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King leaving his court after a quarter century on CNN

Larry King on Tuesday night's very eventful show. Photo: Ed Bark

The Larry King farewell tour is now in progress.

Beset by all-time low ratings, more highly publicized marital woes and the growing perception that time has passed him by, the 76-year-old King announced Tuesday on CNN's Larry King Live that he'll be leaving the show sometime this fall.

Bill Maher, a longtime friend of King's, was belatedly summoned as a special guest Tuesday. "Well, maximum November," King said when Maher asked him to be more specific on how long he'll stay with Larry King Live.

That's not an Oprah-esque long goodbye, but it does give ample time for repeated trips down memory lane and last visits by an assembly line of big-name guests. On Tuesday's show alone, Nancy Reagan, Regis Philbin and Diane Sawyer phoned in to commiserate. Maher also fake-wept at show's end.

King said he'll still be doing occasional specials for CNN after first joining the network in 1985. He also said it was his call to end Larry King Live after Maher told him, "I hope you're doing this of your own volition and not because of what the media says."

"It has nothing to do with it," King replied. "There was no pressure from CNN. I don't pay attention to that. I love what I do. But it was time, Bill. It was time. It was just time."

King said his exit package was "put together in for or five days" and that "I'd like to stay in some way with CNN."

He also expressed a desire to "spend more time with the wife, more time with the kids, more time to do other things. In other words, I can do things now that I wasn't able to do before. It's nice. There's a freedom."

King has been married eight times to seven women, with former Playboy bunny Alene Akins joining him at the altar twice. Latest wife Shawn Southwick and King jointly filed for divorce in mid-April, but reportedly have at least temporarily stopped the proceedings. In May she was hospitalized after over-dosing on sleeping pills.

CNN recently tried to bolster both King's ratings and audience demographics by matching him up with the 10 American Idol finalists and Lady Gaga.

"I did hear people say, you know, well, Larry didn't really understand Lady Gaga," Maher said. "Who understands Lady Gaga? Please."

"I liked her," said King.

Tuesday's announcement came on the same day that second-place MSNBC (running well behind Fox News Channel) issued a press release crowing about its latest prime-time victories over "the formerly dominant news network."

In the second quarter of 2010 (April-June), Larry King Live had its worst showings ever in both total viewers and 25-to-54-year-olds, the main advertiser target audience for news programming. King averaged just 674,000 total viewers opposite MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show (995,000), according to data from Nielsen Media Research. And with 25-to-54-year-olds, Maddow drew 255,000 to King's 176,000.

At the height of its powers -- and they were considerable -- Larry King Live drew a then cable record 16.3 million viewers for a contentious 1993 NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot. He also was the show of choice during the 1992 presidential election, with Perot announcing his candidacy on King Live while President George Bush and challenger Bill Clinton were repeated guests.

Few really believe that King is exiting entirely by choice. His latest contract wasn't set to expire until June 2011, but CNN is under increased pressure to halt its continued ratings slide. So much so that the network recently hired former disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer to co-host a prime-time Crossfire-like show with conservative columnist Kathleen Parker.

King has said that his personal choice to succeed him is Idol host Ryan Seacrest. Other names dropped in the hopper include Katie Couric and Piers Morgan, currently a judge on NBC's America's Got Talent.

In his opening remarks Tuesday, King noted he's "incredibly proud that we recently made the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest-running show with the same host in the same slot on the same network. With that chapter closing, I'm looking forward to the future, what my next chapter will bring. But for now, for here, it's time to hang up the nightly suspenders."

Late night talk show hosts quickly went into a semblance of mourning, with The Late Late Show's Craig Ferguson beginning Tuesday's monologue by lamenting the impending departure of his favorite comedic target.

Here's video of King's July 2009 appearance on Late Late Show, where Ferguson treats his guest to a segment of Larry King of The Jungle.

DVD review: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Atwater at the height of his powers and in the shadow of death.

Newly available on DVD, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story ($24.95 retail) is a cautionary but never outdated primer on how to win elections by any means necessary.

Its title character is a blues-loving son of the South who never met an opponent's jugular he didn't like. He's been gone but not forgotten for nearly two decades after a cancerous brain tumor took his life at age 40. Were he still slingin' the B.S., Atwater would be just 59 and ready for lots more fun in this year's sure-to-be-dirty mid-term elections.

The 88-minute film, directed by Stefan Forbes and shown at the 2008 Dallas Video Festival, vividly portrays a hyper-active Republican campaign strategist adept at playing the media like a banjo in addition to capably wielding his electric guitar. At his zenith, Atwater managed the successful 1988 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, who won in part by portraying opponent Michael Dukakis as a soft-on-crime governor whose lax "furlough" program allowed the likes of Willie Horton to run free and murder again.

Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, are interviewed anew. As is the first opponent that Atwater brought down, South Carolina congressional candidate Tom Turnipseed. The seed was planted that he'd had electroshock treatments as a teenager, which he did. But in a session with reporters, Atwater chose to say that Turnipseed had been "hooked up to jumper cables."

"I'm laughin' now. But it ain't funny," Turnipseed says.

Colorful, accessible and ever-willing to plant a juicy story, Atwater was well-liked by many reporters. One of his proteges, Karl Rove, turned out to not be all that much fun at all. But Atwater had the common touch and the willingness to glad-hand.

"He understood that the media beast can only be chewing on on one ankle at a time," says veteran political reporter Howard Fineman, himself a TV gadfly of the first order. "Make sure the ankle is the other guy's."

Atwater's first mentor was Strom Thurmond, the old-line bigot who became somewhat refined in his dotage. He later worked in the administration of President Ronald Reagan as an aide to fellow campaign mastermind Ed Rollins. Almost benignly profane in the film, Rollins recounts how Atwater "betrayed" him during Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign before eventually getting what he wanted -- full control of George Bush Sr.'s 1988 run.

Atwater soon became fast friends with George W. Bush, a kindred hell-raiser who is shown defending his pal's aggressive campaign tactics by saying, "I don't think it's strident. I think that's a mis-adjective."

Shortly after his triumphant gyrations and guitar-playing at Bush Sr.'s inaugural ball, Atwater learned he had a cancerous brain tumor. His face became grotesquely bloated from steroids and his demeanor changed from cocksure to repentant. Before his death, Atwater wrote letters of apology to many of his old adversaries, including Drinkwater.

"Fear had been a part of his tool kit. That fear came back on him," says Republican consultant Tucker Eskew, who admired Atwater and went on to help shepherd Sarah Palin's vice presidential campaign.

Atwater died on March 29, 1991. Sorting through his belongings, Rollins said that the bible he claimed to have read religiously in his last months had never been taken out of its cellophane package.

"He was spinning right to the end," Rollins said, providing the film with its last words.

The title of the film comes from longtime Republican strategist Mary Matalin, who says the media "had to kill the messenger because they couldn't kill the message. They had to turn him (Atwater) into the boogie man."

Still, this is no out-and-out hatchet job. Atwater overall can be seen as an intrinsically insecure over-achiever who experienced tragedy at an early age when his three-year-old little brother, Joe, pulled on the cord of a deep fryer. Its contents scalded him to death, and Atwater told intimates that he regularly heard his brother's screams from that day on.

His credo, as a political operative, was brief and to the point: "Your job is to stick it to them first."

He became a maestro at it. And one Republican ally says to this day that Bill Clinton never would have beaten George Bush Sr. had Atwater been alive to run his re-election campaign.

We'll never know for sure. But Boogie Man leave little doubt that the Clintons would have had their hands full.

GRADE: A-minus

Brace yourselves: FX's Louie can be very dangerously funny

Louis C.K. stands up for himself in his favorite lair. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, June 29th at 10 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on FX
Starring: Louis C.K.
Produced by: Louis C.K., Dave Becky, M. Blair Breard, Pamela Adlon

The popular conception about standup comics is that they're seriously screwed up on a multitude of levels. Bitter, angry, insecure, incapable of sustaining relationships and functioning best onstage or among fellow comedians, where misery loves company.

Louis C.K. fits right in, ending the second episode of Tuesday night's double-barreled premiere of FX's Louie with a riff on how he'd love to be intimate with animals, particularly monkeys.

"The only reason I don't have sex with animals," he tells a laughing/groaning Comedy Cellar audience, "is because I'm not supposed to, and someone told it to me."

Don't be unduly put off. After a relatively tame opening episode, Louie hits its jaw-dropping stride with a half-hour titled "Poker/Divorce." Airing opposite the relatively cuddly late night offerings of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert, it begins with an incredibly graphic discussion of gay sex at a poker game populated by comics.

One of them is gay, and his explanations of "City Jerks" and the origin of the term "faggot" obviously are not for everyone. But his discourse -- and I'm groping for words here -- is not without both depth and meaning. In fact, this is an all together stunning segment -- offensive, instructive and funny for those willing to listen and learn. FX has dutifully affixed the TV-MA tag, which virtually all of its series carry. But TV-XXX would be more fitting in this case.

Louis C.K. (his birth surname is Szekely) has waited a while for his second starring role in a weekly TV series. HBO took a chance in 2006's Lucky Louie, a profane, hit-over-the-head sitcom that was modeled after The Honeymooners and marked the network's first and so far last show taped before a studio audience. It was canceled after one season, and Louis C.K.'s only prime-time series work since then has been a recurring role on NBC's Parks & Recreation.

FX initially had scheduled Louie for a March premiere, but instead opted for a late June launch in tandem with Season 6 of Rescue Me, which precedes it Tuesday night. The pilot episode was filmed when Louie was 41. In the second episode he states his age as 42. Time flies when you're waiting for a series pickup. For the record, FX has ordered 13 episodes.

Whatever his current age -- he'll be 43 in mid-September -- Louis C.K. plays himself. This includes frequent references to his 2008 divorce and his shared custody of the two young daughters they previously raised together.

Episodes divide their time between Louis C.K.'s standup act at Manhattan's Comedy Cellar and two short films that further telescope his travails. Tuesday's opener has a moderately amusing depiction of a school field trip gone awry and a funnier look at a date that also becomes a disaster.

The second episode is the game-changer, though. Following the aforementioned poker game is a longer film about his finalized divorce and latter day reunion with Tammy Wickilinis. She's a tough-talking grade school looker who kept ordering him to "whip it out" when they were classmates. This one has a happier ending, even if Louie C.K. remains pretty pathetic.

There are no other regular characters in Louie, which also is produced, written, directed and edited by its namesake. So it's all on him. And in Tuesday's second episode, he's all in when it comes to no doubt repulsing some viewers while at the same time converting others.

As one who despised his HBO sitcom, I'm a convert so far with Louie. This is crazily daring TV with a point of view and a dysfunctional mess of a comedian at its core. In some ways at least, it doesn't get any better than that.


Get real: Boston Med gives ABC a hospital series with a wealth of unscripted drama

Steady hands, steadier camera on Boston Med. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, June 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Staffers and patients at three prestigious Boston hospitals
Produced by: Terence Wrong

ER "Nurse of the Year" Amanda Grabowski is a classic TV character, even though she very much exists in real life.

Fast forward to Episode 3 of Boston Med, ABC's latest summertime docudrama from filmmaker Terence Wrong. Grabowski, in a reference to ABC's Grey's Anatomy, is discoursing on "hospital cute" vs. overall coolness outside the workplace.

"You know what," she tells a grinning co-worker. "There's no McDreamys or McSteamys walkin' around here. There's McDumb. McDud."

Grabowski is pleasantly-looking herself. And her blanket statement doesn't quite hold for a young doc named Rob, who subsequently asks her out and leaves her a bit atwitter at the prospect. After their date -- they take tango lessons with other friends -- Grabowski tells him the next day at Massachusetts General, "You passed. Outside of here, you're like cool, too. All right, go home, go to bed. Now you can sleep soundly."

Boston Med, which will have an eight-episode run starting Thursday, June 24th at 9 p.m. (central), is mostly about the challenging cases confronting the very adept staffs at three of the city's first-rate hospitals. But moments like these give the series an unforced, relatable feel that works very well in small doses. Oh the humanity. You need that, too.

Filmmaker Terence Wrong knows this terrain very well. His first series for ABC, 2000's acclaimed Hopkins 24/7, had a 2008 sequel in Hopkins. Both were produced under the ABC News division, as were 2002's Boston 24/7 (a dissection of the city's local government), 2003's NYPD 24/7 and 2005's Hooking Up, a look at online dating that turned out to be the least of his efforts.

Boston Med spends much of its opening hour on double-lung transplant surgeries and the facial reconstruction of a police officer whose jaw was shattered when shot in the line of duty.

Jaunty surgeon Daniel "Dibar" Dibardino orchestrates the transplants, with viewers also meeting the two recipients. One of them, Mary Ann White, seems sweet as pie. Widowed at age 35, she raised four children on her own before remarrying a guy who's clearly very devoted to her. You want them to get every extra year they can together.

Oral-Maxillofacial surgeon Maria Troulis handles the episode's other major procedure. She seems like a doctor made in heaven, compassionate and remarkably dexterous in removing what seems like a giant-sized, misshapen bullet before stitching everything back together again.

Easy-going Pina Patel, in her fourth and final year of an emergency medicine residency, is also featured in Thursday's first hour. She's still a little uncertain of herself while absorbing both criticism and praise from higher-ups.

Next week's Episode 2 both introduces nurse Grabowski and tugs at emotions with compelling stories of an elderly man with a cancerous mass surrounding his lungs and an expectant mother whose husband is stationed in Iraq and who knows that her firstborn son will have a serious heart condition that demands immediate surgery.

Grabowski, for her part, runs afoul of a college student who nearly drank himself to death. His face is obscured and his name is bleeped -- obviously because he didn't want to be seen this way on national TV.

"He can tell me to go 'f myself' as much as he wants," she says after the patient demands to be released in time to turn in an exam. "I liked him much better when he was unconscious."

Boston Med perhaps deploys a little too much pop mood music for its own good. And the repeated vanity shots of Boston get a bit redundant over time. Fenway Park does look great, though, at the close of Episode 3.

All in all, you'll get more genuine drama in one episode than in an entire summer season of ABC's new Rookie Blue, which premieres on the same night at 8 p.m. Boston Med grabs and holds, gifting viewers with a bracing hot weather "reality" series that for a change gives the genre a good name.

GRADE: A-minus

ABC's Rookie Blue clunks into view

Rookie Blue takes aim, fires blanks. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, June 24th at 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Missy Peregrym, Gregory Smith, Enuka Okuma, Charlotte Sullivan, Travis Milne, Eric Johnson
Produced by: Tassie Cameron, Ilana Frank, David Wellington, Noreen Halpern, John Morayniss

Impossibly good looking and uniformly unfit for duty, the five young guns of Rookie Blue cry out for citizens' arrests.

Instead they'll probably just get canceled.

ABC's third new scripted series of the summer is by far the weakest, dumbest and clumsiest. That includes the network's official character descriptions, which are straight from the Starsky and Hutch era.

Blonde, buxom Gail Peck (Charlotte Sullivan) is "the self-serving politico from cop royalty, whose ambition is so blind that she'll trample anyone who gets in her way."

There's also Dov Epstein (Gregory Smith), billed as "the archetypal thrill-seeker whose attitude stems from being raised by hippie parents."

The titular lead rookie, however, is jittery Andy McNally (Missy Peregrym), whose pop was a less than stellar cop. Her early narration is straight out of the Grey's Anatomy playbook: "We've learned how to shoot and fight and drive a police car really fast."

Actually, they don't seem to have learned much of anything -- Andy especially. Her veteran, semi-gruff partner warns that "people can smell new cops like they can smell fresh paint."

Viewers are soon smelling a bad show, with Andy nervously and breathlessly navigating a first day that includes lethal gunfire from a drug den and her eventual blowing of an undercover cop's cover. Alternately near tears and hyperventilating, Andy ends up confronting an equally nervous kid with a pistol. "Don't make me shoot you. This is my first day," she pleads.

Andy also has a few brief encounters with a suitably hunky plainclothes homicide detective named Luke Callaghan (Eric Johnson). It's clear that they'll inevitably be spending some off-duty time together. For now, though, Rookie Blue begins and ends in a bar, where the five newcomers happily get sloshed without any attention paid as to how they'll all get home without hurting themselves or others.

Not that you'll care.


Memphis Beat tries to give Earl star a new acting rhythm

Jason Lee mixes in a little Elvis on Memphis Beat. TNT photo

Premiering: Tuesday, June 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Jason Lee, Alfre Woodard, Sam Hennings, DJ Qualls, Celia Weston, Leonard Earl Howze, Abraham Benrubi
Produced by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov

Jason Lee has shucked the 'stache but it's still going to take awhile to buy him as a hard-charging, home boy police detective instead of screwed up Earl Hickey.

His new vehicle, after four seasons on NBC's My Name Is Earl, is TNT's Memphis Beat. Lee is trying to settle in as Dwight Hendricks, a cop whose fealty to his city is more than a little over-baked in Tuesday's premiere.

Produced by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and their Smokehouse Pictures, Memphis Beat finds Lee's character throwing himself into Elvis vocals at a local club when he's not upbraiding suspects for failing to respect the city's traditions and legendary figures. One of them, a long-retired famous radio deejay named Dottie Collins, is found mute and badly bruised around the back and shoulders.

Her legacy -- and its importance to him -- has Hendricks pursuing the perpetrator with a zeal that's not initially shared by his new boss, prototypical by-the-booker Tanya Rice (venerable Alfre Woodard). How many times can a TV cop series feed at the trough of this thoroughly watered-down premise? Alas, that's become a rhetorical question.

Other featured cop shop characters include Hendricks' plainclothes partner, Charlie "Whitehead" White (Sam Hennings), and a goofy looking, skin 'n' bones, Barney Fife-ish uniformed cop named Davey Sutton (DJ Qualls).

There's also room made for Hendricks' headstrong mother, (Celia Weston), of whom he's very protective.

Tuesday's opener is subtitled "That's All Right, Mama," with upcoming episodes also taking on Elvis standards such as "Suspicious Minds, Polk Salad Annie" and "Love Me Tender" (modified to "Love Her Tender"). Lee seems to be in fine voice for his climactic nightclub interpretation of "If I Can Dream" while his police pals beam with approval. Except that it's not in fact him singing, he told zap2it.com.

Lee obviously wants to dodge any life-long acting ties to Earl Hickey. It's just not jelling for him yet, though. And the show itself is too self-conciously steeped in made-for-TV "authenticity" to work for Memphis the way HBO's Treme does for New Orleans.

Things obviously could get better in time. For starters, though, the timing's off.


ABC tries to reinvigorate summertime Sundays with new/noteworthy The Gates and Scoundrels

Willful women: Rhona Mitra and Virginia Madsen of The Gates and Scoundrels. Both summer dramas premiere Sunday night. ABC photos

Both Scoundrels and The Gates fall into the "not bad, not bad at all" category.

And when you're talking summertime scripted hours, that's a pretty big endorsement. On the Big Four broadcast networks, most hot weather fare is of the cost-efficient, light as a feather "reality" genre.

But ABC bracingly is trying something quite different in what could be a new way to program Sunday night with a year-long menu of serial dramas.

First of all, it bears repeating that serial dramas do not repeat well. That's why ABC's two Sunday night mainstays -- Desperate Housewives and Brothers & Sisters -- are not part of the summer mix while reruns of "procedural," self-contained crime dramas such as the CSI franchise and The Mentalist are very much a part of CBS' year-around programming strategy.

But what if ABC decided to keep Scoundrels and The Gates in play for say, 13 new episodes each summer after DH and B&S finish their runs? Cable networks do this all the time, with TNT alone starting fresh seasons of The Closer, Leverage and HawthoRNe in June/July while also launching a pair of new dramas -- Memphis Beat and Rizzoli & Isles.

Couldn't ABC do the same? Or would it follow the traditional broadcast pattern of immediately earmarking one or both summer dramas as midseason replacements if they create a stir in the ratings?

Scoundrels, starring Virginia Madsen in showy and effective form, premieres at 8 p.m. (central) on Sunday, June 20th in the DH slot. The Gates, with a breakout performance by Rhona Mitra as a seductive vampire, follows at 9 p.m. in place of B&S.

It initially was supposed to be the other way around, but ABC wisely decided to move The Gates back an hour to keep it from directly competing with HBO's vampire hour, Season 3 of True Blood.

ABC has heavily promoted both series. So perhaps you've seen Madsen's clarion call -- "C'mon!" -- while she's in bed with her criminally minded husband. It's also been hard to miss Mitra sinking her fangs into an unsuspecting male meal on those spots for The Gates.

The Gates turns out to have a bit better opening episode, even if you think you've seen it all where vampires are concerned. The title refers to a well-sculpted suburban community where workaholic cop Nick Monahan (Frank Grillo), wife Sarah (Marisol Nichols) and their two kids have come to get a fresh start.

The Gates is supposed to be a walk in the park for the new police chief. But it's instead infested by vampires who so far have managed to work around the community's virtually all-seeing surveillance cameras.

Claire Radcliff (Mitra) is married to fellow vamp Dylan Radcliff (Luke Mably), who's been striving to make her walk the straight and narrow. Instead bad things happen when a salesman has a car accident outside their home. He's bleeding, she's lusting and that's not a good thing for his neck. Monahan is soon investigating and obsessing again, setting up an interesting double dynamic of very different discontented spouses.

Sarah Monahan upbraids her husband for already showing signs of reneging on their "second chance." She implores him to be a husband and father -- "not just a cop."

Claire blames her husband for stifling her urges and making her subsist on blood he brings home from a lab. He says that their "little girl upstairs" needs them to be an anchored, well-behaved family. "You always blame me," Claire retorts. "You never take responsibility. Never. You did this to me. You made me who I am."

This is pretty good stuff. And by the end of the hour, it's also a hard-to-resist invitation to come back for more.

Scoundrels also has some major family issues. The Wests are thieves specializing in home invasions and sales of the property they steal. But Wolfgang "Wolf" West (David James Elliott) is headed off to jail for what he thinks will be a very short time. It's not. This leaves Cheryl West (Madsen) to ostensibly run the family business on her own. Instead she's determined to get out, taking her four children along for this uncertain ride into a life shorn of crime.

ABC saves on cast costs by tabbing Patrick Flueger to play both disheveled, long-haired Calvin "Cal" West and his straight arrow brother, Logan, who's being sworn in as an attorney. There's also nubile, vacuous Heather West (Leven Rambin), who aspires to be a scantily clad model and lately has been compiling a portfolio.

"When I told you to get off your butt, I did not mean to put it on exhibit," mom barks.

Younger sis Hope (Vanessa Marano) is a far brainier high school con artist who tries to calm fears that she'll end up like her sister.

"It's too late," she says. "I've already read more than one book."

The overriding reason to watch, though, is Madsen, who commands this opening hour with a vivid, take-charge performance. She's easy too root for, whether dressing down the kids or briefly weeping after belatedly discovering that her jailed husband isn't quite the man she's loved all these years. In that respect, Scoundrels has elements of CBS' The Good Wife, with a duplicitous, wrongdoing husband behind bars while his spouse strikes out on her own.

Carlos Bernard, best known as the ever-swervy Tony Almeida on 24, also has a regular role as a police sergeant intent on busting the Wests. His presence in the opener is minimal, but likely to grow now that Wolf West is incarcerated.

Whatever their ratings fates, both Scoundrels and The Gates register as much more than summer throwaways that weren't good enough to make the regular season cut. Maybe a new way of programming is dawning at ABC. It's long past time for that.

The Gates -- B+
Scoundrels -- B

Showtime adds The Real L Word, but subtracts the nudity

The cast of The Real L Word. Don't expect to see more. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 20th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Tracy, Rose, Mikey, Nikki, Jill and Whitney
Produced by: Ilene Chaiken

Whatever your sexuality, perhaps you'll be expecting Showtime's The Real L Word to be, you know, a little more revealing than it is.

But what actresses did during six seasons on The L Word isn't what real-life lesbians do on this nine-episode spinoff. So don't get your expectations raised -- so to speak.

The first two episodes sent for review flaunt the language expected from a premium pay network without any advertisers to offend. But the above publicity photo is more provocative than anything you'll otherwise see. Participants on HBO's long-running Real Sex are more than happy to disrobe. Not so the six featured lesbians on The Real L Word, whose almost comically chaste bedroom scenes show less flesh than your basic daytime soap opera. Or pool party. Or walk around the block on a hot summer day. It's like The A-Team without explosions.

Maybe this all sounds a little sexist. But men weren't the only ones watching The L Word for its recurring skin eruptions. Ilene Chaiken, creator/producer of both versions, had no reservations with the original, telling The Village Voice in a 2005 interview that "lesbians, in particular, have never had their sexual desires represented on screen -- or rarely, I should say -- and they just clamor for love scenes, and diverse love scenes."

You'll get a little smooching in Real L Word. But the curtain is always drawn -- or the scene shifted -- when the action seems to be heating up. Participants otherwise seem to be wearing more clothes in bed than nuns do in convents. So yeah, it feels like kind of a cheat, with the six often tough-talking gay women of The Real L Word down-shifting from R-rated to G- when the sheets hit their fan base.

Showtime press materials say that the sometimes intertwined adventures of Tracy, Rose, Mikey, Nikki, Jill and Whitney will show "that these lesbian women can be every bit as fashionable, fabulous and even as cutthroat as those hetero housewives."

Well, Mikey and Whitney certainly are profane, dropping f-bombs with abandon but not with appeal. Whitney, a heavily tatooed playa, mouths one of her more printable proclamations during the show's opening introductions. "I love women, and not in a douche bag-y way," she says.

Whitney also recalls a tryst in which her lover wanted a little whipped cream put into play. But she didn't have any, "so I put sour cream on her boobs." Don't expect any reenactments. Don't even expect any of the featured women to get in the mood by tonguing a Hershey's Kiss.

Whitney is a "special effects artist" by trade and Mikey is a producer of L.A. Fashion Weekend. The latter lets loose with a withering fusillade of f-bombs when a batch of inferior models is sent her way. At that point you might want to root against her ever finding happiness -- if you can manage to care a whit.

Manager/producer Nikki had a husband for a brief time before coming out on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her current lover and fiancee is Jill, a writer with a limited income who frets about spending too much on their wedding.

Rose, a free-spirited, hard-drinking party hound, has a relationship of sorts with her roommate, Natalie, a homebody who's not one of the six featured cast members.

Tracy, a film and TV development exec, has a new and "amazing" relationship with Stamie, who shares custody of her three kids with a "baby mama."

Their trials, tribulations, betrayals and sex talk without the sex aren't exactly enthralling. Nikki and Jill are the most relatable stars of Real L Word. But wishing them well doesn't exactly get the blood flowing.

Near the end of the series' opening hour, Whitney confesses that "I always try to put walls up" when it comes to long-term relationships.

Real L Word does likewise when it comes to her multi-partnered sex life -- sour cream and all.

GRADE: C-minus

Planet Green's Fabulous Beekman Boys makes bid to be gay Green Acres

Down on their farm with Brent and Josh. Discovery photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on Planet Green, with another episode at 8:30 p.m.
Starring: Brent Ridge, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Farmer John
Produced by: Jeff Hasler, Lynn Sadofsky, Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey, Tom Campbell

Beautifully shot but also more than a bit stagey, Planet Green's The Fabulous Beekman Boys is the saga of two rather proudly prissy gay guys navigating a long-distance relationship under uncommon circumstances.

Brent Ridge, formerly a vice president with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, spends the bulk of his time tending to the upstate New York Beekman estate and farm. He tends to be a taskmaster when in the company of co-owner Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a former drag queen named Aqua who's morphed into an ad exec/author. To make ends meet, Josh still spends weekdays working in New York City and weekends down on the farm doing chores at his partner's command.

"We've got a herd of goats, a llama and a whole lot of drama," Josh declares during the opening credits.

The "whole lot of drama" is key to just about any reality show's pulling power. And the still fledgling Plant Green channel, launched in June 2008, is hoping that the half-hour Beekman Boys series (with back-to-back episodes on opening night) will help put it on the map the way The Shield did for FX, South Park did for Comedy Central, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy did for Bravo, etc.

Episode 1, which also features burly, weepy Farmer John, includes a piglet chase, some llama drama and Josh's angst over Brent not making time to attend his latest book reading/signing in NYC.

"We kind of have to divide and conquer," says Brent, who's trying to make a go of it selling the farm's own goat milk soap.

"It's about a lot of dividing," Josh laments.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder," Brent retorts.

"You got a cliche for everything?" Josh jabs.

Wednesday's premiere ends with them squabbling over commitment and whether their 10-year partnership can survive all the time they spend apart.

It's tough to feel much empathy, though. Neither man seems to be hurting for money. And their misadventures and conflicts seem all too ready made, if not altogether contrived, for the purposes of Planet Green's cameras.

Publicity materials say that Stewart and "culinary superstar" Jean Georges Vongerichten will be guesting on future episodes. Well, that's nice. And Polka Spot the llama is kinda cute, too. Still, he's no Arnold the Pig. Nor does Beekman Boys seem quite fabulous enough to bet the farm on.


TV Land's Hot In Cleveland harkens to The Golden Girls but so far plays at room temperature

Premiering: Wednesday, June 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on TV Land
Starring: Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Betty White
Produced by: Sean Hayes, Todd Milliner, Suzanne Martin

Age repeatedly is used as a comedy G-spot in TV Land's Hot In Cleveland. What are they trying to get at -- The Golden Girls?

Well, yes, with the last surviving member of that cast -- Betty White -- serving as a constant reminder.

The 88-year-old White, cast as a tart 'n' feisty rooming house caretaker, now fills the Estelle Getty docket on a conventionally formatted sitcom with a very active laugh track.

Her three polished co-stars, all with hit sitcoms under their belts, are Wendie (Just Shoot Me) Malick, Valerie (One Day At A Time) Bertinelli and Jane (Frasier) Leeves. They're respectively 59, 50 and 49 years of age in real life, which in today's TV climate qualifies as ancient if you're a woman.

Still, it's a little bizarre to see Bertinelli's character weeping as though she's a veritable Whistler's Mother after learning she's been intimate with a married man played by the still fit John (Dukes of Hazzard) Schneider.

"I just wanted to feel young and stupid," she laments. "Now I just feel stupid. Stupid and old."

It all begins on an impossibly smallish made-for-TV aircraft heading from Hollywood to Paris. Aboard are Melanie (Bertinelli), a soon-to-be-divorced book author; Victoria (Malick), a faded but still very vain soap star; and Joy (Leeves), who plucks celebrity eyebrows.

They're all in First Class, with Victoria ordering a flight attendant to close the dividing line curtain because "we pay good money not to have to look at coach." This is all too uncomfortably reminiscent of the haughty, conspicuous consumption on display in the critically reviled Sex and the City sequel. Still, these three characters begin getting more bearable after their plane makes an emergency landing in Cleveland. Or as Melanie, Victoria and Joy put it in unison, "Cleveland!?"

There are worse places, they of course learn. A neighborhood bar, for instance, has killer chili fries and an ample supply of authentically rough-hewn, but appreciative men.

"I feel young and hot," says Joy. She ends up severely hung over while Melanie sports plumber Hank's (Schneider) Cleveland Indians t-shirt the next morning. She's thoroughly smitten, but quickly informed that "friends don't let friends move to Cleveland." The laugh track keeps playing right along.

Perhaps you're wondering when Betty White will take flight. Look for her around the two-thirds mark after the erstwhile three golden girls rent absurdly spacious quarters at a fraction of what they'd pay in L.A.

White, as caretaker Elka, sizes up the field and fires off this opening line: "Why are you renting to prostitutes?"

What a pistol. There's also a little marijuana riff between Leeves and White, plus more declarations about feeling newly "alive" despite being of a certain age. This doesn't come from White's character, but from Bertinelli's. Cripes, girl, you've been flaunting your bikini bod ever since dropping 50 via the Jenny Craig diet. Stop acting as though you're Margaret Thatcher or something.

Hot In Cleveland too often trades on tired stereotypes about getting old and being stuck in Cleveland. Still, it's vigorously acted and more digestible as it goes along. No doubt about it. This is a throwback sitcom on a network that unashamedly likes that style. A curvier version of Golden Girls is the basic overall aim here. The writing is tinny in Wednesday's opener, but these are four actresses who know how to sell a good line when given the chance. They'll all need to be fed better.


HBO's True Blood drinks to a third season while keeping Bill and Sookie sip-arated

When in doubt, add werewolves.

They're quickly elemental to the third season of HBO's True Blood, launching on Sunday, June 13th at 8 p.m. (central) with events immediately following the kidnapping of angst-ridden vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer).

In the previous season's cliffhanger, the 173-year-old bloodsucker had just proposed marriage to the very human but specially gifted Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). But she needed "a minute" to think it over. And when she returned to blurt yes, her Bill had gone missing. Which sucks for both of them.

The first three episodes of Season 3 unfold in what sometimes is a slow crawl. There won't be any spoilers here. But Bill and Sookie seem destined to do a lot of scenes without each other, which will still hold true by the end of June 27th's "Scratches" episode.

In real life, Compton and Paquin have been engaged for nine months. But no date is set, and Paquin recently announced that she's bisexual. That may or may not make Compton a very happy man. Consider the possibilities.

In True Blood's life stories, there are far worse complications for both of them. Bill is still being bedeviled by vampy Lorena Krasiki (Mariana Klaveno), a fellow vampire who very much wants him for herself and continues to sew serious doubts about any relationship with a human.

Sookie, meanwhile, is eventually matched up with a hunky escort werewolf named Alcide (Joe Manganiello), who supposedly will help her find Bill. Their matchmaker is the sinister but still occasionally soulful Eric Northman (Alexander Skargard), who easily remains the most interesting vampire in True Blood's sea of them.

Other familiar characters also return. Shape-shifting restaurant owner Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) goes on a road trip to seek out his real parents. Sookie's brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), is haunted by the climactic events of last season, to the point where he sees bullet holes in various foreheads. Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), Sookie's vibrant but always troubled best friend, is fated to hook up with a scheming and magnetic vampire named Franklin Mott (James Frain). His prowess in the sack is enough to make her eyelids flap like hummingbird wings.

Another important new character, Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare), is the dandy-ish vampire king of Mississippi. He has plans for Bill, who for now still bows to his home state of Louisiana's willful Queen Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood). But it's tough for any vampire to resist a sumptuous meal that includes "warm blood bisque infused with rose petals."

These first three episodes of the new season can be a bit sluggish at times, even though their flashes of gruesomeness can still make jaws drop or stomachs churn. Several nightmarish dream sequences heighten the overall developments before Episode 3 ends with a literally twisted love scene.

Like its two predecessors, Season 3 will have 12 episodes and multiple storylines fated to mesh and collide. Bill and Sookie of course will end up being reunited because fans wouldn't have it any other way. But under what circumstances? In the early going, True Blood is in the mood to dally a bit, which can rob a show of its zip. The new werewolf characters are trying hard, though, adding even more bite to this still bloody well done melodrama.


Staying too long at the party: a clear and ever-present danger

Men/woman of a certain age: Larry King, Betty White, Andy Rooney

It can be tough to know when to go.

Some have an innate sense of timing. Others linger too long, tempting both fate and their legacies.

Helen Thomas, until very recently the 89-year-old dean of the Washington press corps, provides the latest cautionary tale of someone who just couldn't let go until her mouth ran amuck on the subject of what Israeli Jews should do with themselves.

She subsequently apologized and then retired. Assorted colleagues are now saying that her questions at presidential press conferences had become "embarrassing" in later years. Still, they deferred to her, with Thomas continuing to occupy a front row seat with her nameplate on it. Even though she had become an almost invisible columnist -- rather than a workaday reporter -- in her later years.

It didn't have to be this way, and it doesn't mean that advancing age should be a one-stop ticket to retirement. The "second acts" of Betty White, 88, Joan Rivers, 77 and Clint Eastwood, 80, obviously have been fruitful. But while partying on, they also have the luxury of deciding when, where and how much to work.

Thomas clearly stayed too long at the party, ultimately letting her sense of entitlement betray her. It no doubt felt good to be queen, and even better to be in the presence of presidents who still called on her because she is, after all, Helen Thomas.

Her entire career won't be negated by this one climactic episode. Still, it will now be part of her obituary -- and not just a fine print footnote.

Thomas' travails, which she brought on herself, bring to mind others who currently are staying too long at the party. But there's also a companion list of those who knew how and when to go.

Larry King, 76, has been with CNN for a quarter-century. For most of that time he reigned as the network's signature personality and a kingmaker of sorts during presidential elections. But his ratings have sagged to all-time lows in recent years while his very public divorce adventures continue. CNN lately has put King in the presence of Lady Gaga and the American Idol finalists in hopes of somehow both bolstering his ratings and lowering the age of his viewers. It doesn't work, and it's embarrassing. He needs to bow out gracefully -- and soon.

Andy Rooney seemingly has been a 60 Minutes commentator since the invention of the wheel. But at age 91, his musings all too often are the discomforting ramblings of an old man. Can he not let go of his weekly two minutes of fame? Would he cease to exist without it? Hanging on like this is unseemly. Rooney has made his mark and then some. He should give someone else a chance to end 60 Minutes on their terms. At this point it's the right thing to do.

Dan Rather, 78, is a tougher call. He stayed too long at the CBS News party, leaving the George W. Bush "Memogate" scandal as a lasting legacy. I initially thought he should have faded from view at that point. But Rather indeed has reinvented and redeemed himself to a degree with his weekly Dan Rather Reports series on Mark Cuban's HDNet. This is a single-topic program of substance in times when no broadcast network would entertain such a notion. So Rather is to be applauded for keeping the faith. But at the same time, shouldn't he strongly consider both smelling the roses and catching more fish at that favored stream near Bee, Texas? Or is he addicted to the grave with chasing yet another story and then shepherding it onto television? On the one hand it's admirable. On the other it's a little sad.

Others innately have known when to fold 'em.

Johnny Carson left The Tonight Show after a storied 30 years and resisted all efforts to have him return on a regular basis. He had been there, done that -- and was done with it. The crowd cried out for more, but Johnny didn't want to linger after losing a few miles off his fastball.

Charles Gibson left ABC News cold turkey last December when he easily could have stayed on indefinitely as anchor of the network's flagship World News. He's pretty much dropped out of sight, and seems to like it that way. Gibson clearly has a life and other interests beyond television. Imagine that.

Tom Brokaw quit anchoring NBC's Nightly News when he was still No. 1 in the ratings. He continues to pop up regularly on MSNBC's Morning Joe and annually churns out a documentary or two. But he clearly enjoys his free time, and now has plenty of it.

All of us, of course, can take a lesson from the recently departed John Wooden, who resigned as UCLA's basketball coach at age 64 in 1975 after winning his 10th NCAA championship. He devoted the rest of his life to being a loving husband, mentor and all-around class act.

Maybe Penn State's Joe Paterno, 83, would be wise to take a deep breath and finally let go. No one wants to see him end up like Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, who was fired in 1978 after hitting an opposing player at the Gator Bowl. He was a relatively young 65 at the time. Yet he had still grown old enough to do something stupid, for which he is ever remembered.

Truth in packaging. I'm a relatively able-bodied 62, and have been writing about local and national television for 30 years in D-FW alone. Over the years, I've gone beyond the northern border of every network audience demographic known to humankind. And yet I feel as though some of my best writing is still ahead of me.

Never fear, though. Television criticism increasingly is a younger person's game. And my disinclination to stay too long at the party will bring an end to unclebarky.com after three or four more years. By then it'll be time to walk away and try not to miss it too much. In other words, I'll do my very best to get a life.

Horrid Neighbors From Hell defaces TBS

Premiering: Monday, June 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on TBS
Voiced by: Will Sasso, Molly Shannon, Patton Oswalt, Tracey Fairaway, David Soren, Kurtwood Smith, Kyle McCulloch, Dina Waters
Produced by: Pam Brady, Mireille Soria

Your life hasn't been a true living hell just yet. And it doesn't ever have to be. Just stay away from TBS' Neighbors From Hell, arriving from the depths Monday night as the allegedly "Very Funny" network's first original prime-time animated series.

Calling it witless, tasteless and a waste of time is an act of mercy. The series' only saving grace is an early truth-in-packaging declaration from hell's "Dark Sir," who warns that all TV rots the mind and therefore can never be used for entertainment purposes.

Clearly he's seen Neighbors From Hell and has been very badly shaken by it. Threatening this series as penance would remove all inclination to sin. Water-boarding is the new pause that refreshes. Just put this on a continuous loop and you'll get all the information you want from anyone on the receiving end.

The premise is basically godawful. The lime green Hellmans from down under, headed by parents Balthazor and Tina (Will Sasso, Molly Shannon), are ordered upstairs to destroy a new super-drill capable of boring to the center of the earth and laying waste to hell.

"If you succeed, I see executive stripes in your future," Balthazor is told.

The rest of the half-hour is a showcase for projectile vomiting, poop-smelling and some of the clumsiest, coarsest racial "humor" ever visited upon a series of any ilk. One of its dispensers, a raucous neighbor lady named Marjoe (Dina Waters), recounts how she and her husband taught their second-grade son the birds and the bees.

"Brad and I up and do it right there in the breakfast nook," she says. "I mean, Brad gave me a solid rogering right into my shelf of Negro salt and pepper shakers. That doesn't offend you, right? 'Cause we do it 'ironically.' "

No they don't. Because nothing about Neighbors From Hell rises to the level of irony, subtlety or even bargain basement slapstick. Instead someone thought it would be a howl to have the amoral drill company boss (voiced by Kurtwood Smith from That '70s Show) refer to his company's Turkish drillmaster as a "poor little brown ape" among other things.

Marjoe's not nearly finished either. "Wait, you're demons!" she exclaims to the Hellmans at large. "I thought you had green, shiny skin because you were Jewish."

We're only scratching the surface of a miserably inept and flat-out bigoted eyesore/earsore that TBS never should have green-lighted for any time of day or night. Neighbors From Hell fails on every level. Couldn't anyone see that?


HBO's Smash His Camera re-pictures paparazzi potentate

In hot pursuit: Ron Galella closes in on Jackie Onassis. HBO photos

Clearly they were made for one another -- legendarily private Jackie O and relentless shootist Ron Galella.

HBO's 90-minute, never dull Smash His Camera, premiering Monday at 8 p.m. central, draws its title from her directive towards him. He eventually sued her for harassment and she successfully counter-sued to keep him at least 25 feet away from her.

Yet his intrusive lens often captured Jacqueline Onassis "at her most fetching," notes iconic gossip columnist Liz Smith. So one wonders whether she at least asked herself privately, "Where's Ron?" on those rare occasions when he was nowhere to be found during their 15-year game of cat and mouse. "My Mona Lisa," as Galella proudly puts it, is his shot of Jackie glancing in his direction while preparing to cross the street. Her windblown hair partially obscures her face, which in fact has a bare wisp of a smile.

Jackie O died in 1994 but Galella, 77, is still clicking. The self-anointed "paparazzi superstar" admittedly is a dinosaur these days, still using a dark room and his trusty old cameras in times when cell phone photography is the new state of the art.

Most press agents -- "they're like gestapo," he says -- remain wary of any encounter between Galella and their clients. But a current-day Robert Redford doesn't seem to mind the old white-haired gadfly. Redford willingly lets Galella snap a few pictures of him after an invitation-only function. He also accepts a copy of Galella's latest coffee table book.

A grinning Robert F. Kennedy Jr. likewise accommodates the old family antagonist during a recent encounter.

"How old are you?" he asks.

"Seventy-seven. Still going," Galella replies, chortling.

"You're too old to hide in the bushes now, though."

"Nah. The gold is in the files."

Galella has some three million images at his disposal. A good many of them are of celebrities trying to wave him off -- which is gold. Marlon Brando didn't mess around, though. He broke Galella's jaw with a single punch while out on the town with Dick Cavett after taping his talk show. The photographer lost five teeth, too -- and of course let the world know about it. He wore a football helmet the next time he encountered Brando. And he has someone else's pictures to prove it.

It only takes one. Woody Allen, Michelle Phillips and Al Pacino.

A TV news account during his heyday described Galella as "a parasite, a personality profiteer. Galella's life is filled with rejection."

Famed photographer Neil Leifer, whose work has regularly appeared in Life, Time and Sports Illustrated, still regards Galella as a "bottom-feeder" whose "tactics are despicable."

But Leifer now seems churlish in this assessment. Andy Warhol's favorite photographer mastered the art of catching celebrities by surprise -- and thereby as themselves. Oftentimes he hid, sprung and snapped. His obsession with the glamorous and famous -- mom named him after heartthrob actor Ronald Coleman -- yielded a treasure trove of images while also serving as the carbon footprint for TMZ and the like. Except that Galella had a certain amount of class in comparison.

In his dotage, he's been married for 30 years to former magazine editor Betty Burke. She indulges his lifelong love of rabbits and seems to love him unconditionally.

So Galella gets his quintessential happy ending -- as documented by director Leon Gast -- while many of the celebrities he photographed were not nearly so fortunate. Such is life.


Fox's Good Guys hits its regular time slot running

Det. Dan (Bradley Whitford) draws on an innocent laptop in Monday's regular time slot premiere of Fox's The Good Guys. Fox photo

Fox's The Good Guys remains scenery-chomping good whenever Bradley Whitford shifts into gear as combustible cop Dan Stark.

Not that he really has to shift. His throwback character is perpetually in fourth gear, whether raging at a balky laptop or bemoaning the abduction of his beloved 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Swallowing him whole is a pretty big gulp, which is perhaps why this Dallas-made serio-comic cop romp had such a tough start in the national Nielsen ratings when it sneak-previewed in mid-May.

Monday's return, in the show's official summertime slot (8 p.m. central following Lie to Me), showcases Stark and straitlaced partner Jack Bailey (Colin Hanks) in another time-shifting, determinedly far-fetched adventure. Cartoonish whenever possible, the "Bait and Switch" episode again drops the names of real-life Dallas streets and destinations during the course of another broad, pulpy crime caper.

"Just keep heading south on McKinney," Jack instructs Dan.

"Go 30 East to Westmoreland," says a snitch named Julius.

Dan and Jack earlier can be seen at the corner of Fulton and Worth Streets, where a pair of comely lasses who may or may not be lesbians have reported a broken window. Dan of course investigates thoroughly.

There's also a case of misdirection via a printed reference to "Trattoria Patricio. City's Most Romantic Lunch Spot. Dallas Daily News."

That's likely an in-the-ballpark nod to the Capriccio Ristorante, a North Dallas Italian eatery. It's also close but no cigar for The Dallas Morning News.

The center-ring storyline finds Jack and Dan tracking a vintage car theft ring headed by a buttoned up Britisher named Nigel (guest star Steve Valentine). Meanwhile, Jack has attracted the interest of a comely task force cop named Kirsten (Lauren Stamile). But Dan of course has his suspicions, believing her to be a "dirty cop -- and not in a good way."

As with last month's sneak preview, it's all quite preposterous but grin-inducing. Jabbering, swaggering Dan has more lines in a single episode than Chuck Norris had in an entire season of Walker, Texas Ranger. Partner Jack remains exasperated but supportive. Both actors are still settling into their disparate roles, but Fox likes what it sees enough to increase the series' original episode order from 13 to 20.

Good Guys also has been given a Friday night berth on Fox's fall schedule, although that's still only on paper at the moment. Executive producer Matt Nix (Burn Notice) must first find a way to make this a summertime breeze capable of both finding and keeping a decent-sized audience opposite ABC's The Bachelorette, NBC's Last Comic Standing and formidable CBS repeats of prime-time's two most popular sitcoms, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.

If you're part of the local film industry or this particular TV critic, consider all of those competitors as The Bad Guys. Or as faux steely Dan puts it time and again, "Let's go bust some punks."

CBS, Fox take No. 1 spots at finish line of 2009-'10 TV season

Fox's Idol and ABC's Dancing dueled for top spot. Fox/ABC photos

Official bragging rights for the 2009-'10 prime-time TV season again go to CBS and Fox.

Paced by its two NCIS series and the new hit Undercover Boss, CBS won nationally in total viewers for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.

Despite sinking ratings for juggernaut American Idol, Fox again dominated among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds. It was the network's sixth consecutive win in this demographic, something no network had previously pulled off.

Among the Big Four broadcast networks -- and little CW -- only ABC dipped from year to year in both of these audience measurements. CBS, Fox and CW all registered slight increases while NBC was up in total viewers but down a bit with 18-to-49-year-olds.

The second half of the season put Idol in jeopardy of losing its crown as the country's most-watched prime-time series. Its would-be usurper was the season's second edition of ABC's Dancing with the Stars, whose cast included pouty Kate Gosselin, purry Pamela Anderson, unpredictable Chad Ochocinco and former moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who danced like the Tin Man while gamely smiling and saluting.

Dancing's Monday night performance show outdrew Idol's Tuesday night sing-offs in six of the last eight weeks. But Idol's not-so-grand finale, in which listless Lee DeWyze emerged victorious, still managed to whip Dancing's denouement, in which Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger prevailed.

For the season as a whole, ABC's 9th and 10th editions of Dancing ended up averaging fewer total viewers than Idol's Season 9 activities. And it wasn't even close among 18-to-49-year-olds, where Idol again ruled the prime-time universe while the performance and results editions of Dancing sagged to 11th and 40th place.

According to Nielsen Media Research, here are the season's Top 20 series in total viewers:

1. American Idol (Fox, Tuesday performance) -- 24.8 million
2. American Idol (Fox, Wednesday results) -- 23.5 million
3. Dancing with the Stars (ABC, Monday performance) -- 19.8 million
4. Sunday Night Football (NBC) -- 19.4 million
5. NCIS (CBS) -- 18.8 million
6. Undercover Boss (CBS) -- 17.7 million
7. The Mentalist (CBS) --- 16.8 million
8. NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS) -- 15.8 million
9. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS) -- 15.7 million
10. Dancing with the Stars (ABC, Tuesday results) -- 15.3 million
11. Two and a Half Men (CBS) -- 14.7 million
12. The Big Bang Theory (CBS) -- 14.3 million
13. Desperate Housewives (ABC) -- 14.1 million
14. Grey's Anatomy (ABC) and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains (CBS) -- 13.8 million
16. Criminal Minds (CBS) -- 13.7 million
17. Survivor: Samoa (CBS) -- 13.5 million
18. 60 Minutes (CBS) -- 13.3 million
19. The Good Wife (CBS) -- 12.9 million
20. House (Fox) -- 12.8 million

Here are the season's Top 20 series among 18-to-49-year-olds

1. American Idol (Fox, Tuesday performance) -- 12.1 million
2. American Idol (Fox, Wednesday results) -- 11.0 million
3. Sunday Night Football (NBC) -- 9.8 million
4. Undercover Boss (CBS) -- 8.1 million
5. The Big Bang Theory (CBS) -- 7.1 million
6. Grey's Anatomy (ABC) -- 7.0 million
7. Lost (ABC) -- 6.9 million
8. House (Fox) -- 6.6 million
9. Two and a Half Men (CBS) and Desperate Housewives (ABC) -- 6.4 million
11. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains (CBS), The Office (NBC) and Dancing with the Stars (ABC, Monday performance) -- 5.9 million
14. The Bachelor (ABC), Glee (Fox) and Survivor: Samoa (CBS) -- 5.7 million
17. The Biggest Loser 8 (NBC) and V (ABC) -- 5.5 million
19. NCIS (CBS) -- 5.4 million
20. Family Guy (Fox) -- 5.3 million

TBS' Are We There Yet? has a not surprising destination

Terry Crews, Essence Atkins star in TBS' Are We There Yet? TBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 2nd with back-to-back episodes at 8 p.m. (central) on TBS
Starring: Terry Crews, Essence Atkins, Teala Dunn, Coy Stewart, Telma Hopkins, Keesha Sharp, Christian Finnegan
Produced by: Ice Cube, Joe Roth, Vince Totino, Matt Alvarez, Ali LeRoi

The two principal stars of TBS' Are We There Yet? first came to prime-time prominence -- or a facsimile thereof -- in two sitcoms originally telecast on a now defunct network.

UPN, which merged with The WB to become The CW in 2006, birthed both Everybody Hates Chris (with Terry Crews) and Half and Half (with Essence Atkins).

Crews and Atkins now are paired as oft-combative newlyweds in times when the interest in so-called "urban," predominantly black comedies is dormant if not yet defunct on rival broadcast and cable networks.

TBS, also home to Tyler Perry's House of Payne and Meet the Browns, makes it a threesome Wednesday night with the first two episodes of Are We There Yet?. No other network can say as much. In fact, no other network can boast of even one such first-run comedy series, unless one counts Fox's animated The Cleveland Show. But its principal black characters are voiced by whites.

UPN, The WB and Fox all had an ample supply of urban comedies in their formative years. But they almost inevitably cut most of them loose as time wore on. The CW had no comedies of color -- or any comedies at all -- this past season. And next fall's lineup will continue that strategy.

TBS is hardly a startup network. But it's drawn ample and mostly younger audiences for its two Tyler Perry-produced comedies, both of which also are shot on old-school videotape and affixed with a laugh track. So here comes Are We There Yet?, a continuation of the 2005 feature film (and its sequel, Are We Done Yet ?) that starred Ice Cube and Nia Long as eventual newlyweds Nick Persons and Suzanne Kingston.

Ice Cube remains involved as co-executive producer and an occasional on-camera drop-in as Suzanne's gruff SWAT officer brother, Terrence. Unfortunately one of his appearances afflicts Wednesday's premiere episode (8 p.m. central), to be followed by a second half-hour that wasn't sent for review. Simply put, as an actor Ice Cube should stay completely out of the picture. His new character on Are We There Yet? makes no sense anyway.

The series itself is passable and not nearly as loud or bawdy as the two Perry efforts. That's in part due to a muted laugh track and Crews' restrained portrayal of the nevertheless chauvinistic Nick. In the opener, he's insistent that Suzanne change her last name to his. In one of next week's episodes, he's upset with 10-year-old stepson Kevin's (Coy Stewart) fondness for soccer (Nick calls it "fruitball") instead of football. There's also a 14-year-old stepdaughter named Lindsey (Teala Dunn).

Atkins is only three years younger than Crews, but at times almost looks like his daughter. That can be a little disconcerting, particularly when Nick wonders why she comes to bed in cover-ups instead of revealing negligees.

"During the day you look like Halle Berry," he laments. "But at bedtime you turn into Tyler Perry."

This is not the case with either Telma Hopkins or Keesha Sharp, respectively cast as Nick's mother and Suzanne's best friend. During her brief scene in the premiere episode, Hopkins spills out of a low-cut top while telling her son to never mind the particulars of her week in New York with a new boyfriend. Sharp is similarly free-spirited -- and cleavage-flaunting -- during her restaurant scene with Suzanne.

References to other TBS/TNT properties are fairly abundant. We've already noted the Tyler Perry name drop. Kevin also has a bobblehead of TNT commentator Charles Barkley in his garage/rec room. In an upcoming episode he talks to it. And the kids want money to see a big new, unnamed movie starring Will Smith, who is a co-executive producer of TNT's HawthoRNe hospital series, starring his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Nick and Suzanne spend a good part of the first episode sniping at one another, prompting the question of why they got married in the first place. But things calm down next week. And it's fairly funny to see the soccer-hating Nick get his comeuppance from stepson Kevin, who predictably scores at will when put to the test.

Are We There Yet? has the potential to be a watchable although certainly not exceptional mom, dad and the kids comedy. As with the two Perry sitcoms, TBS has ordered an initial 10 episodes with an option to pick up 90 more.

Those are done deals with both House of Payne and Meet the Browns. This looks like another one in the making on the only network where predominantly black comedies are still an ongoing proposition.