
The Memory Keeper's Daughter

John Adams
The Andromeda Strain
Tin Man

Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House
James Spader, Boston Legal

Glenn Close, Damages
Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU
Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies
Tony Shalhoub, Monk
Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men

Christina Applegate, Samantha Who?
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
America Ferrera, Ugly Betty
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old Christine
Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds

Ralph Fiennes, Bernard and Doris
Ricky Gervais, Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale
Paul Giamatti, John Adams
Kevin Spacey, Recount
Tom Wilkinson, Recount

Dame Judi Dench, Cranford
Catherine Keener, An American Crime
Laurey Linney, John Adams
Phylicia Rashad, A Raisin in the Sun
Susan Sarandon, Bernard and Doris

American Idol
Dancing with the Stars
Project Runway
The Amazing Race
Top Chef

Tom Bergeron, Dancing with the Stars
Heidi Klum, Project Runway
Howie Mandel, Deal or No Deal
Jeff Probst, Survivor
Ryan Seacrest, American Idol

Otherworldly, overlooked: SNL's night of Sarah-Hillary put the "Space Olympics" into virtual eclipse

Deep in the recesses of Saturday Night Live's 34th season premiere came another "Digital Short" from Andy "Dick in a Box" Samberg.

It attracted possibly one zillionth the notice on a night when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler stole the show from the top with their dead-on sendups of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.

Still, Samberg's bizarro musical turn as emperor of the 3022 "Space Olympics" from Zargon gets the silver medal from this judge. The visuals are out of this world and the idea alone at least is out of the box. Watch and listen if you'd like on this crystal clear, "wide-screen" reprise.

Together again for the first time: Fey and Poehler paint a masterpiece with SNL's Sarah/Hillary sendup

Tina and Amy: brilliantly paired as Sarah, Hillary.

Anticipation has rarely been this high for a Saturday Night Live season opener.

After all, Olympic gold medal god Michael Phelps would be hosting and . . . scratch that.

After all, Tina Fey might play the role that many envisioned for her on the day John McCain dropped the puck and made Sarah Palin his "hockey mom."

Events simply overtook Phelps as no swimmer officially could. He's arguably still better known than Republican VP nominee Palin, but maybe by only a few hundredths of a second.

Fey's smashing return visit to SNL, greatly aided by another of Amy Poehler's impeccable sendups of Hillary Clinton, rendered Phelps virtually irrelevant for the rest of the night.

It's not his fault, at least in that context. Phelps otherwise barely managed to slog through SNL's in-over-his-head pool while the show's other big-name drop, an announced appearance by Barack Obama, failed to materialize. In deference to Hurricane Ike's same-day destructive path, the Democratic presidential nominee belatedly and wisely bowed out.

Fey-Poehler were much more than enough, though. Their show-opening -- and show-stopping -- "non-partisan message" registered as an instant classic in the long SNL tradition of hit and miss political sketches. Everything clicked like a three-inch high heel.

It all starts with the writing, and this sketch in large part was penned by SNL cast member Seth Meyers (who also co-anchors Weekend Update with Poehler.) Then you have to deliver on it in ways that poor Phelps mostly just couldn't during the eight sketches later bestowed on him.

Through no fault of her own -- but now fortuitously -- Fey obviously has the Palin look down. She also nailed the voice, the mannerisms and what ABC anchor Charles Gibson suggested was her "hubris" in their much-dissected one-on-one encounter late last week.

"Tonight we are crossing party lines to address the now very ugly role that sexism is playing in the campaign," Fey's Palin proclaimed.

"An issue which I am frankly surprised to hear people suddenly care about," rejoined Poehler's Hillary.

In its own way, SNL championed Hillary last season during an Update segment in which Fey said that bitches get things done. The show also skewered the so-called "mainstream media's" reverential treatment of Obama in a debate sketch later seen as pivotal in turning the coverage around a bit. Not that MSNBC really listened.

SNL's "Hillary" returned as a not-so-stiff upper-lipped loser who finally boiled over as "Palin" pronounced, "It's truly amazing and I think women everywhere can agree, that no matter your politics, it's time for a woman to make it to the White House."

"No, mine!" Hillary retorted. "I didn't want a woman to be president. I wanted to be President and I just happen to be a woman. And I don't want to hear you compare your road to the White House to my road to the White House. I scratched and clawed through mud and barbed wire and you just glided in on a dog sled wearing your pageant sash and your Tina Fey glasses!"

Palin simultaneously struck a series of seductive poses, ending with a strong-armed, pantomimed rifle cock.

Update later used what sometimes was a pole ax on Palin, this time shown as her still-photo self.

The race is tightening, said anchor Poehler, who's well along in her pregnancy and expecting her first child this fall with husband-actor Will Arnett. "John McCain is now only six points behind Sarah Palin."

That's funny. Some unkinder cuts came from cast member Will Forte in the guise of Palin's "biggest fan," bearded, flanneled, uncouth Alaska Pete.

He railed against the allegedly Palin-hating "media elite -- with your ivory towers, and your Four Seasons and your indoor plumbin'."

At the GOP convention, Palin lovingly "held that baby (five-month-old, Down Syndrome-afflicted Trig) in the air like The Lion King," Alaska Pete huffed before affectionately referring to the 44-year-old mother of five as a "Super MILF." And after daughter Bristol has her baby, Palin will become a "GILF," he noted.

Palin supporters no doubt will be crying foul, and have grounds to do so. Not that the McCain campaign isn't already using an assault rifle of its own in defense of the Alaska governor. Widely criticized, factually tortured 30-second spots basically portray Obama as a belittling sexist who also, by the way, wants to teach sex to kindergarteners.

Returning the love Friday night on his HBO Real Time show, comedian/politico Bill Maher tore into Palin as only a world class, real-life womanizer could. One can be a longtime fan of his unbridled humor -- guilty, your honor -- without laughing at lines such as "She thought the "Bush doctrine' has something to do with forbidding her daughters to shave down there."

Or how about this one: Palin's favorite sign of support upon returning to Alaska last week was "the one held up by her daughter -- 'I got my period.' "

Oh, it's going to get uglier, particularly on TV and the zillions of partisan web sites wearing blinders in service of their political views. But SNL's Sarah-Hillary sendup had the good grace to be smart, funny and brilliantly acted by Fey and Poehler, the only duo to ever make the show's usual gang of dominant male cast members seem almost impotent.

Maybe you haven't seen it yet? Here's the complete video of a sketch that's going to be endlessly excerpted on television while almost assuredly receiving bipartisan support:

Gibson vs. Palin -- call it a draw?

Round One in Fairbanks. ABC News photo

The so-called high road sometimes can be a bridge to nowhere.

But was that the case when ABC anchor Charles Gibson stuck firmly to national security issues during his opening one-on-one exclusive with Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin?

Well, it was the seventh anniversary of 9/11. So the topic had more weight than usual. Those looking for juicy "red meat," though -- how many times did you hear that tiresome cliche during the political conventions? -- may have been disappointed by the mostly vegan cuisine.

Gibson, his eyeglasses perched near the tip of his nose, took a professorial tone with Palin. At times he seemed to be picking apart a student's Masters thesis. And Palin initially came up empty when asked whether she agrees with the "Bush Doctrine."

"In what respect, Charlie?" Palin asked in turn, one of the many times she invoked his more informal Good Morning America moniker rather than the one he now uses as ABC News' point man.

Gibson subsequently schooled her on the BD, which he said was "enunciated" in September 2002 before the invasion of Iraq.

"The Bush doctrine, as I understand it," he told/lectured her, "is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?"

Palin said she agrees that a president's "top priority is to defend the United States of America." And by God, that's what a McCain-Palin administrat ion will do.

Although he was persistent, Gibson does not have the brawling style of Bill O'Reilly. Nor the overriding sense of self-importance.

That's good and bad. O'Reilly's four-part interview with Democratic nominee Barack Obama, which concluded Wednesday night, was spiked by a series of animated exchanges.

O'Reilly succeeded in drawing Obama out, and of course interrupting him when he wasn't satisfied with an answer. But one got the feeling that Obama enjoyed this as much as his inquisitor. It often made for an action-packed event, but not one without substance.

Gibson, unlike Fox News Channel's pit bull, wasn't about to jump in and say something on the order of, "Oh, c'mon, governor, that's just not true." Instead he relied on his jab. And in the end, their first match seemed too close to call.

To her credit, Palin gave some nuanced answers and didn't seem to be in over her head. At the opening bell, though, it wasn't enough for her to basically say, "I'm ready" when asked whether voters should believe she's in fact experienced enough to be McCain's right-hand woman.

The first 10-minute segment of their interview premiered at the start of Thursday's World News. It was mostly repeated on Nightline, with a brief extra segment devoted to energy issues. As they walked along a portion of Alaska pipeline, Gibson pressed Palin on whether she now agrees with McCain that global warming is in no small part the result of "man's" doings.

Palin insisted that she's pretty much always felt this way, and hasn't lately conformed to McCain's view.

"Call me a cynic" but it seems otherwise, Gibson said.

"I think you are a cynic," Palin rejoined almost cheerfully.

She is, however, still at odds with McCain over drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic National Refuge referred to in shorthand as ANWR. Palin supports it, and he doesn't, but "I'm workin' on him."

Part 2 of their interview, premiering on Friday's World News, will be on domestic affairs and Palin's record as both governor and small-town mayor.

That's likely going to be the "red meat" portion of their two-rounder. Gibson, basically in a no-win situation, can "redeem" himself in the eyes of some by going for a knockout.

But Palin is an artful dodger, and no pushover. So their Battle of the Sexes has no clear favorite as each consults their cornermen before re-entering the ring. The Pit Bull with Lipstick vs. The Wizened Whiskered East Coast Terrier.

Everyone seems to have a dog in this fight.

Fall TV: Inn-fantile Do Not Disturb leaves no vacancy for brain activity

Presenting the sex-obsessed staff of Do Not Disturb. Double ugh.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 10th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Niecy Nash, Jerry O'Connell, Molly Stanton, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jolene Purdy, Dave Franco
Created by: Abraham Higginbotham

Does it require a certain talent to be effortlessly idiotic? If Joe Piscopo falls in the woods, does he make a sound? What color is an orange?

Fox's new Do Not Disturb, virtually certain to be fall's worst-reviewed new series, is best watched while repeatedly striking your noggin with a ball peen hammer. That way you'll at least be enroute to being rendered senseless by the time Niecy Nash from Reno 911! saunters into the picture to shout out her first line.

"Larry, what is this nasty filthiness you are reading? And are there pictures?" she asks an employee of what's supposed one of New York's "hottest and hippest" hotels.

Oh we have pictures. A whole DVD disc's worth. And it can only be hoped that Do Not Disturb hasn't injected a virus into the computer on which Wednesday's premiere episode unfolded.

Nash, best known for her Reno portrayal of deputy Raineesha Williams, has the centerpiece role here as a Human Resources director named Rhonda. Of course she violates her own ban on workplace affairs, quickly succumbing to the advances of the hotel's hunky head of security.

Meanwhile, general manager Neal (poor Jerry O' Connell) is trying to fight his David Duchovny-ian addiction to sex. In an all too typically broad exchange, he wails, "You all think I'm some lecherous, horndog boss running around with my fly open."

"Your fly actually is open," rejoins reservations clerk Molly (Jolene Purdy) as the laugh track goes nuts.

The employees depicted here clearly couldn't run a lemonade stand. Still, Fox publicity materials describe their workplace, The Inn, as "one of the Big Apple's '10 Best Places to Stay' . . . with its chic decor, stylish staff and celebrity clientele."

If "celebrity clientele" means Andrew Dice Clay, Tom Arnold or Frank Stallone, well, then, maybe. But we digress.

Neal eventually succumbs to an industrial strength flirter and new hotel employee named Tasha while Rhonda tries to secretly do the hoo-hoo with her stud.

But aha, crafty Neal tells her he's just installed "tiny security cameras" in the very basement where Rhonda's been springing into action. And he has the VHS tapes to prove it.

VHS tapes?! Isn't this supposed to be a state-of-the-art hot spot for NYC's elite? But Do Not Disturb very much feels like an artifact in every way imaginable. In times of one-camera, filmic comedies shorn of laugh tracks, this plays like an episode of Shasta McNasty. Only with less ambience.

Grade: F

Fall TV: To be Somebodies is not a bad thing

Spice and sugar: single-named Somebodies Diva and Scottie.

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on BET
Starring:, Hadjii, Kaira, Quante Strickland, Corey Redding, Anthony Hyatt, Pat Brown, Carlos Davis, Nard Holston, Tyler Craig, Eric Register
Created, written and directed by: Hadjii

It took a while. But after nearly 28 years of existence, BET has its first scripted weekly series.

Somebodies, a continuation of the same-named 2006 independent feature, isn't quite worth that long a wait. It's pretty good, though, and deserves a look by black and white audiences alike.

The single-named Hadjii pretty much does everything here, probably even the off-camera catering. He stars, writes, directs and is the series' co-executive producer.

In his on-camera role, he's Scottie, a passive, soft-spoken African-American Charlie Brown who pretty much absorbs life's punches while more or less advancing through college. Somebodies is shot entirely in Athens, GA, home of both the University of Georgia and R.E.M. -- not necessarily in that order.

There's no laugh track here, but there are some laugh-out-loud moments in the first two episodes.

"I'm gonna shock the world this year. I'm gonna get my act together," Scottie vows to his pals in Tuesday's premiere.

But one of them says he's got sperm that will graduate ahead of him. No one necessarily disagrees, even Scottie.

His ex-girlfriend Diva (Kaira) serves as Scottie's only bosom buddy. She fancies herself a stellar interior decorator, transforming Scottie's latest crib into something less than a manly abode in a subsequent episode.

Scottie thinks he's got it made after spotting a pair of lush next door neighbors who alluringly wash their car in halter tops and invite him to watch TV with them -- as long as he doesn't mind porn.

They quickly move on and out, though, leaving Scottie to deal with a loud, intrusive freeloader named Trigger. Can a brother borrow your cell phone just this once? Of course it never stops.

Somebodies also is populated by opinionated Uncle Skeeter (Carlos Davis), who runs Skeet's Eats with his salty wife, Agnes (Pat Brown).

They'd like Scottie to shape up. His core group of young male running mates -- Six, Jelly, Tory and Marlo (Quante Strickland, Corey Redding, Anthony Hyatt, Nard Holston) -- would just as soon rag on him, although Scottie can be pretty good at ragging back.

Funnier, savvier and quieter than TBS' bellowing House of Payne, here's a series that nonetheless slices these lives thick and juicy. Episodes tend to end rather abruptly, as if Hadjii or BET didn't pay the electric bill. But it's at least a good thing that you don't really want them to end. They've been too much fun -- or at least far more so than expected given the obviously low, Youtube-ian budgets with which Hadjii is working.

A footnote: One of Somebodies' co-executive producers, Jordan Levin, is the former CEO of The WB, from which he resigned in 2004. I always liked him as a programming executive, and it's nice to see his name on something again.

Maybe it's not a step up for him. But this is bright comedy copper -- if not quite gold --- on a network that's done damned near nothing to distinguish itself creatively since launching in January 1980. See for yourself. I think you might want to come back.

Grade: B

Fall TV: CW's Privileged a rich blend of loose ends

Billionaire Laurel Limoges (Anne Archer) looms over Privileged.

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 9th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: JoAnna Garcia, Lucy Kate Hale, Ashley Newbrough, Anne Archer, Michael Cassidy, Brian Hallisay, Kristina Apgar, Allan Louis
Produced by: Rina Mimoun, Bob Levy, Leslie Morgenstein

Unlike 90210, The CW's Privileged at least is willing to put itself out there for a going-over by the nation's shrinking band of wild-eyed, desperately insecure TV critics.

Not that it'll get any special privileges, save for a comfy Tuesday night slot following 90210, which got off to a nice enough start in the ratings last week after CW and the show's producers conspired to make it unavailable for review.

Inspired by the book How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls by Leon Tolstoy -- er, Zoey Dean -- Privileged draws most of its limited strength from star JoAnna Garcia. Formerly Cheyenne Hart-Montgomery on 124 episodes of Reba, she's now a brainy, cheery and sometimes weepy 23-year-old Yale grad named Megan Smith. Her overall appeal isn't quite off the charts, but it's climbing them.

In Privileged's opening minutes, poor Megan is "sounding newscaster-y again" -- in the view of her friend, Charlie (Michael Cassidy) -- while relating how clubbing has evolved into a "virtual Louis the 14th-style orgy."

Then her apartment begins burning down. And while she's on the balcony in her robe, a little black kid says, "I can see your va jay-jay." Oy vey.

So what's an idealistic girl to do? Get fired by her tabloid editor (a cameo by Debi Mazar), whose idea of journalism is cell phone pics of young stars snorting and puking.

Luckily, though, Megan then is delivered into the hands of Palm Beach cosmetics empress Laurel Limoges (Anne Archer), whose 16-year-old twin granddaughters of course are spoiled rotten and not very good at studying. Limoges already has lost her husband to cancer and her daughter to a plane crash that also claimed the twins' father.

"I dabble in everything, but I only commit to things that truly matter," she tells Megan by way of asking if she'd like to prepare Rose and Sage Baker (Lucy Kate Hale and Ashley Newbrough) for admission to Duke University. The pay will be good, the perks fabulous and Megan's benefactor also will cover her college loans upon completion of this mission. Um, OK. Or as Megan prefers to say, "Okey dokey."

The premiere episode's signature line later comes from Sage after she first tasers Megan from her bed.

"I puke cuter than that outfit you're wearing," she not-so-sagely tells the new tutor. File that one under things to spring on Wendy Williams.

Megan also meets the mansion's benevolent gay chef, Marco Giordani (Allan Louis), and hunky layabout neighbor Will Davis (Brian Hallisay), who has aspirations of becoming a sports photographer when he's not on the party circuit, which is seldom. Whoops, he's also dating Megan's estranged and very haughty sister, Lily (Kristina Apgar).

Garnished by treacly pop music every five minutes or so, Privileged paints its plot by the numbers, but not without occasional charm. Archer, who made her bones in Fatal Attraction, is a stylish, somewhat soothing presence and Garcia is an oft-winning blend of perky naivete and built-up angst.

Sage looks much older than 16 and in fact is played by an actress who'll be 21 next month. Still, she's nonetheless bracingly bratty when called upon. Meanwhile, her much nicer twin sister veers toward poignancy and at times even side-swipes it.

None of this makes Privileged a must-see television "event." It's a passable way to spend an hour, though, and certainly a stark alternative in the coming weeks to Fox's competing Fringe.

Grade: C+

Fall TV: Fringe takes its crack at sci fi fo fum

FBI-ful Olivia Dunham goes in the tank on premiere of Fox's Fringe.

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 9th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox with limited commercials
Starring: Olivia Dunham, Joshua Jackson, John Noble, Lance Reddick, Mark Valley, Blair Brown, Kirk Acevedo
Created by: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci

Fox's mega-promoted Fringe probably still isn't altogether sure what it wants to be. So its success or failure likely will hinge on something co-star Joshua Jackson says in video publicity materials accompanying the drama's premiere episode.

As he sees it, Fringe "goes just slightly into the ridiculous zone" in its otherwise stated intent to "explore the blurring line between the possible and the impossible."

Co-creator J.J. Abrams, main brain behind the oft-impenetrable Alias and the equally dizzying Lost, adds that Fringe seizes on "the Frankenstein idea, but told as legitimately as possible."

So here's a viewer advisory. Tuesday night's 95-minute premiere of Fringe, presented with limited commercial interruptions, makes for a generally effective first chapter. But there's no particular shortage of ridiculousness, particularly involving some LSD-laced mental gymnastics by dogged FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv).

Half-submersed in greenish H2O, she strives to finger a bad guy by communicating with her comatose lover boy, who's been very badly disfigured by a chemical explosion of some sort. She's allowed herself to be a guinea pig in the la-bor-atory of the heretofore long-institutionalized Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble). He's Fringe's designated Dr. Frankenstein, who initially wanted his subject nude but then settled for a broadcast standards-approved black bra and panties.

Frankly, or Frankenstein-ly, this whole story-advancing sequence is ludicrous. And it makes one wonder whether Abrams and his admittedly X-Files-influenced co-creators will ever get a firm enough handle on Fringe to make it worth our weekly time. Hope so.

Most viewers of a mind to tune in are already familiar with the basic premise. International Flight 627 touches down at Boston's Logan Airport with all aboard dead in grisly fashion. Um, the plane was able to land itself through modern technology, we're told. But instead of trying to divine why passengers were spared -- a la Lost -- we're left to ponder why they weren't. And by the way, might be whole planeload of corpses be just a small fragment of a much larger and disturbing truth? In this environment, it makes one wonder if maybe Sarah Palin really is a diabolically programmed Tina Fey, with Dick Cheney as "The Banker."

Father-son Walter and Peter Bishop have bad chemistry at first.

Quickly on the scene in Boston is special agent Olivia. Glowering Homeland Security agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) doesn't like her because of an old grudge. But fellow FBI guy John Scott (Mark Valley) is on her side after first being seen lying side by side with her in bed.

One thing leads to another, not always terribly coherently. A very bad development at a Chelsea, MA storage facility serves to put Olivia on the scent of jerk-ish Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson from Dawson's Creek), son of the seemingly crazed Walter Bishop.

The Bishops haven't spoken for a while, and Peter hasn't been sending the old man any Hallmark cards either. Dad, he tells Olivia, is "without a doubt the most self-absorbed, twisted, abusive . . . " well, you get the picture.

Jackson is good in this role, retaining the smart-ass tendencies of his old Pacey Witter character while also growing nicely into what amounts to a leading man's role. Noble as the elder Bishop looks embalmed in the early going but slowly brings a little color into both the role and his mug. Torv has the Jennifer Garner Alias part, although she so far doesn't have to be nearly as quick with her fists or feet. She does like a good chase, though, and the premiere of Fringe has a couple of well-staged action sequences.

Another character, played by veteran Blair Brown (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd), is little seen until making an imperious impression near episode's end. Every series of this sort has to have an amoral corporate executive, and Brown will try to fill the bill as Massive Dynamic CEO Nina Sharp.

It's certainly worth playing along for at least a few weeks, even if Fringe's scene-setter falls well short of the gripping first look at Lost. Fox will repeat the Fringe pilot on Sunday at 7 p.m. (central) before it's left to do battle on Tuesday nights opposite ABC's Dancing with the Stars results shows.

There's likely not much of an overlapping audience for these two high-profile attractions. But can Fringe similarly string enough viewers along? Or will there be more inherent dark drama in seeing whether 82 year-old Dancing contestant Cloris Leachman can keep everything in reasonable working order as the band plays on?

Grade: B+

FNC top dog at GOP convention; McCain's closer nips Obama's

Repeating what had been an unprecedented showing at the 2004 Republican convention, Fox News Channel again outdrew all rival networks at last week's truncated three-day gathering in St. Paul. It won all three nights, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The surprise, then, was Republican nominee John McCain's narrow "win" over Democratic nominee Barack Obama in the battle of the acceptance speeches.

National Nielsen numbers for simultaneous coverage on eight broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FNC, MSNBC, Telemundo and Univision -- say that McCain drew a total of 38.9 million viewers nationally for his closer.

Obama's far showier spectacle in Denver, which unlike McCain's also was carried on the BET and TV One networks, had 38.4 million viewers. Nielsen included those additional two networks in its totals.

Nielsen Media Research does not include either PBS or C-SPAN in its final aggregate national averages because neither network is conventionally advertiser-supported.

McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, drew 37.2 million viewers for her speech on six networks, with Telemundo and Univision not carrying it. Obama's vice-presidential pick, Joe Biden, had 24 million viewers on eight networks, with BET and TV One also showing it.

Here are the available Big Six news network averages for the McCain and Obama speeches:


FNC -- 9.2 million
NBC -- 8.7 million
ABC -- 6 million
CBS -- 5.3 million
CNN -- 4.8 million
MSNBC -- 2.5 million


CNN -- 8.1 million
ABC -- 6.6 million
NBC --- 6.1 million
CBS -- 4.7 million
FNC -- 4.2 million
MSNBC -- 4.1 million

Nielsen says that Obama's acceptance speech decisively outpointed McCain's nationally among blacks and Hispanics.

The Democratic nominee drew 7.5 million blacks, compared to McCain's 3.1 million.

Among Hispanics, it was Obama, 5.2 million and McCain 4.3 million.

Hoping to suck in viewers, HBO has needed injection in True Blood

Waitress Sookie Stackhouse is vampire Bill Compton's bat girl.

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Rutina Wesley, Ryan Kwanten, Sam Trammell, Lois Smith, William Sanderson, Nelsan Ellis
Created by: Alan Ball, based on the novels by Charlaine Harris

Set in the "not-too-distant" future, which apparently is Buffy-less, True Blood's vampires harken to earlier eras of freedom fighters and suffragettes.

They want equal rights above all, and are championed on television by a blonde woman representing the American Vampire League.

"We just want to be part of mainstream society," she tells a skeptical Bill Maher on what's supposed to be an episode of his Real Time HBO series.

True Blood also is HBO's property, and its potential seems enormous. Crafted by Six Feet Under maestro Alan Ball and adapted from the "Sookie Stackhouse" novels by Charlaine Harris, its first two episodes (in an inaugural season of 12) are an intoxicating blend of backwoods Louisiana and blood-sucking outcasts.

The principals are waitress Sookie (Anna Paquin) and 173-year-old Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer). Their instant but textured attraction to each another gives True Blood a depth and humanity (at least on her part) that separates it from your basic blood-curdling creature feature.

Paquin, a pre-teen Oscar winner for 1993's The Piano, is exhilarating as a talkative, down-to-earth table-server cursed with an ability to not only read minds but to hear them voiced.

This sometimes has the effect of trying to dial up a clear radio signal on a lonely two-lane highway in Wasilla. It can be a jumble of sounds, but Sookie all too often can differentiate the thoughts of men trying to get in her pants. It's the reason she's never had a real romance.

Vampire Bill is bracingly different, though. She can't read his mind at all, which is both relaxing and possibly perilous for her. Bill in turn is taken by her mysterious aura. "You're somethin' more than human," he tells her. "May I call on you sometime?"

They begin bonding after Sookie rescues him from a pair of vicious "blood-drainers" seeking to sell his vital fluids for big black market money. It's a bit perplexing how they manage to overpower him so easily. But it's otherwise clear that Bill's blood is veritable heroin compared to a newly invented "synthetic" brand that has allowed vampires to exist without having to feed on humans. Thus their "emancipation," but the distrust remains.

Sookie's pals and kin are almost uniformly against her vampire liaison. They include best friend Tara Thornton (played with a good deal of sauce by Rutina Wesley); horndog brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten); and small businessman Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), whose down-home bar/eatery is the Chili's of Bon Temps, LA. Sam also has feelings for Sookie, but not in a creepy way. At least not so far.

When not waitressing, Sookie spends ample time with Grandma Adele (Lois Smith), with whom she lives. Adele dotes on her, and isn't at all resistant to the idea of a vampire boyfriend. She'd also greatly like Bill to talk to her "club" about the Civil War, which he experienced first-hand. But they'll have to convene a special after-dark meeting, because vampires still must sleep in during daylight.

Tara and Sookie are BFFs without being off-putting gossip girls.

A fair amount -- but not an overdose -- of graphic violence and sex also infiltrates Bon Temps.

On Sunday's premiere, brother Jason's unplanned rough coupling with a "fang-banger" (women who do it with vampires at a thousand dollars a pop) leads to his arrest for murder. And at the close of this hour, Sookie sustains a savage beating from the same blood-drainers she earlier thwarted.

This serves as a "cliffhanger" of sorts, with our heroine in very dire straits as the closing credits roll. It doesn't take an Einstein to deduce that a certain pale-faced somebody will be coming to the rescue on next Sunday's Episode 2. But his healing powers are still something to behold.

True Blood also has a killer theme song -- "Bad Things" by Jace Everett -- and great visuals to match. Broadcast networks have downsized their opening mood music to the point of virtual extinction, fearing that audiences will change channels rather than sit through it. HBO remains commendably old-school, letting the themes for all of its series run for a good minute or more. Great dishes are always enhanced by succulent appetizers, and HBO still knows this, gets this.

Shorn of The Sopranos and Ball's aforementioned crowd-pleaser, Six Feet Under, HBO also knows that it needs a game-changer. Its cachet hasn't gone bankrupt just yet, but definitely needs a fresh infusion of capital.

True Blood could be the one. Buoyed by Paquin's exhilarating work and Moyer's much more than workmanlike performance, it ushers in a world of its own with a world of possibilities. Watch it on a high-definition plasma screen if possible.

Grade: A

O'Reilly vs. Obama: Was it good for you?

There's no "I" in Obama. But of course there is one in O'Reilly.

So Thursday night's Round 1 of Bill O'Reilly's extended interview with Barack Obama predictably made plenty of room for the host's opinions and first-person references. Beginning with, "Well, first of all, thanks for being a man of your word."

"You bet," Obama replied.

"But I was worried there for a while," O'Reilly added.

Taped Thursday in York, PA, the pair's first one-on-one encounter will be strung out over four nights on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor after a Friday night recess. The host had been goading Obama in the same way David Letterman used to dare Hillary Clinton to do his CBS Late Show. She finally acquiesced while running for one of New York's U.S. Senate seats. And Letterman turned out to be a teddy bear with her.

O'Reilly in his own way turned out likewise. Yes, he poked and prodded at Obama during a discourse on national security, at one point declaring, "You bloviated about (John) McCain not following him (Osama bin Laden) to the cave."

But in a post mortem with two analysts who evaluated O'Reilly's performance -- and basically gave it raves -- The big O' said of the big O, "He's a tough guy, Obama. . . He's not a wimpy guy."

O'Reilly said he deduced this by looking Obama in the eye. The nation can now rest easy.

This is the way game is played, though. You incessantly bait a big fish and ridicule him or her along the way. Then you admire your catch's guts for showing up on your field of play. O'Reilly also credited Obama with being "straightforward" in the face of his "tough" questions. But try as he might, he couldn't get the Democratic presidential nominee to flat-out say he was "desperately wrong" about "The Surge" in Iraq.

Obama did, however, acknowledge that the Bush administration's last-ditch escalation of U.S. troop levels "has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated, including President Bush and the other supporters."

O'Reilly openly agreed with Obama that the U.S. invasion of Iraq indeed was a mistake. But he had quite another opinion during a February 2003 joust at Southern Methodist University with MSNBC's equally verbose Chris Matthews.

O'Reilly estimated that the U.S. could win Iraq over in two weeks' time while its citizens rallied around their liberators. Matthews said, and has since been proven right, that "we're going to be stuck in Iraq when we should have killed bin Laden."

So there's plenty of "wrong" to go around, not that O'Reilly spends much time reminding people of his initial position on Iraq.

To his credit, though, O'Reilly engaged Obama in a manner that few do. Thursday night's festivities, on what O'Reilly termed a "huge" edition of "The Factor," whetted appetites for more of the same.

O'Reilly may be a swaggering provocateur, but he had Obama's wheels turning in a way that the candidate likely appreciated. It can only make him stronger while O'Reilly grandly talks about how he, Bill O'Reilly, has mounted another head on his trophy wall.

"Now, now, in Dick Morris' defense, he is a lying sack of (*&%@#*@)."

Oh, this is s-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o good. From Wednesday night's Republican convention edition of The Daily Show (Note: picture takes a few seconds to form.)
Ed Bark

"A star is born" -- blah, blah, blah

Larger than life? For one night at least, Sarah Palin was.

Attacked all night for being liberal media elitists, heavy-hitters across the network TV universe turned the other cheek Wednesday night to heap praise on Sarah Palin's coming out party at the Republican convention.

The operative cliche -- "A star is born" -- popped up with a frequency almost rivaling "red meat." CNN's Wolf Blitzer launched this moon shot: "What an amazing speech from the Republican vice presidential candidate . . . a star is born."

Colleague Anderson Cooper likewise dipped into the "star is born" pot before dubbing Palin a "force to be reckoned with."

Fox News Channel's Brit Hume quickly returned serve: "A star has been born in the Republican Party tonight."

Tom Brokaw, again straddling NBC and MSNBC, began on the parent broadcast network by lauding Palin's "very auspicious debut. She could not have been more winning and engaging."

"One tough cookie," said George Stephanopoulos on ABC's brief post mortem. "She definitely gets an A," he added later on Nightline.

On CBS, Schieffer said that Palin had "passed the first test. The people in this hall absolutely loved this speech."

Even veteran Democratic analysts had no appetite for nailin' Palin.

"You've got problems," FNC floor reporter Chris Wallace told former Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson, who readily agreed.

"She was very, very good," he said, praising Palin's dexterity in smilingly "sticking the knife" into Democratic nominee Barack Obama. "Democrats have reason to be concerned."

Wallace grinned while jabbing back: "We have you here to say something critical," he told Wolfson. "So say something critical."

Wolfson said he doesn't agree with Palin on hardly any issues of import, but again rated her "very good" as a speechmaker on her grandest stage to date.

Another longtime Democratic strategist, Joe Trippi, said on CBS that Palin has many more hurdles to leap, but "passed this test with flying colors."

That left MSNBC, which spent much of Wednesday night on hand-wringing discussions of whether the Republicans again were unfairly targeting the media for digging into Palin's personal as well as professional life.

Chris Matthews blamed the "Safeway press" for much of the excess, in this case referring to Us Weekly's "Babies, Lies & Scandals" cover story on Palin rather than the National Enquirer's reporting on John Edwards' now admitted infidelity.

Keith Olbermann, still safely harbored in MSNBC's Manhattan studios after attending last week's Democratic convention in person, said he very much loved Matthews' Safeway line. Because, after all, Olbermann doesn't roll that way, other than to blog for the same Daily Kos website that received withering criticism for alleging that Palin's fifth child, four-month-old Trig, actually belongs to her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol.

Matthews later termed Palin's convention speech "very appealing." And conservative analyst Pat Buchanan, who had glowing praise for Obama's acceptance speech, amped up his rhetoric to this level: "This is a rookie who came in and threw a shutout in the first game of the World Series!"

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, the new star liberal analyst getting her own show after the conventions, faulted Palin for attacking the Democrats too hard.

"I'm surprised we got so much belittling, rather nasty swiping at Obama," she said.


One of the more endearing moments at the Democratic convention came when Obama's two daughters waved and said "Hi, daddy" onstage after Michelle Obama's very well-delivered speech. Dad waved back from a big video screen.

The Palins managed a more memorable picture Wednesday night, thanks to six-year-old Piper. Network cameras caught her in closeup, licking her hand and grooming her baby brother's hair while holding him in her arms. Here's the video:

Three Stooges: Peggy Noonan, Mike Murphy and Chuck Todd

Caught with their mikes still on --and egged on by MSNBC analyst/anchor Chuck Todd -- Republican strategists Peggy Noonan and Mike Murphy departed from their phoney-baloney "Talking Points" to say what they really thought of John McCain's Palin pick. (Noonan later offered a very labored defense on The Wall Street Journal's web site.)

The following revelatory video includes added print and pictures to identify who's saying what:

Fall TV:: The Sopranos on hogs -- FX's Sons of Anarchy spins tales of crooked bikers

Wheels are turning for hunky Jackson "Jax" Teller (Charlie Hunnam).

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 3rd at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal, Mitch Pileggi, Drea De Matteo, Mark Boone, Jr., Kim Coates, Johnny Lewis, Maggie Siff, Theo Rossi, Taylor Sheridan
Created by: Kurt Sutter

Warning: the opening sentence of this review includes a four-letter expletive used repeatedly in Sons of Anarchy.

Very bluntly put, FX's new Sons of Anarchy is full of shit.

So much so that it easily could be sponsored by a laxative.

This once taboo four-letter word is carpet-bombed throughout the first two episodes of a thoroughly vile and violent drama series about an outlaw motorcycle club's iron-fisted rule over the tiny fictional town of Charming, CA.

Yes, comparisons to The Sopranos are inevitable and warranted. These guys also maim, kill, curse, run guns and have big "family" dinners for accredited members of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original (SAMCRO). Only they get around on energy-efficent choppers while Tony Soprano and his underlings preferred gas-guzzling SUVs.

Advertiser-supported cable networks still can't get away with dropping the f-bomb. So FX compensates with what must be a world record barrage of s-words that once used to merely drip on its groundbreaking signature series, The Shield.

Wednesday's premiere also includes rotting Mexican corpses; savage beatings of both a drug-dealer and an Asian Elvis; the point-blank face-shooting of a rival Mayan motorcycle gang member; another dead Mayan with a stick of dynamite protruding from his rear end; and the not-so-gentle twitting of a SAMCRO "prospect" known as Kip "Half-Sack" Epps.

"Jesus Christ, put that deformed nut bag away, willya?" SAMCRO boss Clarence "Clay" Morrow (Ron Perlman) orders him. Haw-haw, that's rich.

Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal co-star in Sons of Anarchy

Perlman used to hide his notably protruding jaw behind copious hair and latex on CBS' old Beauty and the Beast series. Now he really is a beast, running SAMCRO with an iron will while his wife, Gemma (Katey Sagal from Married . . . with Children), connives, cooks and performs regular upkeep on hubby's piston.

Gemma also is the mother of young SAMCRO vice president Jackson "Jax" Teller (Charlie Hunnam), whose long-dead dad was a hippie biker before the rough stuff kicked in and apparently led to his death.

Jax is described as "sensitive and reflective," but with a trigger temper and a pretty much busted moral compass. He also made a pretty bad choice in impregnating Wendy Case (Drea De Matteo from The Sopranos) before she became his ex-wife. Her drunken junkie lifestyle is bad news for their unborn son, Abel, who's delivered prematurely with half a stomach and a hole in his heart after mom collapses in a bloody heap. Nice.

Sons of Anarchy has a wide variety of other scummy characters. But at least one Charming resident, Jax's former high school sweetheart Tara (Maggie Siff), is trying to keep hope alive. She's returned to her hometown as a pediatrician who retains a thing for Jax, but not for his outlaw ways. Tara still has a big ol' tattoo, though, covering the small of her back and territory further south.

Watching all of this unfold seems voyeuristic for the most part. FX has an out-of-the-box "brand" to sell, and this is its darkest drama yet. But the overall coarseness of Sons of Anarchy comes off as forced and distasteful. Does the network really need to go to these extremes? And is an audience served in any meaningful way by watching a group of hog-riding pigs at work and play?

Sometimes you just have to say, "Enough of this stuff." FX won't be doing its version of Touched By An Angel anytime soon. Still, it'd be nice to take the edge off for a change with a series that actually aspires to be life-affirming without all the attendant dirty laundry of The Shield, Nip/Tuck or Rescue Me.

Maybe it's time for at least a semblance of a clean break?

Grade: C

Oddball out: MSNBC's Olbermann plays chicken with Republicans

Alone among all network anchors and commentators of note, Keith Olbermann pontificates far from St. Paul but close to St. Patrick's in his Manhattan fortress of solitude.

It's a stark contrast from the Democratic convention in Denver, where MSNBC's principal Republican attack dog sat on an outdoor set near a train station and rhapsodized about Barack Obama when he wasn't sniping at his colleagues.

A subsequent gossip column in The New York Post quoted network sources as saying that Olbermann had demanded more protection at the GOP convention after anchoring with Chris Matthews on site for the Democrats.

"He thinks someone will assassinate him," an "insider" was quoted as saying. Olbermann reportedly refused to travel to St. Paul if his network didn't provide a "more secure location."

The upshot: Olbermann stayed in MSNBC's 30 Rock studios on Monday night while Hurricane Gustav waylaid the planned speechmaking by Republicans. Many other anchors and reporters -- including standardbearers Charles Gibson, Brian Williams and Katie Couric -- were in New Orleans Monday and then jetted back to St. Paul for Tuesday's first full night of the GOP convention.

But Olbermann resolutely stayed put while his bosses wove a phony cover story for him.

"Keith is particularly strong at being the quarterback for this kind of coverage (namely Hurricane Gustav), and that's why we're pulling him back," NBC News president Steve Capus told Broadcasting & Cable Monday.

That might have held water -- as the levees did -- on Monday. But Olbermann remained in his Manhattan bunker on Tuesday night, twitting the Republicans from afar rather than face them in person.

This cries out for one of those sports analogies he's so fond of spouting. If Olbermann were a star player for the Red Sox, he'd feign an injury rather than travel with his team to Yankee Stadium to play the hated Yankees and their booing fans. This is no standup guy.

Early in Tuesday night's convention coverage, Olbermann threw it to floor reporter Andrea Mitchell, who stood amid the Texas delegation asking, "Where is George Bush?"

Olbermann and some of his MSNBC colleagues made much of the fact that President Bush would be addressing the convention from the White House in an eight-minute speech scheduled to end just before the Big Broadcast networks signed on at 9 p.m. (central). In other words, the convention was washing its hands of a sitting president with a subterranean approval rating.

"They do have airplanes," Mitchell said, referring to the ease with which Bush could have attended in person. This begged the same question for Olbermann, but of course it was never asked. To wit: "They do have airplanes, Keith. Why aren't you here with us? Afraid to take the heat?"

Olbermann's colleagues in St. Paul seemed to be united in their determination to either ignore or disagree with his occasional jabs at Republicans.

"Bigger even than the stump speeches in Wasilla, Alaska," he said in reference to running mate Sarah Palin's scheduled big speech to delegates Wednesday night.

Matthews gave a look of at least slight distaste before batting around the Palin factor with fellow MSNBC panelists in St. Paul.

Olbermann later described former Republican senator Fred Thompson's speech as "nearly entirely militaristic in nature . . . standing him next to a flag and a gun."

"I think it was an effective speech," Matthews demurred.

"It was a terrific speech. It was a barnburner," added conservative analyst Pat Buchanan, who also lauded Barack Obama's acceptance address at last week's Democratic convention.

Olbermann later found fault with Thompson's declaration that "being a POW certainly doesn't qualify anyone to be president." That's a telling "disconnect" in light of presumed nominee John McCain's much-chronicled past, Olbermann contended.

One of MSNBC's commentators noted that Thompson immediately added, "But it does reveal character."

Former Democratic congressman Harold Ford, now a frequently deployed analyst for MSNBC, also spat out Olbermann's bait.

The Republicans had a good night, he said, giving them "an A for effort and B-plus for execution."

It's oddly satisfying, if not exhilarating, to see MSNBC's on-site troops distancing themselves from Olbermann. After all, he's literally distancing himself from them.

It also should be noted that Olbermann's hated Fox News Channel nemesis, Bill O'Reilly, is in town for the Republicans as he was for the Democrats. That gives him a big leg up in their ongoing pissing match. At least O'Reilly had the guts to show his face in both venues.

O'Reilly somehow resisted slamming Olbermann on Tuesday night. But he had bigger fish to fry, crowing at the end of The O'Reilly Factor that he'll be interviewing Obama on Thursday night.

That's a nice notch on his belt. Olbermann can't say as much, and really isn't entitled to say much of anything. Sequestered in Manhattan, his grenades are duds and his braggadocio is bankrupt this week.

Guys who don't have the guts to show up can talk all they want. Meanwhile, everyone else is walking the walk.

CNN entitled to a St. Paul swagger

Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Gloria Borger and the back of James Carville's head during CNN's coverage of the Democratic convention.

Maybe Fox News Channel will rebound with big ratings for its coverage of the Republican convention, which is back on track after an opening night pause for Hurricane Gustav.

For now, though, CNN clearly is master of the cable news universe with a supposedly non-partisan, "all sides" of an issue approach that paid big dividends in Denver.

On Thursday's closing night, CNN went where it had never been before -- to the top of the national ratings heap among all news networks during Barack Obama's curtain-closing acceptance speech.

CNN drew 8.1 million viewers in the 9 to 10 p.m. (central) hour, with runnerup ABC News (6.6 million viewers) a surprisingly distant second. CNN also won easily among 25-to-54-year-olds, the main advertiser target audience for news programming.

CNN finished no worse than second on the three other nights of the Democratic convention, outdrawing CBS News throughout the week. FNC jolted the Big Three broadcast networks four years ago by outdrawing them on all four nights of the Republican convention.

That's a strong possibility in St. Paul as well, even though FNC's ratings for the Democratic convention showed the network falling to third place among cable networks in the key 25-to-54 demographic.

MSNBC was the No. 2 cable network among 25-to-54-year-olds for each of the four nights from Denver. And on Thursday's closing night, it came within an eyelash of beating FNC in total viewers, losing by a score of 4.2 million to 4.1 million.

CNN's 8.1 million viewers for Obama's speech doubled the crowd it drew four years ago for Democratic nominee John Kerry's finishing kick from Boston. MSNBC was up 88 percent in total viewers from the 2004 acceptance speech and FNC increased its overall audience by 63 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.

FX's The Shield resolutely plays dirty in its seventh and final season

Shades of Horatio Caine: Vic Mackey's back in FX's The Shield.

Dirty to the touch and still greasing palms, FX's hard-core cop hour begins a final wind-down Tuesday.

The Shield means as much to its network as The Sopranos did to HBO and The Daily Show does to Comedy Central. Its birth, on March 12, 2002, turned an otherwise nondescript cable player into a home for rough-and-tumble, high-caliber dramas driven by self-destructive central characters.

Absent the success of The Shield and the excesses of rogue cop Vic Mackey, there's no Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me or Damages on FX. The Shield, helmed from the start by creator/executive producer Shawn Ryan, literally badgered its network into branding itself with a hot poker. FX since has become the antithesis of warm and fuzzy, with star player Michael Chiklis likewise making a career U-turn from the chubby, schlubby pop of NBC's short-lived Daddio sitcom to a strong-armed police detective with the scruples of a Mafia kingpin.

Billed as The Shield: The Final Act, the series' concluding seventh season begins rolling out on Tuesday at 9 p.m. (central), with its climax scheduled for Nov. 25th. That's a total of 13 episodes, with FX promising that "all will be revealed by the end of this extraordinary series."

The network makes this pledge on page 7 of an exhaustive 114-page, companion hardcover coffee table book sent along with review discs of The Shield. That's quite a sendoff, including this telling observation from Chiklis on the rigors of being Vic Mackey.

"What I am not going to miss about going to work every day is being a maniacally stressed-out-aneurysm-waiting-to-happen," he writes. "The toughest challenge about playing this role is that I'm always in a knot. Right now, in Season Seven, I have seven balls in the air and I'm starting to drop them."

It can be tough-going in Tuesday night's re-start, even for devoted fans. The Shield isn't as densely plotted as Lost, but it's still easy enough to get lost in the transition from season to season.

A by now dizzying whirl of plots and counterplots are tied to Mackey's efforts to keep his stinkin' badge. Sometimes you wish the characters would wear sandwich boards with tidy summations of who the hell they are, where the hell they've been and what the hell they're up to. Emphasis on hell. The Farmington precinct remains an inferno of warring gangs, freelance thugs, crooked city officials and besieged, besmirched cops. Hill Street Blues, once upon a time so groundbreaking and "edgy," was a McDonald's Playland compared to this.

Capt. Wyms has another talk with her department's bald baddie.

Mackey's boss, Captain Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), is still a petal-stunted daisy trying to poke through Farmington's irreparably cracked pavement. She needs Mackey like a hole in the head -- but needs him nonetheless. This he knows all too well.

Tuesday's season opener has the usual quotient of graphic violence and language, including several slurs directed at Hispanics. Next week's episode includes a searing scene between Wyms and a baby-faced black gang member who calls her a "nigger bitch" during his impudent litany of racial slurs. Wyms succumbs to a measured rage and then faces a reprimand for her conduct.

The whole sorry state of affairs cries out for a stiff dose of Mackey's fist-in-the-face retribution. It's what makes The Shield both powerful and troubling. His way repeatedly is made to seem like the only way. Crime and corruption are winning by landslides, with no solutions possible. It's reached the point where a mayor's list of the area's top 10 most dangerous gangs proves to be grossly counter-productive.

"Look, this is like the standings in a sports section," Mackey says in next week's episode. "And every gang is making a playoff push."

Sure enough, a white businessman is immediately and randomly shot by a gang that feels left out. Take that.

Amid the ongoing carnage, Mackey and his onetime trusted running mate, detective Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), remain at odds over the latter's previous betrayal. But can Mackey really trust detective Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell), who for now has his back?

Oh what tangled webs they weave -- sometimes way too tangled. But viewers are being promised a clear and satisfying resolution by the end of The Shield's 88th and final episode. Presumably that won't be a freeze-frame of Mackey eagerly pummeling another scumbag while Journey again sings, "Don't stop . . . "

That wouldn't be nice at all.

Grade B+