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New series review: Bingo America (GSN)

Premiering: Monday, March 31st at 6 p.m. (central) on GSN and airing each weeknight at that hour
Hosted by: Patrick Duffy with ball holder Crystal Wallasch
Produced by: Andrew Glassman

Work is where you find it, but it's quite a steep plunge from playing Bobby Ewing on Dallas to hosting Bingo America on GSN.

There's Patrick Duffy, though, gamely smiling and moving things along on this latest TV version of the country's longstanding numbers game.

As with last season's short-lived National Bingo Night on ABC, viewers can download their own cards and play along for unspecified cash prizes.

Don't expect too much from a network that in earlier times had a horse race trivia game in which the nightly grand prize was a hardcover dictionary. Still, if you want to try your luck, the cards are waiting here.

Duffy still has a reasonably boyish look about him after hitting the 59 mark earlier in March. In an opening episode sent for review, though, he doesn't flex any of the quick wit he's shown as both a talk show guest and on Bill Maher's now defunct Politically Incorrect. Surely there should have been a wisecrack coming after contestant Bridget answered "Menudo" to the question, "Bobby Brown was originally a member of what R&B group?"

Duffy and former L.A. Law star Corbin Bernsen (who also recently worked for GSN), at least have broken a latter day game show host hammerlock. Most quizzes in recent years have been hosted by a comedian -- Drew Carey, Bob Saget, Howie Mandel, Jeff Foxworthy, Wayne Brady, Dennis Miller, Jimmy Kimmel, etc. -- or a flamboyant Brit (Ed Sanders emceed ABC's bingo show).

It's hard to avoid having a Vanna White, though -- or multitudes of 'em. Duffy's is Crystal Wallasch, an NBA dancer who holds the jumbo Bingo balls and identifies their letters and numbers.

Contestants score Bingo by correctly answering questions from Duffy until they have all five letters lit up. A "Wild Ball," sponsored by Maxwell House coffee, allows them to pick any letter they still need. At-home players simply keep marking their cards.

Bridget's opponent is Keith, who's a virtual Saturday Night Live parody of a game show contestant. He alternately claps wildly, laughs loudly or gets all clenched up. Not that we're talking giant prize packages here. The winner's take-home combination of cash and a trip totals $5,110 on the show sent for review.

Oh well, Bingo America moves along briskly enough and it won't hurt anybody. ABC found that its version drew heavy traffic to its Web site, if not sustainable Nielsen ratings. GSN's Internet visibility and overall audience levels are still relatively miniscule. So this might help at least a bit.

New series review: Tracey Ullman's State of the Union (Showtime)

Tongue untied: Tracey Ullman tries on Helen Mirren, etc.

Premiering: Sunday, March 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Tracey Ullman
Produced by: Tracey Ullman, Allan McKeown

Tracey Ullman's been around long enough to have introduced The Simpsons as cartoon snippets on her first American TV series.

That was in April 1987, when The Tracey Ullman Show joined the Fox network's charter lineup of Married . . . with Children, Duet and Mr. President.

Her many-splendored comic talents haven't dulled during the 21 springs since. Instead they're razor-sharp in the British mimic's new and oft-brilliant series for Showtime.

Tracey Ullman's State of the Union, premiering Sunday after Showtime's second season launch of The Tudors, is nothing very different on the face of it. She again offers a wide variety of celebrity sendups and newly created characters. But this is her best overall concept yet. Ullman's weekly snapshots of America -- narrated by actor Peter Strauss -- range hilariously far and wide, including an opening night vignette from Huntsville, TX.

That's where serial death row widow Gretchen Pincus is dictating a memoir, White Widow, while her latest husband awaits a midnight execution. Chainsmoking through crooked, discolored teeth, she's "just not in the mood" to say goodbye to him.

Meanwhile, at the Huntsville lockup, self-aggrandizing TV newswoman Rita Cosby is on the receiving end of some savage satire. Ullman's version has her on hands and knees underneath the execution table.

"We're gonna make news, we're gonna break news," she says before a guard tries to evict her. But the fake Cosby's generous offer of pre-execution sex saves her bacon.

Later, in the nation's capital, reporter Campbell Brown is contentedly bringing Americans their "daily dose of fear."

"Uncontrollable airborne viruses leading to inevitable planetary annihilation. And that, Brian, is a best case scenario," she says in closing. (This riff obviously was completed before Brown left NBC -- and anchor Brian Williams among others --- for a prime-time slot on CNN.)

Ullman also portrays an undocumented Bangladesh woman working three menial jobs in Manhattan; a dutiful Nebraska housewife with "restless leg syndrome"; a Latina morning anchor with an exaggerated way of introducing herself; and a Middle Eastern pharmacist who's being robbed at her workplace.

"In a holdup there is no $10 dollar co-pay," she notes at the end.

Other celebrity sendups Sunday night include Ariana Huffington, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Sirico, David Beckham, Laurie David and Lindsay Lohan's grossly self-indulgent mother, Dina.

Pelosi is seen only in extreme closeup, getting Botox injections that seem to be drawing real blood. Sirico, who became famous as mobster Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, is trying to branch out by playing an Alaskan Indian in I'm with This Inuit. But a clip from the film finds him in typical gangster mode, profanely bellowing about global warming and his threatened fishing rights.

Ullman, now 48, has been in this game long before Frank Caliendo began making a splash as John Madden among others. And she's still twice as good and daring at it. State of the Union further embosses Ullman as a true original in what's mostly been a man's world. Bully for her.

Grade: A

All lathered up anew: Showtime's The Tudors still cleans up nicely as a hot-blooded, post-medieval soap

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are a tough matchup for Pope Paul III.

Premiering: Sunday, March 30th at 8 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jeremy Northam, Peter O'Toole, Nick Dunning, James Frain, Henry Cavill, David Alpay, Hans Matheson
Created and written by: Michael Hirst

Showtime's Henry VIII remains thin and thinner-skinned in the person of Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Still, there's more weight to him in this second go-around for Showtime's The Tudors. Adding a small helping of facial hair helps somewhat. It's mostly in the bearing, though.

Henry VIII perhaps should look physically more like Paul Giamatti's pudgy John Adams in HBO's competing miniseries of the same name. But Rhys Meyers sells his svelte version of the king by virtue of his imposing screen presence. So what if his Henry could slide easily into a pair of Guess jeans? He's no less a simmering despot in his zeal to push the Catholic Church aside and reign as England's Supreme Being.

Showtime sent the first half of the 10-episode Season 2, which begins Sunday night. It's easily devoured in the manner of Henry VIII finishing off a mutton chop. Historical liberties again are taken in the interests of an overall soap opera-ish presentation. Yet The Tudors manages to have it both ways. Its excesses are offset by both powerful performances and relatively deep-thinking on matters of faith, hope and conniving.

Rhys Meyers pulls the main oar, but others excel as well. Maria Doyle Kennedy again is superb as the exiled Queen Katherine while Natalie Dormer comes to full flower in the role of throne-thirsty Anne Boleyn. Principled Sir Thomas More, the king's former chancellor, is memorable in the hands of Jeremy Northam. And James Frain takes the full measure of the pliant yet fleetingly conscience-stricken Thomas Cromwell.

There's Peter O'Toole, too. And the old Master Thespian still knows how to carry a scene in his limited appearances as Pope Paul III. Ornate outfits further bring the characters to vibrant life, and costume designer Joan Bergin again has outdone herself.

Alas, there's also a totally fabricated assassination plot, featuring a cloaked hitman taking his indirect marching orders from the Pope himself. Writer/creator Michael Hirst has gone a bit bonkers in this respect, particularly during Chapter 3.

This is when the lone gunman sets up shop in the equivalent of ye olde Texas School Book Depository. He fires a single shot at what amounts to King Henry VIII's motorcade. It's intended for Anne Boleyn, but instead hits what today would be a Secret Service agent. Oh wretched screenwriter, thou hast misfired in so many ways here.

The Tudors also includes another arguably obligatory gay character. This time it's a fictional violinist named Mark Smeaton (David Alpay). In Season One, it was a choir director. As with the assassination gambit, Hirst seems to be over-stuffing the storyline rather than working with the potent ingredients he already has.

This is mostly very good stuff, though. Visually exquisite, emotionally involving, sexually alluring and sometimes deliciously cheeky, The Tudors deserves its stature as the most popular attraction in Showtime's history. It even gets away with a Chapter 5 scene in which the increasingly roving Henry spots a maiden to his liking while out horse-riding.

"Are you really the King of England?" she asks as they frolic in the all together.

"No, I was only pulling your leg," he says while thrusting from behind.

That same chapter ends with the well-documented beheading of the steadfast More. A small silver crucifix drops from his hand as the deed is done. It's quickly bathed in an enveloping pool of his blood during a closing scene of considerable artistry and power.

So watch The Tudors with the expectation of being entertained, edified and maybe occasionally just a bit stupefied. All in all it's the Poker equivalent of four Kings, falling just a bit short of the optimum Royal Flush.

Grade: A-minus

Idol: Nine remain after Chikezie sings his last

Chikezie's out; Rockwall's Jason Castro survives a scare.

Rockwall's sleepy-time Jason Castro survived another beating from the judges, but first had to sweat it out in American Idol's Bottom Three during Wednesday's latest vote-off.

"I knew it. I knew because I've never been out this late (without being decreed "safe"), the just-turned-21-year-old told host Ryan Seacrest. "I was freaked out all day today."

In Castro's view, being eliminated would be a "shocker." But he barely got those words out before Seacrest said, "Jason, you're safe."

Chikezie instead took the gas, with Syesha Mercado the last contestant cleared for takeoff next Tuesday. Chikezie's previous night's rendition of Luther Vandross' "If Only For One Night" had been deemed "very cheesy" and unoriginal by judge Simon Cowell.

The big bad Brit also lashed Castro's performance of Sting's "Fragile."

"I think you've had two bad weeks," he told the kid. "Everything about it was too laid back, too much in your own world."

Cowell also questioned Castro's commitment to winning. And frankly he didn't persuade anyone that he cared all that much, looking more stoned than stoked.

But Castro now will get another chance to rev it up, this time with help from "mentor" Dolly Parton. Maybe she'll make him sing that peppy ol' "9 to 5," which became one of her big hits seven years before his birth. You think he's even heard of it?

South Park from ground zero to now

Click on the video below and thrill to the first documented killings of Kenny -- at least far as I can tell -- on the first episode of the first season of Comedy Central's South Park. A big selection of clips and an array of full episodes are available for free viewing on the new SouthParkStudios.com.
Ed Bark

Idol: Rockwall kid in Top 10 while resident rocker goes home

Out and still in: rocker Amanda Overmyer, Rockwall's Jason Castro.

American Idol cemented its top 10 and post-competition road show field Wednesday with the somewhat unexpected vote-off of rough-hewn Amanda Overmyer.

The oft-overbearing, gravel-voiced rocker got the boot instead of fellow Bottom Two-er Kristy Lee Cook, who keeps circling the drain.

Still solid is Rockwall's Jason Castro, despite the 20-year-old's unfortunate choice of the girly "Michelle" for his second Beatles tune on the previous night.

Both Castro and Overmyer, who did "Back in the USSR," got tepid reviews from the Idol judges. But so did just about everyone else, including Carly Smithson and her rendition of "Blackbird." She joined Overmyer and Cook among the show's three lowest vote-getters. The former failed MCA Records artist, who used to be Carly Hennessy, remains on her second voyage of "discovery" after her previous label reportedly spent $2.2 million trying to make her a star.

Idol also announced four upcoming "mentors" for the coming weeks. They are Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, Mariah Carey and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The seventh edition of the Fox mega-hit continues to play to big crowds. Tuesday's latest performance show drew 27.3 million viewers in the national Nielsens, crushing opposition in its second hour from ABC's Dancing with the Stars.

New series review: I Know My Kid's A Star (VH1)

Danny Bonaduce before and after; Devon and Kevin of Rockwall

Premiering: Thursday, March 20th at 9 p.m. (central) on VH1
Starring: Danny Bonaduce and 10 "Hollywood-crazed parent/child teams," including Devon and Kevin of Rockwall, TX
Produced by: Danny and Gretchen Bonaduce

Ridiculous when it's not being reprehensible, VH1's eight-episode I Know My Kid's A Star reeks of exploitation, Danny Bonaduce, an execrable mom named Rocky and a kid spewing vomit in the early going.

In other words, all of the ingredients for a cable hit are firmly in place. So is the Rockwall, TX duo of dad Kevin and 10-year-old daughter, Devon. They're one of 10 parent-child teams vying for reality show chump change of $50 grand plus the right to be represented for a year by "a real bitch on wheels" named Marki Costello.

What a joke it is to think that Costello will devote any meaningful time to the winner. "Hey, kid, I got a good job for ya. My dog just crapped in our hot tub. Go scoop it up. That's it. You're on your way, kid. Now run down to the Circle K and get me a pack of smokes. And don't forget. Pauly Shore started this way."

It would help if any of these kids demonstrated even an ounce of actual talent during opening auditions on Thursday's one-hour premiere. But the singers prove dreadful and a couple of them are nearly paralyzed from both stage fright and parental pressure. The dancers are a joke, too. But no matter. This show clearly is built around the mostly deluded parents. And in that context, Rocky's the show's breakout banshee.

Botoxed, stretched, tattooed, scantily dressed and utterly unlikable from head to toe, Rocky's determined to turn nine-year-old daughter, Haley, into Hollywood's next comet. In one of the show's many tender parent-child vignettes, she tells the kid, "Please, please practice with me. What, my tampon's showing?"

Oh yeah, that'll definitely make the The Soup's weekly highlight reel. It's also a nice touch when one of the little girls pukes during opening introductions. Host Bonaduce then cracks, "Those of you who failed to vomit, it will not be held against you." Train wreck Danny's still got that boyish charm.

Kevin and Devon, to their great good fortune, don't get much camera time in Episode 1. Unfortunately for them, though, they'll be surviving until at least Episode 2. So there's ample opportunity for debasement and embarrassment.

Bonaduce, the in-and-out-of-rehab former Partridge Family kid, finds himself uniquely qualified to provide the "Hollywood-crazed parent/child teams" with what he affectionally calls "a serious reality check, Bonaduce style."

"More importantly," he adds, "the parents have to prove that they can keep their kid from winding up in rehab."

Actually, it's mostly the moms who could use padded cells.

Says one: "I'm gonna kill somebody on this show. And another: "The only way they're gonna get me outta this friggin' house is on a stretcher."

Meanwhile, the poor kids are either rebellious or veritable pull-string toys. Twelve-year-old Cameron seems to fall into the latter category.

"Why are you in acting?" his "admitted stage mom" Shari asks.

"For the chicks and the checks," he parrots.

Ugh, virtually everything about I Know My Kid's A Star seems dirty to the touch. Bonaduce keeps saying he's looking for "that 'It' factor," even though he clearly means to say "Ick."

It all leads to a weekly "Elimination Ceremony" in which Bonaduce punches a pair's ticket back to Paducah-ville. The first evictee's parent tries to comfort the kid, but is told, "I'm fine. Stop. Will you stop talking!"

That's right. Treat the poor slob like dirt. But everyone's gonna get what they deserve here. I Know My Kid's A Star may be the single-worst reality competition series in the history of the genre. Which shows that VH1 is really on its game.

Grade: F

The long and winding 12 Miles of Bad Road

HBO gives the heave-ho to star Lily Tomlin and 12 Miles of Bad Road executive producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth.

12 Miles of Bad Road indeed. It's no particular surprise to Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth that HBO leaked word Monday night of its decision not to air their broad but often very funny series about a Dallas realtor and her dysfunctional brood.

They'd been getting that sinking feeling for weeks, but thought that an eleventh hour deal might still be made. Then Carolyn Strauss, the show's principal remaining champion, resigned Monday as HBO's entertainment president. And that was the end of 12 Miles, too.

"We are trying to move the show (to another network), and believe we have a fairly good shot," Thomason said in an email Tuesday. "We will know more tomorrow."

Thomason initiated communication with unclebarky.com last month, expressing deep concern that HBO appeared ready to bail on 12 Miles after deeming it "not sophisticated enough" for the premium network's core audience. Six of the 10 episodes had been completed before last fall's writers' strike. But HBO's new regime of co-presidents Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo were not fans, said Thomason, whose wife, Linda Bloodworth (Designing Women, Evening Shade, Emeril), wrote all of the scripts.

Those six episodes, mostly filmed in L.A. with some Dallas exteriors, were sent to unclebarky.com with the understanding that nothing would be publicized while a deal with HBO remained possible.

Thomason, Bloodworth and principal star Lily Tomlin subsequently emailed a letter to unclebarky.com that also was meant to be forwarded to other TV critics along with the six completed episodes of 12 Miles. But they then retreated from that strategy, asking that nothing be written while, in Thomason's words, "we try to get the horse in the barn."

If that still happens, it will be a barn other than HBO's. "Sorry we sat on it so long," Thomason said Tuesday after HBO leaked that news.

I've seen the first two episodes of 12 Miles, which is none too subtle about skewering Dallas' big-egoed elite. Not that subtlety would work under these circumstances.

Tomlin plays Amelia Shakespeare, founding mother of the Amelia Select realty company. In the series' opening scene, Amelia and her second-in-command, C.Z. Shakespeare (Mary Kay Place), are in a chopper showing off high-priced spreads to a new Dallas Cowboys' running back named Keyshawn Diamond (Texas Battle).

Meanwhile, at ground level, Amelia's son, Jerry (Gary Cole), is trying but failing to control the spending habits of his bible-loving wife, whose principal charities are whatever Oprah Winfery says they should be. Jerry regularly seeks respites in the arms of a busty mattress saleswoman who's still getting chemo for her cancer.

The oldest Shakespeare daughter is estranged from her husband. But they still live in the same house, with his imperial fiancee, Montserrat, occupying a separate wing. Both still dote on their high-strung teenage daughter, alternately described as "mentally disabled" or "retarded." She still desperately wants to be a Dallas deb.

The youngest Shakespeare daughter, a drunk, lives in a gaudy trailer home parked on various Shakespeare properties. Eat your hearts out, Ewings. You're the Waltons compared to this.

However this all sounds on paper is not how it plays on-screen. Bloodworth still knows how to write pointed, bawdy dialogue that's often a hoot and a holler. And she's having a grand time here without necessarily going irredeemably over the top. Dallas probably wouldn't know what to do with pastel brush strokes anyway. This is, after all, the city of Jerry Jones (an unseen phone caller in the first episode), Mark Cuban, Mary Kay Ash and Ross Perot.

Here's how Bloodworth, her husband and Tomlin see the city and the state in that aforementioned and heretofore unpublicized SOS letter:

"Certainly a serial, hour-long comedy about Texas is a departure for HBO. Nevertheless, it was designed to do what that cable channel has always done best -- provide an authentic, heretofore unseen look at a private, insular world -- in this case another large American family immersed in an alien culture.

"12 Miles represents the seemingly broad, but heavily researched and authentic world of Dallas billionaires, who think nothing of paying a million dollars for a Hannah Montana appearance at a child's birthday party, dispatching a private jet to England to deliver dry rub barbecue to Prince Charles or giving a trip to the moon as a wedding present.

"Knowing HBO has never done a series featuring the South or Texas, we are very appreciate of the $25 million dollars they have already invested in 12 Miles. Although relations are cordial, we feel the current regime may be a little unsure of this new, inherited terrain . . . We think we know a hit show when see it -- having done the other kind. We are not asking HBO to champion or even promote our show. Just simply show it."

That train has left the station, but maybe Showtime will step in. If not, some of the language and nudity running through 12 Miles will have to be lost in any translation to an advertiser-supported network.

Count me among those who'd like to see the show go on in some form somewhere. 12 Miles of Bad Road ain't Shakespeare despite its first family's surname. But it's got a becomingly big, sassy bite to it -- which Dallas and the country at large should be able to handle.

New series review: Miss Guided (ABC)

Dallasite Brooke Burns and star Judy Greer of Miss Guided. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 18th, at 9:32 p.m. (central) on ABC. Then moves to Thursdays at 7 p.m. with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Judy Greer, Brooke Burns, Kristoffer Polasha, Chris Parnell, Earl Billings
Produced by: Caroline Williams, Ashton Kutcher, Jason Goldberg, Todd Holland, Karey Burke, Mark Hudis

ABC's new Miss Guided sitcom charts new vistas in prime-time entertainment -- at least in terms of avoiding all those bothersome postage costs.

It's the first broadcast network series to be available for review only on a network Web site with an approved password required for admission. From now on, forget about getting DVDs of any new ABC product in the mail. Like it or not, this is the way it's going to be for America's dwindling supply of TV critics. So let's review the overall ease of viewing before getting to the disease that Miss Guided turns out to be.

ABC merits a grudging A for this maiden outing in wave-of-the-future cost-cutting. The premiere episode of Miss Guided played flawlessly and clearly on my iMac. And it's easy to rewind in the interests of getting any dialogue snippets just right.

The network also makes it very plain that you'd better not try to replicate its product in any way, shape, form, etc. As a recurring printed disclaimer states, "For review only. Not for downloading, recording, file sharing, sale or public performance." Nor can you use it to whip up a nice pasta.

Now on to the show itself, which may well get a decent sampling Tuesday night following ABC's Dancing with the Stars. Then again, the audience falloff might quickly replicate an Acapulco cliff dive once viewers realize what's befalling them.

Miss Guided, which includes Ashton Kutcher among its executive producers, wears out its welcome faster than Gene Simmons in Branson.

Judy Greer stars as guidance counselor Becky Freeley, who's returned to her alma mater, Glen Ellen High, after graduating with full geek honors.

Latently attractive without her industrial strength braces, Becky's otherwise an unsympathetic and utterly incompetent advice-giver who fits right in with the rest of the school's idiot faculty. Apparently this is supposed to be a laugh riot. But in these trying times for educators, Miss Guided is both woefully out of step and thoroughly unexceptional.

Dallasite Brooke Burns adds another unfortunate career choice to her resume after earlier stints on Pepper Dennis and North Shore. This time she plays former homecoming queen Lisa Germain, who's now a self-important bombshell of an English teacher.

Former Saturday Night Live regular Chris Parnell dips his beak as a tiresomely self-important vice principal named Bruce Terry. There's also Spanish language teacher Tim O'Malley (Kristoffer Polaha), who likewise has no business being there.

"I barely know how to speak Spanish," he tells Becky, who spends the entire first episode lusting after him. "I'm only one language lab ahead of the kids."

Miss Guided is without a laugh track -- the show's only good call -- and constantly has its aimless characters talking to the camera rather than amongst themselves. ABC already has announced the show's "season finale," --set for April 3rd. That's just 16 days beyond its premiere date.

Networks sometimes are smart enough to act fast in the interest of burning off a clinker. Saving on postage was the right call, too.

Grade: D-minus

HBO's Adams family is a revolutionary concept

Cold comfort: John and Abigail Adams kept their fires burning.

Premiering: Sunday, March 16th, 7 p.m. (central) with a second episode from 8:10 to 9:45 p.m. Continuing on Sundays at 8 p.m. through April 30th
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, David Morse, Stephen Dillane, Zeljko Ivanek, Danny Huston, Justin Theroux, Guy Henry, Rufus Sewell, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Sarah Polley
Produced by: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman
Directed by: Tom Hooper

A John Adams action figure wouldn't do all that much.

Squat, plain-faced and pudgy, he rose to the top of the late 1770s charts without being an adventurer, a war hero, an inventor or very colorful. The nation's first vice president and second president didn't cast a long shadow and constantly felt overshadowed. Go fly a kite? But alas, Ben Franklin beat him to that, too.

Then along came eminent historian David McCullough.

His mega-selling 2001 John Adams biography has 2.7 million copies in print and counting. It put Adams back on the American map as an under-appreciated man of ideas whose armor was the courage of his convictions. Now HBO is weighing in with a sumptuously produced, seven-part John Adams miniseries -- "He United the States" -- from the high-wattage team of Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (HBO's exemplary Band of Brothers).

Its first two chapters, premiering Sunday, March 16th and running from 7 to 9:45 p.m. (central), accentuate the title character's unbending will and enduring love of his devoted, yet strong-willed wife. John and Abigail Adams (Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney) are the essential sugar and spice of an elongated epic that has next to no physical action in the first four chapters sent for review.

Even the Revolutionary War is fought almost entirely off camera. We see some of the after-effects, but none of the big battles themselves. Instead, John Adams is off in Paris for most of Chapter 3, barely enduring the powdered faces and heavy lipstick of effete French royalty while trying to enlist their help in the war effort.

Nonetheless, John Adams is stirring in many respects, beginning with its big, bold and invigorating theme music. The hook's already well-baited before we begin on a wintry and very dark Boston night in the year 1770.

Attorney John Adams is returning home to Abigail after a courtroom joust that once again took him on the road.

"You lost," says she.

"I did," says he.

"I could tell by the set of your shoulders."

Another case immediately presents itself, though. There's rioting in the streets and firing by a group of occupying British soldiers. Five Bostonians are dead, but were the Brits provoked to act in self defense?

Adams takes up their thankless defense, angering his cousin, Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) centuries before he became a beer. Roughly the first two-thirds of Sunday's opening chapter are devoted to this case, with John Adams standing steadfastly behind the sanctity of the law before his planned closing summation is gently reproached by Abigail.

"You have overburdened your argument with ostentatious erudition," she tells him. It's a shame people don't talk that way anymore.

Chapter 1 also includes a bit of full frontal male nudity during a tar-and-feathering that Adams calls "barbarism." This studied man of "prudence and probity" soon is off to Philadelphia on "a plain horse for a plain man." He's been appointed to the newly formed Continental Congress, which means a long separation from Abigail and their three children, with whom he's often a short-tempered taskmaster. On this occasion, though, Adams musters a jaunty "Bye, ya little pumpkins," before riding off to the sound of swelling music.

George Washington towers over John Adams on Inauguration Day.

Philadelphia brings the other heavy-hitting Founding Fathers into play during an oft-rousing Chapter 2.

Ben Franklin, who later will greatly vex Adams, is well-played by Britisher Tom Wilkinson in convincing makeup. Even more striking is modest, short-spoken George Washington, with former St. Elsewhere co-star David Morse barely recognizable as a virtual replica of the guy we see almost daily on the dollar bill.

Less imposing is Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence. "I have no gift for oratory," he tells Adams, who's far more skilled with the spoken word.

He almost meets his equal in pacifistic John Dickinson (Zeljko Ivanek), who steadfastly opposes war with -- or independence from -- the ruling British. Ivanek, so terrific in FX's recent Damages series, excels anew in a role that eventually renders him a man at sea.

John Adams also regularly returns to the home front, where Abigail remains a force in her own right. Chapter 2 includes her decision to have the family inoculated from rampaging small pox by having a doctor implant the virus in a primitive and queasy way. It's quite a scene, but not for the weak of stomach.

Linney as Abigail makes an overall stronger impression than Giamatti as her spouse. His performance is solid for the most part, even if it's sometimes hard not to think of him as Mr. Magoo in a variety of wigs. Giamatti's pained, almost weepy reactions also can be semi-comical at times. But he rises to those occasions when laudatory oratory is required.

Morse in turn seems almost mummified as Washington. At the same time, though, he communicates dignity, resolve and reserve. Wilkinson makes Franklin the playboy of the group, particularly during his one-upping sojourn in Paris with the chafing Adams.

"We are all actors here, Mr. Adams," he proclaims. "And so far, my performance has been well-received."

The third chapter in Paris is the miniseries' squishy midsection, though. It regains a firmer footing in Chapter 4, with Abigail at last joining her husband in France before they then journey to England in deference to John's appointment as his new nation's first ambassador.

In the line of those duties, he must bow repeatedly to King George III in their inaugural meeting on the latter's turf. It's a very memorable scene, with Giamatti pulling it off perfectly.

By the end of Chapter 4, the Adamses are back in the States, where their now grown children struggle to reconnect with a physically and emotionally distant father. He's both unyielding with oldest son John Quincy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and a bit blue about being outvoted for president, even though he knows that Washington clearly is the man for the job.

John Adams succeeds in these first four chapters as a compelling drama built largely on big ideas and bold assertions of same. But its heart and soul come from the steadfast and timeless love of an oft-absent husband and a stalwart wife.

She died of typhoid fever at age 73. He endured until age 91, expiring on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

The power of those partings is yet to be experienced by either reviewers or viewers. But John Adams already has shown that it won't fall short when those times are at hand.

Grade: A-minus

New series review: The Return of Jezebel James (Fox)

At least the Fox artwork is nice for The Return of Jezebel James.

Premiering: Friday, March 14th at 7 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes on Fox
Starring: Parker Posey, Lauren Ambrose, Scott Cohen, Michael Arden, Ron McLarty, Jack Carpenter
Produced by: Amy Sherman-Palladino, Daniel Palladino

Initially slotted for a post-American Idol launch, Fox's The Return of Jezebel James instead gets sent to the network's Friday night outhouse.

As votes of confidence go, that's barely a hanging chad.

The half-hour comedy, complete with unwarranted laugh track, is from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. She's segued from a snippy mother-daughter duo to a warring big sis-little sis combo. Any charm and appeal are out to lunch this time, though. The show is quickly out of ammunition despite Palladino's still unquenched penchant for rapid-fire dialogue.

Lead character Sarah Tompkins (Parker Posey) is a gratingly discombobulated children's book editor who's long been estranged from rebellious sibling Coco (Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under). But they're reunited, fractiously of course, after Sarah learns she can't get pregnant.

With insemination no longer an option, Sarah turns to Coco as a surrogate. Or as she puts it, "Coco, I need your uterus." As if there's any way this series will be carried to term.

Perhaps you're wondering where Jezebel James comes in. Well, that's the name of Coco's imaginary childhood friend, and Sarah has it to front a series of popular children's books.

This of course disarms the otherwise disagreeable Coco, who's living in a dump while her sister luxuriates in a dreamy Manhattan apartment. By the end of Friday's first of two episodes, Coco shows up at Sarah's workplace to the tune of "Here Comes the Sun." Where's a total eclipse when we need one?

Episode 2's centerpiece is a shouting match between the two sisters at a "surrogacy" lawyer's office.

"I want it in writing that if this baby comes out buck-toothed with crossed eyes, she's not gonna stick me with it," Coco rages.

Sarah replies that she likes "ugly" babies with the caveat that they can be easily fixed. Ugh.

Supporting characters include Sarah's very bland, no-strings-attached boyfriend Marcus (Scott Cohen) and Coco's equally uninteresting slacker boy toy Dash (Jack Carpenter).

Sarah is dense enough to tell Marcus at dinner that raising a baby on her own will have no impact at all on their relationship.

He responds by ordering 12 glasses of red wine, which a waiter actually delivers without question.

Expect Jezebel James to be gone, baby, gone faster than Fox programmers can say, "Let's plug in a House rerun.

Grade: D

New series review: Canterbury's Law (Fox)

Elizabeth Canterbury (Julianna Margulies) lays into another witness.

Premiering: Monday, March 10th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Julianna Margulies, Ben Shenkman, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Keith Robinson, Aidan Quinn, Terry Kinney, James McCaffrey
Produced by: Denis Leary, Jim Serpico, Walon Green, Dave Erickson

Fox is swimming in Shark-infested waters here, and yes, that's an intended reference to the James Wood-led CBS courtroom series.

Woods is a defense attorney turned prosecutor while Julianna Margulies plays strictly defense on Canterbury's Law. Otherwise they're alike in their brow-beatings of young staffs, self-destructive tendencies and commandeering of nearly every scene. It's good to be a star.

The premiere episode's opening minute finds Elizabeth Canterbury (Margulies) popping out of the sack she's sharing with a private investigator who's not her husband. She's late, she's late, for a very important court date.

"I've become a damn vaudeville act," she grouses before rushing off.

Still, she savors a good media circus.

"I think a lawyer that dodges a 'sound bite' oughta be disbarred," says Canterbury, who's defending a young man accused of murdering and dismembering the son of purported community pillars.

Her foil is a scheming D.A. named Zach Williams (Terry Kinney), who in effect is the show's Hamilton Burger. (Hey kids, that's a reference to the beaten-down prosecutor in Perry Mason, who never won a single case in nine seasons of trying.)

Mason could be a little self-important at times. But in his personal life, the guy was stiffer than an Exxon boardroom.

Not so Elizabeth Canterbury, a frequent straight booze imbiber whose recurring dalliances with P.I. Frank Angstrom (James McCaffrey) are an escape from her rocky marriage to Matt Furey (a little-seen Aidan Quinn). The mysterious disappearance of their son has rendered Canterbury both guilt-ridden and prone to lashing out at both her staff and the hapless D.A., who in turn brands his adversary a "bottom-feeding bitch."

Canterbury's conscience and trouble-shooter is junior partner Russell Krauss (Ben Shenkman). He's on the receiving end of the show's most laughable snatch of dialogue. "You feckless puppet!" D.A. Zach thunders. "Where do you get the stones to accuse me?"

It's hard to determine whether Canterbury's other two law firm associates are feckless or not. In Monday's opener, Molly McConnell (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and Chester Grant (Keith Robinson) are thinly drawn to the point of being almost invisible.

Margulies has a porcelain complexion, tightly wound hair and some standout moments as the drama's deeply flawed pacesetter. She's an anti-heroine who at least doesn't do heroin -- not yet anyway. But Canterbury will do just about anything to win once she deems a defendant innocent. That includes jury-tampering and coaxing a client to commit perjury as a means of trapping the real murderer.

Denis Leary, one of the show's co-executive producers, is himself a basket case as firefighter Tommy Gavin on FX's Rescue Me. That show isn't known for its subtlety. And Canterbury's Law follows suit with an over-the-top courtroom climax that's meant to pack a wallop but instead badly misses.

An upcoming episode -- but not the second one -- finds Canterbury defending a throughly spoiled gossip girl whom many might want to see thrown in jail with a sadistic pack of she-wolves. But in some ways that's one of the series' strong points. Most defendants aren't wronged celestial beings of the sort that Perry Mason represented in a bygone TV era.

Canterbury's Law likely will result in a hung jury among viewers. There's much to appreciate in Margulies' strong center-ring performance. But both the series and her character fall well short of perfection.

Grade: B-minus

Lone Star? A single Texan remains in Idol's Final 12

In and out: Rockwall's Jason Castro and Houston's Kady Malloy.

A lone Texan still stands among American Idol's Final 12 after Thursday's herd-trimming left Houston's Kady Malloy on the cutting room floor.

Jason Castro, 20, of Rockwall (but born in Dallas, raised in Rowlett) rode Tuesday night's rave reviews to the hit Fox show's promised land. And he looks solid for at least the next few weeks.

Malloy, 18, of Houston, deemed a dullard Wednesday by jab-throwing Simon Cowell, was the first of four voted off Thursday.

"I'm still having issues with your massive lack of personality," Cowell had told her, likening the lithe but too listless blonde to a robotic Stepford wife.

"I don't regret a moment," Malloy said, colorlessly, after host Ryan Seacrest lowered the guillotine.

Malloy had company in fellow evictees Luke Menard, Asia'h Epperson and Danny Noriega. The 12 finalists will perform together Tuesday in a two-hour live broadcast on a new Idol stage. One contestant goes home per week until the show's May finale.

New series review: High School reunion (TV Land)

J.J. Pearce's "Kat The Lesbian," then and now. Photos from TV Land

Premiering: Wednesday, March 5 at 9 p.m. (central) on TV Land
Starring: 14 graduates from J.J. Pearce High School's class of 1987
Produced by: Mike Fleiss, Lisa Levenson

Mmm, "Kat the Lesbian." Delish.

Says she's now a "little bit curious" about re-trying a man on for size. Scrumptious.

Has semi-dissipated "Rob The Stud" intrigued. Priceless.

Sorry. Just trying to sink to the level of TV Land's High School Reunion, which turns out to be not all that bad a level in which to sink. Starring 14 graduates of J.J. Pearce High School's Class of 1987, here's a reality series that knows how to squeeze the juice, strum the heartstrings and tease with the laughably somber intensity of a defrocked National Geographic Channel spokesman.

So really, what's not to like about this beautifully shallow, six-episode wallow at a "sun-drenched" Maui wowie dubbed "Reunion Estate?" Somebody's going to get in somebody's p-a-a-a-a-nts. And Rob the Stud might as well be the one to catch Kat scratch fever.

Eleven of the Pearce grads get laid -- er, leis -- in Wednesday's opener. One by one they arrive on this temptation island, briefly introducing themselves to voyeurs/ viewers while enroute to a nicely appointed outdoor open bar.

The show's other three participants, including nefarious "Steve The Backstabber," will be fully introduced later. But we get a little taste of S The B during an opening tease in which he's told, "You slept with your best friend's wife."

"And I'm man enough to admit it," he retorts. Hiss.

The cast and 1987 class of Richardson's J.J. Pearce High School.

Pearce is said to be located in Dallas, Texas, which might piss Richardson off just a bit. Oh well, this is the big-footing way of the TV world. During her championship year on the first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson was always dubbed a Dallas rather than a Burleson girl.

Pearce otherwise is portrayed as a wild-partying Gomorrah -- or at least that's the way some remember it.

"Mike The Rebel," who now looks kinda dweebish, says he was a "bit of a troublemaker" who constantly had the cops called to his extracurricular activities.

Rob The Stud, who since has become a "good, sensitive guy" in his view, recalls getting "laid a lot" at hotel parties following football games.

Mike The Rebel used to be married to "Lana The Drama Queen," who not only sacked him but slept with Steve the Backstabber. This has rendered Mike pretty clenched up during Reunion's first episode. He does find time, though, to draw a mustache on Lana The Drama Queen's high school picture.

One of the show's icebreaker's is a "Hall Pass" given to a guy or girl. They then get to pick someone for a date. First up is "Deanna The Popular Girl," who chooses the now hunky "Justin The Pipsqueak."

They get side-by-side massages and then plates of seductive fruit and champagne. But Justin The Pipsqueak can't quite bring himself to kiss the still succulent Deanna The Popular Girl, a four-time divorcee. He later shows up in thong-y underwear, though, during group hot tub therapy.

Poignancy is embodied by "Matt The Jock," who's still mourning the recent death of his wife. Since then, "I've cried, I've friggin' hugged, I've done everything" in hopes of feeling better, he says. Hall Pass therapy then leads him to "Yvette The Girl Next Door."

Future episodes promise high-wire tension, lotsa foolin' around and maybe even tattooed Kat on a hot tin roof.

"Long-buried feelings will erupt to the surface, and no one will be left unscathed," the narrator teases.

That's the spirit. High School Reunion has both a breakout personality in Kat The Lesbian and an overall cheesiness that it wears very well. All in all, It definitely beats a kick in the head from "Jason The Bully."

Grade: B

New series review: New Amsterdam (Fox)

He looks great for 400, but Det. John Amsterdam still broods a lot.

Premiering: Tuesday, March 4 at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox. Also on Thursday, March 6 at 8 p.m. before moving to regular Monday 8 p.m. slot.
Starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Zuleikha Robinson, Stephen Henderson, Alexie Gilmore
Produced by: David Manson, Allan Loeb, Lasse Hallstrom, Leslie Holleran, Steven Pearl

Four hundred is the new thirtysomething on Fox's New Amsterdam, whose ageless hero has got a lot more living to do unless he finds true love.

Only then can he realize his lifelong dream of becoming physically decrepit and perhaps even logging a facelift or two before dying like the rest of us from cancer or something.

It sounds as though John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) should be careful what he wishes for. But the guy's already lived through the entire existence of New York City, let alone the mayoral term of David Dinkins. So he apparently needs a break from immortality.

The Big Apple was still New Amsterdam when little John made his debut on June 1, 1607. Thirty-five years later, as a Dutch soldier, he had a pointed experience with a sword while trying to save the life of a young Native American woman during an attack on her tribe.

The woman and a group of her friends then wove a healing spell over him, making Amsterdam immortal.

"You will not grow old. You will not die, until you find the one, and your souls are wed," he was told.

All of which makes New Amsterdam at least a kissing cousin of ABC's Pushing Daisies, but without its bright primary colors or whimsy.

Slotted for last fall until getting bumped by Don't Forget the Lyrics!, the show takes a very serious approach to both its weekly murder mysteries and unfolding mythology. The latter realm holds both promise and fascination, though, particularly in Thursday's second episode. That's when we learn the damndest thing about a sardonic 65-year-old jazz club owner named Omar (Stephen Henderson). Amsterdam makes it a point to look out for him, and for good reason it turns out.

Unfortunately, our hero is also a homicide detective. And his latest new partner, Eva Marquez (Zuleikha Robinson), of course finds him to be both disagreeable and somewhat mystical. Essentially the same cop shop dynamic is far better rendered on NBC's Life, which is done for this season but will be back in the fall.

New Amsterdam's crimesolving, salted with some CSI gruesomeness, holds only a bit more interest than the show's less than clever narration.

"New York City," Amsterdam says for starters. "A beautiful catastrophe, someone once called it. I call it home."

He later throws out another clunker: "I've watched the world change. Best invention -- indoor plumbing. Worst invention -- the alarm clock."

Snooze. But the show's wakeup calls are its time travels, which on Thursday's second episode find Amsterdam in the year 1941. He was a well-to-do attorney then, and he went by the last name of York. For a while he even thought he'd found "The One." But of course it didn't quite work out, and not all of those cards are on the table yet.

Back in the present, Amsterdam is jacked by the possibility that a doctor who pronounced him dead in an emergency room in fact may be his long-sought soulmate. Those messy murder cases keep diverting him, but by the end of Episode 2 he finally has her name.

Fox's first impulse was to shelve New Amsterdam. But now the series is getting two prime post-American Idol berths before it's sent off to Mondays.

The star's Hugh Jackman-calibre good looks and an intriguing, expandable premise may be enough to attract and keep a nice-sized audience. If not, prime-time's only 400-year-old hunk can keep watching Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades on his own time.

Grade: C+