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New series review: The Tudors (Showtime)

The man who will be King: Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Showtime's Henry VIII and earlier as Elvis in a CBS miniseries encoring Saturday.

Premiering: Sunday (April 1) at 9 p.m. central (10 eastern) on Showtime
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sam Neill, Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jeremy Northam, Ruta Gedmintas, Gabrielle Anwar, Steven Waddington
Produced by: Michael Hirst, Morgan O'Sullivan, Ousama Rawi, Tom Conroy

Premium cable's ruling class is still headed by HBO, although the crown rests uneasily of late.

Sunday's premiere of Showtime's mesmerizing The Tudors is another jewel in the network's latter day treasure chest. HBO will flex on Easter night with the last gasps of The Sopranos followed by the first of eight new Entourage episodes.

Not to be entirely outdone, Showtime has Weeds, Dexter and The Brotherhood ready to go with new seasons later this year. Those are pretty good matchups between the two networks. It's also a quantum leap forward for Showtime, which still lacks big audiences but not critical acclaim.

Set in England's early 16th century, The Tudors has a command performance, as it must, from Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a young and still very lithe Henry VIII.

"I was fed up with the fat, bearded monster," creator-writer Michael Hirst says in Showtime press materials. "My Henry is new. He's never been portrayed this way."

This Henry is very proactive in Sunday's first 15 minutes of The Tudors, which will have 10 weekly episodes. First he declares war on France, where his ambassador uncle has just been assassinated. Then he says, "Now, I can go play." This signals a leave-little-to-the-imagination bedroom romp between the king and Lady Elizabeth Blount (Ruta Gedmintas), who happens to be married.

Then again, so is Henry, to the plain but painstakingly sincere Queen Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy). He's abandoned her sexually after several still-births and the death of their only son after a mere month among the living. They do have a prepubescent daughter, though, who's promised in marriage to two different rulers during the first three episodes of The Tudors.

Also at the heart of all this intrigue is conniving Cardinal Wolsey, played with admirable but powerful restraint by Sam Neill. The cardinal lusts to be Pope, and has carnal desires as well. So far they have nothing to do with little boys.

Rhys Meyers previously earned favorable reviews in Woody Allen's Match Point and as the star of the 2005 CBS miniseries Elvis, which will be reprised on Showtime from 7 to 10 p.m. (central) on Saturday, March 31.

As Henry, his hair is shorn short and his athleticism knows few bounds, whether he's jousting, wrestling, playing an early form of tennis or bedding someone other than his wife. It's a very nice display all around from a still rising actor with one of filmdom's presumably brightest futures.

Henry is still an idealist in this early going, even if his own legacy is paramount to him. Cardinal Wolsey cleverly talks him into grand plans to become a visionary "architect of a new and modern world." Meanwhile, others have their own agendas, including the father of seductive, notorious Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer).

Anne is only a peripheral player in the opening three hours. Her much-chronicled relationship with Henry is yet to come, although he dreams in Episode 3 of chasing a teasing Anne in slo-mo before glimpsing her in the altogether. Actually, this seems like more of a nightmare to him, which it pretty much proved to be.

"Those eyes of yours are like dark hooks for the soul," Anne's scheming dad tells her in Episode 2.

Its scope and costuming make The Tudors an oft-sumptuous feast for the eyes. Unlike HBO's Rome, which ended last Sunday, almost everything looks many-splendored rather than down-and-dirty. Henry at heart is a dandy. Only later will he become a consummate dirty dealer, too.

His best scene in the early going is with wife Katherine, who's terrifically played by the aforementioned Maria Doyle Kennedy.

In Episode 3, she makes one last poignant plea to lure Henry back to her bedroom. It's a heartfelt, sincere outpouring from a spurned woman to the man she still loves. He responds by kissing her warmly/curtly on the forehead. Then, like a very vintage Tony Soprano, he's back in business with another conquest. Simultaneously, Cardinal Wolsey is getting a back-pounding massage from a topless masseuse.

The Tudors, which wisely will air after The Sopranos instead of against it, is a soap with nutrients, a saga with plenty of ga-ga. Coherent and compelling while also complex, it deserves a much wider audience than Showtime generally attracts.

For the network's legions of non-subscribers, this is the one that will be well worth your money. The Sopranos is nearing death, so long live this new kingdom.

Grade: A

TV special review: Fired! (Showtime)

Actress Annabelle Gurwitch and her nemesis, Woody Allen

Don't fire Annabelle Gurwitch and expect to get away with it -- even if you're Woody Allen.

The modestly successful actress had assembled a long list of TV guest shots and bit movie parts before Allen hired her for his 2003 off-Broadway play Writer's Block. Then he abruptly dumped her, allegedly telling Gurwitch that her performance was so bad it made her "seem retarded."

That's Gurwitch's story, and she's sticking with it while sticking it to him in Fired!. Drawn from her same-named book and play, the 90-minute documentary premieres Thursday (March 29) on Showtime (7:30 p.m. central, 8:30 eastern). Allen, of course, is not commenting. And really, why should he? Both Gurwitch and Writer's Block were barely sub-blips on his radar screen, even if she' s been using him as leverage ever since.

Fired! opens with Gurwitch getting her walking papers from a rambling, fake Woody played by TV writer/producer Ed Crasnik. Mortified, humiliated and newly insecure, she seeks out sympathetic ears. Her rabbi, Mel Gottlieb, counsels Gurwitch to be "open to new energy." Otherwise, he says, "you remain a martyr."

She goes on to collect material from an array of show business pals who regale her with tales of likewise being sacked, dumped, dismissed, terminated or whatever description suits your mood. It's not exactly an A-list assemblage, but there are plenty of familiar faces. Anne Meara, Tim Allen, Jeff Garlin, Sarah Silverman, Richard Kind, Bob Odenkirk, Illeana Douglas, Ben Stein, Fisher Stevens, Fred Willard and the inevitable Andy Dick are among Gurwitch's conquests. What, no Kathy Griffin? How can that be?

"I liked the stories about getting fired more than the play I got fired from," Gurwitch soon deduces.

She's not a dynamic interviewer. And for an actress, Gurwitch at times seems surprisingly conscious of being on camera. But Fired! slowly takes hold, hitting a visual high at least when the filmmaker kibbitzes with the always agreeable Willard while sitting in a hot tub with him. Pal Harry Shearer lolls around nearby, cracking up when Willard recalls being dropped from the shortlived 1984 NBC sitcom Spencer after being cast in the pilot.

"They're proceeding without you," Willard recalls being told via telephone.

Faded sitcom writer Andy Borowitz, who lately seems to be morphing into a vision of Frankenstein's monster, delightedly tears into an easy target, The Facts of Life. He wrote a few episodes in the mid-1980s before being canned.

"It was the worst television show ever produced," says Borowitz, who joined the writing staff rather than starve to death. He took the bus to work, "which in L.A. is akin to eating out of a dumpster."

To her credit, Gurwitch also ranges farther afield to interview an array of non-show business firees, including former White House chef Walter Scheib III, ex-United Auto workers union official Tiny Sherwood and onetime insurance company employee Anita Epolito, who declined to be tested on the job for nicotine levels.

All in all, it's a pretty cute and sometimes even inspiring film.

"It's not great to get fired, but it gives you a chance to move on," says Garlin, who's landed firmly on his feet as Larry David's manager in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Other than that he has the distinction of being fired as host of the Fox reality series Fire Me . . . Please.

Gurwitch fashions her own happy ending, sending a letter to Allen that apprises him of her subsequent book, play and documentary.

"So I guess I should say thank you for firing me," she writes in part. "And although I probably won't ever see one of your films again, I am wishing you well."

Not that Allen ever really got the hang of her surname, Gurwitch says in closing. So she's probably still a nobody to him. And this case, what he doesn't know can't hurt him.

Grade: B

New series review: Planet Earth (Discovery Channel)

Picture a photographer taking a tight shot of a humpback whale.

Our many-splendored playground is ready for a second round of glamour shots.

Last Sunday brought National Geographic Channel's entrancing three-hour Galapagos. A week later it's Discovery Channel's 11-hour Planet Earth, premiering March 25 (7 p.m. central) with a three-hour feast. Both productions were filmed in high-definition, making them even more beauteous to behold.

Five years in the making and narrated by Sigourney Weaver, Planet Earth takes its cameras to 204 locations, from the highest mountains to the deepest depths of the oceans. Sunday's first two hours are particularly vivid, never more so than when a great white shark gets airborne in slow motion. This famed predator definitely has hops, but who knew? It's truly an incredible sight.

Weaver sets this grand stage by describing earth as "the lucky planet. Not too near the sun, not too far. Just right."

The sun disappears for four months in the "high arctic," though, forcing polar bears underground and into hibernation. Planet Earth first visits this venue, with a mama polar bear shown greeting the sun's return by happily sliding down a snow hill. Her two new cubs follow as best they can. Half of the annual cub population doesn't survive.

Cameras seamlessly change surroundings, segueing to Canada, eastern Russia, southern Africa and so on. Overhead shots of a wolf chasing a calf are far more thrilling than any live TV news car chase. We also witness the long, dusty pilgrimage to fresh water by a dogged herd of elephants. They know how to have a good time when they reach the promised land.

"This is an Africa rarely seen, a lush waterworld," says Weaver.

The writing is decent and Weaver's narration is capable, though not exceptional. A little too much time is spent periodically patting the filmmakers on the back for a supposed series of nature photography firsts. As in, "This is the brass ring of natural history, the first intimate images of a snow leopard ever filmed in the wild."

That particular coup is in Hour 2, "The Mountains." Weaver's opening rhetoric goes like this: "By climbing a great mountain, some think they've conquered it. But we are only visitors here. This is an alien world."

Hmm, were the scripters intentionally referencing her star-making series of Alien movies? Just wondering.

Humans intrude for a minute or so at chapter's ends to show how they got certain shots. Could have done without them, but it's no big detriment or anything.

Sunday's third hour, subtitled "Ocean Deep," indeed has plenty of depth. Cameras journey as many as two miles beneath the surface to capture an array of curious creatures, including "the vampire squid from hell."

These images aren't quite as riveting, making one a little restless for a return to the great, oft-glorious outdoors. Weaver closes with a brief sermon on preserving all that we've seen.

"We control the fate of the whole natural world . . . We can destroy it or cherish it," she says. "The choice is ours."

That's a bit ponderously written, but the sentiment is well taken. Planet Earth will continue through the next four weeks, with two-hour chapters each Sunday. Here's the lineup, with all start times at 7 p.m. central:

April 1 -- "Deserts" and "Ice Worlds"
April 8 -- "Shallow Seas" and "Great Plains"
April 15 -- "Jungles" and "Fresh Water"
April 22 -- "Forests" and "Caves"

Grade (for the first three hours): A-minus

New series review: October Road (ABC)

Bryan Greenberg and Laura Prepon once fell hard for each other.

Premiering: Thursday (March 15) at 9:01 p.m. centeral (10:01 eastern) on ABC
Starring: Bryan Greenberg, Laura Prepon, Tom Berenger, Warren Christie, Evan Jones, Geoff Stults, Brad William Henke, Jay Paulson, Slade Pearce, Odette Yustman, Rebecca Field
Produced by: Scott Rosenberg, Gary Fleder, Andre Nemec, Josh Appelbaum, Peter Tortorici

The heartbreak of psoriasis hasn't yet merited a prime-time TV series. At long last, though, the insidious disease of writer's block rears its ugly head as a premise for ABC's October Road. Hell, it's a wonder this paragraph even got written.

Hem, haw, er, um, I, uh, what I'm really trying to say is . . .

Man, writer's block can strike the innocent at any second. Glad that's over.

October Road, supplanting Men In Trees in the comfy post-Grey's Anatomy slot, begins in a flashback-ready orange-ish haze. It's the summer of 1997 in Knights Ridge, Mass., where we first find Nick Garrett (Bryan Greenberg) and Hannah Daniels (Laura Prepon from That '70s Show) sharin' the sheets and other treats.

Too bad Nick's getting ready to go on a road trip, with firm assurances that he'll be back very soon. All of his friends gather to send him off with a song. October Road has lots and lots of background music, just in case you don't quite get the moods they're trying to set.

Nick ends up staying away a bit longer than expected -- 10 years. Under the pen name of Nicholson, he's written a bestselling novel titled Turtle On a Snare Drum. It's made him a bit of a big cheese in New York City, but Nick lately can't get the words out. So he bops back home to Knights Ridge and his old circle of friends, hoping to be inspired to write anew. Second verse, same as the first. Something like that.

Some of Nick's onetime high school cronies feel burned by his novel's thinly disguised depictions of them and their town. Ray "Big Cat" Cataldo (Warren Christie), now running a construction company, gigs Nick for "droppin' turds" on defenseless Knights Ridge.

Big Cat's also got a new kitten in Hannah, whose son, Sam (Slade Pearce), turns 10 in two months. Might Sam be the son of Nick? It turns out they're both severely allergic to peanuts, so there's a tipoff.

The town is full of other characters, none of them particularly memorable. Acting vet Tom Berenger, all bulked up now, plays Nick's short-spoken dad, also known as "The Commander." And there's a pudgy bartender named Janet "The Planet" Meadows (Rebecca Field), who in the second episode can't believe that sour but studly Eddie Latekka (Geoff Stults) might want to date her.

Also meet "Physical Phil" (Jay Paulson), who's been afraid to leave his home since Sept. 11. Dense Ikey (Evan Jones) seems like a harmless, smelly, Rob Schneider-ish beer-swiller. But he's got some sort of afternoon delight thing goin' on with the pretty wife of hail fellow Owen Rowan (Brad William Henke).

This is the kind of series where a stern small college dean (ex-24 star Penny Johnson Jerald) relents and gives Nick a teaching job after he throws rocks at her window in the dead of night and then sings a stanza from Oliver Twist. He otherwise chats up a comely student named Aubrey (Odette Yustman), a writer's block-buster if ever there was one.

October Road at least is often pretty to look at. Its fall colors, frame houses and uncluttered streets make for pictures worth a thousand words. Alas, much of the show's dialogue should have remained unspoken. Nick is particularly aggravating. Frankly, who gives a damn whether he feels fulfilled or not. Take those soulful puppy gazes someplace else, buddy.

For all of these reasons and more, October Road is very unlikely to be around next October. Sorry about that, writer's block. Further words are inadequate at times like these.

Grade: C-minus

Dicks on your box: Two new NBC series spotlight offbeat gumshoes

Andy Richter and Jeff Goldblum go public as NBC private eyes. From the looks on their faces, they also might be feeling a wee bit gassy.

NBC's Thursday night lineup gets two defective detectives this week. Enjoy or ignore them while you can.

Everyman Andy Richter goes first, playing an accidental private eye in Andy Barker, P.I. It's getting 30 Rock's 8:30 p.m. central slot, but only through April 12.

Semi-creepy Jeff Goldblum is next. He sees dead people in Raines, scheduled to fill ER's 9 p.m. home base through April 5.

Neither series is terrible, but it's hard to imagine either of them returning next fall. Their Thursday night trial runs, both beginning on March 15, are likely to be as good as it gets for them.

Richter plays -- as you've probably guessed -- Andy Barker. His failing one-man accountant business gets juiced when a femme fatale offers him $4 grand to find her husband, whom she believes is missing, not dead. The woman has mistaken him for retired dick Lew Staziak (Harve Presnell), whose office Andy is renting. She's also part of a ruse.

Co-created and produced by Conan O'Brien, Andy Barker plays like an extended version of one of their old Late Night sendups. There are no real characters or plausible situations. It's just play-acting Andy flying by the seat of his plus-sized pants, which sometimes is enough. Just hearing him say, "Oh, cheese and crackers" qualifies as a small helping of comedy gold in the premiere episode.

Andy's partners in crimesolving are the grouchy Staziak and two daft fellow strip mall occupants, video store schlepper Simon (Tony Hale from Arrested Development) and restaurant owner Wally (Marshall Manesh).

Our hero otherwise is devoted to his equally devoted wife, Jenny (Clea Lewis), who sounds just like Carol Kane. They enjoy watching Judging Amy reruns together.

Absent a laugh track and filmed in wide screen, Andy Barker fits the overall blueprint of latter day NBC comedies. But it's just not as smartly funny as The Office, My Name Is Earl, Scrubs or the series it's subbing for.

Rooting for Richter is almost a given, though. He's a good guy off-screen and a relatable Joe Schmo when on the other side of a piece of plate glass. Still, his best times were as O'Brien's late night sidekick, and it would be cool to see them reunited in that setting. An opportune time would be 2009, when Conan is slated to relocate from New York to L.A. to take over The Tonight Show. It'd be easy to bring Andy with him for a fresh start that also would be like old times.

***After Andy Barker comes Raines, with the low-talking Goldblum often seeming narcoticized as LAPD detective Michael Raines.

"I think I read too many detective novels when I was a kid," he says in his opening narrative.

It still hasn't prepared him for life after death. Or to put it another way, murder victims figuratively come alive and talk to Raines while he's trying to put two-and-two together. This is hardly a novel twist anymore, what with Medium, Ghost Whisperer, Lost and Supernatural currently populating broadcast networks' prime-time schedules.

Thursday's opener finds Raines tracking the killer of a young woman whom he soon learns was a prostitute. Invariably clad in a sportcoat, tie and dress shirt, he zips from one scene to another, always looking awkward with a gun in hand.

For solace, Raines leans on his good-humored dead partner, Charlie Lincoln (Malik Yoba), who took a bullet to the head in the line of duty. They sometimes meet in a cemetery. Talk about your grave circumstances.

Goldblum is in almost every scene, and has lots of dialogue, too. Often it's delivered in a beaten-down, low-decibel monotone, making the character both hard to hear and bear. Raines could use a Marine Corps drill instructor barking "Can't hear you!" whenever he lapses into a near-lifeless state.

A second episode sent for review doesn't turn up his volume, but plays better than the first. It also introduces a shrink named Samantha Kohl, (Madeline Stowe), whom Raines has been ordered to see by his cop shop boss. Their dynamics might prove to be interesting, although many viewers might well have lost interest by then.

Grades: Andy Barker, P.I. -- C+; Raines -- C

New series review: Halfway Home (Comedy Central)

Kenny Carlyle is the hands-on headmaster in Halfway Home.

Premiering: Wednesday (March 14) at 9:30 p.m. central (10:30 eastern) on Comedy Central
Starring: Kevin Ruf, Jordan Black, Regan Burns, Octavia Spencer, Oscar Nunez, Jessica Makinson
Produced by: Damon Jones, Oscar Nunez, Kevin Ruf, Jay Martel

Stark raving funny in the Reno 911! mode, Comedy Central's half-improvised Halfway Home gives puerile humor another good name.

Is denizens are "semi-hardened" L.A. cons who have matriculated from the clink to Crenshaw House. It's a residential rehab facility run clunkily by mustachioed Kenny Carlisle (Kevin Ruf) with help from snitch Alan Shepard (Regan Burns). Premiering Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. central after a new South Park, it's a good bet to join Comedy Central's growing list of go-to series. Which means that the show's five messed-up inmates won't be getting out any time soon.

The opening episode begins with a 3:23 a.m. roust after Shepard smells pot in the air. He's otherwise a fire fetishist who regularly clashes with flamer/male prostitute Eulogio Pla (Oscar Nunez from The Office). The show's other three denizens, who also have issues with Alan, are volatile Serenity Johnson (Octavia Spencer), trash-talking Sebastian "Sea Bass" Yates (Jordan Black) and the relatively sedate Carly Barzak (Jessica Makinson).

Thanks to Alan, everyone's required to take a drug test. Eulogio delights in showing cup-holder Alan his pierced pride and joy. "My urine is not so much a stream as a mist," he says.

Alan eventually catches Kenny with the pipe, but he says it's medicinal for his irritable bowel syndrome. And so it goes.

Two subsequent episodes are built around erectile dysfunction and Kenny's off-limits, air-conditioned room, which the cons all covet during a heat wave. These premises aren't earth-shattering, but the cast goes to town with both the lines they're given and the ones they make up on the fly. Black and Burns are especially strong both together and on their own.

Episode 2 includes a cameo by Saturday Night Live charter player Garrett Morris. He drops in as a mailman who gifts Sea Bass with a porno mag while at the same time raising doubts about his ability to rise to the occasion. This half-hour also finds Carly attempting to set a pogo stick jumping endurance record, with Serenity as her coach.

The humor is mostly rawer than a vegan diet. But the cast of Halfway Home definitely knows how to work it.

Grade: A-minus

New series review: The Riches (FX)

Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver fake the high life in The Riches.

Premiering: Monday (March 12) at 9 p.m. central (10 eastern) on FX
Starring: Eddie Izzard, Minnie Driver, Shannon Woodward, Noel Fisher, Aidan Mitchell, Gregg Henry, Todd Stashwick, Margo Martindale, Bruce French
Produced by: Dmitry Lipkin, Dawn Prestwich, Nicole Yorkin, Michael Rosenberg, Peter O'Fallon

A darkly unique, promising premiere does not a series make. Future episodes must seal the deal, and so far The Riches is poorer for them.

FX's latest very adult drama borrows lightly from The Beverly Hillbillies and Big Love in its tale of a con artist family masquerading as new residents of a sinfully wealthy neighborhood. They've taken on the identities of the late Doug and Cherien Rich. So as with another recent Fox product, The Wedding Bells, we have a double meaning that's a bit more contrived than inspired.

Monday night's first episode otherwise is rich (slap my face) in possibilities, with stars Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver introducing viewers to an almost unearthly world of "Travellers" living off others' gullibility.

We first see Wayne Malloy (Izzard) at a 1981 high school reunion, where he's posing as a flamboyant classmate while two of his three kids lift wallets. Then they're on the road again in a beaten-down RV, heading to prison for a reunion of a different sort. Momma Dahlia Malloy (Driver) is being paroled after a two-year stay in prison, where she's developed a strong liking to the needle and frequent slugs of cough syrup.

Dahlia is a born and bred Traveller accustomed to living in circus-like tent cities. Strict rules of marriage and hierarchy are to be followed, but Wayne began life as a "Buffer" (slang for the rest of the world's inhabitants). Ergo, he just won't allow his nubile daughter Dehliah (Shannon Woodward) to be married to a knuckle-dragging "chromosome retard," as he puts it.

The other fly in this medicine show ointment is surly Dale Malloy (Todd Stashwick), a titular big boss man who thinks he controls the Travellers' purse strings. He and Wayne don't mix very well. After a one-sided fight, Wayne retaliates by stealing the family fortune and hitting the highways again with Dahlia, Dehliah, oldest son Cael (Noel Fisher) and pre-pubescent Sam (Aidan Mitchell), who like Izzard in real life is very fond of women's clothing.

Enroute to wherever, an accident that isn't their fault sends the real Doug and Cherien Rich to the hereafter. They had been heading to their new home, a mansion in the very well-appointed suburban Louisiana community of Edenfalls.

The keys to this kingdom now are readily available to the Malloys, but only Wayne thinks it's a good idea to capitalize. He's soon magically playing golf against a condescending, super-wealthy realtor named Hugh Panetta (Gregg Henry). Meanwhile, back at the manse, a still discombobulated Dahlia is quickly befriended by matron-ish next door neighbor Nina Burns (Margo Martindale).

Yes, some of this seems barely if at all plausible. But we're willing to play along at home because the premise is intriguing, as is Wayne/Doug's declaration, "The American dream. We're gonna steal it."

The next two episodes, also sent for review, are disappointingly flat. The problem isn't with the acting. It's not Izzard's or Driver's fault that the overall believability, let alone the entertainment value of The Riches, takes a belly flop when it should be pole-vaulting over higher bars. FX's ongoing new Dirt series, starring Courteney Cox as a Tinseltown muckraker, got better in its next two episodes. The Riches falters and meanders, losing much of its grip and grit.

Episode 2 spends far too much time on Dahlia/Cherien's efforts to reclaim the family's eyesore RV after a neighbor has it towed. The woman who had it hauled away vows revenge but is completely absent from Episode 3. Maybe she'll return, maybe not. But was this diversion really needed?

At the same time Wayne/Doug is getting himself hooked up with Panetta, who enjoys firing pistol shots at cardboard targets of his many enemies. He otherwise runs Panco Inc., an amoral company dedicated to screwing people. Over gunshots and drinks, Wayne/Doug becomes his new "in-house counsel" at a salary of $200 grand a year.

Episode 3 finds Wayne/Doug addressing the troops and giving a hackneyed speech about a rock that wouldn't have cut the mustard at a Junior Achievement fair. But Panetta, of course, loves it.

In a companion storyline, Dahlia/Cherien and the kids con a school headmistress into accepting her brood into a super-expensive private academy. Again, this isn't exactly riveting stuff. In fact, it's boringly and tritely predictable.

Back at the Travellers' compound, Dale Malloy plots a day of reckoning. Too bad he lacks the menacing, screen-filling presence of a suitably chilling bad guy.

Maybe The Riches can still find its way during an inaugural season scheduled to run for 13 episodes. The show is by no means an embarrassment. Nor is it an embarrassment of riches. A solid and evocative opening episode sets the stage, but the next two hours are only fair, middling and diddling.

It prompts a question that fits the premise: Are viewers the ones being conned? If so, that's not something a TV series can get away with for very long.

Grade: Pilot episode -- B+; second and third episodes -- C

TV movie review: Life Support (HBO)

Queen Latifah plays director Nelson George's sister in Life Support.

HBO's Life Support plays a bit like an old ABC Afterschool Special, although certainly a very adult one.

Awareness is imparted, love is reclaimed, light bulbs turn on. The movie eventually earns its stripes, though, thanks to some take-charge acting by Queen Latifah and effective performances by Anna Deavere Smith, Wendell Pierce and Rachel Nicks as her on-screen mother, husband and estranged daughter.

Premiering Saturday (March 10) at 7 p.m. central, Life Support is drawn from the real-life AIDS activism of HIV-positive Ana Wallace (Queen Latifah), whose brother, Nelson George, directed and co-wrote the film. Jamie Foxx has a co-executive producer credit, but had little hands-on involvement other than lending his A-list cred to the project. Which is no small contribution in itself.

Filmed in Brooklyn, Life Support begins at an AIDS survivor session in which African-American women talk bluntly about how they contracted the disease and in retrospect how dumb they were. Some of these women are real-life survivors whose stories are woven into the script. The movie later drops in the startling statistic that HIV is the leading cause of death among black women between the ages of 25 and 34.

Ana was infected by her husband, Slick (Pierce), during a time when both were drug addicts. They're straight now, and the parents of a nine-year-old girl. But Ana's teen daughter, Kelly (Nicks), whose blood father goes unmentioned, has long since rebelled and moved in with Ana's stern mother, Lucille (Anna Deaver Smith). The combustible mother-daughter-granddaughter dynamics give Life Support much of its punch.

An eventual subplot is the search for Kelly's gay, HIV-infected friend, Amare (Evan Ross), who's burned too many bridges for anybody to pity him anymore. Ana, bad feet and all, decides to comb the streets for Amare. Her encounter with a self-important rap producer is one of the film's highlights. "Well, ain't you a saint," she sniffs.

Life Support is further testament to HBO's continued determination to make movies that matter. It clearly wasn't greenlighted with any expectation it would be a ratings blockbuster. Still, this is a worthy investment of your time and HBO's money.

The big four broadcast networks long since have gotten out of the business of funding films with causes in their clauses. HBO still answers to these higher callings on occasion, even though it's an increasingly tough sell these days.

Grade: B+

Singing and slinging: Rosie vs. American Idol

Idol imbroglio: Frenchie Davis, Rosie O'Donnell, Antonella Barba

She never promised them a Rosie garden. The View's resident open mouth this time is attacking American Idol, which is attacking back.

The show's executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe, blistered O'Donnell in a statement Wednesday after she questioned why the show had booted previous contestant Frenchie Davis but not current hopeful Antonella Barba after nude photos of each emerged. Davis is black and very full-figured and Barba, 20, is a thin white girl. In O'Donnell's view, that's both "weight-ist" and "racist."

Lythgoe took offense. "Without wishing to add to the obvious self-promotion of Ms. O'Donnell, I feel as though I must refute her absurd and ridiculous claims that American Idol is racist and/or weight-ist," he said in an email to TV critics. "Ms. O'Donnell has, once again, spoken without thought or knowledge. Viewers need only look at the show tonight to realize that American Idol constantly confirms to America that talent has nothing to do with weight or color."

O'Donnell also told View viewers that American Idol is no longer giving the show access to clips. "They're apparently mad at us. When I say 'us,' I really mean me," she said.

Barba, who has been one of Idol's lesser semi-finalists in the judges' view, is scheduled to perform Wednesday night (March 7) before two men and two women are voted off on Thursday's results show. That will reduce the field to 12 finalists next week.

American Idol never specifically disclosed why Davis was dumped in 2003. Still posing provocatively in her myspace "photobucket," she's hardly fallen on hard times since being evicted. In fact, she's been co-starring in Rent on Broadway for the past four years.

So does O'Donnell have a point? Yes and no. Two of Idol's previous five winners have been black, with ultra-bulky Ruben Studdard triumphing in the same season that Davis got bounced. One of this season's top favorites, Lakisha Jones, is hardly svelte. Nor are two of the remaining guys, Chris Sligh and Sundance Head.

Still, it does raise the question of whether Idol producers might have acted differently were Barba less of a Barbie Doll. Then again, times change. It's four years later and who hasn't been a naughty girl or boy on their myspace page?

O'Donnell is still doing a great job of pumping up The View's ratings, even though grande dame Barbara Walters might need a sedative more often than she'd like. Meanwhile Donald Who continues to slip-slide away on The Apprentice after his famous feud with The View's foghorn. His ratings have sunk lower than Entertainment Tonight's still non-stop coverage of Anna Nicole Smith.

Idol hardly needs any more free publicity, but this latest fracas won't hurt. Maybe they should just go ahead and sanction a pay-per-view jaw-off between O'Donnell and Idol judge Simon Cowell. Frenchie could referee.

New series review: The Wedding Bells (Fox)

Bridezilla tamers: Wedding Bell sisters Sammy, Jane and Annie

Premiering: Wednesday (March 7) at 8 p.m. central on Fox before moving to Fridays at the same hour
Starring: Teri Polo, KaDee Strickland, Sarah Jones, Michael Landes, Benjamin King, Chris Williams
Produced by: David E. Kelley, Jason Katims, Jonathan Pontell

Fox would love to be even a bridesmaid on Friday nights, and maybe The Wedding Bells finally can make that happen.

Sneak-previewing on Wednesday after American Idol, this latest David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal) creation takes the cake more often than not. Its first hour is a fun, feathery romp, without any heavy lifting or laborious character assembly required. Week to week, the three disparate Bell sisters and their staff will take on the impossible assignment of pulling off a perfect wedding or two. As a viewer, you're simply required to show up, sit back and escape the wear and tear of a taxing serial drama.

Bells will repeat its Wednesday premiere episode on Friday, where Fox hasn't had an audience-pleaser since The X-Files in the mid-1990s. There's no potentially alienating alien "mythology" in Wedding Bells. All you need to know is that oldest sister Jane (Teri Polo) is halfway happily married, middle sis Annie (KaDee Strickland) is loveless and kid sister Sammy (Sarah Jones) sleeps around a lot, sometimes with one of the groom's attendants.

Rakish photographer David Conlon (Michael Landes) also is in the mix at the Bells' family-owned Wedding Palace, inherited from the sisters' divorced parents. Jane's persnickety husband, Russell (Benjamin King), is the COO and Ralph Snow (Chris Williams) does the wedding singer chores.

Self-absorbed bridezilla Amanda Pontell (Missi Pyle), on whom the first episode focuses, will become a regular character later on. For starters, she and Jane Bell have a ringing declaration of a scene that's pure Kelley-ian.

"The secure marriages are the ones that die by neglect," Jane tells Amanda, who's demanding a refund after trading insults with the wedding singer. "The fragile turn out to be the most lasting."

"That response did not satisfy me at all," Amanda retorts. "That was a wretched answer. You have upset me further, wedding planner. I feel a deep woe now."

Amanda gets this from her domineering mother, Stella (guest star Delta Burke), a self-described "acquired taste" who slips Sammy Bell $500 to get the minister to say "Jesus Christ" twice during Amanda's "I do's" to a Jew.

Sammy otherwise has been playing with the merchandise again.

"Sammy, you have 'sex hair.' Who was it?" sister Jane demands after she returns from instructing the groomsmen in the fine art of lining up to potentially bed her.

Wedding Bells isn't likely to have an overwhelming number of male viewers, but women might well go wild for it. It's a contemporary Love Boat meets Love, American Style, with maybe a splash or two of Designing Women.

Whatever works. Fox merely wants a Friday night marriage that's strong enough to get to a second season. Could this be the one?

Grade: B+

New series review: Robin Hood (BBC America)

Jonas Armstrong stars as "A Different Kind of Hood."

Premiering: Saturday (March 3) at 8 p.m. central time on BBC America
Starring: Jonas Armstrong, Lucy Griffiths, Keith Allen, Richard Armitage, Sam Troughgton, Gordon Kennedy, Harry Lloyd, Joe Armstrong
Produced by: Dominic Minghella, Foz Allan

'Tis little so thrilling as the pfffffft of a speeding arrow.

And who better to let it loose than fabled Robin Hood, previously played by the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, John Cleese, Richard Greene and even Rich Little.

Now comes newcomer Jonas Armstrong as a hooded "different kind of Hood" in BBC America's new 13-episode Robin Hood series. Premiering Saturday at 8 p.m. central time, it's passably good for openers.

Freshly returned from the king's crusades, Robin is ready to be Earl of Huntington and Lord of Locksley Manor. But as you may have heard, there've been some despotic changes made by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen) and his head henchman, Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage).

Our hero also must endure the zings and arrows of Maid Marian (Lucy Griffiths), who's first seen drawing a bow on him. But he's still quite taken with her, even if ye olde Robin Hood pickup lines aren't reeling Marian in just yet.

"You can see into my soul," he rhapsodizes after raving about her eyes.

"Five years, and you're still peddling the same old drivel," she retorts before later telling him to "grow up."

Still, she helps him pull off the first episode's great, grandiose escape, after which Robin and his yet to be defined merry men head off into Sherwood Forest.

Frankly, this Robin looks a little too slight and smallish to be both a leader of men and the hardened warrior he's supposedly become. Imagine Dominic Monaghan (Britisher Charlie Pace of Lost) playing the title role. Same difference. You need a bit more of a command presence to be this bloke, although maybe Armstrong will start to measure up in time.

Griffiths' Marian looks like a pistol, though, even if that weapon hadn't been invented yet. And Allen brings an agreeably eccentric bent to the Sheriff of Nottingham role.

The first episode also has a beside-the-point swordfight between Robin and the angry father of an awesomely endowed lass who's eager to see his shaft. The accompanying music and slo-mo photography are a bit overdone at times. So is Robin's hasty exit, via a reverse double somersault.

Robin is, of course, supposed to be having fun while also living dangerously. So the premiere tries bloody well hard to have it both ways -- all without spilling even a drop of blood. It's not exactly scintillating, and one wonders whether the producers will be able to see the forest for the trees.

Guess we'll cross that log bridge when we come to it.

Grade: B-minus

New series review: The Winner (Fox)

Rob Corddry stars in Fox's mockup of The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Premiering: Sunday (March 4) at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. (central time) on Fox
Starring: Rob Corddry, Erinn Hayes, Keir Gilchrist, Lenny Clarke, Linda Hart
Produced by: Ricky Blitt, Seth MacFarlane

Empathy for pathetic Glen Abbott is the goal of this gamey new sitcom from Fox.

He's a 32-year-old virgin en route to becoming the richest man in Buffalo, we're told. His nebbish years, circa 1994, are documented in The Winner, which can be winning one minute and immensely crude the next. As when Glen (Rob Corrdry from The Daily Show) fantasizes the girl of his dreams telling him, "Let's get married so you can comb my hair and touch my vagina."

The show's co-producers are Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame and the seriously bent Ricky Blitt, whose savaging of Faye Dunaway at the January TV critics' "press tour" already has made him a near-mythical figure. Blitt's recent promotional letter to reviewers ("My Dearest Friends and Future Sexual Partners in the Media") includes an invitation to "share a Snapple or something at my pad. I look like a combination of Verne Troyer and Helen Mirren, if somehow that sweetens the deal."

Blitt's semi-autobiographical embodiment on The Winner looks longingly upon the only girl who ever kissed him as an adolescent. She's Alison Miller (Erinn Hayes), now the divorced mother of an introverted 13-year-old son named Josh (Keir Gilchrist). Amazingly she moves into a house right across the street from Glen, who still lives with his loud, belittling father, Ron (Lenny Clarke), and supportive but dense mother, Irene (Linda Hart).

Alison is "the girl I had been pleasuring myself to for nearly two decades," Glen narrates, albeit in a "spiritual way." He's soon bonding with her son in hopes of getting lucky with her. Except that Glen is almost deathly afraid of getting lucky or even halfway to first base.

Sunday's first of two episodes, airing after The Simpsons, lays the groundwork for these relationships. It's amusing at best, but marred with some really cheap shots at people with Down's Syndrome and, of all people, the late Herve Villechaize. His suicide was "so sad," says Glenn's mom. "He shot himself in his itty bitty little midget chest."

Episode 2, bridged by an episode of Family Guy, makes a far better case for itself, even if the overall crudity persists. Cordrry is laugh-out loud funny in scenes from a Korean "massage parlor," where he hopes to test his unused manhood in anticipation of a later sexual romp with Alison.

"What's the largest number of condoms a gentleman can put on his unit?" Glen first asks a pharmacist.

In tow with Josh, he then heads for spring training. The show at least has the good sense to keep the kid waiting outside while Glen gingerly tries to become a big leaguer. He's brought a box of chocolate and his own bed linen in hopes of impressing a prostitute who says mechanically, "Oh God, you're so sexy. You're making me horny."

The show's over-the-top laugh track goes nuts at times like these. But Cordrry's double-takes and overall hapless characterization are what make The Winner at least a contender. It can be very funny in spots but also lets itself down with too many, cringe-worthy, sub-juvenile jokes.

Both Glen Abbott and the scripts, as it turns out, have ample growing up to do.

Grade: C+