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thirtysomething and thensome in first season DVD set

It's taken 20-some years for Season 1 of thirtysomething to show up on DVD.

Consider it the proper aging of a fine whine. Creators Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz didn't know they were kvetching lightning in a bottle when this ABC hour of angst premiered on Sept. 29, 1987.

"It is so important to say that we did not want to do a television series," Herskovitz recollects in a two-way conversation with Zwick that's included in the three-disc set's bonus features.

But make it they did -- for four seasons, 88 episodes and a drumbeat of both praise and ridicule. The freshman year, which has 21 episodes, hits the streets on Tuesday, Aug. 25th, courtesy of Shout! Factory. The suggested retail price is $59.99, but shop around for bargains.

Coined earlier in the '80s, the term "yuppie" had started its engine before thirtysomething became its prime-time standardbearer.

"It certainly got pinned on us, the whining little yuppies," co-star Mel Harris remember in another of the set's extras. One writer denigrated the show's principal characters as "skinny white people from hell," which quickly made its way onto T-shirts distributed to the cast.

A summer 1987 interview session with the nation's TV critics, including your friendly content provider, gave the stars and creators a big dose of the polarized opinions at work.

Older critics who already had raised their children well past the toddler stage tended to view new parents Hope and Michael Steadman (Harris, Ken Olin) as aggravating, self-indulgent wimps. Those of us with the fresh smell of diapers in our presents or very recent pasts were far more willing to empathize and relate.

In the end, positive reviews won the day. thirtysomething went on to win 13 Emmys, including the "Outstanding Drama Series" trophy in its first season.

Re-watching the show's first episode is mostly an engaging experience, even though much of the "jeopardy" is over Hope's anxiety about whether to hire a babysitter for the first time so that the Steadmans can join their friends on an impromptu camping trip. There's ample sobbing, too.

Herskovitz and Zwick (who's gone on to direct films such as Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire and Blood Diamond) provide a serviceable commentary track for their groundbreaking first episode. They note how network censors "freaked out" over both SBS (Side Breast Exposure) of Harris' character and the appearance of an actual brand name -- Cap'n Crunch -- in the Steadmans' kitchen. All these years later, "product placement" permeates all forms of television, including NBC's deal to "integrate" Subway sandwiches into upcoming new episodes of Chuck. It was pretty much deemed the only way to save the show.

thirtysomething also starred Timothy Busfield as Michael's ad agency partner, Elliot; Olin's real-life wife, Patricia Wettig as Michael's wife, Nancy; Peter Horton (vagabond friend Gary); Polly Draper (Hope's best pal, Ellyn) and Melanie Mayron (Michael's flighty sister, Melissa). They all lived in Philadelphia without ever sounding like Philadelphians. At least not like anyone who would order "one a dem" cheese steaks.

Zwick and Herskowitz, during their 32-minute exchange on Disc 3, readily admit they wrote about people they knew -- and hired them, too. Including their wives as writers.

"The trick was finding actors who could do this kind of really laconic, throwaway, offhand, realistic-seeming dialogue," Zwick says. "And there were surprisingly few."

Some of their conversation bogs down during the pair's mentioning of various writers and producers who were instrumental in bringing thirtysomething to fruition. But you also get insights into the almost haphazard way in which the series came to be and then came to stay -- for four seasons at least.

ABC executives kept demanding that the show be called Grown-ups, but Zwick and Herskovitz would have none of this. They were vindicated when thirtysomething quickly became part of the pop culture lexicon while the show thrived as "the epitome, the apotheosis" of the young, upwardly mobile target demographic that all advertisers yearned to reach. This enabled ABC to charge a "premium" rate for commercials, even though the show never hit prime-time's top 30 during any of its four seasons.

Zwick says that he and Herskovitz always thought "idea/corollary" rather than traditional "plot/subplot" in devising storylines and themes.

In the end, "you accept a certain amount of things that don't work for the sake of a certain number that do," he says.

Post-thirtysomething, Zwick and Herskovitz collaborated on two other notable character-driven TV series, My So-Called Life and Once and Again. They've never gotten it quite right -- ratings-wise at least. But all of these shows, even thirtysomething, likely would have lived and prospered longer on HBO -- or in these days, Showtime as well.

"We're old farts now," Herskovitz says. "And we just want the paycheck and who cares about the quality."

"That's a fitting end," Zwick adds.

Neither really means this, although that's how their conversation closes. Being fiftysomething, as both men now are, can re-order priorities and curb the rebel streak. But thirtysomething caught them in the moment -- and put them on the spot. They then delivered something for the ages -- title and all.

Unable to participate: otherwise Mike Wallace would have been part of Sunday's 60 Minutes tribute to Don Hewitt

Anchors Mike Wallace/Harry Reasoner and creator Don Hewitt.

Sunday's 60 Minutes tribute to the program's creator, Don Hewitt, was notable for its absence of new comments from its other driving force, Mike Wallace.

Wallace, a charter anchor of 60 Minutes with the late Harry Reasoner, could not participate because of health reasons, a CBS News spokesman said by telephone Monday.

The 91-year-old Wallace is "being challenged by the constraints of old age," the spokesman said. "He hasn't done any interviews for some time now."

Wallace, who currently lives on Martha's Vineyard, had triple bypass surgery in late January of 2008, shortly after his headline-making interview with Roger Clemens over allegations that the dominating pitcher had used steroids. That was Wallace's last appearance on 60 Minutes and he's now fully retired from the program, the spokesman said.

Sunday's tribute relied on old footage of Wallace, who was and always will be 60 Minutes' most famous gumshoe. The tribute also included fresh interviews with correspondents Morley Safer, Steve Kroft and Lesley Stahl, plus a closing commentary by Andy Rooney.

Another of the program's stalwarts, Dan Rather, wasn't asked to contribute to the Hewitt remembrance. Rather has an ongoing lawsuit against CBS News in connection with the now infamous "Memogate" story that questioned George W. Bush's Texas National Guard service. The piece aired on the since canceled 60 Minutes Wednesday during the stretch run of the 2004 presidential campaign.

Williams/Goldthwait collaborate in Magnolia's unflinching World's Greatest Dad

Director-writer Bobcat Goldthwait and star Robin Williams

Morbidly fascinating and achingly watchable, World's Greatest Dad pairs a hellish son with a rejected, dejected father whose would-be novels have yet to see print.

This doesn't sound like your typical Robin Williams movie, which lately is a good thing.

"It's like Dead Penis Society," he recently told TV critics who otherwise gathered to hear about Williams' Dec. 6th HBO standup special and his ongoing recovery from open-heart surgery.

World's Greatest Dad, hollowly emblazoned on the central character's coffee cup, can first be seen Wednesday, Aug. 19th on Mark Cuban's HDNet Movies as part of the network's ongoing "Sneak Preview" series. Show time is 7 p.m. (central), with repeat airings at 8:45 and 10:30 p.m. The film then opens in theaters Friday under Cuban's and business partner Todd Wagner's Magnolia Pictures banner.

The architect of World's Greatest Dad is Williams' longtime friend, Bobcat Goldthwait, who both wrote and directed the film. He's cast Williams as sad sack high school poetry teacher Lance Clayton, whose teenage son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), can charitably be called despicable.

Kyle is first seen pleasuring himself in masochistic fashion. Dad catches him in the act, and things degenerate from there. This is no warm, fuzzy family film. Instead it's a dark morality play about sudden losses and gains, which can't be further specified here without spoiling the jolt.

When not warring with his son, Lance Clayton sneaks schoolhouse kisses with a fellow teacher named Claire (Alexie Gilmore). She's cute and lithe, prompting Lance to marvel, "How'd a lump like me get a dame like you?"

Except that he doesn't really have her. Claire blows with the winds, and quickly in the direction of schoolteacher Mike Lane (Henry Simmons), who's just had an article published in The New Yorker. In this scene, Williams fully conveys the pain of a man of letters deemed unfit to publish time and time again.

Resultant shattering events are transformational for both Claytons, with World's Greatest Dad digging deep into the parallel realities of unearned fame and redemption. Others want their pieces of this, even the real-life Bruce Hornsby in a cameo role.

The film is well-paced, never dull and headed toward a not entirely unpredictable but satisfying denouement. Williams, whose occasional serious side has come out in films such as Good Will Hunting, Insomnia and One Hour Photo, is particularly effective when not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Witness his character's appearance on the Dr. Phil-like Dr. Dana TV show, where Williams turns in a few minutes of at least borderline brilliance.

World's Greatest Dad isn't a game-changer for Williams at this late stage of his career. But it may be for Goldthwait, whose previous signature movie is 1991's very dark-shaded Shakes the Clown. Williams made an appearance in that one, too, as mime class instructor Marty Fromage. Now he's front and center, toting the load that Goldthwait's given him without ever buckling under it. Bravo to both.


Mad Men's back, but not quite smokin' yet

Don Draper and Salvatore Romano wing it under assumed names in "Out of Town" opening for third season of AMC's Mad Men.

After two superlative seasons, Mad Men merits time to marinate, presumably in a tumbler of generously poured straight Scotch.

That's another way of saying that Season 3's first episode (Sunday, Aug. 16th at 9 p.m. central) ends up being an ever-so-slight disappointment.

Two of Mad Men's three principal women, Betty Draper (January Jones) and particularly Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), are largely extraneous as the action resumes in a post-Cuban missile crisis Manhattan. The main focus instead is on a fence-mending sales trip to Baltimore, where Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and the still-closeted Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) reinforce their agency's fealty to the makers of London Fog raincoats. But an on-the-make stewardess and an aggressive bellhop make the trip extra spicy/dicey.

Mad Men addicts perhaps will expect more, particularly in light of the major developments in Season 2's finale. That's when Betty told prodigal Don of her pregnancy while Peggy informed a stunned Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) that he's the father of a child she gave up for adoption. From a purely business standpoint, the denizens of Sterling Cooper also learned that their ad agency had been taken over by the British firm Putnam, Powell & Lowe.

The latter development has immediate repercussions when two of Sterling Cooper's young bucks are pitted against one another. We won't say who, because that wouldn't be sporting. In fact it's tough to review this particular episode without being a "spoiler." Much of the beauty is in the details, which won't be divulged in fairness to Mad Men viewers.

The episode begins evocatively, with Don boiling milk in the Draper kitchen while in the midst of an early morning reverie that takes him back to the origins of his previous life as Dick Whitman. Operative words: "I'm gonna cut his dick off, and boil it in hog fat."

Betty, for whom he's boiling the milk, is well into her third pregnancy. And Don has the tender touch, even though appearances can always be misleading in his case.

Back at the Sterling Cooper offices, the already full-figured Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) seems to be ballooning to almost epic proportions in all vital areas. She's a dirigible without a compass, later telling Peggy, "Oh God, I'm so glad I'm going to be out of here soon." Then again, who knows if she really means it.

Don and Betty are back together; Peggy remains willfully alone.

The Don-Salvatore road trip, which forms the episode's centerpiece, finds both men taking on aliases and fake occupations after a twang-y stewardess named Shelly (Sunny Mabrey) lures them to dinner and drinks. What happens in Baltimore stays in Baltimore. But some of what happens seems forced and later, contrived. And that's not Mad Men's style.

There's also an uncommonly stilted, back-at-the-office scene between a crestfallen Campbell and his wife, Trudy (Alison Brie). The usually very effective Kartheiser, who plays Campbell, seems well off his game during this particular exchange. Jon Lovitz's overblown "Master Thespian" character comes to mind. Maybe the editing's partly at fault, but he's much better than this.

Even so, Mad Men remains a cut above at least 95 (make that 98) percent of all that television has to offer. Sunday's third season curtain-raiser has some brilliantly crafted moments as well, including a closing scene with Don, Peggy and their impressionable daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka).

Creator Matthew Weiner's impeccable touches throughout the series' first 26 episodes inspire confidence that Mad Men will deliver the drama we've come to expect. He's earned the right to tarry a bit, and there's a long haul before the scheduled Nov. 8th Season 3 finale.

For starters, though, Mad Men is just a bit lacking. The Don-Betty reconciliation is lightly touched on, but the repercussions of Peggy's bombshell revelation to Peter so far aren't in the picture. They don't even have a scene together Sunday night.

All in good time, we presume. Mad Men knows exactly where it's going, right? Let's drink to that.

GRADE: A-minus

Fox Reality Channel's Househusbands of Hollywood gender-bends while copycatting

Take a flying leap with Fox Reality's Househusbands of Hollywood.

Premiering: Saturday, Aug. 15th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox Reality Channel
Starring: Billy Ashley, Danny Barclay, Darryl M. Bell, Charlie Mattera, Grant Reynolds and their bread-winning wives
Produced by: Marilyn Wilson, Lisa Bernstein, Scooter Pietsch and Charlie Mattera

Imitation is the sincerest form of not having any better ideas.

So the still fledgling Fox Reality Channel might as well take a shot with Househusbands of Hollywood, which turns out to be a surprisingly watchable and well-produced tagalong to Bravo's Real Housewives franchise.

The 10-episode series, co-starring five stay-at-home dependents, launches on Saturday, Aug. 15th at 8 p.m. (central). Ryan O'Neal also will be dropping in. He's best friends with Charlie Mattera, an actor/screenwriter/ex-con who also happens to be one of Househusands' co-executive producers. Nice racket.

Only one of the "high-powered" wives has a national name. Not that former "Cosby kid" Tempestt Bledsoe has made many marks of late. Still, she's off to shoot an unidentified movie while "longtime partner" Darryl M. Bell (the show's only non-husband) carps on cue about having to take his rotting leftovers to the garbage or Tempestt to the airport three hours before her flight to a film set.

"Our relationship is like cockroaches. It's lasted," he says. Now there's a Hallmark Card sentiment.

Not all of these guys are slugs, though. Ex-Marine Corps sniper Grant Reynolds so far is the most appealing. He cares for two-year-old daughter, Ruby, while wife Jillian Reynolds toils at three Fox jobs, principally co-hosting Good Day LA for the network's owned-and-operated station.

Reynolds and Ruby have a bond that throaty mommy can't match. So when she comes home, the kid is likely to cry more often than not when Jillian tries to kiss or hold her.

Another of the househusbands, Billy Ashley, played with the Los Angeles Dodgers and briefly, the Boston Red Sox, in the 1990s before he says a neck injury ended his career. Mediocrity played a role, too. The Dodgers released him after he hit .233 for them in six seasons as a part-time player.

Ashley's wife is Lisa Ashley, a makeup artist who also is marketing a line of teen skin care products. Hubby's role is to care for their increasingly strong-willed 9- and 11-year-old daughters while playing a nominal "managerial role" in her cosmetics company. So it's gotta hurt when one of the daughters tells him, "You don't work."

"I don't work? Since when?" he retorts.

"Since ever," she says.

There's also henpecked Danny Barclay, who quit med school to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Wife Katherine, a "high-powered" attorney, sends him daily to-do lists and also makes him take his "kegerator" (a beer storage facility) out of the kitchen and into the garage, where he constructs a piss-poor "man cave" in retaliation.

The aforementioned Charlie Mattera notes that he served eight-and-a-half years in prison for robbing banks. Naturally then, his best pal is O'Neal, who wears a Fox-ian Bones t-shirt during one of their workouts together.

Charlie otherwise is married to a psychologist named Gail, who won't be appearing on-camera in order to main anonymity for her clients. Instead she issues orders over the phone, making sure he's done all his chores.

The Matteras also have a baby son who pretty much is dependent on him, not her. His baptism is coming soon, and Charlie figures this might be a good time to tell Gail's parents about his criminal past. He consults a priest who agrees to sit in when Charlie decides to come clean to them.

Househusbands veers back and forth among this quintet before all of the males gather at Danny's man cave near the end of Saturday's opener. This no doubt is a contrived get-together, and it's doubtful that these guys even knew each other before the series went into production. Reality seldom gets in the way of any reality show, so no big deal any more.

Teases for future episodes promise plenty of conflict. But at least these guys aren't conspicuous consumers going against the grain of continuing tough times. Bravo's real housewives mostly blow their husbands' dough as though it were bubbles. Danny's idea of a big night is chips and pretzels in his garage-bound, roundly ridiculed man cave.

Fox Reality Channel at last may have a winner here, even if it's also a craven copycat. And if so, look for a spinoff or two. Or 10. Every city of any size has more than enough unemployed males to make these worlds go 'round and 'round.

GRADE: B-minus

Curb appeal: Seventh season will be well-stocked with Seinfeld stars

Larry and Jerry will be themselves in 7th season of Curb.

PASADENA -- At first he's typically testy.

"We couldn't do this earlier?" he grouses as a mini-mike is affixed to him while TV critics prepare to parry and thrust. We've all just seen a highlight reel from the upcoming seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. And Larry David -- playing Larry David -- seems to be in fine form, whether attempting to make out with a woman in a wheelchair or fighting over a lunch check with guest star Rosie O'Donnell.

Oddly enough, though, David verges on being almost magnanimous during his half-hour onstage in a ritzy hotel ballroom. He actually agrees with a questioner who first tells him, "You seem pretty happy today."

Has the show been "sort of therapy for you?" David is then asked. "Are you less neurotic now because you are able to sort of look at yourself?"

The old Larry might have retorted, "What? Are you &*%#$@ crazy?"

Instead we get this: "I was talking to somebody earlier. I was saying that this Larry is kind of melding with Curb Larry, and I love Curb Larry. Always hated this Larry. And so I'm getting a little like Curb Larry. We're melding a little bit. So yes, I am a little happier."

That doesn't entirely make sense, mainly because "Curb Larry" tends to be one miserable S.O.B. more often than not. But whatever. David, at age 62, has mellowed to the point where he's actually willing to be pretty expansive on Topic A of the new season, which premieres on Sept. 20th. The co-creator of Seinfeld has coaxed the show's four principals -- Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards -- to appear as themselves in five of the 10 new episodes. Their common goal will be something they've all vowed to never do in real life -- a Seinfeld reunion show.

"It's a lame idea" David says. "And then I thought, 'But it might be very funny to do that on Curb.' And I kept thinking about the idea. I started to think of different scenarios and how we could pull this off. And I called Jerry, and Jerry was game. And I said, 'Well, I'll call the others.' And I did. And we did it.

"So we're doing a Seinfeld reunion show on Curb. We're going to see writing. We'll see aspects of the read-through, parts of rehearsals. You'll see the show being filmed. And you'll see it on TV . . . You won't see the entire show. You'll see parts of the show. You will get an idea of what happened 11 years later."

Seinfeld left NBC after a May 14, 1998 finale in which Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer were sentenced to a year in jail for "crimes against common decency." The ending under-whelmed many viewers, drawing mixed reviews from TV critics that rivaled the reception for HBO's abrupt ending of The Sopranos.

"Excellent show. Excellent show," David says. And for those who thought otherwise? "Morons. Morons."

Jerry Seinfeld will appear in five of the new season's Curb episodes, with the other cast members "on at least four," David says before immediately recalibrating. "Maye one or two of the others will be on five. I'm not sure."

Curb's season-ender, likely to be a one-hour episode, will also house the Seinfeld finale.

David always agonizes over whether to do another season of Curb. Topping himself is a constant concern, and "this thing is going to be tough to beat, I can tell you that," he says.

There was no getting-to-re-know you dinner before the Seinfeld-ians regrouped.

"They just showed up on the set," David says. "Jerry and I -- just like we used to -- went over all the Seinfeld script material. So we got together and wrote that . . . There was no awkwardness at all. It was like getting on a bicycle, yes."

Off-camera, David is recently divorced, the father of two teenagers and something of a doting dad. Within reason.

"Daughters Cazzie and Romy "don't seem to be fans of mine," he says. "I don't think they like to see their daddy behaving the way he does (on Curb). I think it bothers them to see daddy yelling at people. That's my guess. I'm not sure. It might just be the humor might not register with them yet."

David instead watches Gossip Girl with them. "My daughters love it. Love it. They freak out over it."

He's guest-starred on one of their earlier favorites, Hannah Montana. Would he do the same on Gossip Girl to impress them anew?

"Only if my daughters were on the show with me," David says. "That's the only reason I did (Hannah Montana), because my daughters were on the show. Otherwise, I think you would have to blow my head off."

The interview ends on that note. Which is another way of saying that all's still well with Larry David.

HBO's Nine Lives of Marion Barry hits his many high points

Marion Barry and third wife, Effi, who died in 2007. HBO photo

Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and numerous other disgraced politicians should all be "inspired" by the modern-day Babe Ruth of the genre.

That would be Marion Barry, the philandering, cocaine-addicted D.C. officeholder who was elected mayor before and after his imprisonment. He then retired, regrouped and stunningly triumphed anew.

HBO's The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, premiering Monday, Aug. 10th at 8 p.m. (central), is a revealing, 78-minute look into his life, times and crimes.

It's about an activist who fostered black pride and an opportunist who seemed to blow it all through his nose and otherwise. But Barry never really fell out of favor in a community that itself kept sideswiping the straight and narrow.

D.C. and later the city's dirt poor Ward 8 did nothing to actually "deserve" Marion Barry. But a good number of his African-American constituents continued to understand where he was coming from and where they'd been. His struggles alienated many of his supporters, embarrassed "official" Washington and made him a punchboard for standup comics, including Chris Rock. But through it all, Barry has yet to take a definitive knockout punch. He still hasn't been beaten in any of his races for political office.

Nine Lives, the first feature-length collaboration by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, begins with Barry's comeback 2004 run for a City Council seat against Sandra Seegars. He's initially seen in what amounts to white-face, a "5-Minute Mud" coating that has given him "the smoothest face in town." He was 68 at the time.

The film soon winds back to 1965, with Barry a firebrand activist who believes in both non-violence and self-detemination.

"If I'm gonna be beat to death, I might as well get somethin' for it," he says.

Elected to the city council, Barry quickly had the temerity to run for mayor against a more experienced group of African-American candidates. His new wife, Effi, recalls feeling like "Alice in Wonderland" during an interview filmed before her death in 2007. But her husband eventually succumbed to the many temptations afforded him. Or as Effi put it, "Marion is a man, and power is a very seductive mistress."

Despite escalating rumors of affairs and drug use, Barry kept winning re-election. In telling 1985 footage from a church, he tells a worshipful congregation, "We are living in an imperfect world where people expect us to be perfect."

A 1990 sting operation, in which Barry was set up by an ex-girlfriend, yielded blurry black-and-white video of the mayor snorting coke and repeatedly coming on to Rasheeda Moore, who testified against him. It got him a six-month prison term and a seeming death sentence regarding his future in politics. Instead he was re-elected mayor in 1994.

Nine Lives in some ways rehabilitates Barry, or at least coaxes viewers to see him through a different prism. He at times is almost poignant while in the midst of his 2004 campaign, conceding past sins to the film's interviewer while at the same time retaining that old arrogance.

"I'm more vigorous than ever before," he says when clearly he's not. And of his opponent, Barry says, "She's desperate, and she's a liar."

He has a new acolyte in a teenager who rides with him to campaign stops and pledges allegiance at every turn.

"He's tired. Well, he deserves some rest," the boy tells the camera. "He's a hard-working man."

Effi left him shortly after the infamous drug bust trial.

"Again I felt like Alice in Wonderland. But it was a different Alice," she says.

Barry, now 73, is still representing.

"If you look down, you go down," he says. "So I look forward and look up. It's as simple as that."

Last fall he won reelection to the City Council by a landslide. Scandalous? Marion Barry doesn't see it that way. Never has.


Forgive me for I have sinned by saying, "Bring back Paula"

Paula Abdul and that old gang of hers. Fox photos

Paula Abdul's alleged American Idol swan song, announced by her in a tweet not a huff, threatens to leave the Fox mega-hit with a decided dearth of ditz.

But is that a problem? Yeah, it is.

Abdul, angling for more money and not feeling the love, had the TV world all atwitter after she announced Tuesday night, "With sadness in my heart, I've decided not to return to Idol. I'll miss nurturing all the new talent, but most of all being a part of a show that I helped from day 1 become an international phenomenon."

She tweeted this on the day after Fox issued a conventional publicity release announcing the return of judge Kara DioGuardi for a second season. Mike Darnell, the network's president of alternative entertainment, said that her "spitfire personality and sharp musical sensibility infused American Idol with a new energy last year."

No, it didn't. Four judges clearly were one too many. And as the season wore on, it was Abdul who actually seemed to grow more lucid. Meanwhile, DioGuardi became less interesting, gratingly predictable and no match for the charter judge that Simon Cowell initially loved to hate but lately seemed to enjoy. On the other hand, DioGuardi clearly bored him. Eight seasons with Abdul can do that to a man.

Idol remained the most popular show in prime-time last season, but its ratings have gradually descended from Mount Olympus to Pike's Peak. Unlike CBS' incredibly resilient NCIS, it's growing demonstrably weaker with age. And letting Abdul go, which Fox seems very prepared to do, will only hasten the decline at this point.

The network's official statement, released after Abdul's tweet, judged her "an important part of the American Idol family over the last eight seasons, and we are saddened that she has decided not to return to the show. While Paula will not be continuing with us, she's a tremendous talent and we wish her the best."

The other principals are still locked in. Host Ryan Seacrest recently signed a new three-year contract, and judges Cowell and Randy Jackson each have a year to go on theirs. Cowell in particular expects to cash in hugely, as he should. Abdul in the end apparently wanted bigger money than Fox wanted to give her.

For several years running, I've lobbied for Cher as a replacement for Abdul. High-definition wouldn't do her any particular favors. But she obviously knows the business and would have been a prickly porcupine if Cowell dared to get in her grill.

Not gonna happen, though. We're getting the comparatively bland DioGuardi instead, unless Fox and Abdul somehow reconvene.

Never thought I'd lament Paula's passing, but Fox and Idol are making a big mistake by jettisoning her instead of DioGuardi. The so-called "spitfire" will be hard-pressed to be more than a marshmallow roast in the coming Season 9 of Idol. Better to savor the prospect of another Abdul meltdown, even if she showed flashes of actually making sense last season.

A Rivers runs through TV Land's new How'd You Get So Rich?

Joan Rivers hosts a new TV Land series about net worths.

Premiering: Wednesday, Aug. 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on TV Land
Starring: Joan Rivers and a buncha self-made rich people
Produced by: Mark Burnett, Barry Poznick, John Stevens

The red carpet has been pulled out from under her -- first by E!, then by the TV Guide Network.

So Joan Rivers no longer is in a prime position to ask "What are you wearing?" The self-deprecating comic instead resiliently rebounds to badger self-made millionaires with "How'd you get so rich?" This also happens to be the title of her new half-hour TV Land series, premiering Wednesday, Aug. 5th at 9 p.m. (central).

The basically harmless premiere episode finds Rivers interacting and play-acting with three well-heeled, former poor people. One of them, Jonah White, grew up in a shack with an outhouse before inventing "Billy Bob Teeth." Another, attorney Robert Zarko, arrived from Cuba penniless with his family, started a lawnmower business as a kid and wound up going to Harvard. He supposedly helped to make ends meet by cleaning toilets as a student.

Rivers, 76 and surgically repaired too many times to count, visits all of them in their palatial digs. There she marvels at their creature comforts, cracks some badly dated jokes and fakes taking rides on a bulldozer and a jet skier.

"I haven't ridden anything this big since Al Roker gave me a piggyback ride," she says of the bulldozer White uses to crush trucks as a stress-reducer.

She also tries on various editions of his bad teeth, pulling off a series of double-ply sight gags. He's supposedly made $50 million on 'em.

TV Land so far has ordered just six episodes of How'd You Get So Rich?, a creation of reality maestro Mark Burnett, whose Celebrity Apprentice was just won by Rivers. At a half-hour running time, they breeze by in a hurry and require no thought. Which is exactly the overall objective.


ADDENDUM: At the annual network TV "press tour" in Pasadena, Rivers zinged Jay Leno in a way that's likely to merit her a permanent ban from his prime-time NBC show when it cranks up on Sept. 14th.

"I think it's brilliant that they put Leno on at (9 p.m. central) now because Americans get bored more easily and go to sleep earlier," she said when asked to assess the changing talk show scene. "When was the last time you said, 'Did you hear what Leno said last night?' Ah, never. So it's nice for the Midwest because the crops will be greener."

Television Critics Association awards hit quarter-century mark; Uncle Barky along for ride

Grey ghost: Your friendly content provider gabbed about the history of the Television Critics Association, which held its 25th annual awards ceremony Saturday night in Pasadena. Photo: Barry Garron

PASADENA -- It's been a long pull since the first-ever Television Critics Association awards in June 1985.

It's also disconcerting to see that now prehistoric-looking black-and-white photo of five past presidents and inaugural Career Achievement honoree Grant Tinker, who then was chairman of NBC. Particularly because I was the only one in attendance at Saturday night's milestone 25th annual Television Critics Association awards ceremony.

The others in the picture are either deceased, no longer employed at their newspapers, or in the case of my longtime friend, Tom Jicha, unable to attend because his Tribune-owned Florida newspaper couldn't/wouldn't spend the money to send him. So the night's history lesson fell to me and my slim, shadow budget at unclebarky.com. In short, I paid my own way, and the money was very well-spent.

Most of my fellow TV critics are still out on "press tour," where one network after another will roll in with a lot of oddly instructive B.S. about new fall programming until Saturday's last dance with ABC.

The TCA awards provide a pause to dress up and honor the shows we really appreciate. But since this was the 25th occasion, a little time travel also seemed appropriate. After all, hardly anyone in the audience knew that the plaque being held by Tinker was made at Trophy World in Phoenix. Or that he was our only invited honoree because the organization was very worried about being too close to the industry we covered.

That's all changed. Saturday night's guests included stars from Mad Men, True Blood, The Big Bang Theory and Battlestar Galactica. Noah Wyle also attended to accept a "Heritage Award" for ER. And Betty White appeared very much alive and in person to receive the Career Achievement award.

All appeared to be listening raptly -- or at least that's what I was told -- as your friendly content provider approached the big finish of a five-minute speech. Here's how it wound down:

"The art of television criticism -- and we like to think of it as that -- seems to be something of an endangered species. Reviewers of other performing arts are also being deemed expendable.

"Know this, though. Television, whether you're watching it in an old-school living room or on a state-of-the-art website, remains by far the most popular of all our entertainment mediums. Great stuff is still being done -- and attention should be paid to it. That's why we're all so happy -- and privileged -- to be here tonight. There are a good number of TCA newcomers in the audience, too. So in new ways, in different forms, this beat goes on.

"I've covered TV for 30 damned years now, and can still get excited about it. However much longer it lasts for me, I can always fall back on the closing words of Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove.

"It's been quite a party," he said. And in every good sense of the word, it most definitely has."

By the way, the TCA had the good sense to name Lonesome Dove our 1989 Program of the Year. It also was cited for "Outstanding Achievement in Drama." At that year's subsequent Emmy Awards, Dove won a lone trophy -- for sound editing.

Enough said. History is on our side. Here are this year's TCA winners:

Program of the Year -- Battlestar Galactica (Syfy)
Career Achievement -- Betty White
Outstanding Achievement in Drama -- Mad Men (AMC)
Individual Achievement in Drama -- Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad (AMC)
Outstanding New Program -- True Blood (HBO)
Outstanding Achievement in Comedy -- The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Individual Achievement in Comedy -- Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries & Specials -- Grey Gardens (HBO)
Outstanding Achievement in News & Information -- The Alzheimer's Project (HBO)
Outstanding Achievement in Children's Programming -- Yo Gabba Gabba (NIckelodeon)
Heritage Award -- ER (NBC)