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New seasons for Showtime's Sunday night knockout punches -- Homeland/Dexter

Living dangerously: the signature couples of Dexter & Homeland. Showtime photos

These are programming alert, not reviews, of Showtime's most potent Sunday night duo ever.

Dexter and Homeland (Emmy's new reigning best drama series) return together on Sunday, Sept. 30th. The respective air times are 8 and 9 p.m. (central).

I've seen their opening hours, but saying much more would be to give too much away. So let's just say this:

On Homeland, some time has passed. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is now a congressman still in the clutches of terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). And de-commissioned CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is still on a shaky road to recovery when events conspire to pull her back in.

Dexter, now on the cusp of its seventh season, left its title character aghast when his sister, Debra, witnessed him ritually plunging a knife into killer Travis Marshall. Now Dexter and Debra Morgan (Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Morgan) must reconcile what she saw with what she intends to do about it.

Although Dexter appeared to be running out of steam last season, the opening hour believably rejuvenates Showtime's longest-running and most-watched drama hour.

And Homeland also deftly re-shuffles its deck, although not without some moments that border on extreme implausibility during Season 2's first two episodes.

HBO, long the Sunday night premium cable king, already has launched new seasons of its Boardwalk Empire and Treme. But Showtime has appreciably more buzz in its corner. That's a first for this network. And it's been a long, long time in coming.

ABC's congealed 666 Park Avenue needs to get its blood flowing

Terry O'Quinn & Vanessa Williams are not nice in 666 Park Avenue. ABC photo
Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Terry O'Quinn, Vanessa Williams, Rachael Taylor, Dave Annable, Mercedes Masshn, Robert Buckley, Helena Mattson, Erik Palladino, Samantha Logan
Produced by: David Wilcox, Matt Miller, Gina Girolamo, Leslie Morgenstein

ABC always seems to have a creep show on its mind, and Terry O'Quinn has shown he's of a mind to act accordingly.

The network of all those Stephen King miniseries and, more recently, The River, The Gates and V, joins forces Sunday night with a man who came to big-time fame as duplicitous John Locke in Lost. But Quinn also is a veteran of deep dark pursuits such as Harsh Realm, Millennium and The Stepfather and its first sequel (in which he cut his teeth a quarter-century ago as an extremely crazed serial killer).

The role of Daddy Warbucks perhaps hasn't beckoned yet, leaving O'Quinn to play to type in 666 Park Avenue. The serial drama premieres on Sunday, Sept. 30th, with O'Quinn cast as a diabolical, super-powered apartment building owner named Gavin Doran. In tandem with his wife, Olivia (Vanessa Williams of Desperate Housewives), he preys on the unsuspecting and tends to make their hands bleed before dispatching them through various portals into a hellish kingdom come. His mantra: "You signed a binding contract. Now it's time to settle up."

The inspiration is a pair of 666 Park Avenue novels by Gabriella Pierce, who uses Manhattan's Upper East Side Drake Hotel as her residence evil. ABC has started off with big helpings of eerie music, whoosh-y sound effects and repeated glares or satisfied smiles from Gavin. Still, the opening hour is pretty sluggish. FX's American Horror Story got out of the gates much faster while also being appreciably scarier in its treatments of Season 1 leads Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton.

ABC's fresh meat arrives in the forms of Jane Van Deen and her husband, Henry. They're from the Midwest, of course, although Henry (Dave Annable in designer stubble) already has a job as a mayoral aide while wife, Jane (Rachael Taylor), aspires to fill the vacant manager's position at the Drake.

An initially dismissive Gavin -- "To be blunt, I'm not in the charity business. I need people who know what they're doing" -- rather abruptly softens up and gives her the job after Jane tells him his venerable multi-story pad likely needs a major structural overhaul.

Weird things begin happening at a measured pace during those times when the thrilled couple aren't undressing each other or thinking about it (in a PG manner of speaking, of course). A budding playwright named Brian Leonard (Robert Buckley) is horrified to see his wife, Louise (Mercedes Masshn), being slam-banged by elevator doors. Another poor schlepper again is dispatched to do the devil's bidding while Jane finds the basement to be very intriguing. And a new, nubile resident named Alexis Blume (Helena Mattson) tempts playwright Brian with some displays of the flesh before and after being hired as the Leonards' assistant.

The actual address of the Drake is 999 Park Avenue, with apologies to Herman Cain perhaps. But viewers get to see those numbers do a backflip in the early going.

ABC publicity materials, which turn out to more interesting than the opening hour, say that Gavin "has many skeletons in his closet," but for now is "at the height of his world and commands the dark power of the Drake." Wife Olivia, who willfully buys a blood red $4,000 dress for Jane, "wears her elegance, wealth and position in society like armor . . . but cracks will slowly be revealed."

It appears that the emphasis will be on "slowly." 666 Park Avenue doesn't entirely lack a pulse, but doesn't get the blood rushing either. Unless things dramatically improve, you'd be better off digging up one or more of ABC's old Stephen King flesh-crawlers. It's quite a body of work -- with the catalogue including It, The Stand, Rose Red and the network's very own version of The Shining.

Or, if you're of a mind to wait just a few weeks, Season 2 of American Horror Story is scheduled to start on Oct. 17th with a brand new cast of potential victims joining holdover Jessica Lange's Sister Jude.

That's probably where Terry O'Quinn should be spending his time anyway.


CBS' Made In Jersey is pasta without fazool

Janet Mongomery is a New Yawk lawyer in Made In Jersey. CBS photo

Premiering: Friday, Sept. 28th at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Janet Montgomery, Kristoffer Polaha, Kyle MacLachlan, Toni Trucks, Erin Cummings, Felix Solis, Megalyn Echikunwoke
Produced by: Kevin Falls, Jamie Tarses, Julia Franz, Jan Nash

Hiring a Britisher to play a Jersey girl may be the best evidence yet that our former colonizers have an ongoing plot to at least rule Hollywood.

Sunday night's latest Emmy awards brought acting awards to Brits Damian Lewis, Julianne Moore and Maggie Smith. Another winner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, sounds like a British name, even though she's not.

Janet Montgomery, who hails from Bournemouth, Dorset, England, likely won't be an Emmy threat for her work in CBS' hardly droll Made in Jersey.

Her Eastern-fried accent falls well short of Fran Drescher's or "Snooki" Polizzi's in Friday's premiere episode. Montgomery's character, Jersey-ite Martina Garretti, gamely says "doctuh," but leaves murder as "murder." She does come from a big, boisterous Italian family, though, with "Ma" Darlene Garretti (Donna Murphy) at one point instructing her daughter that "You're never gonna get a mink standin' at the sink."

Garretti, who comes off as a distaff Sherlock Holmes with her uncanny (and oft-preposterous) deductive abilities, initially turns the head of New York law firm founder Donovan Stark (Kyle MacLachlan continuing to age well). But she first strips down to her bra after splashing some liquid soap on herself while doing a little restroom prep for the daily all-hands-on deck gathering of Stark & Rowan staffers.

To say the scene is gratuitous is stating the obvious. But broadcast networks weren't built on business attire alone. And Montgomery proves to be no slouch in the capital assets department.

Jane Garretti moves up to "Third Chair" in a pending murder trial after boldly stating that another accused Stark & Rowan client couldn't have used a pair of pliers to bludgeon a victim. Why? Because a mug shot shows that her nails are all still unbroken. Whatevuh.

Her investigation into the death of a college professor -- a female student has been charged with his murder -- is aided by a kindly but unkempt looking law firm investigator named River Brody (Felix Solis). He wears a pork pie hat for sleuthing purposes while good-naturedly grousing, "Remember the good ol' days when you could smoke indoors like a normal person?"

"Yeah, I only drank when I smoked," Garretti says, prompting a chuckle from him. Their exchanges have about as much edge as a Donny Osmond power ballad.

Chippier is fellow attorney Natalie Minka (Stephanie March), who condescends whenever possible but is being written out of future episodes.

"I saw you downstairs, but I didn't want to interrupt the Real Housewives of New Jersey," she tells star of the show.

After summoning a snicker, Garretti snorts, "That's only funny because my sister would love to be a housewife but she's a single mom who works all the time."

Ma is much more well-meaning, but would still like for her daughter to meet a man. A little trim of her flowing mane would help matters, but, gawd, who has the time?

"You make the time, baby," Ma counsels. "You never hear Cher making excuses and she is a very busy lady."

The badda and the bing are mostly missing, though. Made in Jersey at best comes off as a one-hour prime-time rest stop between returning CBS series CSI: NY and Blue Bloods. It's a thoroughly ordinary series on what's increasingly an inconsequential night in the not-so-grand broadcast network scheme of things.

Better to watch Friday night episodes of Boss on Starz. At least Kelsey Grammer is contorting himself into weekly rages as the terminally ill and corrupt mayor of Chicago. He exerts himself on a weekly basis while Made in Jersey for the most part barely surpasses the excitement derived from folding laundry.

In that respect, it epitomizes another down-the-stretch putdown of Martina Garretti's abilities. "Don't worry," she's told. "You lower expectations just by walking in a room."


GRADE: C-minus

R.I.P. Andy Williams: Dec. 3, 1927 to Sept. 25, 2012

Old school crooner Andy Williams, who for a half-century made "My Huckleberry friend" work for him, has died at age 84 of cancer.

The lyric is from "Moon River," which became his signature song after it was first heard in the 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's.

Williams also hosted a long-running variety series that premiered as a summer replacement hour before joining NBC's fall lineup in 1962 and running until 1971. The Andy Williams Show made stars of The Osmond Brothers, who first appeared on a Dec. 20, 1962 episode singing "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas" and "Side by Side."

The Osmonds initially were without Donny, who made his first appearance as a six-year-old on Dec. 10th of the following year. Williams and the Osmonds partnered for the entire duration of the show, which also had Dick Van Dyke as a regular during its 1958 summer debut.

Williams also became a Christmas staple, as did another easy listening giant, Perry Como.

As others have noted, it's been a rough time lately for Andys, with Griffith and Rooney also passing on within the last 12 months. Rooney expired on Nov. 4th of last year and Griffith died on July 3rd.

Here's a video from the first full year of The Andy Williams Show, with "Moon River" right up top and its singer in full, soaring voice.

All aboard: ABC's Last Resort a seaworthy military mystery tour

Andre Braugher strikes alpha dog pose by firmly crossing arms. He's the tough-minded submarine captain of Last Resort. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 27th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman, Daisy Betts, Dichen Lachman, Daniel Lissing, Robert Patrick, Sahr Ngaujah, Camille de Pazzis, Autumn Reeser, Jessy Schram, Bruce Davison
Produced by: Shawn Ryan, Karl Gajdusek, Marney Hochman

ABC clearly is very, very high on Last Resort.

So much so that it took the unusual step of using the U.S. mails to send an actual DVD (and a nice color brochure) to TV writers rather than making them watch the series on ABC's password-protected media website. That, of course, shrinks the big picture, although ABC seems to have worked out most of the transmission bugs at this point.

Rival Big Four broadcast networks continue to pay for hand-held delivery, which ABC for the most part hasn't used in several years. But Last Resort is getting extra-special treatment, and deservedly so.

Premiering Thursday (Sept. 27th) as the prime-time leadoff hitter, this is a deftly woven military yarn from the man behind The Shield, Shawn Ryan. Whether it's a long-term sustainable premise very much remains to be seen. But the first two hours are sit-up-and-take-notice TV. And both have terrific climactic one-on-one scenes featuring submarine captain Marcus Chaplin (the ever-great Andre Braugher) and his second-in-command, XO Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman).

Ryan also created The Unit, whose men in uniform were more in league with Last Resort. We begin aboard the USS Colorado, a state of the art submarine equipped with enough nuclear missiles to wipe out the world as we know it and a few other planets as well.

Chaplin and his crew are first seen rescuing a motor-powered raft full of Navy SEALS, one of them seriously wounded. Their mission remains a secret and all of these guys are pretty surly.

Meanwhile, the Colorado's televisions are awash in heavy duty news out of Washington, where an "Impeachment Vote Looms." But there's not much these seamen can do about that. So when the Colorado crosses the Equator, Chaplin cues the traditional "La Bamba" music. Everyone's making merry when a communique immediately prompts the captain to order "Battle stations!" while even rough-hewn "Chief of the Boat" (COB) Joseph Prosser (Robert Patrick of The Terminator fame) can't help but blurt, "Sweet mother of God."

Basically, the Colorado has been ordered to fire nuclear weapons on Pakistan. But the order comes from a secondary channel that's only supposed to be used when the primary one is disabled. So Chaplin balks and seeks clarification. And that's when the premiere episode really starts firing on all cylinders.

ABC's on-air promos have revealed that the Colorado is itself fired upon in retaliation, leaving it damaged but still capable of making a run for nearby Sainte Marina, where a NATO early warning station is located. There's also a fetching bartender named Tani Tumrenjack (Dichen Lachman), who supplies disaffected Navy SEAL James King (Daniel Lissing) with the hard liquor he craves to drink away what happened on a recently aborted mission to Pakistan.

But King is also sober enough to convincingly waylay a group of island thugs led by crooked, self-appointed mayor Julian Serrat (Sahr Ngaujah). His pointed detailing of how he'd kill them all makes for a scene to be savored -- and replayed.

Last Resort is well-appointed with multiple "back stories," duplicitous motives and other seemingly solid characters ranging from Lieutenant/chief navigator Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts) to Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Reeser), the well-heeled, conniving "golden child" of a high level defense contractor.

Sinclair operates out of Washington, where XO Kendal's devoted wife, Christine (Jessy Schram), also resides. But what hasn't he told her? And why?

The considerable tricks here will be to keep both the palpable jeopardy in play and Sainte Marie from becoming another of ABC's never-never lands. How long can the crew believably hole up there? And can Chaplin keep holding off attackers with threats to use any or all of his 17 remaining nuclear missiles if necessary?

"Test us, and we all burn together," he vows near the close of Episode 1. "You've been warned."

Braugher, whose character is dubbed a "Nuclear Mad Man" by Episode 2, is the rock, the hard place and the principal reason to stay with Last Resort. He's compassionate as well, with his emotions laid bare during a not-to-be missed closing scene that makes one wish there were three or four more hours to watch without further delay.

ABC by far has more scripted serial dramas than any other broadcast network. It consistently opts for string-along storytelling rather than weekly buzzer-ending crime-solving. But the dramas we talk about generally are of this ilk, whether it's Breaking Bad, Mad Men or Sons of Anarchy on cable networks or ABC's Revenge, Once Upon A Time or Lost for those who either endured or embraced its wobbly course.

The first two hours of Last Resort are bracingly strong on pulling power. In the end, though, will the whole thing just capsize? Or could cancellation intervene before anything close to closure?

If only we knew. And there's the rub.

GRADE: A-minus

Shades of last fall's Prime Suspect: CBS' Elementary stars a Holmes away from home

Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 27th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn, Jon Michael Hill
Produced by: Rob Doherty, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly

Perhaps in the not so distant future, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson will be "re-imagined" as an extraterrestrial pair putting up with one other in disguised human forms while solving mysteries in tandem with the Canadian Mounted Police.

Until then it's Elementary, in which Watson for the first time is a woman while Holmes consults with the NYPD and tries to stay clean and sober on the side.

The new CBS drama takes The Mentalist's place on Thursday nights, although they're both roughly the same kind of mind-bending "crime procedural" series. Patrick Jane and Sherlock Holmes are both ego-centric, off-center geniuses partnered with calmer, steadier female work mates. The Mentalist, which is moving to Sunday nights, could easily work out a "crossover" arrangement with Elementary during a ratings "sweeps" period. Even if putting their two heads together might make both of them explode.

CBS' version of Holmes is played by Jonny Lee Miller, who was pretty good as the brain-impaired star of ABC's Eli Stone series. Lucy Liu (the Charlie's Angels movies, Ally McBeal, etc.) is Dr. Joan Watson, who's been hired to be Holmes' "sober companion" by his rich father.

Holmes is several years removed from a "fall from grace" at Scotland Yard while Watson lost a patient and her medical license three years ago. So you see, they kind of need each other, even though he's prototypically resistant at first and she quickly gets exasperated enough to quit.

As with virtually all CBS crime hours, this one begins with the violent death of a woman. Holmes is soon on the case, but not before Watson pays him a call. She first encounters a bare-chested, heavily tattooed Holmes who's checked out of rehab earlier than scheduled and has just had a little rendezvous involving handcuffs.

"I actually find sex repellent, all those fluids and odd sounds," he informs her. Still, Holmes partakes on occasion to maintain his equilibrium.

The third wheel in this arrangement is police captain Tobias "Toby" Gregson, with Aidan Quinn back in the saddle as roughly the same kind of authority figure he played last season on NBC's American-ized version of Prime Suspect. He and Holmes worked together a decade ago overseas. So he's happy to have him back, damaged goods or not.

Whatever his environment, Holmes still conducts his deductions with what seems to be the greatest of ease. And you'd better know the difference.

"I don't guess, I observe," he snippily tells Watson. "And once I observe, I deduce."

He rapidly decides that the dead woman's husband didn't kill her. "I don't see him as having the berries to take another life." He also gets to exclaim "Bollocks!"

By now you're possibly deducing that I'm not all that enamored of this latest Holmes incarnation. It's far inferior to PBS' Sherlock series, particularly in the dialogue department. And there are so many crime dramas on CBS that it's increasingly difficult to buy into yet another one -- even with the Sherlock Holmes brand in play.

Thursday's series premiere ends up being watchable but not really something to phone your friends about. Or "like" on Facebook. Or Tweet an urgent alert with accompanying link to your Followers.

Maybe Elementary will bloom and grow in future episodes. But for now, we have yet another brutally murdered woman for starters, with the eventual arrest of its perpetrator coming at the end of a not exactly spine-tingling whodunit.

It all then ends with Mets fan Watson avidly watching a nearly completed televised game while Holmes is rather bored by it all. So he definitely deduces exactly how the final Mets at bat will go.

Elementary? No, completely preposterous.

GRADE: C-plus

Emmys fete a threesome of big winners with four statues each

Claire Danes accepts her Emmy for Homeland. Photos: Ed Bark

"Television's biggest night," annually outdrawn in the ratings by the Oscars, Grammys and assorted country music awards shows, ended precisely on schedule Sunday night with Homeland and Modern Family taking the two biggest prizes.

Showtime's first-year drama and ABC's already much-lauded comedy were named best in their fields while HBO's Game Change won earlier in the best movie or miniseries category. All three won a total of four Emmys apiece, double the number for any other nominee.

HBO's late rally for Game Change again enabled it to top all networks with six statues. ABC had five and a plucky Showtime nabbed four, including best actress and actor wins for Homeland's two principals, Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.

The History network stole some of HBO's usual thunder by winning the two male acting awards in the movie/minisiseries category. Kevin Costner and Tom Berenger both were first-time Emmy winners for their bearded role playing in Hatfields & McCoys. Another Tom, Dancing with the Stars mainstay Tom Bergeron, also broke through for the first time for a win as best host.

Two of the Big Four broadcast networks -- NBC and Fox -- were entirely shut out during a three-hour ABC telecast in which 26 awards were bestowed. And The CW wasn't even nominated, either in the so-called major categories or in a "creative arts" Emmy competition for which trophies were handed out in comparative secrecy a week earlier.

Jimmy Kimmel presided for the first time, pledging to "host this show until it's pregnant" before delivering an opening burst of jokes preceded by an amusing taped spot in which various female TV stars "punched" his Botoxed mug back into submission.

Kimmel actually wasn't around all that much after that. And he probably should have re-thought a questionable "In Memoriam" bit in which singer Josh Groban eulogized him before his death. "I will be missed," Kimmel said, trivializing the eventual real-life "In Memoriam" segment in which Ron Howard began by fondly remembering Andy Griffith before a film clip ended with a trademark salute from the late Dick Clark.

An earlier gambit worked a bit better. Kimmel invited comedian Tracy Morgan onstage and urged viewers and the Hollywood swells in attendance to "prank" non-Emmy viewers by using Twitter or Facebook to tell them Morgan had just passed out onstage. He then obliged by lying on his back with arms outstretched for the next 10 minutes or so before being carried off.

Jon Steward and Daily Show staff won for 10th straight time.

In the numbing familiarity department, CBS' The Amazing Race won for the ninth time in 10 tries as Emmy's best "reality-competition" series. Its only hiccup was two years ago, when Bravo's Top Chef triumphed.

Comedy Central's The Daily Show trumped even Amazing Race by winning for the 10th consecutive time. But the program's longtime leading man, Jon Stewart, pulled it off and got the night's biggest laugh by saying at speech's end, "Years from now, when the earth is just a burning husk and aliens visit, they will find a box of these and they will know just how predictable these (f-bomb) things can be." Via the miracle of five-second delays, ABC censors caught the expletive in time to mostly bleep it out.

Stewart earlier had staged a fake tussle with losers Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, both of whom tried to block his progress to the stage by tackling him to the floor. It left the winner sweaty and winded by the time he made it to the podium and joked, "Free sandwich after 10."

Julianne Moore won for playing Sarah Palin in Game Change

Host Kimmel set the stage for the politically charged quote of the night when he asked during his monologue, "Are any of you voting for Mitt Romney?"

The question actually drew more than a smattering of cheers and applause, but Kimmel already had his followup line at the ready.

"See," he said, "that's why Kelsey Grammer didn't come here tonight."

Grammer won a Golden Globe earlier in the year for his portrayal of a corrupt Chicago mayor in Starz's Boss. But he wasn't even nominated for an Emmy, prompting Grammer to tell Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that it was probably because he's an openly Republican conservative.

Julianne Moore then twisted the knife at the start of her acceptance speech for Game Change, in which she played 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

"Wow, wow," she began. "I feel so validated because Sarah Palin gave me a big thumbs-down!" The line received heavy applause.

Michael J. Fox presented the closing Emmy for best comedy series.

The night's biggest reception, however, was saved until last. That's when Michael J. Fox took the stage to present the show-ending Emmy for best comedy series.

"I'm steady as a rock," he said to a prolonged standing ovation.

Fox has signed to star in a new NBC comedy series next fall after finding a mix of medications that control the tremors he suffers from Parkinson's Disease.

You can find the Academy of Television Arts & Science's complete list of Emmy winners on its official site. And if you'd like to rewind your friendly content provider's stream of live tweets Sunday night, go to @unclebarkycom.

ABC's The Neighbors an alien intruder in every way, shape and form

Earthlings are on the right in The Neighbors. ABC photo

Premiering:Wednesday, Sept. 26th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on ABC. Then moves to regular 7:30 p.m. slot on the following Wednesday
Starring: Jamie Gertz, Lenny Venito, Simon Templeman, Toks Olagundoye, Clara Mamet, Tim Jo, Ian Patrick, Max Charles, Isabella Cramp
Produced by: Dan Fogelman, Aaron Kaplan, Jeff Morton, Chris Koch

This is the one that no one thinks will work. And if you hooked them up to lie detectors, this would include ABC's top programming executives.

Might as well get it out of the way, though. So The Neighbors is ABC's first new fall series premiere, starting with an optimum berth after Modern Family before moving to an hour earlier on Wednesday, Oct. 3rd.

It's true that 3rd Rock From the Sun had some legs. And ALF hung around a while, too. But this latest aliens-meet-earthlings sitcom is just too dopily executed for any long-term stay on this planet. Perhaps it could be a hit on Uranus, though.

The Neighbors doesn't look or feel like a "smart" single cam comedy without a laugh track. But ABC has chosen to present it in this fashion, forcing viewers to be amused under their own power. That's asking way too much.

An opening "back story" finds denizens from the planet Zabvron landing on earth in the year 2001. They quickly buy all the available units in suburban New Jersey's new Hidden Hills Townhouse Development. Ten years later, one of the units becomes vacant when an alien couple vaporize themselves or something. Fast forward to "Yesterday" and here come the garden variety Weavers, whose principal breadwinner, Marty (Lenny Venito), considers himself a loser after three years of pay cuts. Plus, the Weavers have been living in cramped quarters at too high a cost. Wah wah wah.

Marty, who looks very much like a dumpier Vince Vaughn, has an understanding wife named Debbie (Jami Gertz). Their three three kids are insolent teen Amber (Clara Mamet), lively Max (Max Charles) and little sis Abby (the rather unfortunately named Isabella Cramp).

Hilarity is supposed to bust out when they're greeted by a Zabvronian family of four -- all of whom have taken the names of prominent athletes who perhaps will be able to collect at least a few residual checks.

Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) is the self-appointed head of the house.

"Please pumpkin. Leave the leading to me," he tells wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye). Their two sons are Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo), who's the older one, and Dick Butkus (Ian Patrick). It's an interracial brood, and they all speak in semblances of British accents to make the "guttural" speech patterns of Americans seem more "sophisticated."

The scripts are flat in any diction. Neighbors dulls the senses with both its Wednesday night opener and a very marginally improved second episode in which everyone journeys to the mall in pursuit of new clothes and some product placement for Macy's.

By that time the aliens have been exposed to the Weavers as ooze-prone green horny toad-like creatures with exposed rib cages. But they lose their human forms only when loudly clapping their hands.

"Shouldn't Obama know about this?" Debbie wonders. But they're not about to tell anybody and he's not about to watch.

Templeman's droll Larry Bird might be worth a half-grin or two. But Venito's Marty Weaver balances those scales by being completely unfunny while Gertz looks worn out and embarrassed.

Neighbors does make a little history, though, by actually shooting an over-sized family of three from the waist up while they devour junk food at the mall. There also are two references to "the fat Kardashian," who presumably is the one married to Dallas Mavericks washout Lamar Kardashian.

This likely won't be the first fall cancellation, though. Fox's The Mob Doctor already appears to have that dubious achievement pretty much locked up.

But The Neighbors does prove to be an even dumber idea than Mob Doctor. And it shows.


Monaco's still the first, no matter how she fares in DWTS "All-Star" extravaganza

Inaugural winner Kelly Monaco and Edition 3 champ Emmitt Smith. ABC photos

There can only be one first-time winner of anything. And in the hoof and puff annals of Dancing with the Stars, soap star and former Playboy centerfold Kelly Monaco remains firmly in possession of the show's inaugural Mirror Ball trophy.

"Yes, I still have it. It's displayed in a case," Monaco says in a telephone interview. "I'm proud of it and I worked very hard for it."

ABC wasn't at all certain this would work when six celebrities and their designated pro partners first took the DWTS stage on June 1, 2005.

Monaco, paired with Alec Mazo, danced against boxer Evander Holyfield, model/actress Rachel Hunter, former boy band member Joey McIntyre, Trista Sutter of The Bachelor and actor John O'Hurley.

O'Hurley looked like a certain winner, but Monaco prevailed in a controversial upset. ABC reacted by staging a two-couple rematch between Monaca and O'Hurley. This time he won their "Dance-Off." There hasn't been another one.

"I mean, it didn't seem fair," Monaco says. "But we did it for charity so I would do it again in a heartbeat. I know what it's like to win and I know what it's like to lose. I still have a good time."

O'Hurley isn't among the seven DWTS luminaries returning for the Monday, Sept. 24th launch of the show's first "All-Star" competition. But Monaco is, along with new partner Valentin Chmerkovskiy (preening Max's brother). The other previous winners hoping to do it again are Emmitt Smith (Edition 3); Apolo Anton Ohno (Edition 4); Shawn Johnson (Edition 8); Drew Lachey (Edition 2); and Helio Castroneves (Edition 5).

They'll be joined by previous "fan favorites" Kirstie Alley, Joey Fatone, Bristol Palin, Pamela Anderson, Giles Marini, Melissa Rycroft and Sabrina Bryan.

Another past winner, Brooke Burke from Edition 7, is now the show's co-host with Tom Bergeron.

A closer look at the DWTS scorecard shows that seven of the 14 previous winners are athletes, including the most recent champ, Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver. Jocks also have been the runners-up on four occasions.

"I think they probably have a bigger fan base, too," Monaco says, even though she still has a weekday TV window as Samantha McCall on ABC's General Hospital. "Everybody watches football and the Olympics. I can't compete against Emmitt Smith. He has two things to offer . . . I think I'm probably a longshot."

Smith is re-teamed with Cheryl Burke, the savvy DWTS tigress who also took Lachey to the winner's circle. She also has four other top three finishes, but couldn't work miracles after getting stuck with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in Edition 9. He ended up quitting due to injury.

Monaco's partner, Valentin Chmerkovskiy, didn't join DWTS until Edition 13. She praises him as a world champion dancer while conceding that "not having a familiar partner could be a disadvantage" against the likes of Burke, Max and other fan fave pro dancers such as Derek Hough and Kym Johnson.

In the end, though, it's just a spangly made-for-TV dance-fest, not the Olympics, Super Bowl or World Series. So Monaco will assume the positions, don some revealing costumes and hope for a decent showing more than seven years after raising the first DWTS trophy on high.

"I'm up for the journey. I'm up for the challenge," she says. "I just want to go out there and have a good time. I'm not in it to persuade anyone to vote for me. I won once. If I don't win again, it's OK."


Apolo Anton Ohno
Shawn Johnson
Emmitt Smith

And the winner is . . . Oh yes, Ohno.

What stays in Vegas is Quaid vs. Chiklis

Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis square off in Vegas. CBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jason O'Mara, Taylor Handley, Sarah Jones
Produced by: Greg Walker, Nicholas Pileggi, Cathy Konrad, Arthur Sarkissian, James Mangold

It turns out that cowboys vs. mobsters (on CBS' Vegas) is a much better fit than mobsters vs. MDs (on Fox's The Mob Doctor).

But it might as well be cowboys vs. aliens, judging from the killer look from tall-in-the-saddle Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) after his herd is spooked by a low-flying plane toting a load of casino patrons in the year 1960.

This particular alien invasion is the flashpoint for an entertaining but at times over-cooked drama series pitting old school Galahads in Stetsons against usurping gangsters in dark suits and up-to-no-good fedoras. Principal among them is Chicagoland's Vincent Savino, a swaggering enforcer played by Michael Chiklis in a return to his hard-ass ways after an ill-fated spin on ABC's No Ordinary Family.

Quaid, playing a real-life character, gets ample opportunities to ride a horse, use his fists, fire a shotgun and affix a glare during Tuesday's premiere hour. Chiklis is less in play, although he does establish his bona fides by beating an underling into submission.

After a semi-cordial start, Lamb and Savino are marking their territories by episode's end.

"You're trespassing," Lamb is told after he strides into Savino's Savoy casino-hotel with a rifle at the ready.

"I am the law here, Mr. Savino," Lamb snarls back. "And I will decide who's breaking in."

Lamb's the ad hoc law because the incumbent sheriff has gone missing. And because a female casino worker has been found with her throat slit. And because the pro-expansion mayor used to be Lamb's commanding officer during his stint with the military police in World War II. And because Lamb has gotten himself into a fix with the law after beating up a few airport goons. And because the mayor can make that go away. And because, well, otherwise there wouldn't be a series.

Lamb's wife died during the war, leaving him with a hell-raising son named Dixon (Taylor Handley) to raise. Also working the family ranch is his sturdy brother, Jack (Jason O'Mara on the lam from Fox's canceled Terra Nova). The other series regular, Carrie-Anne Moss as assistant D.A. Katherine O'Connell, grew up on a spread right next to the Lambs'. She appears to still be sweet on him.

Savino is surrounded by cardboard henchmen so far. One of them has the premiere episode's goofiest line during a big party thrown by Mr. Big. "Everybody's here," he tells the boss. "Joey Skins. Fat Frankie from New York." Groan, Knuckles Calzone apparently couldn't make it.

Also included is an ill-fitting Wild Ones subplot in which a motorcycle gang rides roughshod through downtown Vegas. They break stuff and drag a slot machine through the street while all of Vegas suddenly seems to be reduced to a terrified Tiny Town. But there's a connection to the murder mystery, so what the hell. Unfortunately, this raises questions about what Vegas really wants to be -- an evocative exploration of clashing forces and changing times or just another CBS "procedural" crime drama in different outfits.

Quaid in his first weekly TV series is worth the price of free admission, though. You'll find that he chews gum for a reason -- and walks at the same time. And a line like this -- "I wouldn't know what to do with all that fun" -- sounds good 'n' plenty when coming from him. Added Bonus: watch him stand and deliver when a speeding car heads straight at him.

Vegas hopefully will settle down and settle in after all of its introductory ups and downs. It has the makings of a damned fine weekly hour of good vs. evil, with Quaid against Chiklis as the crowd-pleasing main event.


Fox's Mindy Project an uneven work in progress

Mindy Kaling plays dress-up after leaving The Office. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 25th at 8:30 p.m. (central)
Starring: Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, Ed Weeks, Anna Camp, Zoe Jarman, Amanda Setton, Stephen Tobolowsky, Ike Barinholtz
Produced by: Mindy Kaling, Matt Warburton, Howard Klein, Michael Spiller

Having left The Office behind after eight years as Kelly Kapoor, here's Mindy Kaling in her very own show.

First impression: The Mindy Project, taking up residence on Fox's new all-comedy Tuesday nights, is a minor disappointment in light of all the accomplished guest stars populating its opening half-hour.

There's Ed Helms, who's matriculated from The Office to the hit Hangover movies.

Saturday Night Live's current funniest male cast member, Bill Hader, also drops in. As does Richard Schiff of West Wing fame.

Another naturally amusing guy, Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day), will have a piece of the Mindy pie as a cast regular. He's seen for only a smidge in the series premiere, though. Gotta make room for all those guest stars. And we're not even including the film clip glimpses of Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal. The star of the show also drops Sandra Bullock's name.

Kaling, whose birth name was Vera Chokalingham, plays an unlucky-in-love OB/GYN named Mindy Lahiri. Much of her adolescent and adult life has been spent yearning for a happy ending from one of the big-screen romantic comedies she watches incessantly. But in the early narrative-driven minutes of Mindy, she loses her guy (played by Hader) to a Serbian "bagel girl" with notably bad teeth. Which he fixes before marrying her.

Mindy ends up making a scene at their wedding reception, a comedy device also used in the first episode of Fox's other new Tuesday nighter, Ben and Kate. Then she steals a bike, proclaims "I'm Sandra Bullock," crashes into a pool and sees a Barbie doll at the bottom telling her to get her life together. Next you know she's in handcuffs. It's a lot to swallow.

Back at the doctor's office, Mindy is mostly plagued by cocksure Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), who playfully and sometimes not so playfully insults her whenever the opportunity arises. The Scrubs-like assortment of co-workers also includes Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), a supportive occasional bedmate during those times when Mindy is falling off her gotta-change-my-life wagon.

None of this meshes all that well, but Tuesday's premiere episode is buoyed down the stretch by Mindy's blind date with Dennis (Helms), whom she prays has "the penis of Michael Fassbender."

Helms plays a sweet guy in the face of Mindy's free-form riffs, which are cut short when she's called back to the hospital. Even so, their brief time together is pretty savory.

Kaling and her co-writers may figure all of this out in time -- provided they get enough time. For starters, though, The Mindy Project is the weakest entry in a revamped Fox Tuesday lineup that also includes the aforementioned Ben and Kate plus returnees New Girl and Raising Hope. That combination raises the bar, which Kaling is capable of reaching with more focus and less scattershooting.


Ben and Kate gives Fox another doofus male (to go along with its cartoon characters)

The big dummy's on the right in Ben and Kate. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 25th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring; Nat Faxon, Dakota Johnson, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Lucy Punch, Echo Kellulm
Produced by: Dana Fox, Peter Chernin, Katherine Pope, Jake Kasdan, Neil Goldman, Garrett Donovan

Where would the sitcom world be without all those misfit males?

The loudmouth neanderthal. The clueless bumbler. The callow cad. The anal fixator. The flat-out doofus.

Women probably could make something of a case for themselves, too. But this fall's new crop of comedies is trading heavily on lead characters with nut sacks attached. All right, we're crude, too.

Ben Fox of Fox's Ben and Kate falls into the category of 100 percent doofus. As with CBS' Partners, he's drawn from a real-life situation. The principal creator of the series, Dana Fox, has a brother named Ben. And as she puts it in a creatively written Fox publicity release, "When I was little, my older brother used to punch me so hard he'd knock the wind out of me and then he'd make an awesome game out of convincing me he knew the precise medical way of getting my breath back. Somehow, I worshipped him for saving me rather than hating him for hurting me. Who knew all those years ago that he was preparing me to make a TV show?"

Write what you know, as they say. And Dana Fox has penned a pretty funny first episode of Ben and Kate, which will be part of a new Fox comedy Tuesday along with holdovers New Girl and Raising Hope plus fellow newcomer The Mindy Project.

Dana's alter ego, Kate, is well-played by Dakota Johnson. Her five-year-old daughter, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), is the product of a lout who's seen literally running away from her once he gets the news of her pregnancy in a flashback scene.

Kate now works at a bar and grill in tandem with a requisite saucy Brit named BJ (Lucy Punch), described by Fox as "an all-around hot mess." She's constantly encouraging Kate to get out there and be somebody -- or at the very least bed somebody. And Kate in fact has been dating a studly sort named George, even though they haven't done it yet.

Not to worry, though. "I'm amazing at gettin' laid," Kate assures the doubting BJ. "Before Maddie was born, I was out there crushin' ass left, right and center."

The very hyper Ben (Nat Faxon) has blown back into town after the only girlfriend he ever called "Mrs. Ben Fox" asked her to give him a call. He instead arrives in person, only to learn that . . .

In some ways, Kate might as well be Ethel Mertz telling Lucy Ricardo, "I'm not getting sucked into another one of your hare-brained schemes." Instead she says this to Ben, but of course won't be able to resist him.

The Tuesday, Sept. 25th premiere episode includes a funny scene in which Ben stifles an assortment of curse words by talking gibberish while in the company of the impressionable Maddie. Faxon's performance is reminiscent of what Will Ferrell might have done with this role a dozen or so years ago. Which by and large isn't bad.

Ben of course will have to move in with Kate, ostensibly to help her take care of Maddie. Not that he has any strong ties to Sacramento, where he's been residing without a job.

Ben and Kate can be a bit grating and certainly isn't all together great. But its small ensemble -- which also includes Ben's pal, Tommy (Echo Kellum) -- is clicking pretty well for starters. Dummies of the male persuasion will continue to find work in sitcoms good, bad and great. This one shows overall signs of intelligent life -- with apologies to Ben.

GRADE: B-minus

CBS' Partners a showcase for co-star (and Plano Senior High grad) Michael Urie

Michael Urie and David Krumholtz of Partners. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 24th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Michael Urie, David Krumholtz, Sophia Bush, Brandon Routh
Produced by: David Kohan, Max Mutchnick, James Burrows

Stealing a sitcom has long been an honorable pursuit, as long as you're not clearly trying to show up your co-workers.

The latest thief is Dallas native and Plano Senior High grad Michael Urie, who made something of a name for himself on ABC's Ugly Betty and now is front and center as the co-star of CBS' new Partners.

A then largely unknown Sean Hayes ran off with NBC's Will & Grace during its early years as a fairly daring NBC comedy. His portrayal of the flamboyantly gay Jack McFarland easily upstaged the two title characters, with Megan Mullally's Karen Walker assisting him in the heist.

Urie's character in Partners likewise is openly gay and none too subtle about it. But his Louis can be loads of fun, particularly in a second episode made available for review. Co-star David Krumholtz (Numb3rs), who just finished playing a psychiatrist in Season 1 of HBO's The Newsroom, is both straight and straight man in this fairly promising laugher based on the real lives of co-creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick. They also collaborated on Will & Grace, so behold the symmetry.

Snuggled between How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls on Monday nights, Partners is nominally set at an architectural firm. It's where Krumholtz's Joe tries to be all-business while Louis keeps screwing things up. But the real work at hand is Joe's relationship with longtime girlfriend Ali (Sophia Bush), a jewelry designer to whom he's engaged after all the dust settles in the premiere episode.

The series' fourth wheel is a well-chiseled gay vegan nurse named (Brandon Routh), who's the solid subdued tree trunk in Louis's ever-wacky personal life.

Episode 1 is built around a Louis faux pas tied to Joe's marriage proposal to Ali. Episode 2 centers on their suddenly stagnant sex life, with Louis again only trying to help but of course complicating matters. It's a considerable improvement on the opener, which is always a better sign than the other way around.

Partners can be labored as well. A spitfire Latina receptionist named Ro-Ro (the recurring Tracy Vilar) drops in and out for no particularly good reasons. In Episode 1, after Louis cracks wise and keeps on doing so, Ro-Ro goes, "Joke, joke, joke, gay, gay, gay. I will cut you."

He later has need of her "girls" (ample breasts) after another mess-up. A gay man can always nuzzle.

A collection of double entendre jokes is also included. Some land with a thud, others sort of pay off. As when Louis notes, "Gays can't drive stick. Ironic, right?" This is after a fed-up Joe notes that Louis once totaled his dad's car by crashing into it with his mother's car.

Both episodes begin with flashbacks of Louis and Joe as kids. There's a lot of this going around this season, with Fox's new Tuesday night comedy combo of Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project likewise rewinding to the title characters' formative years.

Through it all, Urie's mostly a hoot, with his inflections infectious and his comedy timing a thing of beauty. Krumholtz offers sturdy enough support, but his co-star does most of the heavy lifting. It makes Partners a sitcom worth a watch on a night when there's heavy duty opposition from ABC's Dancing with the Stars, NBC's The Voice and Fox's Bones.

Partners may not be able to survive long-term under such circumstances. But it won't be Michael Urie's fault.

GRADE: B-minus

Fox and Friends punk'd while again shilling for Romney

Who vets this stuff -- Mandrake the Magician?

Some guy named Max Rice was billed as a recent college grad who had voted for Barack Obama but now was switching to Mitt Romney. This is of course made him perfect for the purposes of Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends, which even on a good day is by and large an embarrassment.

The interview was conducted by F&F co-host and former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, who was a weekend anchor/reporter at Fort Worth-based NBC5 during a portion of the 1990s.

The below video speaks for itself while also making one wonder how this guy ever made it on the air. Carlson ends up as his dupe. Only flies on the wall and a few selected Fox employees know what happened behind the scenes after she got off the air Monday morning. Enjoy.
Ed Bark

New infusions on Idol and The Voice vs. same-old, same-old on DWTS

Another new look is coming for American Idol. Fox photo

A spate of new judges for Fox's American Idol -- and NBC's The Voice -- raises questions of high ratings import for these top dog talent competitions and others.

Does familiarity breed contempt? Or would a majority of fans rather see the old familiars in place?

Idol, returning for a 12th season in January, has now named Niki Minaj and Keith Urban to join fellow newcomer Mariah Carey and charter judge Randy Jackson, who got a last-minute stay of execution. Ryan Seacrest remains as host, a position he's held from the start.

On Monday, The Voice announced that Usher and Shakira will be joining holdovers Adam Levine and Blake Shelton as judges for the show's midseason fourth edition. Christina Aguilera and Ceelo Green supposedly will return for the next "cycle" after busy careers and commitments required them to take a break. As of now, Carson Daly is still the host.

Fox's The X Factor also juggled judges after just its first season, with the ongoing new mix of Britney Spears and Demi Lovato in place of the deposed Paul Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger. Two new hosts also will be named when the show goes live; Khloe Kardashian is strongly rumored to be one of them.

NBC's America's Got Talent, which just concluded its latest season after braving Howard Stern as a judge, apparently will be losing Sharon Osbourne if she follows through on statements that she's not coming back. The show's original three judges were Piers Morgan, David Hasselhoff and Brandy Norwood, all of whom have left. The show has had three hosts -- Regis Philbin, Jerry Springer and incumbent Nick Cannon.

That leaves only ABC's Dancing with the Stars basically unchanged since its inception. Charter judges Len Goodman, Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli are all returning Monday (Sept. 24th) for the show's 15th edition, an "All-Star" mix of previous winners and fan favorites. Tom Bergeron likewise is back as the principal host, with Brooke Burke Charvet logging her sixth edition as his Robin. Bergeron also has teamed with Samantha Harris, Drew Lachey and Lisa Canning.

DWTS also retains a sizable number of familiar pro dancing partners, most notably Cheryl Burke, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Derek Hough and Kym Johnson.

In a different "reality competition" genre, both CBS' Survivor and The Amazing Race have kept hosts Jeff Probst and Phil Keoghan in place for their entire lengthy runs. All seven shows averaged more than 10 million viewers per episode last season.

DWTS continues to rank No. 2, behind only Idol, in the prime-time ratings for these seven competitions. But its overall audience also is the oldest of the bunch. And networks tend to view older viewers with at best a frosty glare.

The prevailing network wisdom at the moment is that annual or at least semi-annual shakeups are a means to revitalize rather than tear down a show. But Idol slightly stopped its downward ratings slide only during its first year with Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez as judges. Last season ended up being a sharp drop-off, with Idol at last relinquishing its No. 1 spot in prime-time to NBC's Sunday Night Football in both the total viewer and 18-to-49 Nielsen ratings.

Prediction: Only DWTS will show an overall audience increase this season -- mainly because of its All-Star trappings. Idol will dip anew after the initial curiosity, although the interaction among country strong Urban and divas Minaj/Carey literally could be an audience-grabbing x-factor provided that Jackson doesn't say "Yo yo yo" too much.

At some point, DWTS will have to change judges and dance with some new ones. But with the comparative chaos on rival competition shows, same-old, same-old still isn't a bad way to go.

HBO's Boardwalk Empire doubles down on Nucky's evil ways while wife Margaret sees her light

Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) put on a show at his 1922 New Year's Eve party. HBO photo

Nucky Thompson is breaking bad, too.

Before firing a second kill shot into the head of onetime protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in the Season 2 finale of Boardwalk Empire, he said unequivocally, "I am not seeking forgiveness."

And as its third season launches Sunday, Sept. 16th (8 p.m. central on HBO), the tagline on a packet of review DVDs is "You Can't Be Half A Gangster."

Through the course of Boardwalk Empire's first five Season 3 episodes, Nucky (Steve Buscemi) does at least one considerably worse thing than he did to Jimmy, a badly shaken WW1 vet who had been in on a plot to kill him. The very dimly lit Episode 4 (Oct. 7th), a sizable chunk of it set in a storm cellar, brings that particular mortal sin into sharp focus.

The man who used to be the money-grabbing, rum-running boss politician of Atlantic City is now a full-blown mobster who coldly does some of his own killing rather than leave it all to underlings. But although Buscemi remains firmly in charge of this lead role, he's not the most interesting principal anymore.

That pendulum swings to his wife of convenience, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), whom he married last season to prevent her from testifying against him. Nucky was being measured for prison stripes until everything suddenly started falling into place for him. She was the last piece of the puzzle.

Macdonald is consistently tremendous in this role. And on New Year's Eve, 1922, a year-and-a-half after their marriage, she has both put Nucky in his place while being newly determined to find hers. The vehicle is St. Theresa's Hospital, to whom she signed away a valuable land grant that Nucky intended to use for transporting purposes.

A pediatric wing is now named after the Thompsons, much to Nucky's distaste. But Margaret has plans to bring the facility into a brave new world of pre-natal care for pregnant women. This is much to the mortification of a taskmaster nun who still recoils at use of the word "vagina," let alone "pregnant."

Newly willful, Margaret has a crisp way with words that make this character soar. And she'll use them when necessary, whether on an obstinate doctor or her lying husband, whose latest mistress is a young actress/singer named Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle).

A vivid new fictional gangster is also throwing his weight around while holdovers Al Capone Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein (Stephen Graham, Vincent Piazza, Michael Stuhlbarg) continue to thrust and parry with Nucky.

Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) is a profane, amoral hard-knocks Italian who likes his sex rough and his violence rougher. In his view, Nucky is nothing more than a "breadstick in a bow tie" with a condescending attitude. Cannavale (Nurse Jackie) creates a thoroughly chilling new adversary who wants everything for himself and nothing for others.

The absence of Pitt's deceased Jimmy Darmody leaves a void. But his old ad hoc hit man, WWI sniper Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), is back for more and more interesting than ever.

His plastic Phantom of the Opera-esque half-mask remains in place. But beneath it all, Harrow is no monster. He's Boardwalk Empire's most poignant supporting character, a gentle-hearted survivor who is best at the trade he perfected in the war. "63," he answers immediately when Nucky asks, "How many people have you killed?" But faithful viewers of this series know this is something that shouldn't be held against him -- either in wartime or its civilian aftermath.

Meanwhile, FBI agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), former rigid stalker of federal lawbreakers, is on the lam in Peoria under the assumed name of George Mueller. The self-flaggelating Bible reader veered from the straight and narrow by drowning a crooked fellow agent and impregnating Nucky's earlier mistress. He now has a baby daughter, a live-in nanny lover and a dead-end job as a salesman for Faraday Electric Iron Company.

Shannon plays this role with a clenched-up conviction that at times is laughable. Put two bolts in his head and he could easily pass for Frankenstein's monster, with a laugh so painfully forced that it must take a full work force of interior miniatures to expel it from him. Still, he is very slowly heading on a path into evil doer-dom. And it might get quite interesting if he ever fully buys in.

Mobsters still come and go in sometimes confusing fashion. A good deal of the action occurs in the dark during these initial five episodes, whether it's under cover of night, a dimly lit speakeasy -- or that aforementioned storm cellar. This doesn't particularly help when trying to sort out all the bad guys. Even many of those once bright outdoor boardwalk scenes are now overcast. Perhaps executive producers Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter -- who in reality does most of the work -- are intent on symbolically darkening Nucky's descent. If so, lighten up at least a bit.

Boardwalk Empire nonetheless remains a big plus on the Sunday prime-time scene -- even if Showtime's twin Sunday punches of Homeland and Dexter will be sounding their own thunder claps when they return on Sept. 30th. This is still the role of Buscemi's lifetime, the likes of which this otherwise lifelong supporting actor may never see again.

It's not his fault that Kelly Macdonald is so very good as his no longer docile wife. Her scenes are more savory, her budding activism a force for good while Nucky laments to his mistress, "I want everything to run all by itself."

But the killings, shipments and cash flows are getting messier by the hour, it seems. Meanwhile, in her own measured way, Margaret is talking just as tough as he does. Because she can.


Costas goes on Conan to ridicule NBC's handling of Olympics closing ceremony

NBC, the official network of highly questionable calls, took a ribbing from Olympics anchor Bob Costas this week.

His venue was TBS' Conan, starring the most famous Peacock expatriate of them all, Conan O'Brien.

"I thought we were doing well headed to the finish line," Costas said in reference to NBC's brain-dead decision to cut The Who out of its taped prime-time Olympic closing ceremony telecast in favor of a "sneak preview" of the new sitcom Animal Practice. Their climactic appearance instead aired a full hour later on the network's late night Olympics wrapup, which Costas also anchored.

The below video has terrific closing punchlines from both Costas and Conan. They came during the same week that NBC news president Steve Capus sent a semi-mea culpa to NBC-owned and affiliated stations for being the only network not to observe the "Moment of Silence" on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11th. The network's Todayshow instead stayed with Kardashian mom Kris Jenner's discussion of her breast implants.

Capus said in part, "While we dedicated a substantial amount of airtime to anniversary events, we still touched a raw nerve with many of your viewers . . . and for that we apologize."

Here's the Costas-Conan moment of candor:

Can the futuristic Revolution give NBC a future as well?

Introducing the friends/enemies of futuristic Revolution. NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Billy Burke, Tracy Spiridakos, Giancarlo Esposito, Graham Rogers, Anna Lise Phillips, Zak Orth, JD Pardo, Tim Guinee, Elizabeth Moss, Maria Howell
Produced by: J. J. Abrams, Eric Kripke, Bryan Burk

Some things are too big a leap even for J. J. Abrams.

The initial pilot for his futuristic Revolution series had a scene in which a decayed Wrigley Field still billed the Chicago Cubs as the "2012 World Series Champions."

It was filmed before the 2012 season began. A revised version sent to TV critics wisely is absent that particular declaration. As of this writing, the Cubbies are 30.5 games out of first place and already mathematically eliminated in the National League's Central Division.

Revolution, the most promising and expensive new series on NBC's fall schedule, is from the guy who keeps conjuring up doomsday or, at best, very foreboding scenarios. Alias, Lost and last season's unfortunately canceled Alcatraz were all under his watch. Still among the living are Abrams' Person of Interest and Fringe, the latter in its announced last season.

Still struggling to make a comeback, NBC is giving Revolution its best available time slot -- on Monday nights following two-hour editions of The Voice. The premise should be pretty well known by now. Earth suddenly goes completely without electricity in 2012, and the mastermind is not Al Gore trying to prove a point.

Before a flash forward 15 years into the future, we meet the Mathesons of Chicago. Pre-teen daughter "Charlie" is fixedly watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon with her little brother while mom Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost in the recast new version) completely fails to gain her attention.

Before you can say "What's up, Doc?", Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee) bursts into the living room to declare, "We don't have much time."

"It's happening, isn't it?" says Rachel before the mass power outages and a plane crash commence. Ben obviously knows something about why and how this is happening. But viewers, of course, don't. We're then transported to a time "15 Years After the Blackout," with Ben, his two grown kids and new gal pal Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips) all down on an improvised farm without anyone saying, "Well this is just the way the Amish wanted it."

Ben's wife is said to be dead. But let's just say you don't cast Lost's Mitchell in Revolution for the purposes of a preliminary scene or two. (The revised Episode 1 subtracts a big closing twist in that respect, and is better for it.)

Revolution really gets rolling, however, when Giancarlo Esposito rides into view as Capt. Tom Neville, a representative of "The Monroe Republic."

Esposito made a big impression as the sinister and clandestine drug kingpin Gustavo "Gus" Fring on AMC's Breaking Bad. He exited that series last October, falling dead with just half his face remaining.

Tom Neville may not be quite as evil, but he's still very much a smiling cobra. And he's been searching a long time for either Ben Matheson or his brother, Miles (Billy Burke segueing from a bad guy stint on The Closer).

Esposito takes full command of every scene he's in. Beginning with this declaration: "Here's what you need to understand. I have been searching for you for a very long time. Through mud and filth away from my home and my wife and my bed. So I'm in a mood. I'm sure you can understand that."

Those turn out to be fighting words. And Revolution, which has the overall look and feel of a big budget feature, delivers some consistently terrific action scenes. One, however, does border on campy. It's a too obvious homage to Scarface, with Burke's Miles Matheson instead of Al Pacino's Tony Montana) standing armed and dangerous at the top of a towering, ornate staircase while black clad bad guys pour in.

The other principle characters are the aforementioned grown-up Charlie and Danny (Tracy Spiridakos, Graham Rogers); a soft-bodied, semi-comical geek named Aaron (Zak Orth as the resident "Hugo" Hurley); and a hunky two-faced action figure named Nate (JD Pardo).

Monday's first episode moves along at a crisp pace, with echoes of ABC's ill-fated Flash Forward in its open-ended mystery of why the Earth came to stand still. Layers of "mythology" will be peeled back at a measured pace -- as they were in Alcatraz and are in Fringe.

This is, after all, what J. J. Abrams does. His latter day TV dramas, excepting NBC's short-lived, Hart to Hart-ish Undercovers, are laden with otherworldly conspiracies and resilient characters caught in the clutches of various masterminds. One can only hope that Revolution, unlike Alcatraz, will get a chance to fully reveal itself before any cancellation ax swings.

The best thing about these out-of-body serial dramas is the investment, involvement and passion they provoke. That's also the worst aspect. Because it's one thing to drop a self-contained "procedural" cop drama. But it's quite another to abruptly cut off the air supply of a series whose much-anticipated answers are short-circuited by low ratings.

Or in the case of Revolution, left blowin' in the wind -- in a world gone unplugged.


Fox's Mob Doctor: take two shivs and call me in the morning

Jordana Spiro tries to walk a line in The Mob Doctor. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 17th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Jordana Spiro, Zach Gilford, Zeljko Ivanek, William Forsythe, Jaime Lee Kirchner, Floriana Lima, Wendy Makkena, Jesse Lee Soffer
Produced by: Josh Berman, Rob Wright

Fox has grown accustomed to having a Monday night doctor in the house. It's where House took up residence for much of its eight-season run.

Now comes The Mob Doctor, a notably inferior exercise in dese, dems and doses. It premieres on Monday, Sept. 17th following the long-established Bones on its new night and time. Which means that this preposterous mix of syringes and shivs might get a decent audience sampling on opening night.

Jordana Spiro (of TBS' My Boys) is center stage as star medical resident Grace Devlin. She owes a debt to the Chicago mob after her gambling brother Nate (Jesse Lee Soffer) was granted at least a temporary stay of execution. So it's a little unsettling when Dr. Grace gets a nice basket of balloon flowers with a card reading, "Kill Him."

The would-be operating room victim is a mob informant named Ralph Severino, who's going under the knife for a life-saving operation. Dr. Grace is strongly urged to inject him with a lethal dose of medication via a labeled syringe that somehow has been smuggled into the operating room by another apparent mob stooge.

Wow, do ya think she actually might go ahead and do it? Don't worry, the suspense won't kill ya. Because a weekly broadcast network drama series can't subsist on a lead character who caves into the mob on a weekly basis rather than resisting with all her might while covering up all those threatening in-hospital cell phone calls with variations on "Gotta go." As with Fox's late, oft-great 24, this is a drama that greatly depends on wireless technology.

Dr. Grace's colleagues, all of them in the dark, include Roosevelt Medical chief of surgery Stafford White (Emmy-winning Zeljko Ivanek from Damages); a boyfriend doc named Brett Robinson (Zach Gilford of Friday Night Lights); officious rival doc Olivia Wilcox (Jaimie Lee Kirchner); super-officious veteran surgeon Ian Flanigan (David Pasquesi); and best friend nurse Rosa "Ro" Quintero (Floriana Lima).

That's a lot of characters to track. And we haven't even gotten to the mob yet. Or Dr. Grace's prototypically meddling, high-strung mom Daniella (Wendy Makkena), who notes for no particular reason in the early going that a mutual acquaintance "ran off with our lesbian butcher."

Intimidating Dr. Grace throughout most of the premiere episode is over-the-top mobster Paul Moretti (guest star Michael Rappaport). But she may or may not have an ally in ring-wise Constantine Alexander (William Forsythe), described in Fox publicity materials as "an oddly compassionate killer" who wants to retain his position as head of the Southside Chicago "organization" after recently exiting prison.

"You've always been like family to me, Grace," he says. Why so? Mob Doctor doesn't get around to really explaining that during the course of an episode that includes a climactic car chase in which Dr. Grace and Moretti both wind up at the doorstep of Constantine's mansion. There also are two other medical cases shoe-horned into the first episode.

Spiro seems to be trying hard to keep this thing spinning, even maintaining a straight face when presented with this groaner: "I realize you're a plucky Southside girl who became a big city doctor." But her best efforts as the title character aren't nearly enough to overcome all of the hokum at hand.

Mob Doctor is one of those classically bad concepts that somehow got green-lighted as a series. Could there be a real-life mob hit out on a top-level Fox programming exec?

Let's hope not, because entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly is a good guy whom most of us TV critic types would like to keep around.

GRADE: C-minus

Mindful of the Sunday night clock, CBS making football-prompted adjustments to prime-time lineup

Julianna Margulies, star of The Good Wife. CBS photo

Do you and your DVR (or other preferred recording device) get the blues on NFL football Sundays?

CBS in particular wants to help, in large part because all four of its Sunday prime-time shows are one hour in length. So it's not as easy as preempting a mere half-hour cartoon on Fox's "Animation Domination" lineup.

A two-pronged attack was announced Tuesday for those alternating Sundays in which CBS has the second "doubleheader" game. The initiative also is in response to later 3:25 p.m (central) starting times for those second games.

For one, CBS is moving its entire lineup back to a 6:30 p.m. start time when it has a double helping of NFL games. Specifically, those dates are Sept. 16th and 23rd; Oct. 7th and 21st; Nov. 14th and 18th; and Dec. 2nd, 16th and 30th. The lineup, as it now stands, is 60 Minutes, Big Brother 14 (to be replaced on Sept. 30th by The Amazing Race), The Good Wife and The Mentalist. The latter now will stretch until at least 10:30 p.m. on those dates.

CBS also is upgrading its "Eye-lert" system in case there are further delays from football run-overs. Which surely there will be. Confused viewers who have no interest in the NFL can go here to sign up for various updates on when CBS' prime-time programming actually will start.

The network also promises to "aggressively use on-air graphics" to further alert inert viewers of re-adjusted start times.

This is of no small concern during the NFL season. Football may be king, but it also can throw CBS' Sunday prime-time schedule for big losses. Overtime games in particular are the devil's work for those who only want to watch the network's prime-time attractions. And there's no telling how many ratings points this may subtract during the key early stages of a prime-time season.

So there you have it. Synchronize your watches accordingly, beginning this Sunday. CBS doesn't want you throwing things when up pops a Big Brother vote-off or a finishing kick on Amazing Race instead of the scripted lawyerly intrigue on Good Wife.

NBC's Guys with Kids underscores the network's latter day baby love

The men are up in arms in Guys with Kids. NBC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 12th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC before moving to regular Wednesday 7:30 p.m. slot on Sept. 26th
Starring: Anthony Anderson, Jesse Bradford, Zach Cregger, Tempestt Bledsoe, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Erinn Hayes
Produced by: Jimmy Fallon, Charlie Grandy, Amy Ozols, Rick Weiner, Kenny Schwartz

Three Men and a Baby is now out-numbered on sneaky NBC's Guys with Kids.

Sneaky as in sneak-previewing. The is the last of the Peacock's four new sitcoms to get an early bounce house following a big audience-getting attraction. Out-numbered because there are now four babies in the mix.

Go On and Animal Practice both got early starts in post-Summer Olympics time slots while The New Normal snuck in Monday night after NBC's two-hour Season 3 premiere of The Voice.

Guys with Kids will be following the penultimate episode of America's Got Talent Wednesday before waiting two more weeks to come again. It's the first prime-time series with Jimmy Fallon attached as executive producer. Viewers can even hear him say at the start that "Guys with Kids is taped before a live studio audience."

A more or less lame show follows, complete with undeserved laughs. Dads Gary, Chris and Nick (Anthony Anderson, Jesse Bradford, Zach Cregger) are first seen in a bar with beers before the big reveal -- they're all carrying babies in full frontal knapsacks. And Gary has an extra in play because he's the father of twins.

Only Chris is a first-time dad, though. He's also the sole divorced one, even though his meddling ex-wife Sheila (Erinn Hayes) is seldom more than a snide remark away. If she's so intent on telling him how to be a father then why doesn't she have principal custody? That's not really explained. Nor is the recurring "Why would you walk when you can run?" refrain in the Guys with Kids theme song.

Anderson's character has two other older sons as well. Which gives him the best chance to make his mark as a beleaguered, brain-dead and invariably loud stay-at-home dad. Working wife Marny is played by Tempestt Bledsoe, all grown up from her days as Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show. She has just a few scenes in Wednesday's opener, but breathes some vibrant life into all of them. Particularly when saying of their kids, "There are four of them. They have bled us dry. They broke the TV, man."

Another familiar face, Jamie-Lynn Sigler of The Sopranos fame, is included as Nick's wife, Emily. But the primary story thread is Chris's attempt to take his first post-marriage date to a New York Knicks game while leaving his son with a babysitter. His ex-wife won't hear of it. And besides that, she has a date with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, so she can't take the kid. Or so she says. And so she . . .

It's all too unwieldy to mesh very well in the first episode. Guys with Kids is over-populated, under-funny and no match for the simple charms of Three Men and a Baby, the surprise mega-hit of 1987.

NBC used to be the network with nary a kid to be seen throughout its entire prime-time lineup. Previous regimes thought they just got in the way and detracted from the "smart" upscale image the network was selling to advertisers in its post-Cosby Show years.

Now the Peacock is loading up on babies and/or baby talk in comedies such as Guys with Kids, fellow newcomer The New Normal and the returning Up All Night. It doesn't mean that any of them are all that good, though. In fact, quite the contrary.

GRADE: C-minus

Latest Reelz "original" is the Canadian import Bomb Girls

Meg Tilly, Jodi Balfour are among main stars of Bomb Girls. Reelz photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on Reelz
Starring: Meg Tilly, Jodi Balfour, Charlotte Hegele, Anastasia Phillips, Ali Liebert, Antonio Cupo, Sebastian Pigott, Peter Outerbridge, Lisa Norton, James McGowan, Kate Hennig
Produced by: Michael MacLennan, Adrienne Mitchell

Still little known and lesser seen, Reelz very much aspires to be AMC someday.

All it would take is its very own Mad Men. Or Breaking Bad. Or maybe even The Walking Dead. That would be nice, too.

The still fledgling network takes another step in the vicinity of that direction with Bomb Girls, a passable World War II era drama that's being touted as a "Reelz Original," even though it's a Canadian-made series that premiered in that country last January.

Reelz first got on the map with The Kennedys, which it happily picked up last year after History Channel rejected the finished product as unfit for its "brand." Ten Emmy nominations and four wins later, Reelz felt pretty good about that one.

Bomb Girls lacks both a notable cast -- Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes and Tom Wilkinson were in The Kennedys -- and a pre-sold audience lure. Its best-known cast member is Meg Tilly, who was Oscar-nominated for Agnes of God and can still bring home a scene or two as the puffy, pale "floor matron" of Toronto's Victory Munitions bomb-making factory.

Tilly's character, Lorna Corbett, is called on to be hard and soft in the role. She's also bereft of a sex life, with her husband, Bob (Peter Outerbridge), both mentally and physically scarred by his World War I experiences. He's not abusive but drinks heavily and has no interest in Lorna's bedroom offensives.

Unfortunately, Bomb Girls is affixed with an oft-overwrought and at times just plain clunky script. As when Lorna initially recoils at a proposed factory suggestions box. "You're playin' with fire," she emotes during Episode 2. "That's dangerous sport in this tinder box."

Lorna's featured assembly line workers are a quartet of pretty typical types. Wrong side of the tracks, poor little rich girl, tart-talking flirt, etc. One of them even says, "It's no big whoop." Which hadn't quite entered the vernacular back in 1941. OK, let's meet the girls.

***Kate Andrews (Charlotte Hegel) is on the lam from a demonic preacher father who has left her back criss-crossed with scars and her psyche very fragile.

***Gladys Witham (Jodi Balfour) is the silk-stocking daughter who's determined to do right while her sneering, imperial parents, wealthy parents keep slapping her down .

***Vera Burr (Anastasia Phillips) is a flirtatious blonde looker who's not going to look so hot by the end of Tuesday's opening episode. And Betty McRae (Ali Liebert) appears to be interested in Kate as more than just a friend.

The men of Bomb Girls tend to be louses or misfits, although the studly Marco Moretti (Antonio Cupo) seems to be a halfway decent sort whose Italian heritage is being held against him during wartime. As a red-blooded male, though, he happily joins his factory pals in looking through a peep hole into the women's shower.

Bomb Girls for the most part unfolds predictably, at least in its first two episodes. But a WWII munitions factory mostly populated by women at least is a change-of-pace setting. And some of the characters, particularly Tilly's, seem as though they might be worth a viewer's time as the series marches forward.

Reelz so far has only committed to a six-episode first season. That was supposed to be the extent of Bomb Girls, but a 12-episode Season 2 was ordered after it caught on in Canada. Production re-started this month in Toronto and is scheduled to wrap at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Reelz perhaps someday will ramp up with its own genuine "original." In that respect, Bomb Girls is another shell game.


The Voice and The X Factor ready to go for each other's throats

Here come the busty judges: Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Fox/NBC photos

Quickly now, name the first winner of The X Factor and the second winner of The Voice.

You can't, can you? Join 99.9 percent of your fellow Americans.

Still, people do watch these shows.

Other than Sunday Night Football, NBC's Season 2 of The Voice ranked as its most popular series last season with an average of 15.8 million viewers for the performance shows and 10.9 million for the weekly results.

And despite performing below lead dog Simon Cowell's pronounced expectations, Fox's The X Factor also was its network's second most popular series (behind only American Idol) with 12.7 million and 12.6 million viewers for the performance and results shows.

Both shows return next week, with NBC spiking the cocktail by announcing on Wednesday that it's "fashioned The Voice into a three-night event."

The added Wednesday night edition will put The Voice directly opposite the Season 2 premiere of X Factor, with both shows starting at 7 p.m. (central).

It's not quite like some of those olden TV shootouts. In 1986, for instance, NBC moved Miami Vice opposite Dallas in hopes of killing off the Ewings. And in 1990, Fox sent The Simpsons to a new night and time to battle The Cosby Show.

Still, The Voice vs. X Factor has quite a bit riding on the outcome. And Cowell fired back during a Thursday teleconference with TV writers that was marred by extreme audio difficulties in the early going. Not a particularly good omen for a singing competition.

Cowell says that NBC wants to put a dent into X Factor because new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato make for a "sensational" new combo in his not even remotely objective view.

"I think it's mean-spirited, and I hope and pray that it backfires on them," Cowell said of NBC's gamesmanship. "And I am pissed off about it, because it's sort of a gentleman's agreement" (not to do this sort of thing). It's tactical. They want to get the message out. They don't want you to watch this show."

Cowell also is the principal executive producer of NBC's America's Got Talent, which is winding down its latest summer run and remains the hot weather season's biggest hit. But the Peacock obviously didn't factor in this particular business relationship. Blood never runs thicker than prime-time ratings wars.

X Factor is still looking for its two new hosts, who won't be a part of the show until live episodes begin several weeks from now. The latest rumor is that Khloe Kardashian is a prohibitive favorite to be one of the judges, but hubby Lamar Odom need not apply.

"My gut feeling is we'll probably go with a boy and a girl who haven't had any hosting experience," Cowell said.

This season's X Factor will have far more behind-the-scenes footage of contestants scrapping and clawing, Cowell contends.

"I suppose the headlines are that we've allowed the audience to see way much more of the audition process than they have before . . . There's an awful lot of bitchiness behind the scenes that you often don't see. And it has to be different from the other (talent competition) shows because otherwise we're all going to blur into one, and it'll be boring."

Cowell says that Spear has been a revelation to him, judging harshly with no fear of being booed by the arena-sized audiences for the preliminary auitions in cities ranging from Providence, R.I. to Austin, TX. One of the show's on-air promos features Spears telling a contestant, "You can't destroy that song, sweetie."

"She can't say no quickly enough on this show," Cowell says. "She's very difficult to please . . . If you buy a dog and you expect it to lick you and it instead bites you, it was rather like that. She was kind of fearless."

But the Dallas-bred Lovato comes off as the firecracker on an 11-minute X Factor "presentation reel" mailed to TV writers.

"You need to take a breath mint if you're going to get that close to my face," she tells Cowell at one point. She also labels him "old and impatient" while Spears mostly flashes her major league cleavage in a red dress with plunging neckline. Voice judge Christina Aguilera has nothing on her in this department. And that's no doubt the way viewers are supposed to see it, too.

Cowell remains acidic when the spirit moves him, telling a black male contestant in drag, "If you imagine Madonna, Bobby Brown and Dracula had a child, it would be you."

He also informs an older contestant, "You sang and performed like a dog trying to lay an egg."

The reel includes full performances from a well-received three-member teen boy group and a 13-year-old girl who impressively belts out Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good." She gets the full Simon: "A star has just walked out on that stage," he proclaims.

He'd better hope so. Because what The Voice, The X Factor and American Idol all need in the end is a winner who actually sells some tunes rather than fading rapidly into obscurity.

In that respect, Jermaine Paul won Season 2 of The Voice and Melanie Amaro was the first X Factor champ.

Sorry to keep you in suspense. But now you know.

NBC's The New Normal crashes into view

And baby makes six: the cast of The New Normal NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 10th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC before moving to regular Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. slot
Starring: Andrew Rannells, Justin Bartha, Georgia King, Ellen Barkin, Bebe Wood
Produced by: Ryan Murphy, Ali Adler, Dante Di Loreto

As the presidential campaign heats to a boiling cauldron of vitriol, here's a new comedy that would be booed off the stage at the Republican National Convention while getting a big hug from the Democrats.

NBC's The New Normal, sneak previewing at 9 p.m. (central) Monday after the Season 3 premiere of The Voice, is both audacious and sometimes unintentionally off-putting. Not principally due to its subject matter, but because creator/executive producer Ryan Murphy (Glee) has taken such a heavy-handed, two-by-four approach to these proceedings.

This is grossly evident in the scenes featuring bigoted "nana from hell" Jane Forrest (Ellen Barkin), whom Murphy has cast in the same mold as Glee's super-snippy Sue Sylvester.

Nana spews in ways that even Archie Bunker might find appalling. In her mindset, the series' featured gay male partners are "salami smokers" while a decidedly plain-looking lesbian duo are dismissed as "ass campers" in an opening scene. But to prove she's an equal opportunity neanderthal, Nana later tells a busty Asian woman who broke up her granddaughter's marriage, "You people are so darn good with computers. And thanks for helping build the railroads."

At least she's not speaking in code. But as an in-your-face neanderthal, Nana gets old in a big hurry. She's not a hoot. She's a vile stick figure caricature of any right-of-center viewpoints in a sitcom that also works in a "Calista Gingrich hair-do" slam after the series' too-good-to-be-true surrogate mother is asked whether she's a "secret operative for the Republican Party."

Down-on-her luck Ohioan Goldie Clemmons (Georgia King) is the willing carrier of a baby that eventually is to become the son or daughter of ultra-fashion conscious Bryan Collins (Andrew Rannells) and sports loving David Murray (Justin Bartha).

Fleeing Ohio after catching her lay-about husband in bed with the aforementioned Asian knockout, Goldie and her prototypically precocious eight-year-old daughter, Shania (Bebe Wood), hijack Nana's car and impulsively head to L.A.

She had dreams of becoming a lawyer and wants to rekindle them while also giving Shania a shot at being somebody. The $35,000 stipend for being a surrogate seems heaven-sent. And by the end of Episode 1, Goldie just might be pregnant.

The set-up for all of this is Bryan recording a video for his future newborn before New Normal flashes back to Goldie's back story in what he calls the "faraway land known as Ohio."

While she's finding reasons to flee Ohio, Bryan falls in love with a little boy in a stroller during one of his shopping trips. It prompts him to tell David, "I want us to have baby clothes. And a baby to wear them."

They quickly go to a playground where any and all forms of parents are minding their kids. Included is a dwarf mother who rides off with her daughter in a toy pink convertible. "Face it, honey," Bryan says to David. "The abnormal is the new normal."

Those signature words are intended to be something of a red hot poker aimed at anyone who might think otherwise. And there's more than a little too much of this in The New Normal, whether it's the steaming pile of intolerance from Nana or Bryan's disinclination to be with Goldie during the embryo transplant procedure.

"I faint at the sight of a vagina," he says. "They're like tarantula faces."

Modern Family's depiction of gay dads Mitchell Pritchett and Cameron Tucker is far better rendered -- and much funnier, too. And Ed O'Neil's old school Jay Pritchett is a case study in subtlety compared to what comes out of Nana's mouth.

The performances in New Normal aren't the central issue here. Bartha's portrayal of prissy Bryan is funny and/or endearing in spots. King and Wood also bring some nice touches to their mom-daughter duo of Goldie and Shania.

As for Barkin, well, she's delivering what's given to her. And so far that's the series' principal drawback. Creator/producer Murphy, who's openly gay, wouldn't deny that he's pushing an agenda here, as he also does with Glee. But in this case he's pushing way too hard, at least in the early going.

One can be tolerant, accepting and open-minded while at the same balking at the overall sledge hammer approach of The New Normal. Maybe the series will find itself as the relationships thicken and Goldie's pregnancy looms larger. For now, it's a disappointing polemic that mainly offends by being lazily or awkwardly executed more often than not.


Brokaw back in play after brief hospital stay

Tom Brokaw at this week's Democratic National Convention. NBC photo

NBC News mainstay Tom Brokaw has been released from Carolinas Medical Center and pronounced in "great health" after feeling light-headed Thursday on the set of MSNBC's Morning Joe.

The 72-year-old anchor/reporter/author underwent a "medical evaluation and a round of tests" before being discharged, NBC News said in a statement.

Brokaw has been in Charlotte for this week's Democratic National Convention. "Out of an abundance of caution," he was taken to Carolinas Medical Center for a check-up, NBC News president Steve Capus said in a statement.

Brokaw sent out an all's well on Twitter earlier Thursday morning.

"Early AM I mistakenly took a half dose of Ambien and made less sense than usual," he tweeted. "Made a better comeback than Giants."

Brokaw was referring to Wednesday night's 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on NBC's prime-time kickoff of the NFL season. The game rubbed out NBC's convention coverage, save for a brief halftime update by Brokaw's Nightly News successor, anchor Brian Williams.

Brokaw has been covering national political conventions since 1968.

"Reality" check: NBC's top-rated Sunday Night Football flattened all singers/dancers

It's good to be king, and Sunday Night Football likely will still reign. NBC photo

Prime-time's most popular "reality" series returns this week, and it has nothing to do with singing, dancing or Howard Stern.

Save for the cheerleading and Faith Hill's opening come-on.

NBC's Sunday Night Football averaged a top of the charts 20.74 million viewers last season, beating runner-up American Idol's Wednesday night performance editions (19.81 million) by nearly one million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

This entitled SNF's two lead dogs, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, to flex a little muscle during a teleconference last week with TV writers.

"If the Cowboys play the Giants in a parking lot in March, it's still going to be tremendous," Michaels said. "Football is king right now. The NFL is hotter than any sport at any time in the history of this country."

The Dallas Cowboys in fact will play the New York Giants in a stadium Wednesday night, moving NBC's traditional weeknight kickoff ahead one day so as not to overwhelm President Obama's climactic Thursday night acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Former president Bill Clinton instead will have to square off against Cowboys-Giants. He's still got pulling power, but no amount of hype or commentator blather can save him from being crushed by football. Not only in D-FW but around the country.

"You can't give people too much of it," said Collinsworth, who definitely wasn't referring to political conventions. "Look at all the shows. Look at all the websites. Look at all the radio shows. How much more can people take? As much as we want to give them, they want more and more and more."

Sunday Night Football is eager to pile it on with its usual series of of marquee games. After Wednesday's 7:30 p.m. (central) Cowoys-Giants game (preceded by a 6:30 p.m. pre-game show), SNF begins its regular Sunday night schedule with Peyton Manning's much-anticipated return to the NFL as a Denver Broncos QB. The opponent is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Cowboys again have the maximum three games on SNF with an option for another "flex" game if they're still playing meaningful football in December. NBC keeps loading up on the Cowboys because no team other than perhaps the New York Yankees has an equivalent love-hate relationship with the nation, Michaels told unclebarky.com at this time last year.

"And that's a great combination for television," he said, "because you want to have some sort of an emotional response to the team that's on the air. And they (the Cowboys) have been number one for us for a lot of years in that regard."

Last season, the 6-10 Cowboys had three games on SNF while the 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers had no scheduled appearances. Only one other losing team, the Minnesota Vikings, had even one game on SNF in 2011.

This time around, Dallas is coming off an 8-8 season that again left the team out of the playoffs. They're the only 8-8 team with three scheduled appearances on SNF, but have a little more company in 2012. Four other 8-8 teams -- the Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and San Diego Chargers -- are getting two SNF slots. The 8-8 Bears have a single game scheduled.

Chalk this up to "parity." The NFL had 12 teams with winning records last season and eight that went 8-8.

The Cowboys likely could go 1-15 and still get at least two games on SNF. Their ratings consistently top the heap, with last January's regular season-ending Cowboys loss to the Giants ranking as the most-watched SNF game ever with 27.6 million viewers. Of SNF's 10 highest-rated games, six have involved the Cowboys.

Opposite the Democratic convention on ABC, CBS and a variety of other cable and broadcast networks, Wednesday night's Cowboys-Giants face-off has a fighting chance to beat the all-time SNF viewing record. Maybe Clinton should give score updates during his speech?

Michaels gets the last words, which are no brag, just fact.

"Our goal the last couple of years . . . was to see if Sunday Night Football could be the No. 1 series on television," he said during the teleconference. "Which it did it. And we're thrilled about that, proud of it. It's a new goal this year to retain that top spot, and we think we can do it. Because the NFL is king."