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TNT's Monday Mornings resuscitates the hospital series genre

The diverse and daring docs of Chelsea General Hospital. TNT photo

Premiering: Monday, Feb. 4th at 9 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Alfred Molina, Ving Rhames, Jennifer Finnegan, Jamie Bamber, Bill Irwin, Sarayu Rao, Keong Sim, Emily Swallow
Produced by: David E. Kelley, Sanjay Gupta, Bill D'Elia

It's been a good while since a new medical drama had the right RX to stay around and make a name for itself.

House is history, Grey's Anatomy still lingers and its spinoff, Private Practice, left ABC on Jan. 22nd with hardly anyone taking any notice at all.

In recent seasons, the list of deceased, short-lived doctor hours includes CBS' Miami Medical, Three Rivers and A Gifted Man; NBC's Mercy, Trauma and Saving Hope; ABC's Off the Map and Combat Hospital; Fox's Mental and The Mob Doctor and TNT's Hawthorne, the only one to survive beyond a single season. Not that it ever left much of an impression.

NBC throws another one into the mix on Thursday, Jan. 31st with Do No Harm. But mostly unfavorable reviews and a cockamamie premise likely will lead to ratings ICU and then DOA before spring.

All of this is prelude to TNT's Monday Mornings, which looks like a long overdue shot in the arm. It also shows that veteran creator/producer David E. Kelly (Chicago Hope, Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Harry's Law, etc.) still knows how to punch up a script and make his characters resonate.

Paired with Dallas on Monday nights (starting Feb. 4th), Monday Mornings is drawn from the same-named bestselling novel by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, best known as the sawbones in residence at one of TNT's corporate sisters, CNN. The less than dynamic title refers to the weekly in-house "morbidity and mortality" conference at Portland, Oregon's fictional Chelsea General Hospital. It basically gives Kelley an ad hoc courtroom to spice his first doctor drama since Chicago Hope's 1997 to 2002 run on CBS.

Doctors unfortunate enough to make a major medical or ethical mistake are cross-examined by hard-core chief of surgery Harding Hooten (Alfred Molina), who of course has a few soft spots, too. In Episode 1 his ridiculously jet-black dyed hair and eyebrows almost serve as a co-star. But by Episode 2, he has a softer, dark brown look en route to . . . well, you'll see.

Chelsea General is taxed with the usual challenging and sometimes bizarre cases associated with most contemporary medical series. But Kelley succeeds on several levels beyond this. His doctors are vividly drawn without being outlandish. And their patients can be equally as compelling.

Episode 2 in particular is buoyed by a 13-year-old prodigy named Trisha Miller (terrific work by guest star Cozi Zuehlsdorff). She's tired of brain surgeries and emphatic about not enduring yet another one. Various docs strive to talk her down in one of the most compelling and affecting dramatic hours of the season -- no matter what the genre.

Monday Mornings' multi-ethnic cast includes Dr. Sung Park (Keong Sim), a brusque brain surgeon whose English is limited and broken. "Not do, dead." he tells Trisha. "Need surgery."

The politically correct police may want to throw a flag here. But Dr. Park is never ever a buffoon. One can be amused by his terse ways while also being impressed by his overall brilliance. And if Monday Mornings really catches on, there may someday be a market for "Not do, dead" t shirts and mugs.

Ving Rhames also is aboard as trauma chief Jorge Villaneuva, whose demeanor can be steely. Rhames gets to the point quickly, whether it's no-minced words or expressions caught in close-up.

Dr. Tyler Wilson (Jamie Bamber) is the resident hunky, highly promising surgeon while Dr. Tina Ridgeway (Jennifer Finnigan) is both his ally and potential bedmate some day. For now she's married to a briefly seen guy who's pretty much had it with her long hours.

Another well-drawn character, Dr. Sydney Napur (Sarayu Rao), is work-obsessed and relationship-challenged. Guest star Jonathan Silverman, as Dr. John Lieberman, hopes to make a few inroads into her personal life.

Chelsea General's other principle denizens are the heavily disliked Dr. Buck Tierney (Bill Irwin) and resident Michelle Robidaux (Emily Swallow), who has both talent and a backbone. During the three episodes made available for review, each of the main doctors is fleshed out in ways that make them more viewer-friendly without overly varnishing their rough spots. Wanting to learn more about a TV character is the key to any series' long-term success. And Monday Mornings accomplishes this on multiple levels.

Creator/producer Kelley's last series, NBC's Harry's Law, was axed despite being the Peacock's highest-rated scripted series. But it committed the cardinal sin -- at least in the eyes of network bean-counters -- of skewing too old and attracting way too few advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds.

Monday Mornings, a more accomplished series than Harry's Law, has a solid chance to be a long-distance runner on TNT. The network is slower on the cancellation draw and still has significantly lower audience expectations. Viewer demographics are important but not as crucial to cable networks profiting from dual revenue streams of subscriber fees and advertiser payouts.

Kelley also seems to have curbed his penchant for absurdities, at least in the early going. Monday Mornings sometimes relies too insistently on clockwork-like mood music, although the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is welcome anytime -- and closes out Monday's Episode 1. But the characters here also are better-grounded and more believable. Even bombastic Dr. Buck, the hospital's head organ harvester, reacts in a very relatable way after being called a "predator" at one of Dr. Hooten's gut-grinding weekly proving grounds.

Cops, lawyers and doctors remain the three main flag-bearers of TV drama, but MDs have been short-sheeted in recent seasons. Monday Mornings looks as though it could remedy that. It's the most promising medical series since House arrived on Fox for an eight-season run that ended last spring. The genre badly needs a transfusion. And at last, here's a strong one.

GRADE: A-minus

NBC's Do No Harm does no harm if you're first medicated into unconsciousness

Steven Pasquale is doc with a dark side in Do No Harm. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 31st at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Steven Pasquale, Alana De La Garza, Phylicia Rashad, Michael Esper, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruta Gedmintas, John Carroll Lynch, Samm Levine
Produced by: David Schulner, Peter Traugott, Rachel Kaplan

Post-Sunday Night Football and The Voice, NBC lately has been plummeting back to earth after a surprisingly big prime-time ratings splash in the season's first four months.

That plummet likely won't be slowed by Do No Harm, a wacked-out Jekyll & Hyde-ish medical drama that has a little pop but mostly fizzles. It premieres on Thursday, Jan. 31st following the one-hour series finale of 30 Rock and two episodes of The Office.

Steven Pasquale (Rescue Me) throws himself into the dual lead role of ace surgeon Jason Cole and hopped-up, evil-doing alter ego Ian Price. This decidedly dark side of Cole had been kept under control by a nightly shot of some sort of powerful med. But now the effectiveness has worn off, meaning Price can no longer be discounted. And his appetite for general mayhem is stronger than that character in those ongoing Allstate commercials.

Although energetically executed, Do No Harm is all over the place in the two episodes sent for review. It's simply not coherent enough to sustain weekly interest.

Pasquale hangs in there as best he can while pivoting from Cole to Price at a finger-snap pace. Caught in the middle is Dr. Lena Solis (Alana De La Garza), who has the hots for Cole until he plays rough with her sexually as Price. It's a constant wonderment that she doesn't turn him in. But Cole keeps buying time by begging for her forgiveness. "You will never see that side of me again," he promises before Hulking out anew.

Meanwhile, Cole's Philadelphia hospital colleague, Dr. Ruben Marcado (Lin-Manuel Miranda), keeps working on a new drug designed to put Price out of the picture again. Hospital administrator Vanessa Young (Phylicia Rashad) is also an ally, admiring Cole's talent while largely ignoring his constant tardiness and insubordination.

A third woman named Olivia Flynn (Ruta Gedmintas) is not a part of the hospital scene, but had an intimate relationship with Cole before he started becoming Price. Now she's in renewed jeopardy, as is her little boy.

Do No Harm also throws in layman therapist Will Hayes (the always serviceable John Carroll Lynch), who drops in and out to offer advice on the order of, "When you embrace the Ian in you, you will know how to fix this."

Heights of absurdity are scaled early and often. But perhaps never more so than in an Episode 2 scene that finds Price (impersonating Cole) urging the angry father of a seriously ill little girl to blow off steam by throwing a vase of flowers at a nursing station desk. He does so and immediately calms down while the gathered nurses continue to work as if nothing at all had happened.

The little girl of course later is saved after Cole (impersonating Price) convinces a group of drug-dealing thugs not to kill him. He then rides off in an expensive convertible owned by one of the bad guys and sells it to rent a state-of-the-art piece of hospital equipment that had been vetoed by Rashad's Dr. Young because of its cost. You can't make this stuff up -- although Do No Harm does.

Given its overall ridiculous bent, Do No Harm would be better titled Heckle and Jeckle. They were vintage talking twin cartoon magpies who could be both mischievous and malicious. And in their own way, they made a lot more sense.

GRADE: C-minus

The Americans takes FX to the head of prime-time's class

Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys are cloak and dagger KGB spies who struggle with allegiances and an arranged marriage in The Americans. It's set at the start of the Reagan presidency. FX photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati, Maximiliano Hernandez, Margo Martindale
Produced by: Joe Weisberg, Joel Fields, Graham Yost, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank

As January fades toward February, is any TV network more firmly hitting its stride than FX?

My hand is raised to answer that question. And in this view, the answer is no. FX at this point is the league leader in inventive, provocative, high caliber weekly series. Both Justified and Archer are early in their fourth seasons while the very promising comedy Legit launched on Jan. 17th.

FX also is the network of Louie, Wilfred and Sons of Anarchy, all on break right now. And on Wednesday, Jan. 30th it will become the network of this season's potentially best new drama series, The Americans.

Set in 1981 at the outset of Ronald Reagan's presidency, this is the rich-in-intrigue saga of KGB spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), who have been masquerading as husband and wife since 1965. Also posing as travel agents, they live in suburban Washington, D.C. with their two children -- 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati). The kids are clueless about their parents' cloak-and-dagger dark sides.

That said, The Americans gets off to a murky start in its elongated premiere episode (running until 10:37 p.m. central) before everything is sorted out. A disguised Elizabeth seduces a department of justice dupe and follows through in the sack before an initially puzzling and prolonged nighttime chase scene kicks in three days later. But your patience will be rewarded once it's fully revealed who their prey is. In the meantime you can enjoy the sounds of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk." And later in the episode, here comes Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" as a stealth ode to Miami Vice.

Russell, of Felicity fame, is the marquee star of The Americans. But Rhys' Philip is the standout character in the first two episodes sent for review. He's lately conflicted, wondering whether they should turn themselves in for what likely would be a multi-million dollar defector payout from the U.S. government. Philip increasingly worries about the children's future, and how scarred they would be if they learned the truth only after their parents were jailed or executed.

Elizabeth, the hard-core Commie, will hear none of this. But the Jennings' well-hidden agenda is newly at risk when FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move in next door. He's just been assigned to the agency's counter-terrorism unit. And Beeman is pretty obsessed with his work, even though he's outwardly a pretty regular guy.

President Reagan's unyielding stance against the Soviet Union provides an overriding backdrop, with Elizabeth's longtime mentor and instructor viewing him as a "madman." During their meeting in a Bethesda, Maryland "KGB Safehouse," he warns her that "the risks are going to be greater."

"We won't let you down, General," she stoically assures him."

Next week's taut, terrific episode quickly ups the stakes. Elizabeth and Philip are assigned to bug the office of Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger in just three days time. He views this as insanely dangerous. And the relatively primitive spying techniques of 1981 are an extra hurdle to overcome. But the plot they hatch is ingenious, with Rhys' performance letter-perfect throughout whether he's in or out of disguise.

The Americans also includes flashbacks to the mother country as well as the couple's first arrival in their Northern Virginia home. They marvel at the window unit air-conditioner. But it's a bit much when Elizabeth instantly deduces, "There's a weakness in the people. I can feel it."

Viewers are put in a unique position. Do you in any way root for the two principal characters -- at least in the interests of preserving their children's innocence? Or is FBI agent Beeman the uncontested guy in the white hat, along with his partner, Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez)? Richard Thomas (The Waltons) also pops in for a bit as a fellow U.S. agent.

The domestic side of the Jennings existence is almost Ozzie and Harriet-like. Elizabeth, fearing more for their safety, has a tender moment with Paige in which she offers to pierce her ears two years earlier than they had agreed on. Philip messes around with ice cream cones during a family outing.

It should be noted that AMC's only one-season-and-out casualty to date among its scripted series was the spy drama Rubicon. But The Americans is much easier to navigate and grasp once the events of the first 10 minutes or so are fully sorted out.

Whatever its ratings hit or miss prospects, The Americans enthralls with its complexities, simplicities and overall derring-do. Boris and Natasha need not apply. Although FX would happily embrace their long-term staying power in the popular culture.

GRADE: A-minus

Hagman still a lifesaver in early Season 2 episodes of TNT's Dallas

Larry Hagman begins his last roundup as J.R. Ewing. TNT photo

Commanding center stage seldom if ever presented a problem for Larry Hagman in his signature role of J.R. Ewing.

But now every sighting is something of an event as TNT's Dallas fires up a 15-episode sophomore year with back-to back episodes on Monday, Jan. 28th (8 to 10 p.m. central).

Hagman completed filming on about one-third of Dallas' second season before dying on Nov. 23rd at age 81. The show's executive producer, Cynthia Cidre, recently told TV Guide that a new murder mystery, with echoes from the "Who Shot J.R.?" phenomenon of more than three decades ago, will be hatched in tandem with J.R.'s funeral on the March 11th episode.

"We all felt having J.R. die of natural causes would have been completely inappropriate not only to the character, but also to Larry Hagman," Cidre said. It also would deprive the show of a very promotable storyline. Which of course is the bottom line.

For the immediate future, though, Hagman's J.R. is still standing, wheeling and dealing. He's relatively little seen in Monday's first episode but is very much in play during the second hour. Fans can first glimpse him with his feet up on nefarious son John Ross's desk after he sneaks into his office over the protests of a secretary.

"Don't worry about it," John Ross (Josh Henderson) says. "You know how slippery snakes can be."

To which J.R. retorts, "Now that ain't a way to talk about your father."

Dallas ended last season with the revelation that Christopher Ewing's (Jesse Metcalfe) now estranged wife, Rebecca Sutter (Julie Gonzalo), in reality is Cliff Barnes' scheming daughter, Pamela Rebecca Barnes. Those wheels keep turning in the early going, with Pamela angling for a 30 percent share of Christopher's fledgling methane company while John Ross plots to screw one and all with help from his daddy.

Other storylines include Sue Ellen's (Linda Gray) continuing run for governor in the face of bribery charges and Ann Ewing's (Brenda Strong) pursuit of her long-lost daughter while husband Bobby (Patrick Duffy) frets and occasionally flares up.

John Ross also deeply resents the rekindled romance/alliance between Christopher and Elena Ramos (Jordana Brewster). This leads to J.R.'s signature, symbolic scene early in Episode 2. John Ross seethes at the sight of Christopher and Elena smooching on Southfork Ranch property before the old man sidles up behind him and casts a long, figurative shadow.

"Makes you wanna punch somethin', doesn't it?" he says.

"I don't feel anything," John Ross lies before J.R. lays out his essential rules for prospering at the expense of others: "It's OK if you do," he counsels. "You're young. Use it. Love. Hate. Jealously. Mix 'em up and they make a mean martini. And when we take over Ewing Energies, you'll slake your thirst -- with a twist."

He then pats his son on the shoulder and smiles that diabolical smile before the opening credits and ever-resonant theme song kick in. It's as perfect a scene as Dallas has ever had. And all because of Hagman's rock-steady grip on the role of his lifetime.

The first season of TNT's Dallas reboot was far better than many had anticipated. These early stages of Season 2 likewise keep the faith.

The Ewings are still prime-time's serial drama royalty, not from the standpoint of prestigious awards but from the sheerly entertaining, oft-dopey melodrama of it all. Threats, vows, sex, scandals, chicanery, etc. "Bidness" as usual, even if it's on a much smaller ratings scale than those Big Tex CBS glory years.

Hagman's J.R. Ewing still roams this land, chortling, winking, hood-winking and occasionally actually doing a semblance of something nice. Watch for a tender, very well-played scene between J.R. and Sue Ellen at the close of Monday's Episode 2. It comes shortly after he's typically complimented John Ross by telling him, "Good Boy. Son, you've got the devil in you."

J.R.'s better angel just never could get the upper hand. Dallas soon will face a bumpy afterlife without him, even while milking his death for a few more twists and turns. If only it were all a dream. Been there, done that.


Spartacus: War of the Damned ready for its last stabs at gory glory

Liam McIntyre in battle dress for a final go as Spartacus. Starz photo

Intent on toppling the Roman empire with his "mongrel horde" -- as one foe puts it -- here comes Spartacus for his final blood bath.

The Starz network's most popular original series remains gratuitously gruesome to behold, but not as much crazed campy fun in its climactic thrusts. Spartacus: War of the Damned (Friday, Jan. 25th at 8 p.m. central) goes about its business in a brutal, business-like way. And there are only so many ways you can kill a man, even though Spartacus' doubleheader beheading of two Roman officials earns some grudging style points.

The series has been through some wrenching off-screen trauma since bursting into view in January 2010 as Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Its original star, Andy Whitfield, died of cancer in September 2011. While anticipating his full recovery, Starz marked time with a six-episode prequel, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.

Fellow Australian actor Liam McIntyre eventually was hired to succeed Whitfield as the star of last year's Spartacus: Vengeance. He resumes the role in the 10-episode War of the Damned, which Starz has announced will be the end game.

Only Manu Bennett as the gladiator Crixus remains from the charter Blood and Sand cast. Still sorely missed are John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as the scheming, preening Quintus Lentulus Batiatus and his wife, Lucretia. They're among the many, many dead along with another Spartacus stalwart, original gladiator trainer Doctore Oenomaus (Peter Mensah).

The video game-ish violence, and explicit sex and language remain intact, of course. And Starz is the first network in my memory to include an f-bomb in its print publicity materials. It's from the voluptuous warrior Saxa (Ellen Hollman), and won't be recycled here. Let's go instead with this self-assured vow. "I stand as any cock should. Hard and sure of purpose," a young, formative Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) says within the pages of Starz's glossy, hardcover picture book.

Caesar, amoral and seriously in debt, is recruited by Spartacus' new arch enemy, Crassus (Simon Merrells), He seems a bit skimpily built for the task, but yearns to add battlefield street cred to his enormous wealth. Crassus' baby-faced son, Tiberius (Christian Antidormi), likewise thirsts to "stand awash in the blood of our enemies." These kids.

Friday's season opener begins amid a typically gruesome battle, with Spartacus a full-blown, howling killing machine in command of his loyal troops.

Crixus stands firmly beside him, as do Sexa and Gannicus (Dustin Clare). Following the carnage, Spartacus prepares for more. He pledges to "give further warnings to the fools in Rome seeking to grind us beneath heel." (Characters tend to drop the word "the" from their vocabularies, be they freedom-fighters or those who would enslave them. "My knife to bear upon beard," Caesar tells a topless slave girl early in Episode 2. And so on.)

Spartacus is barren of girlfriends in these first two hours. But Crixus is not. His main squeeze Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) turns him on by saying, "Kill many Romans and return to my arms with their blood hardened upon you." Yowsa.

Creator/writer/co-executive producer Steven S. DeKnight seeks to cloak all of this in deep social meaning. In a letter to TV writers, he says the series addresses "a simmering concern that was relevant, and I felt desperately needed to be dramatized: the increasing gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The very rich and the very poor. The Romans would represent the millionaires and billionaires, while Spartacus and his rebels would stand in for the economic slave class toiling for a crust of financial bread from their 'masters.' The later events of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring reflected what I was attempting to explore in our series."

Yeah, sure. I guess that could go for Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, too.

Spartacus in fact is what it is -- a broadly drawn, visceral feast of blood, guts, lust and lower-rung language. War of the Damned doesn't spare any of it en route to its no doubt hellish conclusion. But the characters aren't as compelling as they once were, rendering the fight scenes even more voyeuristic. Spartacus lives only to inflict punishment in the memory of his now long-deceased wife, Sura.

"Only a city could hold us now," he says of his growing legions. "And we shall tear one from the flesh of Rome."

The spirit is willing. And the flesh just keeps on bleeding.


Rise of the Drones a sky-high cautionary tale from Nova

Drone domo: "Father of the Predator" Abe Karem. PBS photo

Here's a factoid that might jump out at you.

The Air Force is now training more remote pilots than "manned fighter and bomber pilots combined."

So say the experts in Rise of the Drones, premiering Wednesday, Jan. 23rd at 8 p.m. central under PBS' prestigious Nova umbrella.

It's an eye-opening hour about a rapidly escalating and evolving technology that the government credits with eliminating roughly 70 percent of al qaeda's top leadership. The more benign name is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, some of them were armed for the first time and used to deadly effect.

Nova was given access to some of the Drone engineers and training exercises, although secrecy still prevails for the most part. The U.S. didn't even officially acknowledge using such weaponry until April of last year. And in the wrong hands . . . well, the ongoing debate over gun control might someday seem like a pea-shooting exercise in comparison.

The so-called "Father of the Predator," an elderly, balding, bespectacled guy named Abe Karem, tells the cameras that "my UAVs were not meant to be armed." Instead they were developed for Cold War espionage purposes, flying very high overhead and gathering photographic evidence.

Some of the advantage are very clear-cut. Drones can be in the air continuously for 24 hours or more while a typical manned fighter plane has to re-fuel every two hours or so. Pilot fatigue also is a non-issue. Operated from afar -- and from just about anywhere -- UAVs can be piloted in rotating work shifts. And when a target is zeroed in on, "you can put a weapon through a window-sized opening with ease," says retired general Dave Deptula.

Still, civilian casualties have occurred. This is mainly because a Drone's remote control pilot -- they're initially trained with X Box video game controllers -- basically is "looking through a soda straw" during the final process of zeroing in. The bigger surrounding picture is out of sight pending ongoing development of wider viewing screens.

Also of major concern: Drones can be hacked. Iran succeeded in crashing a UAV -- and now claims to have its own armed Drones. Whether it might have perfected some of its technology via the downed U.S. Drone is still considered classified information.

A growing number of amateur UAV fliers also presents a potential problem. Corey Brixen of Southern California is one such avid "Drone hobbyist." His videos are all over youtube. Harmless. Right?

"We're kind of on the ground floor now," an expert says at program's end. "There's nowhere to go but up."

Look. Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. No, wait, it's an armed drone operated by a hidden, crazed survivalist.

Rise of the Drones isn't an alarmist hour, but does raise some caution flags in addition to showing a little footage from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Where technology is concerned, we once again proceed very much at our own peril.

GRADE: A-minus

Ex-Lost star Dominic Monaghan blisses out in BBC America's Wild Things

Dominic Monaghan gets bug-eyed in new Wild Things. BBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on BBC America
Starring: Dominic Monaghan
Produced by: Dominic Monaghan, Dave Brady

Some Lost stars have found success in other scripted series. Michael Emerson in CBS' Person of Interest. Elizabeth Mitchell in NBC's Revolution. Daniel Dae Kim in CBS' Hawaii Five-0.

Others have found flops. Terry O'Quinn in ABC's 666 Park Avenue. Jorge Garcia in Fox's Alcatraz.

Dominic Monaghan, who played well-meaning but tragic Charlie Pace on Lost, has immersed himself in quite a different venue. He's first seen popping his head from the murky waters of Vietnam's Crocodile Lake in BBC America's Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan.

"I've come in search of a fascinating aquatic assassin," he tells viewers. "The remarkable giant water bug."

For some unearthly reason, Monaghan yearns to find one of 'em and hold it in his hand without getting bit. Because this insect's specialty
is injecting a toxin that liquifies the innards of its prey. A ready-made feast is then sucked up "like a milkshake," he says. The only known humanoid with such predatory powers is Donald Trump.

Monaghan makes for a very enthusiastic host of this eight-part series. And he's definitely hands-on. During an exploratory boat trip down the Mekong River, he spies a giant python relaxing in a tree.

Noting that pythons "rarely attack humans," Monaghan proceeds to climb the tree and bond with the creature. "I'm loving the privilege of spending some time with such a majestic animal," he says. "A stupendously beautiful animal. And now we're both tired."

Monaghan says his two loves in life are acting and wild things, not necessarily in that order. And he genuinely seems to mean this, even though it's always hard to determine how much real jeopardy is involved in shows of this sort. Not that most people would go where he goes in pursuit of new thrills and experiences.

The host eventually hooks up with entomologist Bob Sites, who accompanies him to the crocodile-infested waters where giant water bugs also have been known to hang out. En route to their meeting, Monaghan stops to shop and eat in exotic nighttime Ho Chi Minh City. Adventurous eating has its limits, though. So Monaghan does not order the "Steamed Penis and Balls of Goat" on the menu at an outdoor restaraunt. I'll bet it goes great with a nice steaming cup of elephant urine.

Wild Things is very nicely shot and buoyed throughout by its star's upbeat persona. In future episodes he'll encounter the likes of "flesh-slicing army ants" and a "giant venomous centipede."

"These little droplets of sweat spell adrenalin," Monaghan says while pausing to grab a ground-level Monocle Cobra by its tail during the opening episode's search for those nasty water bugs.

For me, the same affect can be achieved by opening a fresh pack of baseball, football or basketball cards. But that wouldn't make for much of a TV series.


Ripper Street another reason to give BBC America a test drive

The three rough-hewn crime-solvers of Ripper Street. BBC photo

Premiering: Saturday, Jan. 19th at 8 p.m. (central) on BBC America
Starring: Matthew Macfayden, Jerome Flynn, Adam Rothenberg, MAnna Buring, Amanda Hale, Clive Russell
Produced by: Richard Warlow, Greg Brenman, Will Gould, Polly Hill, Simon Vaghan

Absent cell phones, computers, incriminating security cameras, DNA evidence or even a decent donut, the cops of 1889 East London's H Division are a primitive species indeed.

Charged with keeping a modicum of order in the murky Whitechapel area, they collar wrongdoers in elemental fashion. By-the-book niceties -- which hadn't been invented yet anyway -- are not suitable in the immediate aftermath of Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. Or is it in fact really over?

BBC America's Ripper Street, with an eight-episode order for its first season, begins throwing its weight around Saturday night. And the specter of J the R is immediately raised anew when a young woman is found with her throat slashed in addition to various other cuts and bruises.

In a recently posted review of Fox's The Following, I sermonized on prime-time TV's almost epidemic use of young woman as corpses and/or terrified kidnap or assault victims. Thankfully, Ripper Street won't be making a habit of this, judging from the descriptions of upcoming episodes. They include a cholera outbreak, child gangs, a string of "brilliantly masterminded" robberies and a dock strike.

The premiere hour raises the specter of the prostitute-carving Ripper in order to steel Division H boss Edmund Reid's (Matthew Macfayden) determination to find the real killer and move on.

But a muckraking newspaperman would much rather stir this pot. And previous chief inspector Frederick Abberline (Clive Russell) still feels diminished by his failure to collar the Ripper. He'd like another crack, and is disposed to treat the initially available evidence as proof that England's Most Wanted is still on the prowl.

Inspector Reid, a lead detective on the Ripper case, comes equipped with a tortured, mysterious past (a police show constant then and now). He's still in love with wife Emily (Amanda Hale), although the pilot light lately is on flicker after a shared tragedy befell them.

Reid's muscle is Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), who moonlights as a dominant bare-knuckled boxer when not beating the stuffing out of uncooperative suspects or information-holders.

Their third wheel is former American Pinkerton detective Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), who knows his way around a bare bones autopsy slab and is on the run from an undisclosed "incident." Jackson and Long Susan Hart (MyAnna Buring) made their escape from the States together. She now runs a top shelf brothel, and doesn't get along too famously with Homer anymore.

BBC America, being advertiser-supported, no doubt will have to snip most of the recurring nudity from the original BBC telecast. Without giving away too much, let's just say that the key to the real murderer involves a very early vestige of the porn film industry.

Reid brooks no nonsense in his relentless investigations. And it's fun to hear him rage, "Do you think me some boneheaded flatfoot?" Or a bit later on: "If I see this in print, I'll be back here for some ripping of my own."

Ripper Street is pretty ripping good for the most part. Its oft-grimy 1899 setting is effectively re-created and as such is a nice companion piece to BBC America's Copper, which is set in 1860s New York City and will have a second season.

Both series practice their own trial-by-error forms of forensics in order to hasten the speed of the crime-solving. Some of this can be a stretch, but it's often ingenious as well. And when all else fails, a little fist therapy can really move things along.


Lance & Oprah take the silver in all-time OWN ratings

Lance Armstrong in "world exclusive" interview with Oprah. OWN photo

Thursday night's Part 1 of Oprah Winfrey's "world exclusive" interview with disgraced bike pedaler Lance Armstrong predictably drew a big audience -- at least by OWN's standards.

But all the attendant publicity oddly wasn't enough to make it the still little-watched network's all-time biggest hit.

The 90-minute, 8 p.m. (central) sit-down drew 3.2 million viewers, according to an OWN publicity release drawn from Nielsen Media Research data. That fell short of a March 11, 2012 edition of Oprah's Next Chapter featuring the family of the late Whitney Houston. That program had 3.5 million viewers.

OWN's 9:30 p.m. repeat of the Armstrong interview drew an additional 1.1 million viewers.

In the cable TV network universe Thursday night, OWN's initial Lance/Oprah telecast was beaten in total viewers by USA network's 7 p.m. repeat of NCIS (3.7 million), USA's new episode of its original drama series Suits (3.6 million) and TNT's Los Angeles Lakers-Miami Heat game (also 3.6 million).

Lance/Oprah outdrew one program on the Big 4 broadcast networks -- NBC's new episode of the sure-to-be-canceled 1600 Penn sitcom (3.0 million viewers).

Part 2 of the interview, this time lasting just one hour, airs Friday at 8 p.m. (central). OWN launched on New Year's Day 2011, replacing the Discovery Health Channel.

Fox's The Following hopes to stake its bloody claim

Kevin Bacon is constantly, seriously vexed in The Following. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 21st at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Natalie Zea, Shawn Ashmore, Annie Parisse, Kyle Catlett, Valorie Curry, Adan Canto, Nico Tortorella
Produced by: Kevin Williamson, Marcos Siega

Its gruesomely twisted twists and turns are unprecedented for an advertiser-supported Big 4 broadcast network.

The timing isn't great either, with the school children killings in Newtown prompting network programming executives to reflexively wring their hands before saying they're basically blameless.

Fox therefore is standing firmly behind The Following, billed as an "epic story of good versus evil" pitting a psychologically and physically scarred former FBI agent against an English professor turned serial killer whose "art" is drawn from the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Violence and the wanton killing of young women is rampant on CBS, whose ratings riches are built largely on hit "procedural" cop dramas. The Following renders them pretty tame in comparison with its blood-curdling brutalizations. Fox sent the first four hours for review, and they're almost as taut as series star Kevin Bacon's very vertical, unsmiling face. This is a genuinely scary and unsettling series, beginning with an opening scene of carnage at the Virginia penitentiary housing demonic Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

Nine years earlier, FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon in his first weekly TV series) was seriously wounded in the act of finally apprehending Carroll after he had slain 14 university coeds and cut some of their eyes out for good measure. Now Carroll is on the lam again. But as Fox's promos already indicate, he's destined to return to prison and bedevil the now un-retired Hardy with new strings of murders committed by legions of "followers" that Carroll prefers to call "friends."

"My new story will play to a much wider audience," he assures Hardy.

Fox sure hopes so. The network had an admittedly terrible first half of the season ratings-wise. And Wednesday's Season 12 premiere of American Idol was down 19 percent nationally in both total viewers and advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds (although up slightly in that key demographic in the D-FW Nielsens).

Created by Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek, The Vampire Diaries), The Following is intended to be Fox's viscerally "adult" answer to the likes of cable's The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy among others. It may indeed attract a good deal of Internet dissection. But its "mainstream" hit potential seems like a long shot, even though the comparatively G-rated crime-solving on Fox's Bones will provide a decent-sized lead-in audience.

My overall problem, in addition to some hitches in the storytelling, is prime-time's ongoing open season on young women. Audiences supposedly respond more emotionally, and therefore are more "invested" in whodunits whose at-large killers have turned defenseless, screaming young women into mutilated corpses. Or terrorized kidnap victims.

Some males likewise are butchered during the course of The Following's initial four hours. The emphasis, however -- particularly in Monday's premiere episode -- is on the slaughter of women for no reason other than to slake Carroll's Poe fetish. Poor Edgar Allan. He has no control over such matters, although the "follower" wearing a rubber-masked likeness also could be mistaken for Dennis Franz.

Episode 1 includes blood-drenched still photos of female corpses, a scene in which a tattooed, topless follower lethally stabs herself in the eye and the death of a woman who's left hanging upside down.

There's also the kidnapping of impressionable little Joey Matthews (Kyle Catlett), son of Carroll and his ex-wife Claire (Natalie Zea). She later became intimate with Bacon's Ryan Hardy, whose commitment issues and heavy drinking are the result of numerous family traumas in addition to being spooked by serial killers. The guy has more baggage than a Kardashian family bellman checking them in for a week's day in Monaco.

In the first four episodes, Hardy spends a good deal of time either searching for Joey or prowling through creepy interiors with a flashlight (but without a weapon, since he's no longer an FBI agent). This can put him in serious, life-threatening jeopardy. But it's nothing a rather magical, nick-of-time police rescue can't remedy.

The Following succeeds, though, in creating a palpable tension that builds rather than subsides. Purefoy, probably best known to U.S. audiences for playing Mark Antony in HBO's Rome series, is a suitably creepy sadist cut from the Hannibal Lecter mold. And Bacon looks more haunted and drained than Jack Bauer ever did. Never more so than at the end of Episode 4.

So I'm somewhat hooked for the time being, although more than a little guiltily so. The Following is a grisly, ghoulish turn of events for Fox, which hopes to generate some electricity by glomming onto some of the shock values of its cable sister FX. Count McDonald's out as a sponsor. But there are plenty of R-rated movies and video games that might find The Following a perfect advertising fit.

GRADE: B-minus

Nerdy but nice: TBS offers up King of the Nerds competition

Here a nerd, there a nerd. Happy nerding. TBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on TBS
Starring: A gaggle of nerds, with hosts, Curtis Armstrong, Robert Carradine
Produced by: Ben Silverman, Jimmy Fox, Rick Ringbakk, Craig Armstrong

Revenge of the Nerds movies mainstay Robert Carradine seems a bit embarrassed, or maybe stunned, to be co-hosting a latter day "reality competition" series among real-life dweebs.

He shouldn't be. His father, John Carradine, once starred in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.

But Carradine is reticent in the premiere episode of TBS' King of the Nerds. He leaves the heavy lifting to co-host Curtis Armstrong, who played Dudley "Booger" Dawson alongside Carradine's Lewis Skolnick in 1984's ROTN and its three sequels.

"Calling all nerds!" Armstrong says through a megaphone, seeming to enjoy himself. And this energetically produced, brightly colored concoction hits the guilty pleasure spot more often than not. Former NBC programming head Ben (The Biggest Loser) Silverman is the principal hand behind it.

The 11 designated nerds, identified by first names only, gather at the well-appointed Nerdvana headquarters to compete for a $100,000 grand prize and the right to occupy the prestigious Throne of Games.

"There's so much beautiful nerd culture," raves Ivan.

The competitors otherwise exude the usual "reality competition" bravado, with "pro gamer" Celeste declaring "I'm a complete bitch. I will play my ass" off while Joshua brags, "I am the best nerd here."

Insecurities also abound, particularly with Alana. Having no discernible nerd talent, other than being a heavy-duty comic book reader, she repeatedly frets about being the first to go home. And when her worst fears seemingly are realized, Alana tells the camera: "This for me now is not fun. I've been losing all my life. That's why I'm a (bleeping) nerd. OK?"

Ah, but there's a twist.

Whether semi-spontaneous or fully scripted, nerds tend to say the darnedest things. Jon reveals, "I read textbooks for pleasure." Ivan frets, "This is going to be really rough, because every nerd is so nerdy."

Competing team members eventually are selected by being slimed with blue or orange paint. And in the climactic "Nerd Off" -- in Episode 1 it's an over-sized chess game -- one competitor is sent home empty-handed. Not even so much as a comic book as a parting gift.

TBS has ordered eight episodes of King of the Nerds, which includes five women in the mix. It possibly merits a 7 on a 1 to 10 "Stupid Fun" scale. Then again, Brandon supposedly is a neuroscientist and Hendrik a geophysicist. That beats the "model" or "life coach" professions cited on many a made-for-TV competition. So let's just call this a pleasant little R&R excursion for the ol' triple digit IQ.


FX's Legit is crudely mined comedy gold

The three oddly in sync amigos of Legit. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 17th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Jim Jefferies, Dan Bakkedahl, DJ Qualls, Mindy Sterling, Sonya Eddy, Nick Daley, John Ratzenberger
Produced by: Peter O'Fallon, Richard Cleveland, Lisa Blum

After making its mark with anti-hero intensive dramas -- The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me -- FX lately is hitting the comedy genre hard and effectively.

In fact, the Thursday night premiere of Legit makes it 10 to 4 in favor of funny business. And one of those scripted dramas, The Americans, won't be a reality until Jan. 30th.

Set in L.A. and starring Australian comic Jim Jefferies, Legit has a chance to rival FX's Louie in terms of bald-faced boldness and swervy, uniquely individual takes on being a semi-sad sack male.

Both Jefferies and Louis CK are stand-ups in real life playing same-named stand-ups in their pseudo-autobiographical comedy series. But while Louie incorporates his profession into every episode, Legit shoves it off to the side in the three half-hours sent for review.

The emphasis instead is on the triangular relationship among Jim, his best friend/roomie Steve Nugent (Dan Bakkedahl) and brother Billy Nugent (DJ Qualls). The big difference maker: Billy is wheelchair-bound and in the throes of advanced stage Muscular Dystrophy. He's been wasting away in a long-term care facility until pulling Jefferies aside and telling him, "I'm 32 years old and I've never been laid."

Jim is just the man to remedy that situation. He's a ne'er-do-well do-gooder in his own abject way. So it's off to a brothel for the three of them, with Billy's mom Janice (Mindy Sterling), apoplectic and dad Walter (a so far scantly used John Ratzenberger) hoping to blank it all out.

The trip turns out to be a winner, with Jim also hoping to cash in down the road with Billy as his ultimate, sympathy-engendering wing man. But there's also a good deal of untapped compassion in his bones. And Legit turns out to be coarsely and crudely endearing in its depiction of Billy's new lease on life as Jim and Steve's add-on roommate. There's also Billy's former care facility buddy Rodney (Nick Daley), a mentally slow dwarf who's also used to surprisingly good effect in tightrope walks between political correctness and whatever its polar opposite might be.

FX remains aggressively adult in both its comedies and dramas. No advertiser-supported cable network is less beholden to restraints on language, sex and violence, although full nudity and f-bombs are still out of bounds. A dog can happily lick his balls, though. And Jim can explore new vistas in lending Billy a helping hand in an Episode 3 built around the latter's first blossoming Skype relationship.

This particular episode has a happy ending in more ways than one. It's also one of the best closers I've ever seen in either the comedy or drama genre.

Absent any club performances so far, Jim dispenses some of his stand-up material in scenes with Billy and/or Steve. He occasionally slips into " '50s dad" mode for neanderthal riffs on what women want and how to satisfy them. From this perspective, "women date men on death row because they know where they are -- every minute of the day. And that makes them feel secure."

Legit shows immense promise in these opening episodes. It's coarse and sometimes dirty to the touch, but pretty damned hilarious at crunch times. FX just might have the standout new comedy series of this season. Pretty it's not. But its beauty marks are more than initially meet the eye.

GRADE: A-minus

Comedy Central's Kroll Show no droll show

Nick Kroll seen as himself, which doesn't happen all that often. Comedy Central photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 16th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on Comedy Central
Starring: Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, Jon Daly
Produced by: Nick Kroll, John Levenstein, Jonathan Krisel

The young adult male humor gene generally doesn't require an abundance of stimulation.

But as we get older . . . aw, who are we kidding? Maybe the laughs don't come as easily, but a lot of men are still suckers for sight gags, send-ups and The Three Stooges.

Comedy Central takes direct aim at the way many of us were, though. Men between the ages of 18 and 34 are television's most elusive target audience. But the network struck gold over the past summer with Workaholics, a Stooge redux that Comedy Central says was the "highest-rated series in its timeslot across all of television" with 18-to-34-year-old males.

Workaholics, with the characters Adam, Blake and Ders standing in for Moe, Larry and Curly, returns with 10 new episodes on Wednesday, Jan. 16th (at 9 p.m. central). This time they have a likely new soul mate in Kroll Show, which follows at 9:30 p.m. and stars man of many guises Nick Kroll (Ruxin on FX's The League).

Workaholics sticks to a loony bin storyline throughout. Kroll Show bounces around, training its sights on "of-the-moment pop culture topics like internet life, professional sports, nightclub culture and the television landscape."

Kroll's best effort in Wednesday's opening episode is "PubLIZity," a recurring look at two whining, inept publicists named Liz G (Kroll) and Liz B (series regular Jenny Slate). Their client, the Canine Cancer institute, enlists them to raise both awareness and money. They eventually get around to throwing a "Rockin' Beach" Party" fundraiser featuring bikini-clad cupcakes.

The star of the show also plays a chatty basketball referee with a bulbous butt, a preening spokesman for The San Diego Diet, a lone "Able" at the Wheels, Ontario school for the disabled and one of eight stars of "Sex and the City for Dudes."

Next week's episode, something of a downturn from the first, is best served by Kroll as Bobby Bottleservice, a would-be internet Lothario whose pitches to floozies tend to be waylaid by his domineering mother.

Kroll has a highly malleable face and the everyman appeal of Fred Armisen, scheduled to guest star on a future episode as a character named Papi Jr. Another familiar comedy face, Ed Helms, is briefly seen in Episode 1 during the "Sex and the City for Dudes" segments.

Kroll Show works often enough to make a name for itself among young males in particular. Men of a certain age might be more resistant, but still susceptible.


CW's The Carrie Diaries takes a Sex and the City time trip

AnnaSophia Robb stars as a bouncy teen Carrie Bradshaw. CW photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 14th at 7 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: AnnaSophia Robb, Austin Butler, Ellen Wong, Stefania Owen, Chloe Bridges, Katie Findlay, Brendan Dooling, Freema Agyeman, Matt Letscher
Produced by: Candace Bushnell, Amy B. Harris, Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage, Len Goldstein

Those who endured or walked out on the second Sex and the City movie may have vowed to wash their hands of Carrie Bradshaw and her three materialistic pals.

That's not the young Carrie's fault, though. She had nothing to do with it. She was only en route to becoming the future wife of "Mr. Big."

So The CW network hopes you'll get in on the ground floor with The Carrie Diaries. In this passable yet too often cloying little trinket, she's a 16-year-old girl still trapped in 1984. Recovering from the recent cancer death of her mother, Carrie (AnnaSophia Robb) lives in bland suburban Connecticut with her almost painfully understanding father, Tom (Matt Letscher), and a bratty 14-year-old sister named Dorrit (Stefania Owen).

All the usual CW adornments are in place: constant narration, more mood music than the law should allow and storylines primarily aimed at the network's target audience of 18-to-34-year-old females. Candace Bushnell, creator of the Carrie Bradshaw character, also is on board as a co-executive producer. Why not wring as many bucks out of this thing as you can?

Carrie is starting a new school year, the first without her mom in the picture. She's still a little blue, but also buoyed by the sight of transfer student Sebastian Kydd (Austin Butler), who looks very much like a taller Macaulay Culkin had he turned out better. Carrie got to know him a bit over the summer, but their impulsive swimming pool smooch didn't have much traction.

Her best friends are Maggie Landers (Katie Findlay from The Killing) and an Asian-American classmate who's unfortunately nicknamed "Mouse" (Ellen Wong). Maggie is still dating Walt Reynolds (Brendan Dooling). But both are keeping secrets from one another and his of course has to do with his sexual "identity."

Meanwhile, Mouse surprises her pals with a revelation that she lost her virginity over the summer. Her description of what it felt like already is making the social media rounds. "It was like putting a hot dog in a key hole," she says. "It hurt so bad!"

There's also the requisite school vixen, and her name is Donna LaDonna (Chloe Bridges) rather than Roseanne Roseannadanna. She likewise has designs on young Sebastian, a sensitive sort who nonetheless seems willing to set up a hot dog stand.

Luckily for Carrie, her high school tribulations are greatly eased by daddy intervening. He somewhat magically lands her an internship at a Manhattan law firm, leaving the kid pretty wild-eyed with excitement while also sounding like a wizened longtime native. "Manhattan was a lot like my purse. Damaged and it had seen better days," Carrie narrates. Still, she "wouldn't trade this moment for anything."

One last piece in this puzzle is the predatory Larissa Loughton (Freema Agyeman), style editor for Interview magazine. Running into Carrie in a Manhattan department store, she's immediately entranced by the purse Carrie accessorized after her kid sister spilled nail polish on it. Larissa knows all the trendy clubs. She also knows how to use people.

AnnaSophia Robb is appealing enough in the title role, but Monday's first episode (being repeated immediately after at 8 p.m. central) starts to sag from all the CW-ian title character narration and overall pop tune heaviness. Near the end we get both a funereal male vocalist version of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" followed by the peppier standard version.

It's all enough to prompt Carrie to conclude: "Finding my voice wasn't going to be easy But for the first time in a long time, I thought it might be fun."

Well, good luck with that. Don't get too carried away, though. You still have Sex and the City 2 in your future.


TLC hopes to Charlie Hustle viewers with Pete Rose: Hits & Mrs

Ball foursome: Pete Rose with fiancee Kiana Kim and kids. TLC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 13th at 9 p.m. (central) with back-to-back "sneak peek" episodes on TLC
Starring: Pete Rose, Kiana Kim, Cassie Kim, Ashton Kim
Produced by: Kevin Lopez, Mark Ford

Pete Rose was predominantly a single hitter, so maybe it's fitting that his new TLC "reality" series falls far short of being a home run.

The 71-year-old lightning rod, still ineligible for the Hall of Fame after betting on baseball as player-manager of the Cincinnati Reds, is playing a notably different game with the six-episode Pete Rose: Hits & Mrs. It's on the network of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. And it at least rises above that level.

Former Playboy model Kiana Kim, 40 years Rose's junior, isn't quite a Mrs. yet. But she is engaged to "Charlie Hustle." Or at least for the purposes of this series, she is.

Rose, now seen more in a silly looking pork pie hat than a baseball cap, didn't cop to gambling until his 2004 autobiography, My Prison Behind Bars. Now he can't seem to say it enough during the two episodes sent for review.

"I'm not in the Hall of Fame because I screwed up," he acknowledges during one of the talk-to-the-camera moments sprinkled throughout Hits & Mrs.. And later: "I'm not gonna whine about the Hall of Fame because I'm the reason I'm not there."

He'd sure like to be there, though. That's clear, too. And Kiana of course thinks he belongs, encouraging him to be more pro-active during their visit to Cooperstown for an annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony in which Rose signs autographs for money at the Safe At Home memorabilia store. He also tries to explain to her kids, Cassie and Ashton, why he's not enshrined.

The regular night and time for the series is Mondays at 9 p.m. (central), beginning Jan. 14th. But TLC is "sneak peeking" two episodes at the same Sunday night opposite NBC's telecast of the Golden Globes.

Rose lately splits his time between signing stuff in Las Vegas and hooking up with Kiana in Valencia, CA, where he also runs a baseball camp.

In the first episode, he's good-naturedly bothered by her decision to have breast reduction surgery after having them artificially enhanced several years before meeting a now ballooned up Rose. "What do people calls us? Felons and Melons?" she wonders.

Activities include taking Cassie and Ashton to a batting practice cage. "You gonna hang with me, you gotta know how to hit," he reasons. The kids pretty much hate it.

Pete and Kiana, who calls him "babe," also try to get his grown kids and her sister to attend some sort of wedding announcement dinner. Even though there's no date set, and he seems to be in no particular hurry to firm one up.

Hits & Mrs. has the usual redundant reality filler and various contrivances. It's a little affecting, though, when Kiana's mother says "Pete, welcome to my family" in a way that seems unrehearsed and impulsive. His own kids are no-shows, so he seems genuinely touched.

Rose whacked out an all-time record 4,256 hits during his playing days. Hits & Mrs. is at best a bloop single for a man who's otherwise doing all right for himself in the arms of a busty, seemingly intelligent bombshell who also gets a kick out of his overall coarseness.

"Get your hand outta there," he says playfully when they disappear under the sheets at the end of one episode.

Babe Ruth might trade his Hall of Fame plaque for that kind of action.

GRADE: C-minus

HBO's Girls still a gift in plain wrapping

Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath heads the Girls cast. HBO photo

The misery index is basically off the charts in Season 2's first four episodes of HBO's Girls

And so is creator/producer/star/head writer Lena Dunham in her willingness to present herself in a wide variety of unflattering lights. Which is pretty much intended as a compliment to her.

Returning on Sunday, Jan. 13th at 8 p.m. central, Girls continues to be what Sex and the City never was. Its NYC foursome, paced by bedraggled Hannah Horvath (Dunham), has a decided glam deficiency.

Manolo Blahnik-addicted Carrie Bradshaw wouldn't be caught dead or alive in aspiring writer Hannah's plainly appointed apartment. Or in a single item of her eyesore wardrobe. The young women of Girls don't date any Don Juans. And Hannah's boyfriend in particular, the coarse and borderline loathsome Adam Sackler (Adam Driver), would give Carrie a serious rash at 20 paces.

Adam, hit by a car in the Season 1 finale, is on the mend with a leg-length cast in Sunday's opener. Hannah still guiltily administers to him while striving to move on. Her new boyfriend is named Sandy (Donald Glover). He's a young black Republican who also happens to be sensitive.

So if even hapless Lena is too good for Adam, is Sandy too good for her? Frankly, this new relationship seems more like a tacked-on rebuttal to criticisms that Girls lacked diversity in its first season. Whatever the case, don't get too used to it.

However you see Girls, Dunham is demonstrably not guilty of air-brushing her lead character. Hannah is in turns pathetic, willful, self-centered and even a bit she-devilish in these first four episodes. Dunham also doesn't seem to care if anyone finds her more than a bit off-putting physically. She's still aggressively topless, fearlessly or foolishly showcasing a body that could use some body work and an abundance of unfortunate tattoos.

For a good part of Episode 3, Hannah sports a horrid, see-through yellow mesh tank top that finds its way onto her during a cocaine-fueled wardrobe swap at a hyperkinetic dance club. It's to Dunham's full credit, I guess, that she's playing this character with no regard at all as to how she looks. Many an actress or actor is incapable of this, but Dunham is all in.

The first three half-hours rely heavily on Hannah and Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams, daughter of NBC news anchor Brian Williams). Dunham's abandon is in stark contrast to Williams' reticence during sex scenes. Her arms are always strategically placed, as they also would be in a Lifetime movie. Brian Williams surely is breathing at least some sighs of relief that daddy's little girl still has something to hide.

Meanwhile, Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) is neurotic as ever in the company of her new boyfriend, Ray Ploshansky (Alex Karpovsky). And hard-knocks Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) is still in the relatively bllissful early stages of her impromptu marriage to rich venture capitalist Thomas-John (Chris O'Dowd). Both co-starring women are relatively little-seen until Episode 4, which centers on two disparate but combustible group dinners.

Also of note: Hannah has a new roommate, Elijah Krantz (Andrew Rannells of NBC's The New Normal). Formerly her college boyfriend, he's now openly gay. And Marnie's onetime live-in boyfriend, Charlie Dattolo (Chris Abbott), is trying to strike up a new relationship while constantly crossing paths with her.

Whatever their statuses, the young women of Girls remain glaringly unfilled. However long it runs, this almost assuredly won't be a series of happily ever afters. No Mr. Bigs to at long last sweep Hannah off her feet.

Sex and the City was replete with creature comforts and glamorous parties. Girls above all is about uncomfortable creatures. That can be a helluva thing to watch at times. But still very see-worthy.

GRADE: A-minus

Banshee increases Cinemax's original drama series output, but does little else

Anti-hero Lucas Hood (Anthony Starr) in Banshee. Cinemax photo

Premiering: Friday, Jan. 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on Cinemax
Starring: Anthony Starr, Ivana Milicevic, Ulrich Thomsen, Frankie Faison, Hoon Lee, Rus Blackwell, Matt Servitto, Ryann Shane, Ben Cross
Produced by: Alan Ball, Jonathan Tropper, David Schickler, Peter Macdissi, Greg Yaitanes

Given the title and Alan Ball's involvement, Banshee on the face of it seems like another otherworldly knockoff of his ongoing True Blood.

It turns out to be a dark and sometimes dreary drama about a cocksure ex-con who takes on a new identity as sheriff of a fictional Pennsylvania town located in the heart of Amish country. Goes by the name of Banshee.

Premiering Friday, Jan. 11th as Cinemax's third original scripted drama series (following Strike Back and Hunted), this 10-episode offering has something for everyone whose tastes are in sync with Ball's description of its locale. In a cover letter to TV critics, he writes, "Mythic small-town America. Original tribal lands of the Kinaho Indians. New-world home to old-world ways of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Drug dealers. Neo-Nazi skinheads. Ukrainian gangsters. Dumb rednecks. Bad-ass Asian cross-dressers. Your typical pastoral American town with a dark, seedy underbelly of sex and violence and greed and impossible love."

In other words, a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

A lot happens to Banshee's initial man with no name before he becomes lawman Lucas Hood. Freed from prison after a 15-year hitch for jewel thievery, he strides down some nearby railroad tracks before finding a ramshackle bar and quickly bedding its cute drink-pourer. Then he jacks a car, drives to Manhattan, finds an impossibly convenient parking space and surprises a transvestite salon owner/computer hacker with whom he used to do business.

Getting the address he wants, the future Lucas Hood (Anthony Starr) is then chased at high speed through the broad daylight streets of Manhattan. He's eventually on foot, with bullets blazing. So let's steal a motorcycle and race out of harm's way while citizens panic. All of this happens before the opening credits. And it's an awful lot to swallow on the believability front.

Banshee also has a go-to watering hole whose wizened proprietor is former boxer/ex-con Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison). And before you know it, the would-be new town sheriff ends up with holes in his hand and other places after two unkempt thugs try to rob the place while he's having a steak dinner. His identity is then stolen by the new Lucas Hood, whose ex-lover and partner in crime is now married with two kids and living under the assumed name of Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic) with her district attorney husband Gordon (Rus Blackwell).

All right, let's towel off before continuing. The fake Hood and Carrie split up at his insistence after their ill-fated effort to double-cross a Ukrainian gangster known as Rabbit (a very little seen Ben Cross in the two episodes sent for review). Instead of running off with a big cache of diamonds (whose whereabouts remain unknown), he got a lengthy prison term and she invented a new life for herself. Now Hood wants satisfaction but can't seem to get none. And Cross wants both of them delivered to him.

One more thing. Banshee is now controlled by a big boo-hiss businessman named Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen). "What the man doesn't own, he runs. What he doesn't run, he burns to the ground," Sugar informs Hood, who regularly strips down to his waist and runs through the woods to curb his panic attacks.

Banshee has its moments, but the line between sinister and ridiculous is regularly breeched. Never more so than in Episode 2, when two knuckle-dragging brothers of a deceased knuckle-dragger hold Hood at gunpoint and plan to kill him before the wife of the deceased reasons, "They're drunk and they're morons. But they're grieving in their own way." So Sheriff Hood simply lets them go before a nubile townie gives him a flirtatious look that immediately pays dividends in the grimy bed he inhabits rent-free next to benefactor Sugar's bar.

The sex is explicit and the violence graphic throughout the early episodes sent for review. On the latter front, a henchman who screws things up for kingpin Kai has a finger cut off and fed to the dog. Turns out this is only an appetizer.

Its overall implausibility and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotting work against what little promise Banshee has. Ball, the head overseer, sees it differently, of course. His pitch to critics ends like this: "The performances, the directing, the design all flow together in a kind of storytelling that manages to combine pulp and romance, violence and lyricism, hilarity and heartbreak."

No they don't. Cinemax, HBO's longtime little brother corporate partner, is still very much playing catchup. And it remains miles behind with the unsavory, not-good-enough-for-HBO Banshee.

GRADE: C-minus

Celebrities reading mean tweets on Kimmel: hoo hah!!!

Jimmy Kimmel Live's! inaugural 10:35 p.m. (central) show Tuesday included guest Jennifer Aniston sledge-hammering his desk and another fine edition of "Lie Witness News."

But Kimmel's third installment of celebrities reading mean tweets about them again became the show-stealer. A dozen participated, with particularly fine renderings by Larry King, Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston. Enjoy! And for possible future use, "Hey, Brent Musburger, save your sports pants stiffys for Joan Rivers." Shebang.

Cougar Town joins Conan in the TBS shuffle

More wine and whining. Cougar Town is back. TBS photo

Well, there's this.

By moving from ABC to TBS for Season 4, Cougar Town automatically ranks as that network's funniest half-hour scripted comedy in a sea of Men at Work, Sullivan & Son and Tyler Perry's For Better or Worse.

OK, the bar for faint praise has just been raised to a world record pole vault level.

But yes, Cougar Town remains amusing in fits and spurts as it follows Conan O'Brien's trail from a Big Four broadcast network that didn't want it to the enchanted land of "Very Funny." After a year on the shelf, it returns on Tuesday, Jan. 8th at 9 p.m. (central).

Principal star Courteney Cox, now 48, continues to showcase herself in a manner that should convince one and all she'll still be doing this at age 70. Few TV stars -- with Julia Louis-Dreyfus a notable exception -- are more intent on displaying their cleavage.

Cox's character, wine-inhaling Jules Cobb, also is always in full makeup and form-fitting outfits while her best friend/neighbor Ellie Torres (Christa Miller) seems to be all but makeup-less in their scenes together. It's getting close to a modern-day Lucille Ball-Vivian Vance vibe, in which her Lucy Ricardo always had to look better -- and trimmer -- than frumpy second banana Ethel Mertz.

Ergo, Ellie invariably seems to look washed out and physically nondescript even though she's an attractive woman in her own right. It's starting to jump out -- at least to this viewer.

Jules has now been married a week to pub owner Grayson Ellis (Josh Hopkins), whom she's already intent on turning into her obedient "coffee bitch" and "wine guy." Ellie is still saddled with layabout hubby Andy (Ian Gomez). In Episode 2, she has him trained like a dog, responding to her commands in return for kisses on his forehead.

The other members of Cougar Town's Gulfhaven, Florida menagerie are ditzy, showy Laurie Keller (Busy Phillips), Jules' grown son, Travis (Dan Byrd), and her ex-husband Bobby (Brian Van Holt), an accomplished beer drinker who still lives on his boat.

TBS wisely has kept a laugh track out of these proceedings. And perhaps the show will have a tad more leeway creatively, even though the answer almost assuredly will be "No" to a question posed on Cougar Town's opening title card: "Thanks, TBS. Can we curse on TV now?"

What do they think this is? FX?

Constant drinking is very much allowed, though. And Jules is the Queen B in this realm while also still extraordinarily needy. In Episode 1, a bad dream sends her "spinning" toward the blues, which must be avoided at all costs. Because as Ellie notes, "Jules Cobb is the light of our group. And as she goes, so goes the rest of us."

In next week's Episode 2, Jules can't handle the distance her son is trying to put between them. So she of course frets non-stop while Grayson, Andy and Bobby all impulsively grow unbelievably thick mustaches in nine days in tribute to Tom Selleck's co-starring role in Three Men and A Baby.

Ellie gets off a good one in this instance, finally telling her husband, "You have got to shave that thing. It feels like I'm eating Willie Nelson."

Bill Lawrence, who created Cougar Town in the waning seasons of his Scrub series for NBC, has yielded "showrunner" status to Ric Swartzlander, whose host of TV credits include Gary Unmarried and Samantha Who?

Lawrence remains a highly quotable favorite of TV critics, who relished his frequent jabs at ABC while Cougar Town bounced on and off the schedule. TBS has committed to an order of at least 15 new episodes, with options for more.

There are, of course, far worse viewing experiences, even if Cougar Town is still hit-and-miss at best.

Episode 2 end with Jules marveling at all the "butt sex" while watching Game of Thrones with her son. That's a miss.

But the same episode has Laurie exclaiming, "Zooey Deschanel no!" That's probably a hit.

Whatever the caliber of its comedy, everyone on Cougar Town seems completely dedicated to alcohol intake. Seriously folks, that's no laughing matter. Never really was.

GRADE: B-minus

FX's Justified remains on target as Season 4 marks its territory

Timothy Olyphant draws a bead as Justified's Raylan Givens. FX photo
Forget about any state-of-the-art forensics or by-the-book police procedure.

Justified is back, and there's not a lot of need for that stuff in gnarly Harlan County, Kentucky.

Season 4 of FX's best ongoing drama series fires up on Tuesday, Jan. 8th at 9 p.m. (central).. It's still a case study in economical dialogue with an oft-sardonic bite. Elmore Leonard, on whose writings the series is based, and executive producer Graham Yost remain good shepherds of a law 'n' disorder hour that's never quite received the recognition it deserves from Hollywood's trophy-bearing awards industry.

Tuesday's return is buoyed by a 30-year-old cold case and the arrival in town of a tent preacher whose conversion rate is threatening the drug-dealing livelihood of ne'er-do-well Boyd Crowder (series regular Walton Goggins). These are further vexations for Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), whose imprisoned father Arlo (Raymond Barry) knows far more than he'll tell about a long-hidden "Panamanian diplomatic bag" found within the decaying drywall of his dumpy home.

"That mystery bag thing is givin' me a little bit of a Marshal stiffy," Raylan's boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), says early in Episode 2. Perfectly delivered lines like that keep ringing the bell in Justified, which can be violent at times but not in the excessive mode of two other current FX dramas -- American Horror Story and Sons of Anarchy.

Besides "Preacher Billy" (Joe Mazzello), Justified also is giving Boyd Crowder a new partner in crime this season. He's Colton Rhodes, a former trouble-prone military police sergeant played by the always welcome Ron Eldard (Black Hawk Down). Add Robert Baker (Leatherheads) as another wrong-side-of-the-tracker named Randall Rusik. He's both handy with his fists and a past participant in a very hands-on relationship with Raylan's girlfriend, Lindsey Salazar (Jenn Lyon).

Olyphant, who previously excelled as lawman Seth Bullock in HBO's Deadwood, remains perfectly in tune with the key of low key. This is further demonstrated Tuesday in his early scenes with a gabby drug dealer who winds up in the trunk of his car. Raylan gave him fair warning to shut up.

Justified's deft blend of main, supporting and guest characters is unequaled in the crime drama realm. It keeps going about its business, getting better than ever each season with a restrained but gripping approach that's also sure to wear well decades from now.


NBC's new Deception not a notable exception

Meagan Good stars as Deception's head snoop. NBC photo

Premiering; Monday, Jan. 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Meagan Good, Laz Alonso, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Katherine LaNasa, Wes Brown, Ella Rae Peck, Martin Hinkle
Produced by: Liz Heldens, Lloyd Braun, Gail Berman

NBC's Mondays rolled along throughout the fall with a ratings rich combo of The Voice and Revolution.

Now come the sobering realities of The Biggest Loser and the new drama series Deception (first announced as Infamous).

You also can call it a blend of AMC's The Killing and ABC's Revenge, both of which premiered to considerable praise before the knives started to come out. Both The Voice and Revolution are scheduled to return on March 25th, which in Deception's case might be a godsend.

NBC hasn't said whether the series will wrap up its mystery of "Who Killed Vivian Bowers?" before being supplanted by Revolution. But judging from the first three episodes sent for review, this can't happen soon enough. Deception is fairly far from being a terrible series. But it's not nearly compelling enough to merit a prolonged string-along.

The Peacock also is risking a potentially tiny audience for Monday's all-important scene-setter by scheduling Deception opposite college football's national championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame. A serial mystery series -- as opposed to CBS' battalion of crime-of-the-week whodunits -- needs a decent-sized tune-in to prosper. Those who haven't made the down payment aren't likely to get with the program later.

Meagan Good (Californication) stars as former San Francisco cop Joanna Locasto, a childhood/teen best friend of the deceased. In the opening minutes Vivian is found dead of a supposed drug overdose. But Locasto's ex-partner, FBI agent Will Moreno (Laz Alonso), suspects foul play. And there are ample unsavory characters in the Bowers family, which owes its immense wealth to a pharmaceutical drug empire.

In New York City for the funeral, Locasto is persuaded by Moreno to wear a wire and infiltrate the family. Reluctant at first, she of course relents. And via a constant series of flashbacks -- all triggered by an increasingly aggravating "whoosh" sound -- we see glimpses of the way the Bowers were when Locasto lived with them. Then family patriarch Robert Bowers (ubiquitous Victor Garber) invites her to live with them again while also providing a nice job. Beautiful.

In the here and now, there's also ample room for clunky dialogue on the order of, "Vivian was a drug-addicted, narcissistic black hole of need." This comes from she-devilish Sophia Bowers (Katherine LaNasa), who's married to the philandering Robert. A minor inconvenience for him is that 27 people in Thailand died from the after-effects of an experimental cancer drug he's still preparing to market. Hmm, did Vivian know too much?

Tate Donovan, who plowed similar terrain in Damages, plays disaffected oldest son Edward Bowers while his playboy kid brother Julian (Wes Brown) strives to rekindle the somethin' somethin' he once had with the young Locasto. There's also bratty Mia Bowers (Ella Rae Peck), a teen who at some point may be quite shocked to learn the identity of her real mother. Until then, she infuriates the family by sporting a "Who Killed Vivian Bowers?" t shirt at a family breakfast. That's in Episode 2.

Some of this is diverting or at least laughable enough to play along. And while Deception doesn't rise anywhere close to the level of distinguished TV, it is notable for being the second broadcast network drama series this season with an African-American woman in the lead. ABC's Scandal is the other one, and I don't remember this ever happening before.

Deception also could possibly profit from Rush Limbaugh taking offense on his popular radio show. Episode 2 has a dismissive reference to him as "a huge, giant fat man" in connection with his admitted previous heavy reliance on the drug Oxycontin.

Should Limbaugh choose to harangue NBC for this, there's no time like the present. And the network would be very grateful.

Downton Abbey gives PBS a third big rush

Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith have a joust. PBS photo

Given all the attendant drum-beating, Downton Abbey's Season 3 premiere might suitably be subtitled "In Anticipation of Shirley MacLaine's Grand Entrance."

Be patient. And don't get too used to her.

MacLaine, guest-starring as the American mother of Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), is first sighted just after the 43-minute mark of Downton's two-hour, Sunday, Jan. 6th premiere (8 p.m. central on KERA13). And by Part One's climax, she's gone but not forgotten. The next 5 parts sent for review come and go without her.

The much-heralded and highly watched Season 2 ended with Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and noble World War I returnee Matthew (Dan Stevens) at last agreeing to wed in the mist of soft and picturesque falling snow. Devotees of PBS' most popular series of this century no doubt unanimously sighed with approval. Even the menfolk.

Season 3, airing in seven parts on successive Sundays through Feb. 17th, begins in Spring 1920 with the impending marriage of Lady Mary and Matthew. So that's why MacLaine's tart Martha Levinson is making the long journey from abroad. A delicious preview of coming detractions is served up at one of Downton's nightly formal dinners.

"I'm so looking forward to seeing your mother again," Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), tells her daughter-in-law. "When I'm with her, I'm reminded of the virtues of the English."

"But isn't she American?" Matthew asks.

"Exactly," says Violet.

The fireworks to come are showy to be sure, although also properly restrained. This isn't Dallas or Dynasty after all, even though Downton at heart remains a soaper. But the Brits have no equal in the annals of upper crust period dramas spiced with lower class envy and duty on the part of their mostly well-trained servants. U.S.-made series about the rich are at best still poachers.

Martha's clashes with the Crawleys, who have preserved Downton Abbey courtesy of Cora's New World wealth, are fairly frequent and mostly on point during Sunday's elongated opener. No need to spoil them here, save for one table-setter. "You tell me all your wedding plans," she tells Mary within seconds of debarking. "And I'll see what I can do to improve them."

While wondering how Downton's privileged few can endure their ornate dinner wear on a nightly basis, one also can marvel at how relatable they remain. Earl of Grantham Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is still very much a stickler for propriety. But he has the common touch in crunch times while also being slowly usurped by bad investments and changing post-World War I times. At heart -- and certainly in his view -- he's a magnanimous job creator in addition to being a lifelong devotee of consummate creature comforts.

Meanwhile, downstairs and at above-ground dinners, butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) often manages to trump Robert's imperious ways. He may have a bit of a thing for his counterpart, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who heads the female servants contingent. But it seeps out in minuscule doses while he otherwise rides herd on his charges with a basso profondo voice that cauterizes all nonsense.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "Let me tell you about the very rich. "They are different from you and me." Mr. Carson speaks volumes on this score with his outrage at new footman Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne). Hoodwinked by conniving servant Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), he has managed to burn a small hole in Matthew's dinner attire.

"Alfred has embarrassed the family!" the lower level bossman thunders. "He forced Mr. Matthew to appear downstairs improperly dressed!"

Yes, the rich, they are different. As are their appointed underlings. But their deep wounds are felt in kind, particularly during a wrenching Part 4 (Sunday, Jan. 27th) that takes Downton to what may be its greatest ever dramatic heights at Season 3's midpoint.

Meanwhile -- and there are lots of those -- Robert's imprisoned valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), faces major complications in his marriage to servant Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt). Plain-faced Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) remains hopelessly in love with impaired World I vet Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst). Lady Mary and Matthew tangle over the disposal of his inherited fortune. And the Earl and Countess's youngest daughter, Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), courts further disapproval by bringing her outspoken Irish commoner husband, Tom Branson, (Allen Leech), back to Downton Abbey for sister Mary's wedding.

These are a lot of moving parts. And not everything is always well-oiled under the wing of creator/writer Julian Fellowes. There are too many coincidentally overheard conversations leading to later ramifications. Stop lurking, people! Characters also are awkwardly interrupted on occasion in order to prolong some of the twists and turns. Sort of on the order of, "This is a life and death matter I must tell you about -- oh wait, it's dinner time. We'll talk later."

Downton can have a truncated "set piece" feel to it at times. Publicity materials list 25 main and supporting characters in addition to guest stars. Servicing all of them on a regular basis can be a bigger chore than polishing all the silver at hand. Envision a director saying more often than he'd like, "And . . . cut! Sorry, we've got a lot of actors' mouths to feed today."

Through it all, though, Downton Abbey is still superior entertainment on a grand scale. Its straight-ahead plot points are easily grasped and its performances a pleasure to behold. It would be nice to see a good deal more of MacLaine. But the many-splendored cast regulars, led by Bonneville, McGovern, Smith and Carter, are more than enough to keep carrying the day.

"I'm so happy. So very happy I feel my chest will explode," Bonneville's father of the bride beams in Sunday's opener.

Devoted fans of Downton Abbey can be forgiven for feeling quite the same way. For the next seven Sundays, they'll be in their own heavens on earth. And there's nothing at all wrong with that.
GRADE: A-minus

Big Al and his Al Jazeera America deal

The perception problem remains immense.

Al Jazeera's purchase of Al Gore's Current TV, with an intent to rechristen it Al Jazeera America, gives the Qatar-based network a far bigger U.S. "platform" than it's ever had. Still, a good number of potential viewers may consider it un-American to watch a network that used to regularly provide an unfiltered video forum for Al Quaeda members and supporters. Or to put it bluntly, a "terrorist network" despite latter day efforts to play it straight.

Gore, the former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee, launched Current seven years ago with an eye toward presenting news in a different way via homemade videos. That didn't work, prompting Current to hire the oft-volatile Keith Olbermann in June of 2011 before firing him early last spring.

In its dying months, Current sought to position itself to the left of even MSNBC with a prime-time roster of personalities ranging from deposed CNN host and former disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer to ex-Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who announced her resignation from the network when the sale to Al Jazeera was announced.

For a reported $500 million purchase price, including a $100 million payout to Gore, Al Jazeera for now is buying carriage in roughly 40 million homes. Time Warner Cable also had made Current available in an additional 12 million homes, but immediately announced its refusal to participate Wednesday. The company's statement was notably terse: "Our agreement with Current has been terminated and we will no longer be carrying the service. We are removing the service as quickly as possible."

Current reportedly rejected another suitor, Glenn Beck, before accepting Al Jazeera's offer. That would have been an even starker transition from far left to far right, although Beck at least initially would have attracted an appreciably larger following than Current ever had. The New York Times reported that "on a typical night last year, just 42,000 people watched their (Current's) shows."

Beck termed the rebuff a "badge of honor" on his Wednesday radio show, telling listeners that it was purely ideological. He also said, "Not surprised. Not a shock . . . I mean, I wouldn't sell to Al Gore."

Gore, in a statement confirming the sale, said that Al Jazeera shared Current's determination to "give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell stories that no one else is telling."

He used similar boilerplate rhetoric at the close of a January 2012 session with TV critics. "We pride ourselves on being independent," Gore said during the annual winter "press tour" in Southern California. "It's not just a word. It's not just a slogan. It's not just an identity. It is a reality that empowers us to ignore what corporate conglomerates might want. We don't answer to any powers that be."

The emergence of Al Jazeera America will give Fox News Channel another whipping post should it choose to use the lash. But the No. 1-rated cable news network may decide it's better off ignoring the network entirely rather than calling any attention to it.

Current currently has carriage deals with Comcast, DirectTV, Dish Network, Verizon Fios and AT&T. They're all slated to carry Al Jazeera America, at least in the short term.

Whether the network can overcome a good deal of built-in resistance is the overriding question after Current turns over the keys. Persuading viewers to give Al Jazeera America a chance could be the equivalent of trying to sell peanut butter in the Mojave dessert.

On the other hand it would be difficult for any network to fare any worse than Current did. Or for anyone to make an easier $100 million than Gore will soon have in hand.

The self-inflicted debasing of Anderson Cooper (and his credibility)

CNN proudly presented the clown prince of American TV journalism making a spectacle of himself on New Year's Eve in midst of Kathy Griffin, MC Hammer and "Si" of Gangnam Style fame. Photo: Ed Bark

Conduct unbecoming of a news anchor has become virtually impossible to prove in the court of public opinion.

Lines have blurred to the point of obliteration at both the national and local level.

Time to insert a "But still." Because CNN's Anderson Cooper, the face of his network whenever a big story breaks, really has no business calling himself a serious journalist anymore.

For the sixth time on New Year's Eve, Cooper willingly shared a live platform in Times Square with comedian Kathy Griffin, whose mouth long has been a gaping exit wound. For starters, an international audience watched her tell him, "I'm gonna tickle your sack." This came after Cooper noted that some viewers were playing a drinking game in honor of "every time I giggle nervously."

He giggled continuously. And unfortunately, Cooper sounds a lot like Larry King when he does so. In other words, it's a pretty creepy giggle.

Griffin later ventured where no co-host has gone before after CNN reporter Gary Tuchman's live dispatch from Eastport, Maine. He told viewers about a longstanding New Year's Eve tradition in which denizens kiss a fake jumbo sardine after it's lowered from the top of a building as part of the countdown to midnight.

During the split-screen report, Griffin stooped to kiss Cooper's crotch area.

"Did you drop something?" he wondered.

"No," she said. "I was kissing your sardine." Furthermore, "I could do this all night long."

One could argue -- but not convincingly -- that Cooper has no control over what Griffin says or does. But he keeps putting himself in this position year after year with seemingly no regard as to how viewers might perceive him the next time he affixes a sober countenance to report from scenes of national tragedies or disasters.

Cooper's New Year's Eve dalliances with Griffin are akin to inviting Andrew Dice Clay to entertain at your seven-year-old's birthday party. And then wondering why he taught the kids how to drop f-bombs.

Even worse, Cooper invited Griffin back the next night for a live Jan. 1st segment on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. That 's where the above "Anderson's and Kathy's Wild New Year's Eve" tagline came from. It also happened to be the night of the House's rather important "fiscal cliff" vote, in which Hurricane Sandy relief was left on the table. So leave it to Griffin to further soil the CNN "brand" with, "Now let me ask you this. 'Cause you're a newsman. Or you used to be."

Cooper of course giggled before Griffin asked him what impact the fiscal cliff vote would have on her Maserati.

Cooper's syndicated, oft-silly daytime talk show, Anderson Live, should have been enough of a carnival midway for him. It's being canceled after this season, though. One shouldn't forget that he's also the guy who hosted two cycles of the ABC "reality-competiton" series The Mole just before CNN brought him aboard in 2001. He's been quoted as saying, "I think the notion of a traditional anchor is fading away. The all-knowing, all-seeing person who speaks from on high."

Maybe so. And maybe all well and good to a point. But you still have to take the high ground when it comes to your image as a serious anchor-reporter. And there's simply no credible network anchor who would even think of subjecting himself to Kathy Griffin on multiple live New Year's Eve specials. Bad things happen -- which he should have known by now.

Cooper will continue to be the face of CNN. And his new boss, former NBC chieftain Jeff Zucker, might actually encourage him to get even wackier in the interests of drawing attention to the ratings-challenged network. After all, various youtube videos of Griffin smooching Cooper's crotch have already blasted well past 100,000 views. And CNN basically celebrated on Tuesday night by re-teaming them.

You might want to remember this the next time CNN also asks you to take Cooper seriously. Right now for me, that's no longer in the cards.

Instead I'd like to see Howard Kurtz question Cooper's New Year's Eve stint during a segment on CNN's Sunday morning Reliable Sources program. It would be a sure-fire topic if it were any other network's primary news anchor. Let's see what develops while you can see for yourself in the below video.