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Another sojurn out West for the annual Television Critics Association "press tour"

Hello, Mr. Uncle Barky. May I offer you a poolside pig in a blanket?

Forgive your friendly content provider, but it's time to head West again for the annual Television Critics Association summer "press tour," in which networks high and low trot out their new fall lines.

Alas, I've been keeping count. And this will be my 32nd such trip; the first one was taken via covered wagon.

So there'll be no posting on unclebarky.com from Tuesday, July 26th through Tuesday, Aug. 9th. But you can still keep up with all the goings-on at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and other environs via locatetv.com, for whom I'll be writing exclusively.

I'm also on Twitter (unclebarkycom), where the brief teases of coming attractions will also be replicated on Facebook. And if anything big happens back in D-FW, I'll try to tweet that as well.

Thanks for your continued patronage, and I hope you'll follow all the press tour developments on locatetv.com.
Ed Bark

P.S. I've left some stuff behind on unclebarky.com, including the recently posted tome on WFAA8's latter day championing of Rentrak as a possibly better way to measure local newscast ratings than Nielsen Media Research. So please feel free to browse and keep the traffic running.

No more cash 'n' carry at ABC News

ABC News president Ben Sherwood in photo from his Twitter page.

ABC News says it has decided to stop paying for interviews and/or news content in any way, shape or form.

Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast reported on the matter Monday, quoting veteran ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider as telling him, "We can book just about anyone based on the strength of our journalism, the excellence of our anchors, correspondents and producers, and the size of our audience. These licensing deals had become a crutch, and an unnecessary one."

ABC anchor/reporter Chris Cuomo recently had told Kurtz, on his CNN Reliable Sources program, that paying for "big-get" interviews through various means had become the "state of play" in network television news. The after-effects included widespread skepticism whenever ABC News booked an exclusive interview.

Unclebarky.com addressed the matter in a July 7th post headlined "So how much did ABC News pay this time?"

Entourage ending its run with a welcome fresh start

Last call for the main men of Entourage. HBO photo

It's a time of breakups for HBO, which earlier this year said goodbye to Big Love and on Sunday presents the beginning of the end for its long-running Entourage.

An eight-episode Season 8 will bring the grand total to 96 up-and-down half-hours. Entourage has slumped creatively in some of those seasons, but this looks to be a strong final push toward a satisfying Hollywood ending for four guys and a high-strung, vindictive agent with a heart of Ari Gold.

New Yorkers Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), his brother "Drama" (Kevin Dillon) and their friends Eric Murphy (Kevin Connolly) and Salvatore "Turtle" Assante (Jerry Ferrara) first headed West in 2004 with wide-eyed virginal dreams of climbing high and living large.

Volatile Ari (Jeremy Piven) rode thoroughbred Vince hard and sometimes into the ground while Eric repeatedly pushed back and sometimes got pushed aside. C-lister Drama and and the industrious but inept Turtle mostly had delusions of Hollywood grandeur while enjoying the ride with meal-ticket Vince. But his deepening drug addiction finally prompted a failed intervention in Season 7.

That season ended with a beaten-up Vince in a hospital, where police found a bag of coke in his possession. Season 8 finds him winding up a three-month stint in rehab, where admission has led to this essential admission: "Hello, my name is Vince, and I'm an addict."

Vince's firm breakup with drugs -- at least through the first three episodes sent for review -- is joined by other separation anxieties as Encourage and HBO prepare to cut the cord.

Eric's intended marriage to Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) instead has gone thoroughly on the rocks.

Ari and "Mrs. Ari" (Perrey Reeves as the wife with no name) are living apart, leaving him initially stunned and speechless upon learning she's seeing someone else as part of finding herself.

Turtle's girlfriend, Alex (Dania Ramirez), is the face of the Avion Tequila he's helped promote with help from investor Mark Cuban, who plays himself. But Alex has been touring on Avion's behalf and Turtle hasn't heard from her lately. Which isn't good.

Drama finally seems to have caught a break as one of the principal voices of a planned new cartoon series called Johnny's Bananas. But co-star Andrew Dice Clay (also as himself) is belligerent as ever with his mantra of "Nobody f **ks with Dice. Does does the f ***ing." So that partnership also is on the skids, with Clay a hilariously profane scene-stealer in the third episode.

Entourage navigates Vince's new-found sobriety in a solid season opener (Sunday, July 24th, 9:30 p.m. central) in which Drama fastidiously scrubs their Hollywood home clean of all drugs and alcohol with some half-assed help from Turtle. But has Vince become too blissed out with his idea of a movie about an overseas mining disaster and a heroic Labrador rescue dog? And can he even be around a drug or a drink anymore, even at a welcome home party in which a bevy of pre-screened clean and sober beauties arrives on a bus (perhaps en route to the next season of The Bachelorette)?

Entourage gets even more sobering in Episode 3, which ends with a very serious jolt. It's the same episode in which Cuban has a cameo in connection with Turtle's sudden travails with Avion.

Kevin Dillon already has a new comedy role lined up as a similarly loutish gym owner in this fall's How to Be a Gentleman on CBS. And Scott Caan, who reprises his significant role as Eric's bawdy business partner, Scott Lavin, will soon be in his second season as the co-star of CBS' Hawaii Five-0.

Both still give their all for Entourage, though. And these questions persist. Will Vince ever get around to making that big Air-Walker movie? Can Drama find fulfillment as a cartoon monkey? Might Eric eventually reconcile with Sloan after she informs him of her impending whereabouts? Will Turtle finally be able to wax eloquent about a business venture that pans out and also makes him happy?

Entourage looks as though it still has enough juice -- comedy, drama and Drama-wise -- to make its last season a keeper. HBO's guys night out has never hit a Sex and the City stratosphere in terms of buzz, anticipation and fashion accessories. But at the very least it's been the next best thing to Two and a Half Men -- and without all that other drama.


The Hasselhoffs of Hollywood and small town Texas work out an agreeable merger in CBS' Same Name

Here a Hoff, there a Hoff, everywhere a . . . CBS photo

Premiering: Sunday, July 24th at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Commoners and celebs sharing the same name, with David Hasselhoff of Lake Jackson, Texas the first out of the chute
Produced by: Cris Abrego, Ben Samek, Christian Sarabia, Fax Bahr, Eugene Young

A little cynicism on the part of viewers is all well and good here. And a basic condescension towards commoners also comes into play during the course of CBS' Same Name.

That said, this is a pretty good, almost alarmingly simple idea that had somehow sailed right past Hollywood's "reality show" merchandisers. Have a Joe Dokes from Kerplunk, Kansas trade places with a celeb who has the same moniker. And for Sunday's premiere, it's a matchup of the David Hasselhoff who needs no further introduction with technician/landscaper David Hasselhoff of Lake Jackson, Texas, population 27,614.

Through the miracle of deft editing, this first hour of Same Name has enough feel-good moments to make the sale. It's also far less contentious than ABC's Wife Swap, which was based on a similar idea but had no Hasselhoffs. Or Kathy Griffins, Mike Tysons or Reggie Bushes, who've been lined up for future editions.

But no, don't realistically expect Jennifer Lopez to touch down in D-FW to swap jobs and lifestyles with NBC5 early morning meteorologist Jennifer Lopez. Although it would be fun to see J Lo crawl out of a car at 4 a.m. in a skimpy sequined outfit before standing in front of a weather map to proclaim, "I'm hot, hot, hot . . . I mean, it's going to be hot, hot, hot out there again today."

The 59-year-old Hasselhoff, whose fame initially came from Knight Rider and Baywatch, makes a good show of being very happy to meet his 27-year-old namesake and assorted kin. He lands in Lake Jackson on a private jet, brandishing autographed pictures of himself for the other David, his wife, Corey, and more excited Brand X Hasselhoffs.

"I've got four days of heaven, or, I don't know, four days of hell," the Hollywood Hasselhoff says while the Lake Jackson version flies off to the good life in the company of cheese, crackers, sausage and white wine. The duration of each stay is four days.

The African room in King David's high-priced spread includes a 40-foot replica of a surfin' Hasselhoff. "That is creepy real," says serf Hasselhoff, who's warmly greeted by the star's housekeeper, personal assistant and his daughter, Taylor.

Meanwhile, back in the sticks, The Hoff eats an artery-clogging "Ranch Special" on a TV tray in the Hasselhoffs' living room. Then it's coffee and two Pop Tarts for breakfast after he tells the folks that "in L.A., you don't really know who your neighbors are. Nor do you want to know."

He's about to get religion, of course. Because the Hasselhoffs of Lake Jackson are a sprawling, hard-workin', fun-lovin', neighborly brood. This is underscored during a family reunion at the local Legion Hall, where the imported Hasselhoff is "genuinely blown away by how many Hasselhoffs came out of the woods."

In Hollywood, regular guy Hasselhoff meets the star's dad and sister, gets his nose hairs trimmed and is on the receiving end of a heavy-duty workout by the actor's hard-charging personal trainer.

"This is what The Hoff has to do to stay in shape, to be on camera," says the proprietor of Barry's Bootcamp. Durn, the Texas Hoff says he never knew how tough it is to be a star who "doesn't have a free hour to himself," according to The Hoff's agent.

None of this is quite as tough as mowing a dozen lawns or cleaning out an oily cylindrical "breaker," though. A 3 a.m. bottle feeding of baby Braxton is thrown in, too.

Hollywood Hasselhoff also has to endure a cramped shower "for midgets," as he puts it. And just when he's ready to collapse into a long slumber in his uncomfortable bed, Hasselhoff is rushed off to a country music bar called Kicks. It's time for dancin', prancin' and more autograph signing before he at last proclaims from the stage, "I feel like I am home here in Texas."

We also learn that some of the Hasselhoffs' work equipment is pretty busted up -- and that the family livelihood is therefore at risk. Which means you'll instantly know where this is goin' before the closing credits roll. Still, it's quite a touching moment. And it's not the end of the surprise parting gifts.

The lessons to live by are that everyone needs a nurturing family unit and that celebrities are people, too, even if Lake Jackson's David Hasselhoff in the end says he has no desire to be one.

"Ya'll earn what ya'll have, I promise you," Hasselhoff tells Hasselhoff upon returning to Texas.

It all comes out pretty well in the wash. Same Name gets fairly close to sealing the deal on the idea that celebs can learn something from just plain folk -- and vice versa. Paris Hilton's inaugural starmaker, The Simple Life, had its nose in the air throughout her slumming with an Altus, Arkansas farm family. This show, in its first episode at least, knows much better than that.

GRADE: B-minus

Two Murdochs and a shaving cream pie provide the latest cable TV theater

Rupert Murdoch makes a closing statement, with son James in tow. Photo: Ed Bark

Just what Rupert Murdoch needed -- a shaving cream pie to the puss.

Actually, it may have been exactly what he needed to perhaps gain a little sympathy after a long Tuesday morning (U.S. time) of taking no direct responsibility for the phone-hacking scandal bedeviling his far-flung World News Corporation.

Murdoch, 80, initially came off as befuddled, sometimes belligerent and almost blindingly out of the loop regarding events that led to his appearance before a parliamentary committee. The testimony of Rupert and his 38-year-old son, James, was carried live in its entirety on an array of cable news networks that included CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, BBC World News, Current and the Murdochs' Fox News Channel.

"This is the most humble day of my life," Rupert said at both the open and close of an almost three-hour hearing that was marred down the stretch by a male spectator who managed to breech whatever security there was and hit the media baron in the face with a tin full of shaving cream. Viewers never got a full frontal view of the after-effects, but did see Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, 37 years his junior, literally launch herself at the attacker.

A 15-minute recess ensued, with the Murdochs then showered with apologies and praise for their willingness to proceed. "Mr. Murdoch, your wife has a very good left hook," committee member Tom Watson said.

In a way the Murdochs couldn't have scripted it any better. Instead of egg on his face, Rupert briefly absorbed some cleansing shaving cream. Still, the overall impression taken from this worldwide TV stage show is that the elder Murdoch has reached the point where he's fit to be no more than a caretaker for his media empire.

In the early going, son James oftentimes tried to interject in the interest of protecting his father. And Rupert himself likewise sought to defer to his heir apparent, telling the aggressive Watson, "I think maybe that's a question, again, for James."

But Watson kept re-directing back to Rupert, at one point tellingly rebuffing James when he again sought to interrupt.

"It's revealing in itself what he (Rupert) doesn't know and what executives declined to tell him," Watson deduced.

The son oftentimes gave expansive answers, although many of them were couched with his morning-long disclaimer that "I have no direct knowledge."

Both Murdochs apologized again and again, but Rupert otherwise held himself blameless.

"Do you accept that ultimately you are responsible for this whole fiasco?" committee member Jim Sheridan asked him.

"No," Rupert said bluntly. He instead blamed "the people that I trusted to run it (primarily the now shuttered News of the World newspaper) and then maybe the people that they trusted." The bucks reside in his wallet, but the buck stops short of him.

Murdoch also was pressed on how often he spoke to editors of his various newspapers. He "very seldom" spoke to anyone with News of the World and has his most regular contact with editors of The Wall Street Journal, Rupert said.

"I'm not really in touch," he added, inadvertently speaking volumes while in fact only referring to the newspapers he owns. Arch enemy MSNBC, which can be expected to pound the Murdochs to pulps during its analysis of the hearing, quickly and childishly put up an out-of-context "Rupert Murdoch: I'm not really in touch" banner during its live coverage. And during the break after the shaving cream incident, a British analyst for CNN ridiculed James as talking in "his rather management-speak Donald Duck accent."

CNN personality Piers Morgan, who formerly worked for Murdoch's News of the World (1994-'95) and another British tabloid, The Daily Mirror (1995-2004), for the most part defended his old boss during Monday's edition of Piers Morgan Tonight. It was the first time he had publicly commented on the phone-hacking scandal.

"For the record, I do not believe that any story that we published in either title was ever gained in an unlawful manner," Morgan said on his program.

But during Tuesday's parliamentary hearing, committee member Louise Mensch dropped Morgan's name and quoted him as saying in his 2005 book, The Insider: Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade, "that that little trick of entering a standard 4-digit code allowed anyone to call a number and hear all your messages."

"In that book," Mensch added, "he (Morgan) boasted that 'using that little trick' enabled him to win 'Scoop of the Year' on a story about (former English soccer manager) Sven-Goran Eriksson."

Neither Murdoch commented directly on the allegation while Morgan was quick to deny it as "complete nonsense" via a Twitter retort that was posted on cnn.com among other outlets.

"I've never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, or published any stories based on the hacking of a phone," Morgan tweeted.

He later dressed Mensch down on CNN after she refused to repeat her allegations in the absence of "parliamentary privilege" that gave her immunity from any lawsuits. Morgan accused her of a "deliberate and outrageous attempt to smear my name." He also called on Mensch to "show me some balls" by daring to make her claims outside of parliament. She declined.

What a tangled world we live in. But Mensch then hit the motherlode, and got at the essence of how Rupert Murdoch intends to proceed by asking him point blank: "Mr. Murdoch, have you considered resigning?"

"No," he answered.

"Why not?" she asked.

Murdoch said it was because the people who betrayed him were at fault. "It's for them to pay. I think that frankly I'm the best person to clean this up."

Charitably put, the elder Murdoch gave absolutely no evidence of being Mr. Clean-up during Tuesday's hearing. Instead he came off as disengaged and distanced, rather than a hands-on captain of his many ships. What we saw first-hand was a very ancient mariner without a compass.

Son James, who appears to be a bit more on the ball these days, built a wall of deniability around him by repeatedly claiming "no knowledge" of key events in the scandal until after others had blown the whistle.

Both pledged to do better, of course. And by the way, they're really, really sorry.

"Things must be put right," Rupert said. "No excuses."

Until the next time. And in that respect, the Murdochs aren't much different than any other corporate titans. Tuesday morning's pre-choreographed display of contrition with little admission is pretty much the way of the world. And it's only getting worse.

All in all, though, it made for reasonably "good television," with some parliamentary members standing out with their aggressive questioning while others pretty much fumbled about. A pie in the face added a little Three Stooges ambience before the Murdochs returned to be told that "it is extremely good of you to agree to continue this session."

No, it wasn't. Not really. Rupert still hadn't yet read his prepared act of contrition, which the committee had asked him to save for the end. Mere shaving cream -- let alone a gooey cherry pie -- weren't about to deny him his big finish.

We'll close with video of the Mensch-Morgan confrontation, which ended up being a better sideshow than pie a la Murdoch.

You, too, O'Reilly? Fox News Channel's self-proclaimed truth-teller also shrinks from the mushrooming Murdoch scandal

Mum's the word that most Brits use when talking about their moms.

Mum's also mostly been the word at Fox News Channel, whose two main prime-time personalities -- Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity -- so far have yet to even mention the far-flung phone-hacking scandal that's engulfed Great Britain and World News Corporation chieftain Rupert Murdoch. Along with his son, James, he's scheduled to testify before a Parliamentary committee on Tuesday. Murdoch owns Fox News Channel as well as an array of U.S. broadcast stations, including Dallas-based Fox4.

Murdoch's travails abroad are hardly inconsequential. His planned expansions of his media empire have been put on hold in the wake of the scandal. And Sunday brought both the resignation of the tarnished head of Scotland Yard and the arrest of Murdoch's right-hand woman, Rebekkah Brooks, former chief executive of his News International.

In fact, a high-level arrest or resignation seems to occur daily, even in the aftermath of Murdoch's decision to shut down his so-called "World's Greatest Newspaper," the sleazy tabloid News of the World, after 168 years of junk journalism. He's also belatedly said he's sorry via full-page apologies in other newspapers he owns. Those came only after he hired a damage-controlling PR firm.

Mudoch's only stateside interview so far has been with The Wall Street Journal, which he also owns. Only "minor mistakes" were made, he said in remarks published on July 14th. The newspaper then blasted Murdoch's critics in a Monday, July 18th editorial.

Let's be even-handed, though. The New York Times has gleefully pounced on Murdoch's travails with daily front page stories and usually a full page of coverage inside. All well and good, perhaps. But the newspaper's executive editor, Bill Keller, previously had put his reporters in an awkward position by declaring at a New York Press Club event: "I think if you're a regular viewer of Fox News, you're among the most cynical people on planet earth. I cannot think of a more cynical slogan than 'Fair and Balanced.' "

Keller, who will be stepping down in September to become a full-time columnist for The Times, is obviously still a key decider in how his newspaper is covering the scandal. Given his previous public remarks, he's very likely enjoying himself. As are the prime-time personalities on MSNBC and longtime Murdoch/Fox News Channel antagonist Keith Olbermann on his new network, Current TV. So in reality, none of their accounts are to be entirely trusted. That's sad to say, especially of The Times.

Still, Fox News Channel should be embarrassed at the way it's blown off what so far is the biggest media story of the century. Its little-watched daytime news programs have offered specs of coverage here and there. Although in one instance, longtime Fox and Friends toady Steve Doocy invited a PR guy named Bob Dilenschneider to join him in denouncing all the "piling on."

"You look at some sites, you would think that Martians had landed in New Jersey again," Doocy said. "We've got some serious problems in this country right now." Yeah. One of them is giving national exposure to clowns like him.

At the prime-time level, little if anything is expected of the brown-nosing Hannity, whose fawning interviews with prominent Republicans are his principal forte. Exhibit A: Hannity's wide-eyed genuflection in the presence of George W. Bush when he was busy pumping his book. Bush let Hannity interview him on his Crawford Ranch, and even took him for a free ride on the property. An awed Hannity ate it up, and there's no telling what else he might have eaten if asked. Were he presented with an opportunity to interview Murdoch, his first question would be something on the order of, "Sir, why do these liberals hate you so much?" And for Hannity, that would be hard-hitting.

O'Reilly, though, is supposed to have balls. And I've long preferred him to the even more vainglorious Olbermann. On The O'Reilly Factor, he at least regularly spars with people who disagree with him. Even if he's prone to chest-thumping and talking over them.

O'Reilly's been spayed, however, when it comes to talking about the Murdoch imbroglio. He's said a sum total of nothing about it. Imagine if this were The New York Times, NBC News, CNN, MSNBC or any other major media outlet involved in a phone-hacking scandal of this magnitude. O'Reilly's take would be something like this: "We always knew they were liberal, folks. Now we see that they're crooks as well." And he'd keep pounding away, night after night.

His low point came Thursday, in tandem with blustering Bernard Goldberg during their weekly discourse on media issues. What did they discuss? Allegations that the Obama administration sometimes prefers to bypass Fox News Channel as a conduit. Or as O'Reilly put it, "Now new documents have emerged that seem to prove the White House doesn't like FNC at all."

The "new documents" didn't amount to much of anything. That is, unless you're surprised that some members of the president's staff preferred to bypass Fox News Channel on occasion. Wouldn't you? Sometimes you just get tired of getting punched in the head, although President Obama has done several one-on-ones with none other than O'Reilly, including during February's Super Bowl XLV.

In reality, no major media outlet is less willing to cooperate in news stories about itself than Fox News Channel. It's been that way since Day One. Publicists for the network pick and choose their favorites. And even their favorites are subject to constant questions about how a story is going to be played, when it's going to appear, etc., etc. I speak from first-hand experience, and from conversations with various colleagues.

O'Reilly, with whom I've had generally good relations over the years, is very much a picker and chooser in dealing with the media. He stiffs interview requests from those he deems unfriendly to him. Which covers a wide spectrum these days. And his show has been known to relentlessly dog, and sometimes physically pursue, those who have been critical of him or decline to appear on The O'Reilly Factor. At his best he's certainly more capable of being genuinely "Fair and Balanced" than Hannity is. But at his worst -- which is too often -- he's a bully with a persecution complex.

Last Thursday, O'Reilly and Goldberg chose to twit the Obama administration on a relatively trivial matter rather than make even a nominal effort to address the elephant (dung) in the room.

"When you're in the big leagues, you act like it," Goldberg at one point said of the president. "You don't go to war with a cable news operation."

Particularly if it's your own. No one realistically expects a full-blown investigation of Murdoch from the people on the receiving ends of his paychecks. Others media outlets are perfectly willing and able to do that.

But it's hypocritical almost beyond belief for O'Reilly to entirely ignore the matter, even during his show's weekly segment with Goldberg on current media issues. Mr. "No Spin Zone" and the unctuous author of Bias opted for a cowardly way out. For all of his braggadocio, O'Reilly suddenly is no cock of the walk on an issue that might actually prove his manhood.

"No show tackles tough issues like The Factor," the show's website crows. That's B.S. -- coming from a parakeet.

CMT's Texas Women another collection of boobs/boobs

The "young, gorgeous and sassy" stars of Texas Women. CMT photo

Premiering: Thursday, July 14th at 9 p.m. (central) on CMT
Starring: Ali Dee, Brooke Jeter, Anna Hunt, Hannah Helvey
Produced by: Ted Caloroso, Susan Hartman

We're still a month away from the premiere of Bravo's Most Eligible Dallas, in which a "group of Texas socialites proves that everything's bigger in Texas -- including the drama."

No need to wait, though, for another heapin' helpin' of 10-gallon stereotypes. CMT's Texas Women, belatedly made available for review, offers up a quartet of "young, gorgeous and sassy women -- working and playing in Fort Worth."

Mostly playing. 'Cause as the theme song notes, "momma" taught all of these girls "how to rip up the town."

The one-hour first episode (Thursday, July 14th at 9 p.m. central) includes the onset of "Hurricane" Hannah Helvey, otherwise known as "Party Girl" and seemingly in a hangover haze most of the time.

She's joined by stock contractor Anna Hunt ("I get dirty and sweaty, and I think that's hot"); aspiring country singer Ali Dee, who also does some on-camera work for the Dallas Mavericks; and barrel racer Brooke Jeter, the only married one of the bunch. Still, she talks like a six-year-old and of course parties hard while her hubby cooks dinner back home. "I'm tryin' to get drunk, OK?" That's all I'm tryin' to do," Brooke says during one of her recurring nights out. And she does know how to pound 'em down. Yahooey.

Fort Worth and Dallas currently offer lotsa culture, too. Art museums, opera houses, unclebarky.com. But any "reality" series about either city invariably gets down to boobs with big boobs or self-absorbed Texas goofballs on the order of former Bishop Lynch High School quarterback and University of Texas extra point holder Matt Nordgren, who humbly considers himself "the whole package" in publicity materials for Most Eligible Dallas.

Texas Women doesn't get around to doing a whole lot in its introductory hour. The "drama" kicks in, ad nauseum, after new roommates Hannah and Anna have a little tiff after drinking "Cowboy Cosmos" at Fort Worth's Reata restaurant. Anna give Hannah a little playful poke in the head with a menu and Hannah responds with a palm-in-the-hand blow to Anna's noggin.

"I was just joking around with her," says Anna. But Hannah doesn't like being "disrespected," so she goes home in a huff. Their little spat is then revisited over and over and over.

"When two bitches get up and leave, they're not comin' back," Hannah later tells dim bulb Brooke, referring to Anna and Ali after the foursome converge to have drinks. But they're soon all happily together again, gettin' rowdy and seemingly smashed at another bar.

Earlier in these proceedings, Ali drops in on radio personality Kevin McCoy of "The Ranch" (95.9 FM) in hopes of getting a little airplay for her single. Their meeting is very transparently staged, but his decision to give her a shot is reason for the four women to drink shots and other adult beverages during a celebratory party. Anything to get 'em in a bar, even if the made-for-TV "tension" still runs high between Hannah and Anna.

Any or all of these four women may in fact be likable, nice and even intelligent. But you couldn't prove that after watching the first episode of Texas Women. Brooke appears to have the intellect of a cactus plant, Hannah comes off as a slow-on-the-draw skank and Anna's thoroughly full of herself. Ali fares the best as a seemingly decent enough singer who perhaps deserves better than the company of these three.

Not that this matters right now to any of 'em. They're all on TV, and in prime-time no less. So mission accomplished and who really cares how it looks. Texas is the ripest state in the union -- save for New Jersey perhaps -- for continued tall tales of excessively vain, dumb, partying indulgers.

Meanwhile, Idaho is still waiting for its first reality series. And probably happy to be forever standing in line while Texas plays the fool.

GRADE: C-minus

HBO again dominates Emmy nominees while Friday Night Lights finally gets a best drama series nod in its final season

Steve Buscemi, Kate Winslett of Boardwalk Empire, Mildred Pierce. HBO photos

Paced by top vote-getter Mildred Pierce, HBO more than doubled the total of its nearest network rival Thursday in nominations for the 63rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards.

Pierce, which starred Kate Winslet in the title role, amassed 21 nominations while HBO's Boardwalk Empire (18), Game of Thrones (13) and Too Big to Fail (11) also scored in double digits. All told, those four programs had 63 nominations, well over half of HBO's 104. The runner-up network, CBS, had 50 nominations, followed by broadcast network rivals NBC (46), Fox (42) and ABC (40).

The biggest celebration, however, might be among the now far-flung cast members and crew of NBC's Friday Night Lights. In its fifth and final season, the Austin-made depiction of fictional Dillon, Texas and its high school football teams received its first nomination in the "Outstanding Drama Series" category. Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler repeated last year's nods in the best actress and actor categories.

Also jumping up and down is the fledgling ReelzChannel, which aired the eight-hour The Kennedys miniseries after History Channel produced it and then rejected it as not fit for its "brand." The Kennedys received 10 nominations, among them an "Outstanding Miniseries or Movie" nod in the company of Mildred Pierce, Too Big to Fail, HBO's Cinema Verite, PBS' Downtown Abbey and Starz's The Pillars of the Earth.

The Kennedys also nabbed best actor nods for Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper as Jack and Bobby Kennedy. And Tom Wilkinson received a best supporting actor nomination for his portrayal of patriarch Joe Kennedy.

The 10 nominations for ReelzChannel topped History Channel's total of seven nominations while also exceeding the totals of longstanding networks such as FX (6), TNT (3), Lifetime (3), A&E (2) and USA and The CW (1 each). In short, it only takes one

Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones joined FNL as first-time entrants in the best drama series competition, with CBS' The Good Wife, Showtime's Dexter and AMC's Mad Men completing the field. Mad Men has won the Emmy in this category in each of its first three eligible seasons.

In the "Outstanding Comedy Series" category, CBS' The Big Bang Theory and NBC's Parks and Recreation made their first appearances, joining ABC's reigning champ, Modern Family, Fox's Glee and NBC's The Office and 30 Rock, which already has three wins in this category.

Other programs with 10 or more Emmy nominations this year are Mad Men (19); Modern Family (17); NBC's Saturday Night Live (16); 30 Rock (13); Glee (12); Downtown Abbey (11) and Fox's American Idol (10).

In the best actor in a drama series competition, one of the nominees will walk away with his first win. Hugh Laurie of Fox's House so far has struck out six times while Jon Hamm of Mad Men is 0 for 5. Dexter star Michael C. Hall has come away empty-handed four times and Steve Buscemi of Boardwalk Empire and Chandler of Friday Night Lights respectively are 0 for 3 and 0 for 2. The other entrant, Timothy Olyphant of FX's Justified, is competing for his first Emmy.

Among the best actresses in a drama series, Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) and Mariska Hargitay (NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) have each won once previously. But Kathy Bates, nominated for NBC's Harry's Law, so far has been shut out in eight tries in eight different roles while Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men is 0 for 2. FNL's Britton lost in her only previous Emmy competition and Mireille Enos of AMC's The Killing is a first-time nominee.

The best actress in a comedy series field is led by Emmy titan Tina Fey, who has won seven times in 18 tries. Showtime's two entrants, Edie Falco for Nurse Jackie and Laura Linney for The Big C, likewise are veteran acceptance speakers. Falco has four Emmys and Linney, three. The only first-time nominee in this category is Melissa McCarthy for CBS' Mike & Molly.

Steve Carell of The Office leads the empty-handed contingent in the best actor in a comedy series category. He's 0 for 8 so far. Alec Baldwin of course is also nominated again for 30 Rock. He has two Emmys to date in 10 previous tries dating to a 1996 nomination as the lead actor in ABC's version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Matt LeBlanc of Friends fame makes a return to this field for his portrayal of himself in Showtime's Episodes. He's yet to win after three previous nods. The other nominees are Louis C.K. for FX's Louie, Johnny Galecki for The Big Bang Theory and last year's winner, Jim Parsons, also of The Big Bang Theory.


***Cloris Leachman, a best supporting actress nominee for Fox's Raising Hope, is the all-time Emmy leader among performers with eight statues. This is her 22nd nomination.

***This year's Emmy host, Jane Lynch, also is again a nominee, for Glee. She won last year.

***CBS' The Amazing Race is nominated for the ninth consecutive year as TV's "Outstanding Reality-Competition" series. It won the first seven times before being dethroned last year by Bravo's Top Chef, which again is nominated.

***Longrunning scripted series with just one nomination apiece include HBO's Big Love; ABC's Brothers & Sisters; TNT's The Closer; CBS' CSI: NY; ABC's Desperate Housewives and NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Undeservedly shut out were HBO's Treme and FX's Sons of Anarchy.

***TV Land's Hot in Cleveland managed just two nominations. But yes, one of them is for Betty White, who so far has won five times in 16 opportunities.

For the complete nomination list, go here. The televised ceremony will be Sunday, Sept. 18th on Fox.

HBO's The Curious Case of Curt Flood is about far more than baseball

Curt Flood's signature remained as bold as his imprint. Photo: Ed Bark

As a kid who loved the lowly Chicago Cubs, I regularly loathed Curt Flood for robbing the likes of Ernie Banks or Ron Santo with one of his trademark leaping catches as the star centerfielder of the St. Louis Cardinals.

As an adult at the 1995 All-Star Game Fanfest in downtown Dallas, I got a chance to remind him of what he'd done. We both laughed about the pain he'd caused before he signed a baseball in his role as one of the event's featured guests. I later bought his rookie card and have kept both ever since in the plastic contraption you see above.

HBO's excellent The Curious Case of Curt Flood, premiering Wednesday at 8 p.m. central on the day after the All-Star Game, reminded me anew of Flood's off-field pursuit of free agency in times when team owners had sole control of their players' careers. It also fills in a lot of blanks about this willful, proud and in many ways self-destructive nomad. It turns out that Flood first developed a cough he couldn't get rid of during his brief time in Dallas for the All-Star Game at what was then The Ballpark in Arlington. He died of throat cancer on Jan. 20, 1997 after years of heavy smoking and drinking.

The 90-minute HBO documentary, one of the very best in a long line of standouts, is in no way a pity party for Flood. His neglect of his children and his apparently fraudulent side business as a portrait painter are all parts of his story. But there is redemption as well, with Flood finally finding his way back toward stability and respectability in the few years he had left before dying at age 59.

Scarred by racial prejudice as a young ballplayer -- as were many of his black peers -- Flood was just 31 and still at the top of his game when he learned he'd been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies along with Cardinals teammate Tim McCarver.

"You were traded just like cattle or pigs or hogs or anything," recalls McCarver, who remains very much a part of the game as a Fox Sports analyst who's again teaming with Joe Buck for Tuesday's All-Star game.

But McCarver dutifully reported to the Phillies while Flood took baseball to court as part of an "anti-trust" lawsuit and his quest to become a free agent.

"I'm a well-paid slave, but nonetheless a slave," he told Howard Cosell. This endeared him to basically no one, given his $90,000 yearly salary at the time. Flood also would have received a $20,000 raise had he joined the Phillies. On principle, he decided to stay the course while current-day players went about playing ball and either openly opposing Flood or putting his cause behind them.

One of his Cardinals teammates, fearsome fastball pitcher Bob Gibson, remains alternately hardened and sympathetic toward Flood, who narrowly lost his U.S. Supreme Court case in the absence of any visible support from current-day players.

"I wouldn't have shown up. No," the current-day Gibson says of any thoughts he might have had about standing beside Flood during the Supreme Court hearing. He also disparages Flood for running off to other countries, including Denmark and Mallorca, Spain, rather than facing up to his family responsibilities. But Gibson also was one of Flood's pallbearers. And he clearly is close to tears while describing his old teammate as a great ballplayer and "one of the best friends that you could ever have."

Flood eventually had an epiphany, as did Mickey Mantle after years of drunkenness and self-indulgent behavior. And his off-the-field legwork led to the landmark free agency breakthrough by pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who accomplished what Flood set out to do via collective bargaining instead of the court system.

The Curious Case of Curt Flood draws its power, however, from the portrait it paints of a flawed, unfulfilled, oft-wayward soul whose talents and temperament imploded on him. After his defeat in court, he scraped his way back to the cellar-dwelling Washington Senators for a 1971 season that ended in his sudden disappearance. His baseball talents eroded beyond repair, Flood clandestinely retreated to Spain, opened a bar and gradually immersed himself in new miseries of his own making.

But still he returned to the living, striving to make amends with his children and reuniting with an old girlfriend, Judy Pace Flood, who demanded his sobriety before she'd marry him. She now speaks volumes as his widow. Shelly Flood, one of his daughters from a failed first marriage, communicates both the pain of abandonment and the healing that had only just begun. One of Curt Flood's former girlfriends, Karen Brecher, also provides considerable insight into his later years.

Many old-line baseball fans might still blame Flood for "ruining" the sport, even though he ended up striking out in the Supreme Court. But more than 40 years after he declared his intentions, it's hard to argue with Flood's declaration of independence in a letter to the plaintiff in his case, baseball commissioner and company man Bowie Kuhn.

"After twelve years in the major leagues," he wrote on Christmas Eve, 1969, "I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes."

He sacrificed a lot. He also repeatedly indulged himself at the expense of others. The Curious Case of Curt Flood tells it all -- except for the many extra base hits he took away from the Cubs of my youth.


Roseanne's Nuts falls far short of being even popcorn entertainment

Roseanne Barr with resilient boyfriend Johnny Argent. Lifetime photo

Premiering: Wednesday, July 13th at 8 p.m. (central) on Lifetime
Starring: Roseanne Barr, Johnny Argent and other assorted nuts
Produced by: Roseanne Barr, JD Roth

It would be more fun if this were a review of Glenn Beck's Nuts. Or maybe Nancy Grace's Nuts.

But they haven't gotten around to doing those shows yet, leaving TV critics to make do with Roseanne's Nuts. Lifetime for some reason has succumbed to 16 episodes of a half-hour series originating from her Macadamian nut farm in Hawaii. She must be doing it for peanuts. Back-to-back episodes premiere on Wednesday, July 13th at 8 p.m. (central), with Lifetime mercifully making only the first one available for review.

It's now been 14 seasons since ABC said goodbye to batty Roseanne Barr's landmark Roseanne sitcom. She's since hosted a rather disastrous syndicated talk show and starred in a short-lived "reality" series called The Real Roseanne Show.

She met scraggly boyfriend Johnny Argent during the latter concoction, and he's tagging along on this one, too.

"Let's face it, she's challenging," Johnny says within punching range of his girl.

"In what way am I challenging?" she demands.

"You are a total bitch -- sometimes," he says before she's shown yelling at him in video from their previous show. Roseanne then laughs. In the old days, in tow with ex-husband Tom Arnold, she might have belted him with a baseball bat and then spit on him. But Roseanne, 58, apparently has mellowed.

This is a very low-rent proposition, with Roseanne firing a shotgun at a wild, nut-eating pig in the early going before later attempting a "psychic interaction" with her nemesis rather than have it killed for dinner by son Jake and son-in-law Jeff.

It's all very transparently staged, even within the very forgiving parameters of the phony reality realm. How on earth are they going to fill 16 episodes with this stuff? Part of the filler in Episode 1 is a shot of Roseanne relaxing in a short skirt, with her crotch area digitalized. Even the European version isn't gonna want to go there.

Roseanne professes to hate Hollywood and all its phoniness, even though her at times perceptive son notes that she has camera crews following her every move down on the nut farm.

"If I still like this place in a year, I'll stay with it," she tells Jake. For now at least, "the solution to all the world's problems starts with my nuts."

Roseanne's Nuts lasts for only about 20 minutes per episode after the ads and teases are accounted for. Still, the content is so thin that scenes leading to commercial breaks are repeated immediately after them. Just in case you can't keep up with the "storyline."

Barr is still rolling in dough, or so she says. But her thirst for the spotlight, if not Hollywood's trappings, apparently will lead this onetime comedy giant to do just about anything. Sad. Still, it's no one's fault but hers.

"One of the bastards came over and took a dump right on my front porch," she says of the wild pigs that now serve as her comedic foils.

Roseanne's Nuts is her way of taking a dump in your living room.

GRADE: D-minus

TNT takes ownership of Mondays with women-powered returns of The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles

Heroine addicts get two hours worth, starting Monday. TNT photos

The straw that first stirred the "We Know Drama" drink begins its last season on TNT while the network's resident ratings champ fires up Season 2.

That makes Monday (July 11th) quite a night for both TNT and distaff cops, with Kyra Sedgwick's The Closer (8 p.m. central) tackling a crime scene stocked with seven dead bodies before Rizzoli & Isles (9 p.m.) opts for single-victim car explosions.

The Closer is to TNT what The Shield was to FX and Mad Men is to AMC. It proved to be the branding iron TNT needed to launch a wealth of subsequent original series under the network's self-assured, tight-lipped slogan. Now comes its seventh and final go-around, with 10 new hours this summer and an unspecified number of "additional episodes" in winter before next year's last gasp.

It's the one troublesome aspect of The Closer, whose recurring split seasons no doubt have been confusing/irritating to fans and injurious to the show's overall ratings strength. Rizzoli & Isles, co-starring Dallas native Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, is now TNT's undisputed ratings champ, setting an advertiser-supported cable network record with an average of 8.8 million viewers per episode in last summer's first season. Thirteen episodes have been ordered for Season 2.

Sedgwick's sweets-loving, tart-tongued Brenda Leigh Johnson is under the gun in Monday's season opener. A bloody crime scene at a rapper's digs re-tests her whodunit skills while a civil lawsuit and a reorganization of her LAPD Major Crimes Unit also hang over her head.

"It's so infuriatin' to work so hard for so long with so little appreciation from people," she carps to husband/FBI agent Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney). They then turn to other matters of a more personal nature after Fritz notes that he's naked in bed for a reason. Brenda's all-business demeanor still allows for a little pleasure, although not nearly as often as her more even-keeled hubby would like.

The series' other regular characters also return, several of them notably graying while Brenda's hair retains every last inch of its auburn. Added as a weekly presence is Mary McDonnell, who had a recurring role for the past two seasons as Capt. Sharon Raydor. She'd become friends with Brenda, but now is spearheading a divisive internal investigation.

Brenda's interrogating skills as usual pan out in the end, with a terrific performance under pressure by the eventual confessing assailant. Given the upsides of jury trials these days, no murderer in his or her right mind would fess up to anything. But this is television.

The episode ends with a departmental jolt that will carry over into next Monday's episode. Then it's on to Rizzoli & Isles, where Harmon's Boston-based police detective, Jane Rizzoli, is still on the mend both mentally and physically three months after a climactic Season 1 shootout. Eight people died, five of them bad guys. Rizzoli took a bullet in her slim, trim side.

Persnickety, high-style medical examiner Maura Isles (Alexander) is aghast at the mess in Rizzoli's living room and determined that she return to the living and show up in uniform to be honored at a "Salute to Heroes" event. She also inquires, "When was your last bowel movement?" That's what friends are for.

Then comes bad news on two fronts. Rizzoli's high-strung mother, Angela (Lorraine Braco), faces a sudden domestic crisis while a co-hero from the war in Afghanistan meets a sudden and grisly end. This spurs Rizzoli back into action as both a crimefighter and bedmate of an ex-boyfriend who's now a sergeant major on leave. Mom of course busts in on them. That's what moms are for.

Harmon remains in fine gravelly-voiced form, playing Rizzoli to the hilt without hamming it up. Alexander also has her moments, even if their one-upping banter a times gets a little too forced.

Rizzoli & Isles otherwise measures up and at this point has surpassed The Closer as a summertime crime excursion. Both are well-executed and thoroughly watchable, giving TNT a big Monday night advantage over anything the Big Four broadcast networks can offer. Why succumb to The Bachelorette when you instead can watch three women call the shots in far more convincing fashion?

CBS veteran Harry Smith opts for possible greener pastures at NBC

Harry Smith as interim anchor of the CBS Evening News. Photo: Ed Bark

CBS News just wasn't wild enough about Harry, who instead is taking his talents to rival NBC.

As reported by Reuters Friday, Harry Smith will be leaving after a quarter-century with CBS. He began his tenure in 1986 as a member of the network's Dallas bureau, and is married to former WFAA8 sports anchor/reporter Andrea Joyce.

Smith, 59, had been removed from CBS Early Show team after a lengthy tenure, and recently was interim anchor of the CBS Evening News after Katie Couric's departure. But CBS passed Smith over for the permanent job, instead installing former KXAS/WFAA reporter Scott Pelley as Couric's replacement.

NBC News reportedly will announce Monday that Smith is joining Nightly News anchor Brian Williams on a new prime-time news magazine show in development. Williams will continue to preside over Nightly News.

In a memo to staffers, CBS News president David Rhodes confirmed Smith's departure and praised him for an "extraordinary contribution" to the network. But he's "decided to move on," as Rhodes put it.

Syfy's Alphas is too much of a z-z-z-z-z-z

David Strathairn tries to stand tall amid his five prodigies. Syfy photo

Premiering: Monday, July 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: David Strathairn, Malik Yoba, Azita Ghanizada, Laura Mennell, Warren Christie, Ryan Cartwright
Produced by: Gail Berman, Lloyd Braun, Gene Stein, Zak Penn, Ira Steven Behr

Although he's primarily been a stalwart supporting actor in feature films, David Strathairn clearly is the alpha male of Syfy's Alphas.

So it's a shame that his lead dog character has little bite and and less edge than a rubber knife. Bill Pullman goes against type to emote the hell out of his sinister character on Starz's new Torchwood: Miracle Day. Strathairn for the most part is a bland nurturer on Alphas, which launches on Monday, July 11th at 9 p.m. (central) with a 90-minute pilot.

It's not for lack of screen time. Bearded and bespectacled, Strathairn is front and center as a health-conscious neurophysiologist named Dr. Lee Rosen. His team, secretly operating within the Department of Defense, initially consists of four young proteges with exceptional gifts. A fifth is recruited during the course of Monday's opener, which at best is mildly entertaining. Syfy has ordered a total of 12 episodes.

Rosen also gets barked at periodically -- and prototypically -- by a gruff, skeptical law enforcer named Bill Wilson (Callum Keith Rennie). But their exchanges aren't exactly pulsating.

All right, let's get it over with and meet the team.

***Bill Harken (Malik Yorba) is a burly former FBI agent with "enhanced strength from fight or flight response." In other words, he "Hulks out" on occasion without turning green. But he does sweat profusely.

Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) has developed the ability to "hyper-intensify her senses one at a time while rendering the others useless." This enables her to trace clues to their original source. It's sort of like a TV critic tuning out Syfy's hype for Alphas while enduring the show itself.

***Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) is a high-functioning autistic teen who's also a "tranducer." This allows him to "read a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies, including television, radio and cell phone signals." He likely could blog, tweet, play around on youtube and answer email all at the same time, making Gary an ideal intern for unclebarky.com if he weren't so intent on catching bad guys or getting on Harken's nerves.

***Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell) is an "influencer" whose powers of suggestion make you do whatever you're told. Such as a traffic cop eating a ticket after she tells him to do just that. Too bad she had no sway over the Casey Anthony jury.

Monday's premiere episode also introduces a grocery store worker named Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie), who initially is programmed to be an assassin by some guy with a bad-looking festering wound on his hand. Hicks eventually is rescued by Dr. Rosen, who diagnoses him with hyperkinesis. This gives the Alphas something they didn't have before -- a guy with a flawless aim and perfect balance. Or as the doc tells him, "You have a neurological difference that confers some exceptional advantage. But you are not alone." Perhaps his real powers lie in not falling asleep while getting this info. from his ponderous new mentor.

All of the Alphas are prone to freaking out on a moment's notice. Particularly Harken, it seems. But things just don't jell very well on any level in the all-important introductory episode. Viewers aren't likely to have the worst of times watching it, but definitely not the best of times either. Alphas looks fairly good on paper, but never catches fire. And its use of Strathairn is even more of a fizzle.


It's a star player for Starz with Torchwood: Miracle Day

Torchwood's John Barrowman, Mekhi Phifer, Eve Myles. Starz photo

Premiering: Friday, July 8th at 9 p.m. (central) on Starz
Starring: John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Mekhi Phifer, Kai Owen, Alexa Havins, Bill Pullman, Lauren Ambrose, Arlene Tur
Produced by: Russell T. Davies, Jane Trantner, Julie Gardner

Crackling good in its best moments but always suitably crisp, Torchwood: Miracle Day gives the durable sci-fi series its fourth go-around on as many different networks.

Its latest home base is cable's extra pay Starz, which someday in the not terribly distant future hopes to be a formidable rival to longstanding "premium" networks HBO and Showtime.

Series such as the 10-episode Miracle Day (premiering Friday, July 8th at 9 p.m. central) might well accelerate this quest for parity. These tales of a secret British organization founded in 1879 to defend humankind against extraterrestrial threats are avidly anticipated by a growing fan base that followed the first three installments from BBC Three to BBC Two to BBC One.

The Americanized fourth series, largely set in the U.S., retains three original cast members -- John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Kai Owen --- while making some strong additions. Its premise is instantly intriguing. A day dawns when nobody dies -- anywhere in the world. And then this keeps happening -- day after day after day. At such rates, 300,000 earthlings would be reprieved on a daily basis in what adds up to the ultimate population explosion.

One of the spared is Oswald Danes, played in thoroughly creepy fashion by Bill Pullman. Convicted of raping and murdering a 12-year-old girl, Danes is on the receiving end of a lethal injection during the first so-called "Miracle Day." He survives and then is freed on what he calls "the most beautiful technicality." Namely that he's already received his punishment -- and nothing went wrong in the process. I'm not entirely buying this. But Pullman plays this character so vividly that a suspension of disbelief seems like an acceptable trade-off.

Phifer's character, CIA agent Rex Matheson, likewise is among the living after suffering a hellish hole in his chest during a car accident. Still in serious pain, he's determined to exposes whatever forces are behind Miracle Day. His CIA pal is dogged young Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins). Both end up being teamed with Torchwood veterans Jack Harkness (Barrowman) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles).

The jaunty Harkness is both bisexual and immortal, but not a vampire. Cooper, new mother of a baby girl, is married to truck driver and ad hoc Torchwood insider Rhys Williams (Kai Owen). They've been in hiding in order to be free and clear of all things Torchwood. But when duty calls, Cooper is jetted to the U.S. while her husband is left holding the baby back home in Wales. Meanwhile, Harkness finds that he's suddenly a mortal amid immortals.

Also in this mix is Lauren Ambrose, who played the ever-troubled Claire Fisher on Six Feet Under. She re-emerges as a very aggressive public relations mastermind named Jilly Kitzinger. Ambrose looks luminous in this role, with her bright red lipstick and house afire hair mixing perfectly with an all-in attitude. As do Pullman and Phifer, she makes a strong first impression -- and then keeps delivering in scene after scene.

One bit of guest casting doesn't work, though. Wayne Knight, who came to fame as the scheming "Newman" on Seinfeld, simply isn't believable for a second as a co-opted CIA chieftain. Thankfully his scenes are minimal.

The first three episodes sent for review move along briskly if sometimes a bit too preposterously, even for Touchwood. Harkness and Drummond survive a multi-story leap into a shallow outdoor fountain without so much as a broken bone between them. Kitzinger seems to be everywhere, popping into scenes out of nowhere. Danes sustains a severe below-the-neck beating from two cops before he's good as new in just a few hours time. And remember, pain is still part of the equation, even if death isn't.

Still, this is all very invigorating and enjoyable, with some spiked social commentary also in play. In Episode 2, for instance, Danes has just finished a television interview in which he tearfully and repeatedly says he's sorry for his crimes.

He then runs into Kitzinger, who praises his "performance" after noting that "I'm something of a talent-spotter."

He claims it wasn't a performance, prompting her to ask incredulously, "You didn't get paid for that?"

"It was a news show. They don't pay," Danes says.

Kitzinger understandably finds this hysterically funny, as should we all in light of what ABC's Chris Cuomo recently had to say on the current state of pay-for-play journalism at the network level.

Miracle Day also sets up a scenario for universal health care in light of the increasing number of living dead crying out for pain relief. But a sinister pharmaceutical company named Phicorp puts forth its own better idea -- prescription-free drug dispensing that would bypass doctors. Hmm, did Phicorp have advanced knowledge of Miracle Day -- and ratchet up its drug stockpile accordingly?

Starz is without advertiser constraints on content, as the ultra-graphic sex, language and violence on Spartacus: Blood and Sand demonstrated in full measure. But Miracle Day is basically chaste so far, with no dicey language and a pair of intertwined sex scenes that likely also would make the cut on advertiser-supported cable networks such as FX or TNT.

This certainly doesn't make the series any less watchable or entertaining. In fact, it might be considered noble restraint on the part of Starz, which has a summertime winner here on the strength of strong acting, engaging writing and an immediately gripping premise. So life goes on for the Torchwood franchise. And this time they really mean it.

GRADE: A-minus

So how much did ABC News pay this time?

Juror Jennifer Ford on Wednesday's Primetime Nightline. Photo: Ed Bark

Wonder how much they paid for this one?

It's become a back-of-the-mind question whenever ABC News in particular touts an "Exclusive" interview. The network did it again Wednesday night with a Primetime Nightline edition built around co-anchor Terry Moran's one-on-one sitdown with Casey Anthony trial juror Jennifer Ford.

ABC News isn't alone in this practice. But thanks to 20/20 co-anchor Chris Cuomo, it is on the record as saying that such arrangements have become a very common practice in the business of "Big Get" journalism.

Cuomo is the son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo and brother of the state's current governor, Andrew Cuomo. Last month on CNN's Reliable Sources Chris said he had no problem with ABC paying $15,000 for exclusive "lewd" photos provided by Meagan Broussard. She first had received them from Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, the serial tweeter who specialized in showing off his body to various women of interest.

"The commercial exigencies of the business reach into every aspect of reporting now," Cuomo told Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz. "It is my decision. I'm the anchor of 20/20. I could have said, 'Don't do it.' I don't because it is the state of play right now. I wish it were not. I wish money was not in the game. But you know, it's going to go somewhere else. You know someone else is going to pay for the same things."

In return for a $15,000 payment, Broussard subsequently did an exclusive interview with ABC. Networks had lied for years about "not paying for interviews." The dirty little secret -- although it didn't take a Sherlock Holmes to puzzle this out -- is that they technically paid for other considerations, with the recipient fully understanding that an interview also was expected as part of the package.

Jurors in the Casey Anthony trial, which ended in her acquittal on three counts of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, initially declined to talk to the media. So why did Ford come forward only on ABC News rather than answering questions at a news conference? Was there something in it for her, other than getting numerous close-up shots on national television? Did any or all of her fellow 11 jurors get a cut as part of this arrangement? Maybe not, maybe so. But such questions now have become part of the conversation.

ABC News also is touting World News anchor Diane Sawyer's "exclusive" interview with Jaycee Dugard on a two-hour special edition of Primetime scheduled to air on Sunday, July 10th. Now 31, she was held captive for 18 years by Phillip and Nancy Garrido. This will be her first interview.

According to a story in The New York Times, ABC News denies paying Dugard for the interview. But that same story, published on June 12th, cites an unnamed "former longtime ABC News executive" who says the network earlier paid a six-figure amount for home movies of Dugard.

During Wednesday's Primetime Nightline, anchor Moran noted in passing that a licensing fee had been paid for home movies of Caylee provided by Casey Anthony's parents. Specifically, $200,000 was paid for footage that previously had aired across ABC News "platforms" and was recycled on Primetime Nightline. The Times says that the fee paid by ABC eventually "found its way" into Casey Anthony's defense fund. For shame.

NBC news also has been an able and willing participant in these escalating "checkbook journalism" wars. It just hasn't been as forthright about it as Cuomo, who likely was called in by his bosses and verbally slapped around after his candid comments on Reliable Sources.

The Peacock lately is touting its "exclusive" live interview with "Octomom" Nadya Suleman on Friday's Today. She'll be bringing her octuplets, plus her two oldest children, for the "first-ever live in-studio" sitdown featuring the kids, NBC says. Today co-host Ann Curry again will be the conduit.

Suleman lately has been claiming she's broke. So is NBC helping her out a bit? Curry had a previous round of Octomom "exclusives" in February 2009, with the network insisting that "NBC News does not and will not pay for interviews." As earlier noted, that's a frequently used subterfuge, with "other considerations" instead coming into play when it comes to landing big fish.

In return for paydays, do the subjects of such exclusives ramp up their stories? Can they be trusted to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth when a network demands the "juice" in return for payment in full? Several years from now, will anyone involved in a big national -- or local -- story be willing to go on-camera without some sort of payday in return?

Ironically, money is being funneled to news sources at the same time that layoffs are an ever-present threat to TV news staffs. And if indeed it's the "state of play," then there's no end in sight. After all, we're a society built on truth, justice -- and greed. So the standard answer to "Will you do an interview with us?" is more than ever going to be "What's in it for me?" And we're all going to be poorer for it.

We've got Kaboom Town, but . . . how do you top this?

CBS, NBC and PBS went head-to-head Fourth of July night with The Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, The Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular and A Capitol Fourth 2011.

Their super-vivid vivid HD presentations made it almost as good as being there. Or even better if you'd just as soon not battle the traffic, the heat and assorted flying bugs. (Although NBC did have an annoyingly large on-screen "LIVE" bug with animated sparkler attached.)

Anyway, take a look at some of what you might have missed. Through the miracle of unclebarky.com frame grab technology, the images respectively are from CBS, NBC and PBS. Hope you had a great Fourth!
Ed Bark