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New series review: Oprah's Big Give (ABC)

Premiering: Sunday, March 2nd, 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Oprah Winfrey (more or less) and a gaggle of judges and contestants
Produced by: Oprah Winfrey

It's already been pretty firmly established that Oprah Winfrey doesn't give anything away without all of us poor saps hearing about it.

Now she's got a prime-time forum from which to shout out, "Your first challenge starts No-w-w-w!!!

Oprah's Big Give, sandwiched between the like-minded Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and something called Here Come the Newlyweds, spreads its do-goodism thicker than Britney Spears' skull. It's also another great opportunity for corporations -- and casinos for that matter -- to portray themselves as selfless Good Samaritans.

The end results seem laudable, though, even if the competitions among teams aren't exactly believable. It's nice when Joe and Josette Blow -- in this case paraplegic Carlana and university researcher "Sheg" -- can call on Jamie Foxx to drop $50 grand toward payment of an idealistic med student's school loans. Other celebs scheduled to appear during an eight-episode run include John Travolta, Jennifer Aniston, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Andre Agassi and the ubiquitous Tony Hawk.

Winfrey sets the stage by asking viewers, "What would you do if someone handed you a bundle of money? But there's a twist. You have to give all that money away."

There's an extra climactic twist, too. In the end, the show's anointed "Biggest Giver" will get a $1 million grand prize.

The ABC show deploys 10 contestants gleaned from auditions after "word spread fast about my new show," says Winfrey.

She informs each of them via the telephone, initially disguising her voice for some reason. One of the lucky ones is almost insane with joy. Another responds matter-of-factly before Winfrey gathers them all at "Big Give Headquarters" to spell out the rules of the road.

Contestants initially are provided with $2,500 apiece and pictures of people who "desperately" need them. Five teams are formed, with each getting a black "Big Give" SUV as transportation.

It's impossible to believe that the recipients of the show's largesse are even remotely surprised when Big Give comes calling. If they were, why would they let complete strangers into their homes, workplaces, etc.? But no one suspects a scam or confidence game when told, "Hi, I'm from the Big Give."

Real estate developer Stephen and his partner, disaster relief worker Eric, arrive on the doorstep of A.J. Egan. She's a widow with two young daughters whose husband was murdered while working at Home Depot. The two men instantly gain her trust while also becoming veritable surrogate dads to the two girls.

Others in dire straits include a homeless woman with two older children and no transportation, and a medically discharged war veteran who's unsure how he'll provide for his family.

The teams get five days to make these various dreams come true before returning to the mothership for judgment day. Until then, Big Give never misses a beat in terms of laying on the mood music.

Your nominal host, after Winfrey's quick exit, is Nate Berkus, a frequent contributor to her daytime show. Judges are "Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver, NFL star Tony Gonzalez and Chris Rock's wife, Malaak Compton-Rock.

The entire enterprise feels contrived and in no small part cloying. But if worthy people are helped in these tough times, then more power to Oprah's Big Give. At least it has a heart.

Grade: C+

News series review: Unhitched (Fox)

Premiering: Sunday, March 2nd, 8:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Craig Bierko, Rashida Jones, Johnny Sneed, Shaun Majumder
Produced by: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, Bradley Thomas, Brad Johnson, Mike Sikowitz

Filmdom's Farrelly brothers aren't known to spare the rod -- especially when a dick joke's at stake.

That makes their first TV comedy series, Fox's Unhitched, something of a disconnect. Its borderline subtlety actually might be too rich for the youngbloods who made hits of There's Something About Mary, Dumb & Dumber and Shallow Hal.

Unhitched, unburdened by a laugh track, has situations that sound typically Bobby and Peter Farrelly. It's not exactly Frasier when your comedy opens with a newly divorced guy in his 30s encountering a date who has a pet monkey and wants him to go ape with her -- literally.

Still, the four principal characters also are surprisingly relatable as relatively likable humanoids rebounding from failed marriages. That's particularly true of Jack "Gator" Gately (Craig Bierko), a hunky guy on the make who's more pussycat than horn dog.

His best pals, forming something of a Seinfeld-esque quartet, are ill-kempt Tommy (Johnny Sneed), refined Kate (Rashida Jones) and the still socially awkward Dr. Freddy Sahgal (Shaun Majumder). OK, it's a stretch to imagine them meshing in real life. But this is TV, where opposites supposedly attract audiences.

Sunday's premiere includes a guest appearance by Johnny (Jackass) Knoxville who fittingly plays a pimp. There's also a cameo by Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce, who greets Kate and her latest date at their courtside seats. She's impressed until the guy reveals the reason why he's so palsy walsy with the players.

A second episode finds Gator dating a beautiful blonde whose only imperfection is a shrimp-shaped "skin tag" on her back. Dr. Freddy befriends an oversized male bouncer whose impressions include "an amazing Dakota Fanning." And Kate takes up with a "rock star" who turns out to be a self-deluded air guitarist.

Unhitched will be following Family Guy, which in this case is akin to Beerfest being paired with Pygmalion. At best, the new Fox entry is pleasantly amusing and virtually bereft of gross-out humor. That's not gonna cut it with fart joke afficionadoes, which in the end may be the new show's biggest problem. Sometimes you can just be "too adult."

Grade: B-minus

One Tex out, two graduate to Idol's sweet 16

Dubbed dull and ordinary for two weeks running by arbiter Simon Cowell, wobbly American Idol hopeful Jason Yeager of Grand Prairie took a knockout punch on Thursday's second vote-off show.

The 28-year-old Six Flags Over Texas showman joined Robbie Carrico, Alexandrea Lushington and Alaina Whitaker on the hit Fox show's scrap heap.

"I had a feeling I was going to be in the bottom rung," Yeager said before reprising The Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running" as his swan song.

"You don't stand out in the crowd at the moment," Cowell then told him. "You're not a bad singer."

Jason Castro, 20, of Rockwall and Houston's Kady Malloy, 18, survived to be among Idol's final 16, although the latter earlier was left dangling next to Whitaker as one of the show's lower vote-getters.

Idol host Ryan Seacrest announced that the show's top 12 will perform on a newly designed stage March 11th. And for the first time they've been cleared to sing tunes from the Lennon-McCartney songbook, otherwise known as The Beatles' catalog.

Seacrest also said that the April 9th Idol Gives Back special, a sequel to last year's, will include appearances by Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Snoop Dogg, Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus and Carrie Underwood.

And while the mood strikes, here are unclebarky.com's picks for Idol's Final Four.

Namely, David Archuleta, Ramiele Malubay, David Hernandez and Brooke White, pictured left to right below:

New series review: quarterlife (NBC)

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC. Then moves to 8 p.m. Sundays.
Starring: (from left to right, above) David Walton, Bitsie Tulloch, Kevin Christy, Michelle Lombardo, Maite Schwartz, Scott Michael Foster
Created by: Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz

Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, now respectively, 55 and 56, have joined yours truly in aging beyond any network's preferred audience demographic.

And yet they -- probably/certainly/maybe unlike I -- retain the uncanny ability to interpret the cares, woes and technologies of much younger generations.

Their quarterlife, premiering Tuesday on NBC, splits the difference between the high schoolers of My So-Called Life and the denizens of thirtysomething. Those landmark Zwick/Herskovitz series premiered in 1994 and 1987 in primitive, pre-Internet times.

quarterlife, centering on six friends/lovers between 20 and 30, took wing on the Internet with eight-minute "webisodes." There are 36 of them to date, and many already have been seen by their target audience. NBC's one-hour version of the series, which edits and then stitches them together, will provide a much wider viewing platform -- for now at least.

Consider this a Gossip Girl with brains, and with a multi-faceted, angst-ridden protagonist named Dylan. She's in the formative stages of her tell-almost-all, but non-clandestine quarterlife video blog. We first see her hunched over an Apple computer, much like your friendly correspondent is at the moment.

"Why do we blog?" she asks. "We blog to exist. Therefore we are idiots."

There's already a lot to like right there. And quarterlife quickly takes shape as a hand-held, verite look at formative young adults whose lives are still in the starting blocs. Back to you, Dylan, who says without any off-putting sense of entitlement: "A sad truth about our generation is that we were all geniuses in elementary school. But apparently the people who deal with us never got our transcripts because they don't seem to be aware of it."

The quarterlife orbit also includes young filmmakers Danny and Jed (David Walton, Scott Michael Foster), bust-thrusting bartender/actress Lisa (Maite Schwartz), lovelorn Debra (Michelle Lombardo) and so-called "geek extraordinaire Danny (Kevin Christy), who easily is the least fleshed-out in Tuesday's opener.

Maybe these sound like typical TV "types." But what cast of characters doesn't -- at least on paper? quarterlife excels because it speaks the language, hits the nerve spots and gets at the essence of what it's like to love/like someone who feels the same way not about you, but your closest friend.

Whatever the generation, those dynamics haven't changed all that much. But the mechanics have, and the language, too, of course. Damn the luck, "The net is nasty-slow today."

Herskovitz also puts himself in this mix as a demanding drama coach who lashes Lisa for her "pretty girl syndrome" and clenched-up interior.

"Every moment onstage is crap because of it," he tells her in front of her peers.

Not every moment of quarterlife is gold, but we're definitely in a crap-free zone. NBC programming executives, who have dished out ample swill in recent months, should be credited with making this very enlightened move, too.

Maybe quarterlife won't click outside its Web womb. But it's well-worth finding out whether NBC has the programming steal of this still young century or a show that easily can go back where it came from.

Grade: A-minus

ABC's Raisin In the Sun fullfills any and all grape expectations

When the cliche fits, resort to it.

ABC has a bonafide towering achievement on its hands Monday night. Its lone made-for-TV-movie of this season is the best of a dying genre since who really knows when.

Broadcast networks are all but out of this business, but A Raisin In the Sun should make ABC want to unequivocally shout in praise of itself.

Premiering Monday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. (central), this superb three-hour adaptation of the 1959 Lorraine Hansberry play elevates the network to an artistic high ground that should be the envy of its rivals. Not that it will be. NBC for one no doubt is perfectly pleased with the modest ratings success of its recent, sub-cheesy Knight Rider movie. This is a business, after all, and the big broadcasters seldom are in any mood to "give back" anymore with productions that simply aspire to be great without any anticipated big payoff at the Nielsen box office.

An earlier Raisin In the Sun feature film, released in 1961, had a high-powered cast that included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett Jr. But ABC's bold new dramatization, still anchored in a southside Chicago neighborhood circa 1959, can now take its place as the definitive screen version.

Key players from the Tony-nominated 2004 Broadway revival are reunited for the ABC presentation, which was screened last month at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sean Combs, now shorn of "Puffy, Puff Daddy, P Diddy," etc., has the Poitier role as the scheming, dreaming but shackled Walter Lee Younger, Jr. His realist wife, Ruth, is played by Audra McDonald, with Phylicia Rashad as Walter's tradition-bound, God-fearing mother, Lena.

Walter's spirited, tart-tongued, sister. Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan), and his only son, Travis (Justin Martin), also live under the same roof in a cramped, cockroach-friendly walkup with a downstairs bathroom shared by two floors of tenants.

Supporting characters include Walter's best friend, Bobo (Bill Nunn), and two disparate suitors for Benethea's hand. Dream-weaving Joseph Asagi (David Oyelowo), a classmate of hers, is Nigerian by birth. George Murchison (Sean Patrick Thomas) is the snooty son of a now wealthy businessman who cashed in on an investment opportunity that had been too rich for Walter's blood.

Jon Stamos also drops in near movie's end as a go-between who aims to keep the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood safe from any invasion by "coloreds."

Combs is one of the film's executive producers, but veterans Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are its good shepherds. Their previous acclaimed productions include the Oscar-winning Chicago for the big-screen and Cinderella, Annie and Life with Judy Garland under the ABC banner.

On-screen, where it counts, the performances for Raisin In the Sun are uniformly first-rate. One powerful scene after another both hits home and drives the steady, assured narrative.

Rashad, so familiar to audiences as Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show, is especially unforgettable as a nurturing but no-nonsense matriarch whose late husband's life insurance policy will be netting the family a $10,000 windfall. Walter, festering as a white man's chauffeur, has big investment plans for the money. But a liquor store decidedly is not what Lena has in mind.

"We ain't no business people," she tells Ruth, who haltingly tries to act as a go-between. "We're just plain workin' folk."

Raising In the Sun crackles with sharp dialogue that hasn't been dulled all these years later. Walter is in some ways the drama's Stanley Kowalski, a brooder with needs, ambitions and an overall view of women as "backward" people braking forward progress.

"Nobody in this house is ever gonna understand me," he rails. But Combs makes the character sympathetic as well. You'll see.

Each central character, save for the still wide-eyed Travis, reaches a boiling point or two during the course of hard-fought bouts with self-realization. That might seem like a standard-issue dramatic arc, but nothing in this still very relevant drama ever seems contrived or false.

In the end, Raisin In the Sun deeply earns its uplifting climax, even though overcast skies await. ABC and all concerned should take a deep bow. Whatever the ratings, they already have their reward.

Grade: A

Stewart shines as Oscar host on a night when most of the winners are great unknowns

Host Jon Stewart had a splendid night. Other born-in-the-USA performers didn't on an Oscar-cast with more international flavor than Cirque du Soleil.

All four acting winners -- Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Javier Bardem, Tilda Swinton -- are happy to hail from abroad. A combing of Oscar's past says that hasn't happened since 1964, when Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Peter Ustinov and Lila Kedrova respectively won for Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Topkapi and Zorba the Greek.

Nor did Sunday's 80th annual ceremony on ABC have any nominated blockbusters or movies with much kid appeal, save for Juno. That likely had most advertiser-craved younger eyes in Stewart's corner. And the Comedy Central kingpin delivered with a straight-up and crisply funny opening monologue in which he mercifully steered clear of any singing, dancing or incorporating himself into a collection of clips.

Given comparatively little time to prepare after the recent end of the writers' strike, Stewart predictably broke the ice with a little post-settlement humor.

"The fight is over," he said. "So tonight, welcome to the makeup sex."

He kept rolling, mixing show biz and politics with few if any missteps. (Well, OK, the standard-issue joke about Dennis Hopper not knowing where he is easily could have taken the night off.)

"All I can say is thank God for teen pregnancy," Stewart said after referencing the year's "slate of psychopathic killer movies (No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd)."

Another less than upbeat film, Away From Her, told a "moving story of a woman who forgets her own husband," Stewart noted. "Hillary Clinton called it the feel-good movie of the year."

That one got the first big belly laugh of the night from the glammed-up crowd of winners and mostly losers. Stewart then nailed Norbit, the Eddie Murphy bomb that had a lone Oscar nomination for makeup after recently racking up multiple "Razzies" honoring Hollywood's worst.

"Too often," he said, "the Academy ignores movies that aren't good."

Stewart closed by flexing his Daily Show deltoids with a trio of well-aimed political jokes. Oscar at age 80 is "automatically the frontrunner for the Republican nomination," he said.

The Democratic showdown between Clinton and Barack Obama is kind of unusual. Because, "normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty."

Obama, a consonant away from Osama, also has the middle name Hussein, Stewart said. "That's not easy to overcome. I think we all remember the ill-fated 1944 presidential campaign of 'Gaydolf Titler.' "

Stewart kept the patter coming, but never too much of it, in a relatively trim Oscar production that ran 3 hours and 21 minutes, including closing credits. That's a saving of eight minutes over last year's show.

Presenters mostly came and went with alacrity, none more so than Owen Wilson. Making his first public appearance since a suicide attempt last year, Wilson entered to polite applause and quickly introduced the nominees for Best Live Action Short Film.

Oscar wisely underscored the historic nature of the ceremony with entertaining and informative commemorations. Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, Steven Spielberg and others recalled the experience of winning their first Oscars. Jack Nicholson introduced a quick, chronological show-and-tell of all 79 previous Best Picture winners, from Wings to The Departed.

Another good idea: having six soldiers stationed in Iraq present the Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar after being introduced by Tom Hanks.

"Best Song" winners Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova; overseas quartet Daniel Day-Lewis, Tilda Swinton, Marion Cotillard, Javier Bardem.

None of the winning speeches will go in a time capsule. But no one was more blown away than Glen Hansard, winner of the Best Original Song statue with Marketa Irglova for the ultra-low budget movie Once.

"This is mad," he said in part. "We made this film two years ago. We shot on two Handycams. It took us three weeks to make. We made it for a hundred grand. We never thought we would come into a room like this and be in front of you people . . . This is amazing. Make art. Make art."

Stewart then got off his best ad lib of the night -- "Wow, that guy is so arrogant!" -- before graciously inviting Irglova back onstage after a commercial break. She hadn't had a chance to say anything within Oscar's time constraints. Give a second life, Irglova spoke movingly about daring to dream against all odds.

In contrast, production designer Robert Boyle, given an honorary Oscar, has lived much of his 98-year life in Hollywood's dream factory, initially collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock. His speech provided another highlight, even if few people of any age had ever heard of him until Sunday night.

Odds are that this Oscar-cast, with so many unfamiliar winners and films, will have a hard time measuring up to most other ceremonies in the unforgiving Nielsen ratings. Still, it was a damned fine, funny and classy effort, with Stewart showing the way. Invite him back. Again and again.

Championing Joe Louis

At the height of his powers, Joe Louis kayoed Max Schmeling in their much-heralded rematch. At the very end, he took a severe beating in his last fight from an up-and-coming Rocky Marciano.

The true Joltin' Joe of the 1930s and '40s was not a DiMaggio, but a Louis.

HBO's Joe Louis: America's Hero . . . Betrayed recaptures his historical import, his ring majesty and the financial pounding he took at the hands of the IRS. The 75-minute film premieres on Saturday, Feb. 23rd at 7 p.m. (central) as something of an under-card to the following heavyweight title bout between two tongue-twisting white hulks -- Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov.

Louis clearly would have made short work of either. In the view of many, he was the most accomplished heavyweight fighter ever, even better than Muhammad Ali because of his lethal knockout punch. This earned him the nickname "The Brown Bomber," although newspaper writers of that day used a wide variety of color-tinged pseudonyms in describing him. Signs of the times included the Black Menace, Tan Tornado, Sepia Slugger, Chocolate Soldier, Dark Destroyer and Coffee-Colored Clouter.

He otherwise was well-schooled in the art of acting white. America as a whole had recoiled at the earlier heavyweight reign of cocksure black Jack Johnson. Louis' defeat of defending champ Jim Braddock in 1937 marked the first time in 27 years that a black man had been "allowed" on such a stage.

These were days when crowds in excess of 75,000 packed outdoor stadiums to watch heavyweight fights. The film makes a convincing case that no athlete before or since meant more to the black community.

Louis' crushing defeat to the German Max Schmeling was akin to "our whole race going down," says author Maya Angelou. But in their 1938 rematch, Louis' resounding victory also was seen as a blow to Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party. It was perhaps the only time in sports history that Americans of all colors rallied behind a black athlete.

Ironically, "he'd become 'The Great White Hope,' " comedian/activist Dick Gregory says, chortling.

Louis defended his title an astonishing 25 times, dispatching mostly a series of white Palookas who represented the best fighters of their day. He also spent freely on both himself and others. And in another selfless act, he enlisted in the Army during the prime of his career, raising money for the USO and the war effort while also witnessing first-hand the segregation still practiced in all branches of the military.

His tax woes escalated upon his return. And the IRS wouldn't relent during times when Louis' boxing skills began to wane. After a humiliating defeat at the hands of Rocky Marciano, who would never lose a fight, Louis turned to wrestling, product endorsements, casino-greeting and just about anything else to pay off his debts to the government.

"Decency. Fair play. A nice person. A helluva professional," says congressman Charles Rangel. "And a guy that got screwed by the United States of America. Hey, that's Joe Louis."

That's also an over-simplification. But Louis clearly deserved better. Toward the end he turned to drinking and drugs, which fostered paranoia and depression. He also took the unkindest cut of all from Ali, who said during a press conference, "Joe Louis is making himself an Uncle Tom for white people."

America's Hero also includes current-day interviews with Louis's son, Joe Jr. (who laments never really getting to know his dad), Jimmy Carter (who has a really neat boyhood anecdote), Bill Cosby, Jerry Lewis (needlessly) and a collection of lesser known old friends and historians.

HBO's approach is now typical of its "Sports of the 20th Century" documentaries. A linear recitation of the subject's career is heavily spiked with music that swells during high points and saddens at low moments.

It's not arty, but it's still plenty effective. And Joe Louis' story never grows old. This is a compelling and telling tale of times when sports heroes were flawed but far grander. America as a whole seemed to ebb and flow with their exploits. And they had nothing to do with performance-enhancement drugs, Jessica Simpson or dog-fighting.

Grade: B+

CNN's Obama-Clinton Texas throwdown puts her one step closer to throwing in the towel

There's ample talk -- by TV pundits at least -- about how Hillary Clinton may have saved the day by humanizing herself in the final minute of Thursday night's CNN/Univision debate from Austin.

"That last statement of hers was the most effective she's had on television" since her teary-eyed moment in New Hampshire, analyst David Gergen said during CNN's rehash.

But he quickly noted the greatly improved debating skills of Barack Obama, who sometimes seemed to be in over his head during those early multi-Democrat encounters.

That's the key point. Obama's got the swagger now, and it has nothing to do with being arrogant. In their one hour, 45-minute faceoff Thursday, he exuded the confidence of a frontrunner who knows just what pace to set while his opponent slowly but surely falls farther behind him.

Pat Buchanan of all people seemed to nail it when he said on MSNBC, "I do get a sense of resignation on her part that this is coming to an end."

Clinton's closing answer, which drew her biggest ovation of the night, actually sent two messages to the electorate. Responding to a question about what had tested her the most in a time of crisis, Clinton recalled speaking at the opening of a new medical center in San Antonio for rehabilitation of American soldiers wounded in war.

She saw amputees trying to walk without help. Others were in wheelchairs or on gurneys. "And the speaker representing these wounded warriors had had most of his face disfigured by the results of fire from a roadside bomb."

"The hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country," she continued.

It's symbolic of what drew her to public service, Clinton said with what seemed to be genuine conviction. "And that's what motivates me in this campaign."

The audience applauded, but that wasn't the end of it. Clinton then figuratively bowed to Obama while also taking those first halting steps toward conceding to him.

"I am honored to be here with Barack Obama," she said. "I am absolutely honored. Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends."

Those aren't fighting words. Nor were there many if any real fireworks during a debate in which most prognosticators said that Mrs. Clinton had to draw blood or watch it drain out of her campaign in the waning days before the make-or-break March 4th Texas and Ohio primaries.

The debate was without "any hard and fast rules," said moderator Campbell Brown, whose upcoming new show on CNN was plugged twice during commercial breaks. Brown and panelists John King of CNN and Jorge Ramos of Univision mostly let the candidates talk at length, which they're always happy to do.

This made for a very uneventful first-half, making it easy to envision CNN producers clamoring for more action during a commercial break. Sure enough, King opened the second round by noting that the tone of the candidates' stump speeches "is often quite different than the very polite, substantive discourse we've had tonight."

But Clinton for the most part wouldn't take the bait, beginning her answer with, "You know, Senator Obama and I have a lot in common."

Obama likewise praised Clinton's "fine record" before almost effortlessly moving in for the kill.

"Senator Clinton of late has said, 'Let's get real,' " he began. "The implication is that the people who've been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional . . . that somehow they're being duped and eventually they're going to see the reality of things."

On the contrary, Obama said, his supporters realize that "if we don't bring the country together, stop the endless bickering . . . then we will not get anything done. That's the reason this campaign has done do well."

Clinton really doesn't have an answer for that -- not anymore at least. She later had a bad moment, even drawing some boos on the subject of Obama's alleged "plagiarizing" of words used in an earlier speech by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who's also a national co-chairman of his campaign.

"Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in. It's change you can Xerox," Clinton said to no effect.

"Come on," said Obama, who might as well have been saying, "Oh, grow up."

It's his to lose now. And he ain't the one losin' it.

Idol's three Texans punch tickets to next round

Two of the three had taken a lashing from Simon Cowell, but none felt the sharper sting of eviction on American Idol's first viewer vote-off.

Jason Castro, 20, of Rockwall, Jason Yeager, 28, of Grand Prairie, and Kady Malloy, 18, of Houston survived the winnowing of 24 contestants to 20 during Thursday night's typically prolonged nail-biter.

Ousted instead were two teen guys and the two oldest women. Namely, Garrett Haley, 17, Colton Berry, 18, Joanne Borgella, 25, and Amy Davis, also 25.

Among the three Texans, only Castro had received uniform praise from the show's three judges.

Yeager's rendition of "Moon River" was deemed "very cruise ship" by Cowell, who compared him to "a dependable old dog" lacking excitement or flair.

Malloy left him cold with "A Groovy Kind of Love," which felt like the "Night of the Living Dead," he said.

All three Texas survivors initially auditioned last August in Dallas as part of the hit Fox show's seven-city swing.

Two Jasons from North Texas at opposite ends of Idol's teeter totter

Grand Prairie's Jason Yeager and Rockwall's Jason Castro on Idol.

Maybe the American Idol audience has gotten old enough over the years to actually be in tune with Jason Yeager's treacly rendition of "Moon River" on Tuesday's male-only performance show.

If not, the 28-year-old Huckleberry Friend from Grand Prairie might well be a goner when fans of the Fox mega-hit trim the field from 24 to 20 on the first results show Thursday.

Performing fourth, Yeager endured some of judge Simon Cowell's sharper slashes on a night when the theme was "Songs From the '60s."

"I think it was very 'cruise ship', the whole performance," he said. "You're like a dependable old dog, aren't you?" Which meant he was pretty much bored stiff.

North Texas' other hopeful, 20-year-old Jason Castro of Rockwall, fared far better with his guitar-strumming version of The Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream." Again we turn to Simon, the only judge who really matters in the company of a stupendously stuporous Paula Abdul and Randy "One Note" Jackson.

"I thought that was in the top two performances of the night," he told Castro. "You, like David, have just got it."

He referred to 17-year-old whiz kid David Archuleta, who's quickly established himself as an odds-on favorite to at least reach Idol's Final Four.

"You can only vote for him. You can't adopt him," host Ryan Seacrest said as the show's designated puppy dog happily panted beside him.

Yeager in contrast may have come off as mostly suitable for Branson. But he got better reviews from Cowell than wispy poser Danny Noriega, whose rendition of "Jailhouse Rock" was "verging on grotesque," said Simon. Still, Danny boy may be pretty enough to hang in for a few more rounds.

Twenty-two-year-old Chikezie (no last name) also bombed in Cowell's view with his interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "I Love You More Today Than Yesterday."

"I absolutely hated the whole performance," Cowell told him.

The 12 remaining women perform Wednesday in another two-hour extravaganza before Yeager, among others, finds out whether he's managed to survive Cowell's heavy artillery fire. "Moon River" may have doomed him, though. That is, unless your median Idol viewer now is wearing a cardigan, puffing on a pipe and sipping high balls.

Stars and bars: Prison Break ends its third and likely last season

Linc and Michael: Plotting and scheming for the last time?

Fox's early release program for Prison Break also could be its death sentence.

Monday's third season finale (7 p.m. central) caps a strike-shortened, 13-episode run that again finds brothers Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) and Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) on the outside looking in. They're on the lam anew, which frankly is getting pretty lam-brained for all concerned.

Dwindling ratings and sagging creativity make it unlikely that the mostly made-in-North Texas drama will find its way to Season 4. PB currently ranks a still halfway decent 45th among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds. But its Monday night running mate, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, is 12th in that key demographic despite downtrending week to week. Neither series is high on momentum right now.

Subtitled "The Art of the Deal," PB's closer finds the star-crossed brothers closing in on diabolical Susan B. Anthony (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), who's still holding Linc's son, L.J. (Marshall Allman), captive. She'll trade him straight up, though, for James Whistler (Chris Vance), whom the ever-resourceful Michael helped spring from Panama's vermin-choked Sona prison.

Back-and-forth we go, with more bloodletting, a death and another character sustaining a bullet wound. There's one gift-wrapped happy outcome amid all of this. And the final image -- a lone avenger heading down a long, lonely highway -- is suitable for framing an end to the series.

It wouldn't be sporting to give away any more. But charitably speaking, it's time for PB to go, and Fox seems on board with that. It's been a nice lift to the area economy over the past two seasons, no matter how preposterous or plodding the story lines became.

There's talk of Fox opting for a women-in-prison series next season -- in which case the plot might not matter much if at all. D-FW still stands ready and able to put that one on film, too.

Idol goes with two Jasons from North Texas, and so far it's no horror film

After much moaning, groaning and bawling, American Idol's field of 24 finalists includes two guys from North Texas and a girl from Houston. All auditioned last summer at the Fox show's tryouts in Dallas, one of seven cities in the mix for the show's seventh edition.

Jason Castro, 20 (right, above), is from Rockwall. And Jason Yeager, 28, hails from Grand Prairie. They join Kady Malloy, 18, of Houston among the two dozen survivors of a two-night Hollywood elimination round that cut the field from 164.

Cardin McKinney and Kyle Ensley should still be aboard.

But were mistakes made? At least three notable ones, I'd say, with the closest call resulting in a no-go for bespectacled Buddy Holly lookalike Kyle Ensley, a junior at Oklahoma State who auditioned in Dallas.

"I completely and utterly disagree with this decision," judge Simon Cowell said at the close of Wednesday's final cuts. What? He's still not a big enough cheese to have ultimate veto power over naysayers Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul?

Ensley was brought in as the second-to-last male standing, along with Colton Berry, 17, of Staunton, VA. Berry got the nod and the likable nerd sustained some hugs. Ain't it always the way? But Idol could have used Ensley's appeal.

Also cut was Josiah Leming, 18, of Morristown, TN, who says he's lately been living in his car as a vagabond troubadour. Leming looks like a cross between Davy Jones and Peter Noone, and has more than a bit of a British accent tossed in. He turned on the faucet works after getting bounced on a close call. But the kid definitely can sing and he's almost cuter than the winning Beagle at the Westminster Kennel Club show. He'll be heard from again if he's not too self-destructive.

The last woman to take the gas, 20-year-old Cardin McKinney of Nashville, happened to be a smokin' hottie who can carry a tune, too. It was like cutting an in-her-prime Heather Locklear from Melrose Place. Dumb move, Idol.

The competition begins in earnest next Tuesday, with host Ryan Seacrest repeatedly proclaiming this the most talented field ever. What else is he gonna say? But Tuesday night's two-hour warmup drew 30 million viewers nationally and had its best showing among advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds since this season's premiere. Now we'll see how well its 24 finalists fare as both singers and audience magnets.

Blast from the past: Jericho rides again

"Man, you were the bomb last night." Ashley Scott gives some sugar to Skeet Ulrich on the second season premiere of CBS' Jericho.

Not exactly back by popular demand -- but backed by a self-avowed group of uncrackable nuts -- Jericho returns Tuesday night in search of converts.

It just might make quite a few.

Canceled and then resurrected by CBS, this remains a stark drama about a small town's resiliency in the face of nuclear annihilation. But as the pieces are picked up, Jericho (9 p.m. central, Feb. 12) finds its center of gravity. And an abbreviated refresher course at the start of each episode (seven are planned) is enough to get the uninitiated pretty much up to speed.

Basically, ravaged Jericho, Kansas now is under the rule of the so-called "Cheyenne government" and its uniformed head man, Major Edward Beck (Esai Morales).

"Nightmare's over. Order will be restored," he tells resistance fighter Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich), emerging bloody but unbowed from a fierce battle with invaders from New Bern.

Ulrich's Green is built tough, but no character resonates more than scrappy Mimi Clark. Played by Alicia Coppola (no relation to Francis Ford), she crackles in every scene while her earnest, but sometimes gullible farmer boyfriend, Stanley Richmond (Brad Beyer), gamely tries to keep apace. Mimi melts, though, when he proposes. And this makes for a terrific scene near the end of Tuesday's re-opener.

Ashley Scott also is back as Jake's schoolteacher honey, Emily Sullivan, although she's of little import in the first two episodes at least. Eric Green (Kenneth Mitchell), Jake's older brother, and covert agent Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) also return to the fold. And both have lots more to do.

Basically, the torn-asunder U.S. is re-booting after 23 cities were leveled in a single day. The fledgling Cheyenne government is holding most of the cards in a battle with rival would-be lawmakers in Columbus, Ohio. But powerful Texas still hasn't taken sides, and Cheyenne of course is wearing wolves' clothing. Wow, Big Tex suddenly matters again, both on Jericho and in the upcoming March 4th presidential primary.

For now, a new and probably crooked president is rallying remaining citizens around the new Allied States of America. But what if the so far unseen Texas can be told the real truth about who set off those explosions?

Jericho is off to a rousing re-start, and viewers must act now or never to ensure its long-term future. This time it's for keeps, with CBS very unlikely to yield a second time to fan pressure if the show can't govern itself in the Nielsen ratings.

Grade: B+

Bigger underdogs than the Giants -- which means there's always hope

Star running back Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) hasn't always pleased demanding coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler).

Critical acclaim remains high for NBC's Friday Night Lights, which won a prestigious Peabody Award last year.

Ratings are still a big downer, though, which puts the Austin-made series in deep limbo after its Friday, Feb. 8th episode, fittingly subtitled "May the Best Man Win." That exhausts the second-season supply of 15 episodes made before the writers' strike halted production late last year.

There's a fair chance the walkout will come to an end next week, which would give Lights a chance to gear up for a handful of new episodes before the TV season officially ends in May. But there's just as good a chance that NBC will pull the plug and punt the show into its cancellation bin.

The Peacock has given Lights a fair shot in the face of a season-long slump in the prime-time Nielsens. Last Friday's episode drew just 5.6 million viewers nationally to rank 50th among all prime-time programs. And its ratings performance generally has been even worse in football-crazy Dallas-Fort Worth.

There's always a "Hail Mary" hope, though. Lights easily is NBC's highest-quality drama series, and that's not entirely lost on the network. So we'll see if the stars somehow align. If not, it's been a pleasure to be among the relatively few who never miss an episode of Friday Night Lights and its fractious Dillon Panthers. They always came to play.

New series review: Lipstick Jungle (NBC)

The women of Lipstick Jungle and sassy creator Candace Bushnell

Premiering: Thursday, Feb. 7, at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Brooke Shields, Kim Raver, Lindsay Price, Andrew McCarthy, Paul Blackhorne, Robert Buckley
Created by: Candace Bushnell

NBC's Lipstick Jungle has roughly the same makeup as ABC's already near-dead Cashmere Mafia.

OK, maybe the Peacock's three turbo-charged Manhattan career women don't wear quite as much mascara as ABC's four. Or maybe it's not even called mascara anymore. Your friendly male dunce otherwise can see right through these characters and judge them to be lacking in basic relatability to either gender. You don't pull for these women. But there is a rooting interest in seeing one of them get a high heel caught in a sidewalk grate and break a toothpick ankle.

Jungle is drawn from the novel by Candace Bushnell, who once collaborated with Cashmere Mafia maestro Darren Star on HBO's Sex and the City. They've since split up and decided to do essentially the same show for different networks.

Mafia, listless in the ratings since premiering on Jan. 6, has its season -- and almost assuredly series -- finale on Feb. 20th. Jungle arrives Thursday in NBC's ER slot. Two of its three main characters are named Victory and Nico. Medic, please.

The best-known cast member is Brooke Shields as the more conventionally named Wendy Healy. She's the head of Paramour Pictures, which allows her to drop an unseen Leonardo DiCaprio's name with recurring impunity As in, "Leo, hi. It's Wen."

When in doubt, Wen turns to her two grating best pals. Victory Ford (Lindsay Price) is a fashion designer whose latest lines have prompted unimaginative newspaper headlines such as "No Victory for Victory." Nico Reilly (Kim Raver from 24 and The Nine) is editor-in-chief of Bonfire magazine, which finally has gotten around to launching a Web site.

Both Wendy and Nico are married -- unhappily of course. Wendy, also equipped with a son, at least is in there pitching despite her hangdog husband Shane's (Paul Blackthorne) growing feelings of inferiority and resignation to cleaning up cat puke.

"I just thought my marriage was the one thing I didn't have to manage," she laments.

Nico's hubby seems like an amiable slug, but is too little-seen to be judged even that. She quickly and pantingly succumbs to the come-ons of a hunky young lecher named Kirby (Robert Buckley), sequentially met in a bar, a restroom and his place.

When not doing the doo-dah, high-strung, thoroughly unlikeable Nico rails against the sexists who are putrefying every damned high-level workplace in Manhattan.

If you want to start a family, "you're distracted," she moans. If not, "you're unnatural, you hate men, you're hiding testicles under your skirt."

Nico does not, however, bother to hide the big, bold phone number that Kirby scrawled on her leg. But her husband doesn't see it, and is quickly off to bed after proposing a little fire-starting getaway.

Meanwhile, Victory is being picked up -- in both a limo and a jet -- by a "bazillionaire" Mr. Big who otherwise has the garden variety name of Joe Bennett (Andrew McCarthy).

"Oh, don't give me that 'you're a whore look,' " Victory carps playfully after Wendy knowingly deduces they'll soon be sleeping together.

In today's increasingly wretched economy, wretched excess doesn't play too well. So in the end, who gives a crap whether Victory finds happiness with her smug bazillionaire. Or whether privileged Nico feels like having a testicle under her skirt after Kirby expertly rips her hemline.

Or finally, whether Wendy lands Leo to star as Galileo in the face of a rival studio's power play. "Dreamworks may be on our heels with their own Galileo movie," she frets. "If Dreamworks make a schmuck out of me, it's my ass on the line."

Cry us a river, all three of you. And then take a flying leap into the Hudson, would ya, please?

Grade: D

New series review: Welcome to the Captain (CBS)

Jeffrey Tambor (middle) yearns to get lucky with Raquel Welch.

Premiering: Monday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Fran Kranz, Chris Klein, Jeffrey Tambor, Raquel Welch, Al Madrigal, Joanna Garcia
Produced by: John Hamburg, Andrew Reich, Ted Cohen

Working without a net -- in this case no laugh track -- is highly unusual for a CBS comedy. But here goes.

Welcome to the Captain, which has nothing to do with a cruise, the military or Tennille, daringly and perhaps suicidally joins the network's Monday night lineup without benefit of any artificial additives. So you'll have to laugh entirely on your own at a show that aims to be in the vein of Arrested Development and also has one of that late, great comedy's crazier cast members in Jeffrey Tambor.

His pathetic yet self-assured character, "Uncle Saul," has been living in Hollywood's outwardly stately El Capitan apartment building -- a k a "The Captain" -- for the past 26 years. This dates to his tenure as a writer on Three's Company, where he hit it big enough to live in what he thinks is style.

The building's newest resident, struggling writer/director Josh Flug (Fran Kranz), won an Oscar five years ago in the short film category. Now he's constipated -- creatively at least -- and had planned on returning to New York until his friend, Marty Tanner (Chris Klein), hooked him up with a vacancy at The Captain.

Josh also has busted up with his girlfriend and for a time had lived alone amid memories of their co-habitation. This prompts Uncle Saul to observe, "That's like a dog having to bed down in its own sick."

Some reviewers might find this to be an irresistible commentary on the show itself. But in reality it's got some charm and enough amusingly oddball moments to make it all pretty bearable. And there's also Raquel Welch, now 67, as former prime-time soap star Charlene Van Ark. Uncle Saul still yearns to bed her, but has struck out for 26 years and counting. He bears her no ill will, though, likening Charlene's "tush" to a "buttery Chardonnay."

Other characters include a gossipy desk clerk named Jesus (Al Madrigal) and an accident-prone apprentice acupuncturist, Hope (Joanna Garcia), with whom Josh is quickly smitten.

The show is well-cast and has possibilities in its menagerie of off-kilter characters equipped with oft-nonsensical one-liners. Next Monday's episode finds the appealingly earnest and pliable Josh spending a weekend at Uncle Saul's retreat after he's again rebuked by Charlene. Her excuse is a weekend dinner theater performance with Bob Costas, who likely doesn't know yet that he's a punchline. Maybe he'll never know.

Grade: B-minus

Hill and Dave: Together again for the 9th time

Big boost? Hillary will do Dave on "Super Tuesday" eve.

Hillary Clinton is smart to be with David Letterman on the night before the "Super Tuesday" primaries have a big say in who will get the Democratic presidential nomination.

Barack Obama would be just as smart if he dropped in on Jay Leno Monday. But Democrats so far have stayed away from NBC's Tonight Show, which unlike CBS' Late Show is still without its striking writers.

Republican candidates haven't been nearly so shy, with John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee all joining Leno since he returned to work.

Hillary Clinton first braved Letterman's show on Jan. 12, 2000 after he baited her for weeks on end. But Letterman strives to make his guests look good, so she was never in any real danger.

Her last sit-down with Letterman, on Aug. 30th, included the guest's game recap of some of his pant suit jokes. Look for Tuesday's network morning shows and the cable news channels to be amply stocked with excerpts from whatever she comes up with in her pre-primary joust with Letterman.

Barring an unforeseen disaster, this likely will help soften a few of those troublesome hard Hillary edges on the same day that many viewers will be voting. In closely contested states where every ballot counts, it might not be a laughing matter to Obama.

Here's the pantsuit excerpt: