powered by FreeFind

Apple iTunes


Edd "Kookie" Byrnes turns a crazy cat 75

Born with the un-Hollywood name of Edward Breitenberger, one of TV's first full-blown teen idols makes it three-quarters of a century on Wednesday, July 30th.

Edd "Kookie" Byrnes played a comb-wielding, super-cool car parker on ABC's 77 Sunset Strip, a breezy private eye drama that ran from 1958-'63. His character's full name was Gerald Lloyd Kookson III. But he'd rather get a crewcut than be called that.

Byrnes parlayed his fleeting TV stardom into a hit single, "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb," more or less sung with Connie Stevens.

In this crystal clear clip, he lays down some laughable lingo with Sunset Strip star Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who played suave detective Stuart Bailey. Kookie greets him with, "Hi, Dad."

AMC's Mad Men still has ad-itude

Now here's a series that's smokin' hot, and not just because most of its principal characters keep lighting up the screen with nicotine.

AMC's Mad Men fortuitously starts its second season Sunday (at 9 p.m. central) on the heels of receiving more Emmy nominations (16) than any other drama series.

It deserves all of them for an evocative, provocative first season that rewound almost a half-century to a circa 1960 Madison Avenue advertising agency populated by thin-tied, vice-laden, tight-suited salesmen and makeup-lathered women who wore the hell out of their form-fitting dresses and rigidly constructed undergarments.

Let it be said that the early '60s were absolutely smashin' for fashion -- then and now. When's the Mad Men clothing line coming? The series easily has enough buzz, praise and momentum to launch one, even if only a million or so viewers on average watched its first 13 episodes from mid-summer to early fall.

The ultra-authentic look and feel of Mad Men contrasts with the cheap attempts at atmospherics on CBS' ongoing, 1970s-set Swingtown. Creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, formerly a key behind-the-scenes player on The Sopranos, has this particular portal down pat. Nothing about Mad Men looks goofy or contrived. Its characters, led by debonair but demon-plagued Don Draper (Jon Hamm), are as strikingly real as the Lucky Strike cigarette campaign that kicked off Season 1.

Back then, the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency's clients also included Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. But the season ended with Nixon's defeat and Draper's retreat into himself after his real identity became known to nefarious up-and-comer Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).

So far only Campbell and agency founding partner Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) know that Draper is really Dick Whitman. But they don't know the particulars, which viewers do. In short, Whitman's traumatic experience in the Korean War and distaste for his surrogate parents triggered an impulsive decision to claim the name of a fellow soldier whose death he inadvertently caused.

Season 2 fast-forwards from Thanksgiving Eve, 1960 to Valentine's Day, 1962. And the first two episodes move at the same somewhat languid pace of last season's. There's no quick, stunning hook coming, but Mad Men sure knows how to marinate.

January Jones as Betty Draper now churns outwardly and inwardly.

Draper's wife, Betty (January Jones), for one is growing weary of her husband's emotional detachment and suspicious of his extracurricular activities.

Her demeanor is getting icier. But on Valentine's night, she's a bejeweled, begowned stunner at a ritzy restaurant rendezvous arranged by her husband. Betty is no Boop, either in an evening dress or a black negligee she unveils when Don takes her to a room he's reserved at the swank Savoy hotel. His performance otherwise falls short, so they end up watching First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's breathless, televised tour of the White House.

Meanwhile, ex-agency gofer Peggy Olson, now a full-fledged junior copywriter, is notably slimmer after unexpectedly delivering a baby at the end of last season. The secret father is the aforementioned Pete Campbell, who's married but ever on the make both personally and professionally.

Peggy is no pushover either. In fact she's getting a bit haughty as her workplace influence grows.

"I'm in the persuasion business," she tells a young Lothario at a party that kicks off Episode 2. "And frankly, I'm disappointed in your presentation."

Pete also gets a personal jolt in Episode 2 after an American Airlines crash leaves the company in search of a new image-maker. Sterling Cooper already has the much smaller Mohawk airline under contract. But business is business, and landing American would be a big and showy upgrade.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) & Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser)

Another of Mad Men's major players, co-partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), had twin heart attacks near the end of last season.

Fifteen months later, he seems fully recovered and eager to make another deal that Don Draper doesn't like. One of the series' continuing intrigues is whether they're on a collision course or, in the end, on the same track.

These first two episodes of Season 2 also will reveal the whereabouts of Peggy's baby and depict a newly minted "Bohemian" lifestyle on the part of ad copywriter Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), who now has a beard and a black girlfriend.

The latter development is met with arctic disdain by head secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), whose bust continues to precede her whenever she walks the walk, talks the talk.

Those who haven't yet seen Mad Men might find themselves in a bit of a fog. Then again, the Season 1 DVD is newly available for power-watching before the series begins anew.

Whether the show makes a bigger sale with audiences is important but not crucial to AMC. This is the network's maiden voyage into the intoxicating land of in-demand. Cachet and all those attendant magazine covers don't pay the bills. But if you've got 'em, smoke 'em.

Grade: A-minus

Leno's lame duck clock officially ticking to finish line (updated)

Jay Leno has less than a year left on his No.1-rated Tonight Show, NBC announced Monday.

The succession plan, with Conan O'Brien succeeding Leno, has long been in place. But the Peacock has for the first time given official days and dates, with O'Brien to step in as only the fifth host in Tonight Show history on June 1, 2009. He'll relocate from New York to Stage 1 at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, NBC says.

O'Brien in turn will be replaced sometime next spring on his Late Night show by former Saturday Night Live star Jimmy Fallon. And on May 29, Leno will host his final Tonight.

Leno, who succeeded Johnny Carson on May 25, 1992, agreed to the move several years ago. He since has stepped up his ridicule of NBC's ongoing programming problems while at the same time becoming late night's hottest property for whatever network wins a likely bidding war to get him.

At an NBC press conference Monday in Beverly Hills, though, the lantern-jawed, latter day king of late night fake-grilled Peacock executives while disguised as a none-too-telegenic TV critic in a bald cap and goatee. NBC higher-ups later said it was Leno's way of showing he's on board with the move and will help to facilitate a smooth transition.

ABC and Fox executives both have expressed a strong interest in having Leno come over to their side, but negotiations can't begin until Leno leaves the show that has remained a strong No. 1 during his tenure.

"Jay has left his personal stamp on The Tonight Show for what will be 17 years," NBC entertainment executive vice president Rick Ludwin said in a statement. "He is enormously creative, generous and professional."

NBC has given lip service to trying to keep Leno in another capacity. But few expect him to stay. The other two Tonight hosts, over an almost 54-year span to date, have been Steve Allen and Jack Paar.

***The network also announced Monday that current SNL regular and "Weekend Update" co-anchor Amy Poehler will be starring in her own NBC comedy series sometime next season. It has no official title or premise yet, but is being created by Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, executive producers of NBC's The Office.

Poehler's former running mate on SNL, Tina Fey, stepped into prime-time two seasons ago with 30 Rock, which last week received the most single-season Emmy nominations of any comedy series in history. Poehler and Fey starred in the recent feature film Baby Mama.

"She is a terrible human being," Schur said of Poehler. "But I am more than willing to overlook her many, many character flaws for the chance to work with her again."

Heidi Heidi Heidi ho'

Pathetic spectacles seem to be cheaper by the dozen these days. Still, Heidi Fleiss is tough to beat.

The former "Hollywood Madam," who served a 37-month sentence for "pandering" until her release in September 1999, is the focus of HBO's notably stuporous Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal.

The 110-minute documentary, premiering Monday, July 21 at 8 p.m. (central), is almost as lousy as its as its still-life title. That said, it's all foreplay, with the now 42-year-old, crinkle-lipped head case striving to open a cathouse catering to women clients in Godforsaken Pahrump, Nev., where such businesses are legal with the proper license.

Fleiss begins by claiming to have "conquered the world" in her 20s while Alexander the Great waited until his 30s to do the same.

"And he's dead and I'm alive," she adds, apparently hoping to convince her interviewer that she's a more formidable force than he ever was.

Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, earlier responsible for the likes of Inside Deep Throat and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, follow a none-too-steady Fleiss on her quest to establish a thriving "Stud Farm" on 60 acres of property that she managed to buy dirt cheap.

Alas, she never gets so far as a permit in this oddball ode to all things Heidi. She does, however, befriend an infirm ex-madam with a caged bird collection. One of them is a misfit parrot named Dalton, with whom Fleiss bonds. It's all supposed to be touching, showing another side of a notorious figure who nonetheless is immediately disliked by Pahrump-ians in positions of authority.

One of them is tart saloon owner Miss Kathy, who tells Fleiss with certitude, "There's no way women are going to drive this far off to get poked."

Another is George Flint, flinty director of the Nevada Brothel Owners Association.

"My biggest fear of Heidi Fleiss is Heidi Fleiss," he says. "Because she wants to be Miss Visibility."

Fleiss unfortunately, but typically, hooks up with an apparently crooked brothel baron named Joe Richards, who's charged with numerous counts of bribery. She has a doofus gofer named Michael Smallridge, too. He's fired after losing a flashlight during a dead-of-night search for decorative rocks.

The filmmakers also record Fleiss's declaration that she's the world's worst at oral sex. And that, yes, her breasts are "fake."

That pretty much covers the high points of a film that turns out to be quite a bit beneath HBO. In the end, Fleiss opens a laundromat she dubs "Dirty Laundry" while waiting for the stink to blow off of Joe Richards.

Alexander the Great shouldn't worry unduly about being upstaged. But Anna Nicole Smith might have some cause for concern.

Grade: C-minus

Elder acting Brolin turns 68 before Barbra Streisand's eyes

TV vet and Barbara Streisand hubby James Brolin hits the 68 mark on Friday, July 18th.

He broke in as Robert Young's sawbones sidekick on ABC's Marcus Welby, M.D before starring in the same network's Hotel as no-nonsense manager Peter McDermott.

Brolin later stepped into the role of an inept, laughable Ronald Reagan in the controversial 2003 miniseries The Reagans, which was made for CBS and then dumped on sister network Showtime after an outcry on Fox News Channel among others. Now Brolin's son, Josh, is playing George W. Bush in director Oliver Stone's upcoming W.

Here's a clip of the senior Brolin emoting, opposite a vexed Doberman Pinscher, in the 1973 made-for-TV movie Trapped.

30 Rock, Mad Men, John Adams set the pace for prime-time Emmys

The men and women of NBC's 30 Rock and AMC's Mad Men

30 Rock sent a single season record for comedy nods, Mad Men led the drama series contenders and HBO as usual dominated the movie and miniseries categories in nominations announced Thursday for the 60th annual prime-time Emmy Awards.

The Tina Fey-led NBC sitcom, which won last year's Emmy, amassed 17 nominations to break the record of 16 set in 1997 by HBO's The Larry Sanders Show.

Its competition for best comedy series is from NBC's The Office, CBS' Two and a Half Men, and HBO's Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm. All four have previous nominations in this category.

Notably left out: ABC's Samantha Who? and Pushing Daisies. The latter series did have 12 nominations, though, including a best actor nod for star Lee Pace. Samantha's star, Christina Applegate, is a best actress nominee.

Mad Men, AMC's hard-smoking depiction of the 1960s Madison Avenue ad agency scene, totaled an impressive 16 nominations for its inaugural season. The record is 27 by ABC's NYPD Blue in 1994.

Emmy voters picked six rather than the usual five drama series contenders. Joining Mad Men are fellow first-time nominees Damages (FX) and Dexter (Showtime), plus previous contenders Lost (ABC), Boston Legal (ABC) and House (Fox). Both Mad Men and Damages are on advertiser-supported "basic" cable networks, marking the first time that's happened in the best drama series competition.

HBO's The Sopranos won in this category last year. Notably left out: HBO's much-praised The Wire in its final season. It was rebuffed with just a single nomination, for writing.

NBC's made-in-Austin Friday Night Lights also got sacked again. Its lone nomination is for "Outstanding Special Class -- Short Format Live-Action Entertainment Program." How humiliating.

Both The Wire and Lights have won Peabody Awards, though. So bluntly put, screw the Emmys.

Meanwhile, the HBO miniseries John Adams led all programs with 23 nominations, and is a lock to win as the best in this category in competition with Sci Fi Channel's Tin Man, A&E's The Andromeda Strain and PBS' Cranford. The all-time record holder for miniseries nods in a single season is ABC's Roots, with a likely never to be beaten 37 in 1977.

HBO also has the lion's share of best made-for-TV movie contenders, with Recount, Bernard and Doris and Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale totaling 27 nominations. The other nominees are ABC's exemplary A Raisin In The Sun, which might well win, and Lifetime's The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which is just filling out the field.

Ace host Tom Bergeron and actors Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney

A new Emmy category, "Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program," is populated by Tom Bergeron (the likely winner for ABC's Dancing with the Stars); Heidi Klum (Bravo's Project Runway); Howie Mandel (NBC's Deal or No Deal); Jeff Probst (CBS' Survivor) and Ryan Seacrest (Fox's American Idol).

***The "Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series" competition has four previous Emmy winners in Glenn Close (Damages), Sally Field (ABC's Brothers & Sisters), Mariska Hargitay (NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) and Holly Hunter (TNT's Saving Grace). That leaves Kyra Sedgwick of TNT's The Closer as the category's lone virgin. She also was nominated the previous two seasons, but lost to Hargitay and Field.

***In contrast, just one nominee in the "Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series" division has an Emmy in hand. That's James Spader, who's already won all three times he's been nominated for Boston Legal. Rounding out the field are first-time nominees Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Gabriel Byrne (HBO's In Treatment), plus previous contenders Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and Hugh Laurie (House).

***Ricky Gervais, a nominee for "Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie," is the only contender with a previous Emmy win. But all of his competitors have either won Oscars or been nominated for them. Kevin Spacey (Recount) has two Academy Awards on his mantle; Paul Giamatti (John Adams), Ralph Fiennes (Bernard and Doris), and Tom Wilkinson (Recount) all have experienced the agony of defeat on Oscar night.

***Among this year's acting nominees, Charles Durning has the longest losing streak. He's 0 for 8 so far, but gets another shot for his supporting role on FX's Rescue Me. Also hoping to break a prolonged drought is Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), who's 0 for 6.

At the other end of Emmy's teeter-totter, Candice Bergen has won five of the eight times she's been nominated, and eventually took her name out of the running during her starring days on Murphy Brown. Now she's back with a supporting actress nod for Boston Legal. Don't bet against her.

***HBO as usual led all networks Thursday with 85 nominations, one less than last year. It had strong competition, though, from ABC, whose 76 nominations were six more than last year. Other networks with 20 or more nominations are CBS (51), NBC (50), PBS (33), Fox (28), Showtime (21) and AMC (20).

***The prime-time Emmy awards ceremony is Sept. 21 on ABC.

Comedy Central fires up a putrid new Gong Show, then saves face with Reality Bites Back

New Comedy Central jobs for Dave Attell and Michael Ian Black

All involved with Comedy Central's reinvention of The Gong Show could find themselves knockin' on heaven's door someday.

St. Peter, if you believe in either him or a hereafter, won't bother with any formalities: "You were part of The Gong Show? Go to hell."

On the other hand, Comedy Central at least has a shot at purgatory with Reality Bites Back, which also premieres on Thursday (July 17). Who can hate a show that savagely and often sagely spoofs broadcast TV's most successful reality series?

Gong Show, hosted by Comedy Central veteran Dave Attell, is a sewer-dwelling, stomach-turning freak show that makes even the 1970s Chuck Barris original seem like Star Search. The forerunner at least had a certain coarse charm and even a sense of style. Now we get the equivalent of a moose turd served on moldy rye.

The thing premieres at 9 p.m. (central), with Attell and judges Steve Schirripa, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Brian Posehn (wow, what star power) kicking things off with an aging female impersonator who sings about her "cute, hot pussy" while cradling a short-haired cat on a leash.

This actually is one of the top-shelf acts. Following in no particular order are a super-fatso with man boobs the size of half-inflated beach balls; a "mystic" who shoves a giant needle through his arm; and a young performer from "the great state of Texas" whose gimmick is kicking himself in the forehead. He instead bloodies the bridge of his nose before getting gonged.

The grand finale is supplied by a woman who appears to be loudly passing gas while a dwarf in a tuxedo "conducts" the movements. Her below-the-belt privates also are part of the act. Judge Schirripa, in the night's only funny line, says he gonged her because "she sounded a little pitchy."

The winning act gets $600 and a Gong Show championship belt. The losers, which constitutes the rest of us, get a half-hour of industrial strength debasement and depravity. Sometimes garbage is just garbage.

Reality Bites Back, following at 9:30 p.m., is snappily and snarkily hosted by Michael Ian Black, formerly of NBC's Ed and not much since.

Ten very unknown comedians vie for a $50,000 prize and the right to be crowned "Lord of All Reality." They're also being given the "opportunity to humiliate and degrade themselves on basic cable television," Black notes.

It's done with a certain style, though, beginning with all 10 contestants playing "Extreme Manipulation: House Edition" as a means of spoofing Big Brother.

For their first challenge, house guests must woo a member of the opposite sex in a pitch dark room while "night vision" cameras record the action. There's a twist, of course.

"That's right," Black says. "They'll be seducing their parents."

A "Dirty Laundry" competition follows, with the two lowest-scorers then ripe for the "Cutting Board." Next week the survivors will sabotage The Bachelor in a mockup dubbed "Shock of Love."

Black has a crack-up demeanor that's nicely paired with an air of condescension. This suits him very well on a show that nabs some laughs without completely fouling its nest. That makes Reality Bites Back a parody worth watching after Gong Show finishes pooping.

The Gong Show -- F
Reality Bites Back -- C+

Generation Kill (or be killed) --in Iraq

Actors Alexander Skarsgard, James Ransone of Generation Kill

Premiering: Sunday, July 13 at 8 p.m. central and continuing through Aug. 24 on HBO
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, James Ransone, Lee Tergesen, Stark Sands, Billy Lush, Jon Huertas, Chance Kelly, Neal Jones and many more
Written and produced by: David Simon, Ed Burns
Directed by: Susanna White, Simon Cellan Jones

An early scene Sunday in HBO's Generation Kill underscores the series' gravity and recurring depravity in depicting the first 40 days of the Iraq war.

It's not bloody, but it bloody well isn't pretty. In fact, the verbiage -- and those on the receiving end of it -- might make some viewers wince more than if they were seeing a baby-faced American GI cut in half with automatic weapons fire.

While still training in North Kuwait, Marines with Bravo Company's Platoon 2 unit get a packet of supportive letters from a class of fourth graders. One of the Marines ad libs a mocking, graphic response to their hopes for peace and safe returns.

"I'm a death-dealing, blood-crazed warrior . . . Peace sucks a hairy asshole," he proclaims as though he were reading his return letter to them.

That's not the half of it, but you get the point. And just at this point, some might tune out in disgust rather than endure this "gritty, uncompromising account" adapted from Rolling Stone contributor Evan Wright's same-named book and brought to HBO by the team behind The Wire.

Unfortunately the truth at times can really hurt in a point-blank, seven-hour miniseries in which real names and events are deployed. So is "the precise dialogue" recorded by Wright during his seven weeks with the First Recon Battalion. And Marine dialogue, as I know from having been one, is not for the faint of heart. Or for pussies, as your basic Leatherneck would say.

This is all a stark, searing contrast to the overall majesty of HBO's previous Band of Brothers, the acclaimed World War II miniseries orchestrated by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. They're collaborating again on HBO's The Pacific, scheduled to premiere sometime next year.

Spielberg and Hanks adorn their warfare with mood-setting music and panorama. It's not meant to be overly pretty, but at least looks and feels gallant. WWII still lends itself to that kind of approach.

There's nothing picturesque about Generation Kill. Nor is there any soundtrack, save for a closing tableau in Chapter 7 that uses Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" to very powerful effect.

Producers David Simon and Ed Burns, who also are given co-writing credits, prefer dead-end streets to yellow brick roads. They don't paint many or any pretty pictures, investing their airs of authenticity with a suitable stench.

Steven Bochco's relatively recent Over There series, killed by low ratings after a single season on FX, tried hard to get at the undersides of American soldiers in Iraq while also telling some rather lame homefront stories.

Simon and Burns almost make his efforts seem like Candyland. They have the freedom of unfettered expression on HBO, and use it without any seeming inhibitions. This can be very rough, coarse stuff, with many of the depicted Marines regularly discoursing on "ree-tards," gays (usually in much starker terms), bloodlust, bowel moments, etc.

"You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps?" one asks. "You get your brains back."

Lt. Col. Stephen "The Godfather" Ferrando (center) calls the shots.

Into their midst comes Rolling Stone's Evan Wright (Lee Tergeson), who oddly enough often seems out of place even when he's supposed to seem so. Taunted in varying degrees throughout this drama, Wright does quickly impress some of the Marines after telling them he used to write "Beaver Hunt" for Hustler magazine.

Generation Kill constantly reminds viewers that Wright is a quintessential Stranger in a Strange Land. He seems to have three basic silent reactions -- bemused, confused or pretty much repulsed. Whatever, they're overused.

Wright can't hold a candle, though, to cartoonish Sgt. Major John Sixta (Neal Jones), whose loud, curious obsession with proper Marine "grooming" takes him over the top and into the realm of Foghorn Leghorn with a gallon of Red Bull in his belly.

Most of the Marines are bracingly authentic, though, even if some also are brazenly off-putting.

Sgt. Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard) and kid-faced Lt. Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands) are the marquee "good guys." They strive to act honorably amid chaos that's often promulgated by Lt. Col. Stephen "The Godfather" Ferrando (Chance Kelly), whose raspy voice is a carryover from throat cancer.

"The Godfather" -- he's strictly a third-person guy -- yearns to kick ass, take names, press the action. But he also has an occasionally redeeming compassionate streak during the course of being a man's man first and foremost.

There's also Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush), who must have spent his entire adolescence playing Grand Theft Auto. Lusting after his first kill, he's a deadeye marksman with a racist bent. Shooting a camel is kinda fun for him, too.

Generation Kill has a demonstrable lack of black characters and just a smattering of Hispanics. But the photos in Wright's book indicate that that's the way it was with this particular group of Marines. So accuracy trumps any worries about political correctness.

Most of the miniseries charts the long march into Baghdad, which isn't reached until the climactic chapter.

"I think I heard an Iraqi shot right in front of me," reporter Wright tells a Marine.

"That's too bad," he rejoins. "He probably would have liked democracy."

Both Lt. Fick and Sgt. Colbert soon have serious misgivings about the confusion and missteps that seem to be turning the so-called liberation of Iraq into an abortion.

"We keep killin' civilians, we're gonna waste this (. . .) victory," Colbert says.

Wright's time is up, though. And after a memorable exit interview with "The Godfather," he's in a chopper headed home.

That was more than five very long years ago. And a majority of Americans since have shown both their distaste for the Iraq war and their reluctance to watch it depicted on either big or small screens.

Generation Kill isn't likely to bring much of a crowd to its seven-week march through HBO's Sunday night lineup. But this is a gutty balls-out effort nonetheless. Its final images, delivered via a laptop and further sold by Cash's currency, serve as a "perfect" ending to a chapter-and-verse depiction of war as hell and warriors as raising-hellboys.

The eventual DVD set might as well be wrapped in sandpaper.

Grade: A-minus

CBS' Flashpoint not your typical summertime dim bulb

Premiering: Friday, July 11th, at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Enrico Colantoni, Hugh Dillon, Amy Jo Johnson, David Paetkau, Michael Cram, Sergio Di Zio, ruth Marshall, Philip akin, Lisa Marcos, Mark Taylor
Created by: Mark Ellis, Stephanie Morgenstern

Taut and often quite terrific, CBS' Flashpoint is that very rare new summer series that won't make you want to shower off all that guilty pleasure residue.

Even rarer, it's scripted and actually uses actors. Oh. My. God.

Filmed in Toronto, created by Canadians and detailing the adventures of the SWAT-like Strategic Response Unit, Flashpoint at first seems like another typically overwrought hour of crime-goosed action.

Its first scene is a tight shot of a bulgy, wild-eyed foreigner holding a blonde-haired woman hostage at gunpoint. Civilians gawk and gasp behind police lines while SRU sergeant Gregory Parker (Enrico Colantoni from Veronica Mars) tries to talk him down. Then comes a relatively brief flashback that both shows how the assailant got there and introduces SRC member Ed Lane (Hugh Dillon), who's got a cute son, a cuter wife and apparently some commitment problems.

Lane turns out to be the unit's crack sniper. And without coughing up too much, Flashpoint really starts to work after it gets past the standoff. Let's just say that Lane is haunted by his occupation and regularly dogged by internal investigators. And Dillon plays him very, very well. He also resembles a younger, L.A. Law era Corbin Bernsen, but with the hair already outta here.

In this premiere episode at least, which will replace a Numb3rs rerun, we learn next to nothing about the featured criminal. He has a caring son, and apparently had a wife, but is otherwise an empty vessel. It would have helped to make him more human.

The stories of various SRC members clearly are going to be fleshed out, though. And it looks as though they'll be worth knowing. For now at least, Lane is a very intriguing head case, Parker's a sturdy team leader, Jules Callaghan (Amy Jo Johnson) knows she's cute and Sam Braddock (David Paetkau) has the assignment of hunky newcomer.

Also of note are the solid production values and music that enhances rather than intrudes, especially at the end. Canadians know how to do this stuff, and Flashpoint has, oh, about one zillion times more texture and heft than ABC's ongoing I Survived a Japanese Game Show.

Grade: B+

Ted Koppel and Discovery rechristen China "The People's Republic of Capitalism"

A still intrepid Ted Koppel discovers that it's tough to make a clean break after digging deep for dirt in a Chongqing coal mine.

Premiering: Wednesday, July 9th at 9 p.m. (central) and continuing at the same hour through Saturday on the Discovery Channel
Anchored and reported by: Ted Koppel
Produced by: Ted Koppel and Tom Bettag

Behold the master at work in what he bills as "the most extensive project I've ever undertaken."

That's saying something for former Nightline maestro Ted Koppel, even if he does say so himself in press materials.

Home base for his sixth Discovery Channel documentary -- The People's Republic of Capitalism -- is China's gift to urban sprawl and latter day capitalism. For four nights and as many hours, Koppel and his longtime producing partner, Tom Bettag, examine in depth what's become of Chongqing, China, a southwestern industrial megaplex with a population of 13.5 million and growing.

They begin, though, in Rolla, Missouri, where a Briggs & Stratton plant has laid off its workforce and instead opened a shop in Chongqing. The labor there is cheap, reliable and malleable. Meanwhile, middle-aged former assembly line workers are "shuffling through a job fair" back in Rolla.

In a way, this is oddly a good thing. Or it's at least less than an entirely one-sided tradeoff.

U.S. companies with some plants in China can make and sell products far cheaper, with Wal-Mart their mecca back home. By keeping prices down and moving their goods at a brisker pace, they in turn can still afford to keep some otherwise imperiled U.S. plants alive and reasonably well.

Those same disenfranchised Rolla workers do much of their shopping at Wal-Mart, which is top-heavy with discount-priced products made cheaper in China. A 50-year-old woman who used to work at the Rolla Briggs & Stratton plant is understandably bitter about being laid off. But she's also speechless when asked about the ancillary benefits of losing her job.

China, meanwhile, imposes heavy fines on couples who dare to have more than the government-sanctioned one child. And most of its workers, although increasingly better off financially, are still paid a shameful pittance for their long hours at menial jobs.

In a deft touch, Koppel illustrates the drudgery of an assembly line by repeating four times -- each time more rapidly -- "Snap it on. Plug it in. Check it out. Send it off." His kicker: "It's an endless, mindless, bottomless pit of a job."

A young woman, for instance, makes about $20 a week putting together boom boxes headed to Wal-Mart.

"Do you guys get high pay?" she asks Koppel.

"Yeah, we get high pay. Yeah," he replies.

"How much?"

"Too much," he says. "Maybe you should be a television reporter. What do you think?"

She thinks that would be good because working on an assembly line is a waste of her talent. Koppel for some reason gets a huge chuckle out of this. He sometimes does seem to have his nose a bit in the air.

Wednesday's chapter, titled "Joined At the Hip," is followed on successive nights by "MAOism to MEism," "The Fast Lane" and "It's the Economy, Stupid."

Koppel interviews a wide range of Chongqing denizens, including miners, prosperous developers, dirt poor peasants, teenage girls serving as "hosts" at a karaoke club and a conflicted young fashion photographer. On the one hand, he feels that his creativity is stifled. But he has no interest in dissenting against a government that he fully trusts to do the right thing.

"Talk about anything you like. Just don't get political," Koppel says of the capitalism that's replaced Chinese communism without an attendant explosion in individual freedoms.

Still, very much has changed, which The People's Republic of Capitalism also makes abundantly clear.

Koppel and crew spent a year putting this together, completing most of their work before May's devastating earthquake in China's Sichuan province. Some of the horrifying damage is depicted in still pictures while the focus remains on China's other seismic shifts as the Beijing-based Summer Olympics draw near.

It's all very eye-opening, with Koppel probing and sometimes prodding in a continuous effort to peel away all these layers. When an American developer says that "rampant democracy" would be bad for China's business climate, Koppel chides him for "pissing on democracy" enroute to getting rich.

The four-hour program is dedicated in the end to one of its associate producers, John Alexander, whom press materials say "died suddenly at age 26" in Chongqing. Koppel, for the record, is 68. Time marches on, but has yet to take him down.

Grade: A

The Peacock plucks another cable property

NBC Universal has suctioned up another formerly independent cable network, adding to the 10 it already owns.

The Weather Channel is its latest acquisition, with NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker delivering another dollop of network-speak in a statement released Sunday.

"This will further position NBC Universal as the leading provider of news, information and weather, both online and on television," he said. "Joining with The Weather Channel properties plays to our strengths in developing and programming cable networks, and in producing and distributing high-quality content across multiple platforms."

The words "high-quality content" are subject to interpretation. Under NBC Universal ownership since 2002, Bravo has been shorn of any art house ambitions and become home to a glut of gut-level reality series ranging from the bad (The It Factor) to the ugly (Being Bobby Brown) to the pretty good Project Runway).

The Weather Channel might be impervious to too much damage, although you can expect an uptick in both weather babes and disaster-themed series and specials.

NBC Universal also is likely to end -- whenever the contracts expire -- all ongoing partnerships with rival local stations. CBS-owned KTVT-TV (Channel 11) in Dallas-Fort Worth currently is partnered with The Weather Channel.

In addition to its longstanding broadcast network, NBC Universal also owns cable's Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC, Chiller, Oxygen, Sci Fi, Sleuth, Telemundo, Universal HD and USA.

Geraldo Rivera: Born on the Fourth of July and now Medicare-ready

Pugnacious, flirtatious, bloodied but unbowed, Geraldo Rivera turns 65 on the Fourth of July.

It seems, though, that he's been with us forever and a day, stalking bad guys, regularly making an ass of himself and sometimes exorcising his evil twin -- during a respectable CNBC period.

Rivera, still hangin' on at Fox News Channel, most famously struck ratings gold in April 1986. That's when his first post-ABC News syndicated special blasted into Al Capone's vaults and came up empty during a live, two-hour special.

"This is an adventure you and I are going to be taking together," he brayed before a wrecking crew dug in to no avail. But Rivera is still right in proclaiming that The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults was and likely always will be the most-watched syndicated program in TV history. Take a look at this evocative clip, narrated by Rivera on the show's 20th anniversary: