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The Killing gives AMC another prime-time plus

Stars Joel Kinnaman, Mireille Enos of The Killing. AMC photos
Premiering: Sunday, April 3rd at 8 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Billy Campbell, Michelle Forbes, Brent Sexton, Kristen Lehman, Eric Ladin, Chad Willett
Produced by: Veena Sud, Mikkel Bondesen

Welcome to beautiful Seattle, where the rain is constant and the characters in this series seem oblivious to it.

So much so that they mostly just stand there and take it, without shielding themselves with umbrellas, hats or even yesterday's newspapers. It must have been a tough shoot, but it's also an aptly bleak setting for the murder of a teenage girl in AMC's latest distinctive drama series.

The Killing, premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes, leaves any sunny dispositions by the wayside during its peel-away reveals of suspects in the drowning death of 17-year-old Rosie Larsen. The network of Mad Men (which now won't return until 2012), The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad has quickly put itself on a very high plane. Unlike a rival network that claims to "Know Drama," AMC really knows drama. How to walk it, talk it and suck viewers into it.

Based on the Danish series Forbrydelsen (The Crime), The Killing will spend all of Season One's 13 episodes tracking who did it and why. Based on the first three episodes made available for review, steady rainfall will be a supporting character, the way cigarettes and booze are in Mad Men.

The central character, homicide detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), is called to a crime scene on what's supposed to be her last day of work. Her best-laid plans include a move to Sonoma, CA and marriage to fiance Rick Felder (Chad Willett). Sarah's less than thrilled son, Jack (Liam James), is supposed to be accompanying her.

But you can't plan for murder. Nor for a new partner named Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). He's a former narcotics detective with a dour sense of humor and novel ideas on how to advance an investigation. So they're an odd couple from the start, which is nothing new in the grand TV scheme of things. Yet The Killing makes it all seem fresh and inviting, even if we could make do with fewer close-ups of Sarah in deep ponder.

There are parallel stories. Rosie's parents, Stanley and Mitch (Brent Sexton, Michelle Forbes), are sledgehammered by their daughter's disappearance and murder. The Killing delves deeply into their grief, and how they comport themselves in front of their two young sons.

Also in the mix is city councilman Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), a widower who's in the closing stages of his bid to become Seattle's mayor. A car rented by his campaign becomes part of the murder investigation, with Richmond both cooperating with police and fully aware that this could be a death blow to his election hopes. His principal campaign advisor, Gwen Eaton (Kristen Lehman), has been sleeping with him. Another key aide, Jamie Dempsey (Eric Ladin), may not be what he seems.

This all makes for a slowly stirring pot amid weather that should be a capital crime in itself. But Enos and Kinnaman are both first-rate in their roles, and so far there are no super-bizarro Pacific Northwest additives on the order of The Log Lady or Dancing Dwarf from Twin Peaks.

The disparate detectives of The Killing may have their own means and methods of getting to the bottom of this. But the overall air of believability is palpable from the start. All the better for taking a deep breath and diving right in.

GRADE: A-minus

The Kennedys demands to be seen, but its venue is no easy find

The made-for-TV Kennedy clan on Inauguration Day.

Premiering: Sunday, April 3rd at 7 p.m. (central) on ReelzChannel and continuing Tuesday-Friday and Sunday at the same hour
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, Diana Hardcastle, Kristin Booth
Produced by: Joel Surnow

Unceremoniously dumped by the History Channel ("not a fit for the brand") and then rejected by several rival networks (not their style), The Kennedys finally comes to rest Sunday night in a comparative van down by the river.

That would be ReelzChannel, currently reaching 56 million homes nationwide but no doubt still a curiosity to most TV watchers. History Channel spent $25 million on The Kennedys before belatedly deciding in January that the 8-hour finished product just didn't meet whatever standards it still has. Leaks of early scripts and the participation of outspoken conservative Joel Surnow (24) as both an executive producer and screenwriter had prompted a wave of naysayers to brand The Kennedys as a hit job on America's most famous political family.

But watching the production in its entirety is a revelation. Sure, there's dirt to be dug, but nothing that hasn't already been unearthed in countless previous books and TV outings. For the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel Kennedy excess story, rewind to 1993's Mariilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair, originally shown by the USA network. The Kennedy family took the rare step of publicly denouncing it as garbage, but couldn't persuade USA to cease and desist.

The Kennedys, which premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. (central) with a pair of one-hour chapters, may not be enthralling to those who already know this story all too well. But it's very ably produced and acted, with at least two strong Emmy possibilities should the seas of political correctness part to the point of recognizing stellar work by Tom Wilkinson as old Joe Kennedy and Barry Pepper as Robert F. Kennedy.

Greg Kinnear also has his moments, and for the most part is transformed into an eerily striking facsimile of President John F. Kennedy. And Katie Holmes, as Jackie, is likewise convincing as the troubled wife of the most powerful man and womanizer in the land.

Pious Rose Kennedy, similarly put in compromising positions by her husband Joe's serial infidelities, is well-played by Diana Hardcastle, who in real life is Wilkinson's wife. The miniseries' other pivotal character, Bobby's devoted, ever-pregnant wife, Ethel, emerges as more than a cardboard character thanks to Kristin Booth's nuanced performance.

The Kennedys opens on election day, 1960 before inevitably flashing back and forward. Patriarch Joe Kennedy Sr. has worn the villain's hat before, and does so again in an early scene.

"It's not what you are," he tells Jack and his ill-fated older brother, Joe Jr. "It's what people think you are. And with the right amount of money, you can make them think whatever you want. We're on our way, boys. This country is ours for the taking."

Old Joe's power plays and demands on his sons are a continuous thread in The Kennedys. Wednesday's Episode 4 begins at Chicago's Tocadero Tavern, where Frank Sinatra arranges a meeting between Joe and gangster Sam Giancana. Joe would like a little help with the city's election returns, but Giancana is brusquely non-commital. It's implied that Sinatra later promised Giancana favors that Joe wouldn't abide by. Whatever the case, the cocksure singer oddly comes off as a nebbish during his brief exposure in The Kennedys, particularly when Joe dismisses him as a "lightweight, irrelevant phony."

Katie Holmes as Jackie on Nov. 22, 1963 at Dallas' Love Field.

Marilyn Monroe also pops in, of course, but not until Episode 7. She's little more than a flirty lush, coming on to Bobby at a Malibu party after viewers are informed that she's already bedded Jack off-camera.

Bobby resists, although it's not easy being him when he escorts a tipsy Marilyn to her bungalow's doorstep. "There's nothing better than lying buck naked in front of a fire," she coos. "Don't ya think?"

Although fleeting, scenes such as these in fact cheapen The Kennedys while furnishing detractors with scatter-shot ammunition. There also are scenes of both Jack and Jackie getting tune-ups from a "Dr. Feelgood" whose injections help him endure his incessant back pain and her summon the energy to perform an exhausting retinue of First Lady functions. And yes, Jackie is shown smoking -- which she did.

Jack's various dalliances are acknowledged throughout, but not to tawdry excess.

"Well, I'm not a kid anymore, but I keep acting like one," he tells Bobby after opting out of one his wife's charity functions to watch Spartacus in the White House theater, where a blonde briefly joins him. Jackie, feeling "humiliated," relocates to Virginia and stays away for a while, leaving her husband feeling remorseful and guilty while he's also neck-deep in the Cuban missile crisis. In the latter instance, a blustery Air Force general again is deployed to demand swift military action. His name is Thomas Bennett, but he's in fact a fictional composite of some sort. His one-note saber-rattling gets old in a hurry.

Flaws in The Kennedys for the most part are trumped by both its core performances and an overall even-handed treatment of the principals. Pepper's portrayal of Bobby Kennedy goes deep into his psyche, whether he's running interference for his brother, absorbing his father's recurring put-downs or reconnecting with Ethel.

Wilkinson is a marvel throughout, carrying the first three episodes on his back while later making his presence felt even after suffering a debilitating stroke that has left him speechless. His Joe can be powerfully diabolical, even on a good day. Yet his sons keep seeking his approval, relishing a pat on the shoulder from a father whose love is both unconditional and tough to withstand.

In the end, the old axiom holds. Don't believe everything you may have read about The Kennedys. Its star actors have been wearing hair shirts for long enough. How dare they besmirch the Kennedy legacy? How could they be party to this right wing character assassination?

Watch The Kennedys -- if you haven't already had enough -- and you'll instead see a compelling, well-told tale of a political dynasty with beauty marks, warts, doubts and the embedded determination to plow full steam ahead. Nobody's perfect, nor is this miniseries. But it's the best filmic treatment to date, and certainly won't be the last one.


Chaos ensues on CBS

I spy, you spy, they're all spying on Chaos. CBS photo

Premiering: Friday, April 1st at 7 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Freddy Rodriguez, Eric Close, James Murray, Tim Blake Nelson, Carmen Ejogo, Christina Cole, Kurtwood Smith
Produced by: Tom Spezialy, Brett Ratner, Martha Haight

Let it first be said that the new CBS "comedic drama" Chaos is a shock to the network's systematic scheduling of procedural crime or legal dramas in all other one-hour slots not occupied by an unscripted "reality" series or 60 Minutes.

Which means that this nice try at spoofing the CIA is outnumbered 10-1 by the three CSI series, the pairs of NCIS and Criminal Minds series, The Mentalist, The Good Wife and Blue Bloods.

The four principal males of Chaos, which supplants The Defenders as Friday night's lead-off hitter, also are in the business of thwarting bad guys. But the show is only half-serious about this, providing ample time for gamesmanship and duplicity with a CIA sub-unit known as Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services.

Good luck remembering that, even though they skip the "h" and it's not nearly the mouthful THRUSH used to be on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. For the record, it stood for the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity while U.N.C.L.E. was short for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. But we tarry.

Chaos begins with wide-eyed Rick Martinez (Freddy Rodriguez from Six Feet Under) showing up for his first day of work.

"Do you need to see my fluids?" he asks the gate security guard, referring to the gumbo his mother has made him for lunch. A "suspicious fluids" alert ensues before Rick reports to curt CIA bossman H.J. Higgins (Kurtwood Smith), who tells him his job's been cut for budget reasons. But wait. Rick can remain in place if he agrees to become a mole within the Office of Disruptive Services, which Higgins decries as "a cancer fueled by feckless ego."

This is a far-fetched premise but so were U.N.C.L.E. and another successful TV spy series, Get Smart. Still, will a basic CBS audience bite? Or will Martha and Fred Stayathome spend this hour playing pinochle until the real good guys show up later Friday on CSI: NY and Blue Bloods?

Dedicated CBS crime series viewers at least will recognize Chaos co-star Eric Close from his long association with the network's Without A Trace. Close plays rogue operative Michael Dorset, whose partners in deception are a jaunty Scotsman named Billy Collins (James Murray) and low-key "human weapon" Casey Malick (Tim Blake Nelson).

A comely spy also is a necessary ingredient. And Chaos has her in Fay Carson (Carmen Ejogo), who may or may not be an ally of the initially easily duped Rick. "You've heard of office politics?" she asks him. "Ours come with poison pills and guns."

The pilot for Chaos was filmed in Los Angeles, with initial intentions to film the series in Dallas if CBS bit further. But the network and producers ultimately opted for Vancouver, which offers more varied locales for the weekly out-of-country missions. Or at least that was the cover story during a January interview session in Pasadena, CA.

In Friday's premiere, the rescue of a kidnapped journalist in Sudan is slap-happy and seems slapped together. There's no real jeopardy, even when a finger chopping is close at hand. But Rick saves the day by swallowing a live scorpion and impressing a warlord. Later comes the gunplay. Mission accomplished just in time for the boys to be dropped in another perilous venue at episode's end.

Chaos can be amusing in spots, although it's hard to envision it as a long-distance runner. It might be housing a breakout star, though. The 35-year-old Murray has been kicking around for a while, but looks capable of filling the big-screen as a leading man. For now he's the resident eye candy/rascal of Chaos -- and also the best reason to watch it.

GRADE: B-minus

Starz rewinds its way back machine to Camelot during a big month for Arthurs and royals

Joseph Fiennes' Merlin looms over Arthur and Guinevere. Stars photos

Premiering: Friday, April 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on Starz
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Jamie Campbell Bower, Eva Green, Tamsin Egerton, Peter Mooney, Claire Forlani, Philip Winchester, Clive Standen, Diarmaid Murtagh
Produced by: Chris Chibnall

April's a big month for Arthurs, with the same-named big screen remake opening on April 8th while Starz takes the reins on Fools Day with the Arthur-fueled, 10-episode Camelot.

Quickly back in the swords 'n' armor game after Spartacus and its recent prequel, Starz urges urges prospective viewers to "Forget Everything You Know. This is the Story of Camelot That Has Never Been Told Before."

Not that we'd really know. This is, after all, the stuff of 5th and 6th century "Arthurian legend." So the producers and writers of innumerable treatments over the years can pretty much do as they please while retaining the essential principal characters of Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere and Morgan. In other words, you probably can't just throw a Sir Herb or a Lady Whoopi in there. And you'll need a big sword-in-the-stone scene in one form or another. Which Camelot has in Episode 2.

Joseph Fiennes' manipulative Merlin is bald, with his left cheek bisected by a thin horizontal scar. In an interview with TV critics last summer, he quotably described the character as "sort of a cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld."

Fiennes schemes and often glowers his way through the first three hours made available for review. But he's a piker compared to Morgan (Eva Green), the potion-mixing, shape-shifting, very bitter half sister of Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) and exiled daughter of King Uther. A scene-stealing Green brings Morgan vividly to life, baring her fangs and later other impressive attributes in a closing Episode 2 scene opposite a snarling wolf.

Arthur's a malleable kid in comparison, unknowingly born with royal blood and reared by a peasant family until Merlin comes to claim and mold him into the rightful King of the Britons.

"Why? Why do you need me?" Arthur wonders.

"Everything in time," Merlin assures him.

And later: "Are you really a sorcerer?"

"I can do things others believe impossible," Merlin replies. "Is that sorcery?"

Oh that Merlin. Even Rumsfeld might find him a bit cryptic. But nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of Arthur's destiny or Merlin's reminders that he'd still be nothing without him. So it gets complicated when Arthur first feasts his eyes on the beauteous Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton), who's already betrothed to his goodly protector, Leontes (Philip Winchester). Merlin is vexed and Arthur would sextext her night and day if the technology were available. Instead they couple clandestinely in the great outdoors. But "just once," she tells him a scant three days before her wedding bell blues.

It all gets pretty involving in time. Based on the first three hours, this is a sturdy production from a producer/scriptwriter (Chris Chibnall) whose well-appointed credits include Torchwood, Doctor Who and the United Kingdom version of Law & Order.

As Camelot's helmsman, Chibnall takes his first crack at medieval times, which have never lost their pulling power. So away we go again, with Arthur, Merlin, Morgan and Guinevere parrying, thrusting and lusting all the way up to and through the latest royal wedding, on April 29th, between Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Camelot's out-of-body tricks and turns at best will provide a subdued but tasty appetizer for the rampaging media feast to come. It also begs the question of what an Arthur/Guinevere wedding would be like in these days and times. Although their legends live on, it's better that both will never know.


Coal takes the Thom Beers Deadliest Catch touch to the minefields

West Virginia coal miners Andrew Christian, Jr. and Sr. Spike TV photo

Premiering: Wednesday, March 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on Spike TV
Starring: Workers and owners tied to the Cobalt Coal company of Westchester, W. VA
Produced by: Thom Beers, Philip D. Segal

Producer Thom Beers has been sitting on a gritty gold mine with Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men and other up-close looks at professions that can easily kill you.

Mines are next, with Spike TV's 10-episode Coal premiering just shy of a year after an April 2010 explosion took 29 West Virginia miners' lives.

The Westchester, W. VA men of Coal may sound inarticulate to many ears, with accents thick enough to sometimes merit subtitles. But their jobs are incredibly intricate. And claustrophobic. Plus dirty, dangerous and often dispiriting. Still, "it's in muh blood," says one of the lifers. "All my family's coal miners."

Beers as usual blends compelling storytelling, vivid characters and stark visuals into nuts 'n' bolts reality hours that are about as far removed from the hoity toity Real Housewives franchise as Man v. Food star Adam Richman is from a vegan diet. The common man stars of Coal may look unkempt and largely unacquainted with "book larnin'." But they resonate with an authenticity that usually can't be beat when Beers is at the controls.

His cameras settle on the small, struggling Cobalt Coal company. Its president, Tom Roberts, says he's been a millionaire on at least a couple of occasions. But he keeps sinking his money into new mines, which regularly give him the shaft. His fate, and that of partner Mike Crowder, rests with the likes of ace rock cutter Andrew Christian and his son, Andy Jr.

Christian Sr., who's teaching his son the trade, runs a dangerously balky but quite miraculous cutting machine that rips through rock, separates the coal and then eventually spits it out above-ground. A delicate touch is required in underground workplaces with 3.5 foot ceilings that force the miners to duck-walk into position after riding in on low-slung vehicles. You definitely wouldn't want to be there, unless it's the only livelihood you've ever known. Still, a " 'nother day in that man-made hell," as one miner puts it, is nothing to savor.

Andy Christian Jr. aspires to be a chip off the old block, someday becoming better than the old man at crapping coal from a balky mine to a profit center. "You're going to be a legend like him," he's told after subbing for his father after he calls in sick. The reward for an unexpectedly productive hard day's work is post-shift pizzas courtesy of Cobalt. Veteran miner Jerry "Wildman" Roberts, his preternatural white teeth gleaming from a coal black mug, is one of the happy imbibers.

Coal never condescends. It's what makes Beers' productions stand out as tributes to the rigors of skilled, perilous work rather than cheap shots at the dumb asses who do it. There's genuine poignancy in the plight of night shift digger Randy Remines, a grizzled survivor of three heart attacks who can't hope to be as proficient as Andy Christian Sr. or his boy. But he needs the job and keeps at it, making mistakes that can cost Cobalt dearly.

"Right now he is not exhibiting the skills," says Roberts, who's still reluctant to let Remines go.

"Some people just don't have the rhythm," Crowder adds.

Coal has the right stuff, putting viewers of a mind to hurt for these men -- who hurt right back. A twisted back in the line of duty sends one miner off in an ambulance, his future below-ground prospects newly jeopardized. And in next week's episode, a big, work-stopping storm looms.

It all adds up to real-life drama with far more at stake than where a "real housewife" will get her next facelift. Or whether a sculpted stud from The Bachelor will find made-for-TV love amid a bevy of supplicant beauties. The miners of Coal are alien to such life forms -- and vice versa. They just keep digging themselves deeper -- with no real way out.


ABC's Body of Proof has a familiar, off-putting stench

Dana Delany awaits another corpse in Body of Proof. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 29th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Dana Delany, Nicholas Bishop, Jeri Ryan, John Carroll Lynch, Sonja Sohn, Geoffrey Arend, Windell D. Middlebrooks
Produced by: Christopher Murphey, Matthew Gross, Sunil Nayar

Rewind to the coltish actress of ABC's distinctive and daring China Beach, which ran from 1988-'91 and nabbed her two best actress Emmy Awards as a field nurse during the Vietnam war.

A first-rate body of work seemed like a strong future possibility. But two decades later, here comes ABC's Body of Proof. Or to put it another way -- sigh, it's another Dana Delany series.

Originally announced as a Friday night entry on the network's fall schedule, Body of Proof instead is supplanting Detroit 1-8-7, which is iffy for next fall. Delany plays Dr. Megan Hunt, a self-aborbed, disagreeable Philadelphia neurosurgeon who now has brought those traits to the medical examiner field after a car wreck rendered her "world-renowned" operating hands inoperative.

"You can't kill somebody if they're already dead," she snaps. Quincy PMS? Surely someone somewhere in the wide world of TV criticism has already used that line. But if not . . .

Tuesday's premiere and next week's episode both have Hunt on the scent of a murdered young woman. This has become a stock setup in the "procedural crime" genre, with the idea that an audience's sympathy is easier earned by going this route. Male corpses or torture victims just don't seem to have that built-in empathy going for them in prime-time's wide world of crime-solving.

Hunt of course clashes with her superiors and co-workers, principally John Carroll Lynch in yet another turn as a no-nonsense, old school detective (this time named Bud Morris). Their overall boss is Dr. Kate Murphey, superfluously played by former Star Trek: Voyager fave rave Jeri Ryan in the first two episodes available for review.

Body of Proof also includes Windell D. Middlebrooks as a constantly exasperated deputy chief medical examiner. But it's basically impossible to divorce him from his far more familiar role as the highly opinionated Miller High Life delivery man with an aversion to snooty people drinking his suds.

Another regular character, Peter Dunlop (Nicholas Bishop), is both Hunt's partner and ad hoc Dr. Phil when it comes to giving advice about her estranged 12-year-old daughter, Lacey (recurring guest star Mary Mouser).

Dunlop is quick on the verbal trigger when Hunt considers buying an expensive handbag for Lacey's birthday. "If you really want to connect with her, give her something that comes from your heart," he earnestly counsels. "Nobody gives a damn about a handbag." Arrrgh.

The series otherwise consists of scenes in which the coppers bluntly accuse someone of being a murderer before moving on to someone else they bluntly accuse of being a murderer. Deductions are based on what regularly seem to be far-fetched assumptions. Such as Hunt deducing that a suspect most assuredly must have had his vasectomy from the sprawling city's finest.

"You're the No. 1 ball-cutter in all of Philadelphia," she tells him face-to-face.

"I thought you held that title," he retorts good-naturedly.

Lots of drug names and medical disorders also are thrown into the scripts. And if you play a drinking game to the tune of piano or acoustic interludes, you'll be sloshed long before the weekly culprit gets cuffed.

Next week's episode likewise is a groaner, with Hunt called in on her day off to investigate the senseless motel shooting of a dedicated female social worker. Delany somehow summons the wherewithal to recite the line that she planned to spend down time with "a new book, an old Bordeaux and" -- wait for it -- "some stinky cheese."

Please stop. Body of Proof for the most part plays dead within the realm of plausible crime-solving, interesting characters and assumptions that Delany's once-promising career would do more than wither on this vine. Looking for a strong hour of drama starring an actress whose career has blossomed? Go no further than Tuesday's competing The Good Wife on CBS, with Julianna Margulies better than ever.


HBO's new version of Mildred Pierce remains as American as its apple pie maker -- and with plenty of crust

Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce in Mildred Pierce. HBO photos

Premiering: Sunday, March 27th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO and continuing at the same start times on April 3rd and 10th
Starring: Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood, Melissa Leo, Brian F. Byrne, James Legros, Mare Winningham
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Produced by: Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, John Wells, Todd Haynes

HBO's slowly unfolding re-do of Mildred Pierce fastidiously goes by the book, which its predecessor decidedly did not.

The 1945 black-and-white feature film, for which Joan Crawford won her only Oscar, began with a murder before winding back to events leading up to it. A hard-boiled investigator popped in and out while moviegoers were left to speculate on who pulled the trigger.

Crawford, who turned 40 in the year of the film's release, was glowingly and impeccably lit throughout her many close-ups. Supporting characters contrastingly worked in the shadows. It all worked very much to her advantage on Oscar night, even though Crawford was too nervous to attend the ceremony in person. She happily posed with her trophy in bed after beating out Ingrid Bergman, Greer Garson, Jennifer Jones and Gene Tierney in the Best Actress competition.

Perhaps it was a small point in those days, but James M. Cain's same-named 1941 novel had no murder or private eye or climactic arrest of the culprit. And HBO keeps it that way throughout three Sundays and a total running time of roughly five-and-a-half-hours. So this far more faithful version is being billed as a miniseries rather than a movie, with Kate Winslet in the title role and her name in suitably bolder caps than the rest of the cast.

Set in Southern California and covering the years 1931-'40, Mildred Pierce risks being billed as a "chick flick," which it pretty much is. Not that manly men can't be slowly seduced by its absorbing tale of deceptions, delusions, losses and gains. Plus several displays of female nudity if that's what it takes.

Crawford's Oscar -- and Winslet is almost certain to win an Emmy -- was eclipsed in later years by her daughter Christina's searing Mommie Dearest memoir and the sensationally campy film starring Faye Dunaway. Mildred Pierce is at its core a "daughter dearest" tale, with an enabling mother taking her guff and U-turning back for more of it.

"Every good thing that happens is on account of you," Mildred tells her willful oldest daughter, Veda, whose taste for the finer things in life is insatiable. "If mother only had sense enough to know it."

Veda is played by Morgan Turner on the first two Sundays before Evan Rachel Wood steps in on the final Sunday. No getting around it, this is quite a jolt. Turner's Veda is bratty but rather plain-faced as a pre- and early teen. Wood, who steps into the role as a 17-year-old, is almost impossibly beauteous in comparison. But perhaps a week's passage of time will soften the transitional blow. The problem certainly isn't Wood's performance, which is very suitably full of ice and fire.

"Mother, in another minute, I'm going to be getting annoyed," she tells Mildred after first feeding her another cock 'n' bull story. Mom occasionally gives her a good slap -- before remorsefully turning the other cheek.

The miniseries begins just as the book does. Mildred's out-of-work husband Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne) is taking care of the front yard of their modest Glendale, Calif. home while she bakes pies and cakes for a small customer base. Herb used to own a prosperous home building company that went bust during the Depression. He's lately been visiting the unseen Maggie Biederhoff on the side, and Mildred knows it. A spur-of-the-moment argument prompts her to impulsively throw him out, leaving the so-called "grass widow" barely scraping by along with Veda and her younger sister, Ray (Quinn McColgan).

But Mildred soon has a gravely-voiced suitor named Wally Burgan (very well-played by James LeGros). He's the pot-bellied former business partner of Bert, who hasn't trusted him since. An impromptu date leads to first base and beyond. Mildred is both virtuous in her work ethic and somewhat scandalous in her quickly consummated relationships with men. Further proof comes along in Sunday night's Hour 2, when idle rich playboy Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) quickly impresses Mildred with both his insouciance and prowess in the sack.

An ever-manipulative daughter dearest has mommy in her clutches.

The plot steadily thickens, but director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) is perfectly willing to let things marinate. The novel's passages on proper waitressing technique and chicken dissection are included here, too. Tone and atmosphere are served in abundance. Perhaps the pace dawdles a bit at times, but never to the point of congealing. This is an adult drama for adults, an anti-Jersey Shore with every fiber of its being.

Reigning best supporting actress Oscar winner Melissa Leo also excels as Mildred's earthy confidant and next door neighbor, Lucy Gessler. And many years removed from her formative teen roles, the invariably first-rate Mare Winningham makes another vivid impression as a saucy head restaurant waitress named Ida.

Not to give away too much, but Mildred scrapes and scraps her way to prominence as a waitress with a dream -- to open her own chicken and waffles place. Succeeding far beyond expectations, she finds herself with the wherewithal to keep Veda placated with creature comforts and piano lessons while the lay-about Monty increasingly has his hand out, too. Tragedies and betrayals are ever in the offing, though.

Winslet is increasingly impressive as the indomitable but malleable heroine who wants what she wants and gets what some think she deserves. Her restaurants are snickered at as "Pie Wagons" by their two principal beneficiaries. Should she be outraged at being prized as a great "piece of tail" and not all that much else? Or is the tail wagging the dog? Monty might not be a bold, fresh piece of humanity, but is he more transparent with his wants and needs than Mildred is?

It all ends snappily -- and with the same final exchange as the book's. Novelist Cain also wrote two other enduring classics -- Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice -- that cemented his reputation as "a master of the hard-boiled school of American novels."

Mildred Pierce might not be driven by any central crime storyline, even though the 1945 movie was determined to have it that way. But it's a corker nonetheless, leaving shared blame and responsibilities for all while also providing a satisfying close. In other words, HBO has done it again, investing in a project of substance and a lead actress who powers it home. It doesn't always take a dead body. Sometimes you just have to put a few pies in the oven -- and take it from there.


This time it's personal: Charlie Sheen should take a few pages from The Chris Farley Show -- before it's too late

Charlie Sheen's Twitter pic and Chris Farley near the end.

The hookers and the trashed hotel rooms. The booze and the drug binges. All those lapses and relapses.

Yeah, Chris Farley really knew how to get wasted. He died a week before Christmas 1997, at age 33. The last person to see him alive was the last woman he had paid to keep him company. The parallels to what's going on with Charlie Sheen aren't exact. But they certainly are sobering. Or at least they should be.

Why bring up Farley now? Well, I was in Big Lots the other day, and noticed hardback copies of The Chris Farley Show on sale for $5 each. It's the 2008 book co-authored by his oldest brother, Tom Farley, Jr., and Tanner Colby. Picking it up, I found I couldn't put it down.

The book is no sob story. It celebrates Farley's talent, of course. He was an immense force on Saturday Night Live, literally and figuratively, from 1990 to 1995. And he has one feature film, Tommy Boy, that still resonates with several generations.

So the show biz anecdotes are a considerable part of this book. But they aren't the meat of it. Farley's willful self-destruction, in the face of both enablers and those who tried to stop him, is the core reason behind The Chris Farley Show. And the authors have assembled it in first-person narrative form after interviewing more than 100 of his friends and colleagues. The result is an "easy read" on the face of it, with a lot of painful truths piling up as the pages turn.

It's pretty personal, too. The Farley family, four boys and a girl, grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. The Bark family, four boys and a girl, grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, located along Lake Michigan about 100 miles southeast of Madison.

Lots of drinking went on in the Farley family, with the late Tom Farley Sr. the pacesetter. Mom was the quieter rock. Lots of drinking went on in the Bark family, with the late Edward Sr. the pacesetter. Mom was the quieter rock.

Chris would have been only a first- or second--grader by the time I got to Madison in late 1970. I lived there for nine years, graduating from the University of Wisconsin, working for The Capital Times newspaper and imbibing enough stuff to perhaps even keep up with Chris Farley on some nights.

I'm not sure if I ever met him while covering television for The Dallas Morning News during his years on SNL. But some colleagues at the newspaper will remember all too well my regular invocations of motivational speaker Matt Foley's "van down by the river" tagline. That was Farley's go-to character, and he played it until nearly the very end.

Farley's final public display of Matt Foley came on the night of Oct. 25, 1997, just seven weeks before his death. He had returned to guest-host SNL. And as the book recounts, Farley was drinking and using heavily during the entire week of rehearsals.

I was in the SNL studio audience that night. And the Farley sketch I remember wasn't his last incarnation of Matt Foley. Instead he had me laughing throughout the entire "Giant Baby" sketch, in which Farley crawled around a mock Sally Jessy Raphael set and basically tore it apart while also playfully tearing an arm off a guest. He always excelled at bargain basement physical humor, and I've invariably been a sucker for it. Too much Three Stooges as a kid, maybe.

The Chris Farley Show is a sharply candid unmasking of a generous-to-a-fault man-child who often remarked that "fatty fall down" is basically what his audience expected of him. And so he mostly rolled that way while at the same time striving to both break this mold and conquer his many addictions.

But did he try hard enough? Probably not. Farley had three years of sobriety amid all the self-destruction and denial. And then it all came crashing down, with his reported last words, "Don't leave me," spoken to a female "escort" after he had collapsed on the floor of his Chicago apartment. The official cause of his death: opiate and cocaine intoxication. The coroner's report ruled it an accident.

Charlie Sheen won't have time to read this book. He's too busy being a "warlock" and readying his "Torpedo of Truth" touring stage show, which includes an April 27th stop in Dallas. Unless he's very lucky, though, he'll someday be hit by a warhead of his own making.

Chris Farley is buried at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Madison. And now that I know his full story, it's a spot I need to visit on my next trip back to the city.

Herman's hermitage: HBO presents extended Broadway production of Pee-wee's Playhouse

Pee-wee snuggles up with an open-armed Chairy. HBO photo

It's Broadway gospel that the show must go on, except perhaps in the case of the interminably delayed Spiderman.

HBO's The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway, premiering Saturday, March 19th at 9 p.m. central, provides further evidence that a show can go on for too long. Although it must be said that the audience in attendance at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre is hyper-enthusiastic throughout this 90-minute re-do of Pee-wee's Playhouse, which originally had a Saturday morning CBS berth from 1986 to 1991. Perhaps Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) first plied them with lots 'n' lots of heavily sugared candies. Or other sensory stimuli.

Anyway, it's a long pull that can be fun and funny -- and more than a wee bit tedious. But TV viewers have an advantage the theater audience didn't. Many of Pee-wee's reactions, and those of his characters, are caught in close-up. Which is a considerable plus for us. Ask those who were seated in the balcony.

Still, "I know you are, but what am I?" has its limits. As do jokes that are aimed at the kid in all of us, but nonetheless land with a thud.

"It took me six months to cure that jerky," says Cowboy Curtis, played by Laurence Fishburne in the original Playhouse and now by Phil LaMarr.

"Oh, no, what did it have?" replies Pee-wee.

HBO says its presentation was filmed "immediately following" the show's successful run from Nov. 11th, 2010 to Jan. 2nd of this year. The playhouse as some of us once knew it is meticulously recreated in all of its day-glo glory. And just about all of the main human and non-human characters are back, with the exception of Captain Carl (played by the late Phil Hartman) and Reba the Mail Lady (Emmy-winner S. Epatha Merkerson of subsequent Law & Order fame).

Reubens/Herman begins the show with a hearty "Good morning, boys and girls." Seemingly everyone in the audience happily responds in unison before he leads them in a completely straight Pledge of Allegiance.

Two actors return from the old days. Lynne Marie Stewart again plays the flirty, gaudy Miss Yvonne while John Paragon voices the wish-granting Jambi the Genie, who's seen only from the neck up in a bejeweled box. Pee-wee keeps wishing he could fly, but of course can't achieve liftoff until a big finish you know is coming.

CBS abruptly dropped its Playhouse repeats in 1991 after Reubens, now 58, was arrested for allegedly exposing himself in a Florida movie theater. The Broadway show doesn't go there. But it does include several out-of-place double entendre jokes ("Wow, you sure got a big hose," Pee-wee tells a firefighter) and a brief pro-gay marriage message. Pee-wee also shows off his "abstinence ring."

If there's a show-stealer, it's the King of Cartoons, buoyantly played by Lance Roberts (in place of predecessors Gilbert Lewis and William H. Marshall). The King immediately makes his presence felt before Pee-wee amusingly gathers an armload of snacks for the cartoon at hand.

A new character named Sergio (Jesse Garcia) is a Mr. Fix-It brought in to wire up Pee-wee's new computer. The perils of fixated social networking eventually are exposed before order is restored after a blackout.

Pee-wee's Playhouse also triggered several successful feature films, and Reubens reportedly is in talks with director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) to make a new one.

Movies allow Pee-wee to get out and about. The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway, stuck within the confines of his playhouse, provides more than a little too much of what used to be a pretty good thing. Better for it to be served in those manic but economical half-hour Saturday morning doses.


Sign o' the times: Sheen still hot

Maybe I'm amazed -- or just another one of his many enablers.

Still, let it be said that the above is one bitchin' logo for Charlie Sheen's latest enterprising effort -- the sale of official t shirts with communiques ranging from "DUH, WINNING" to "I'VE GOT ONE SPEED. GO!"

The world's most infamous warlock is hawking them for $19.95 apiece on his official online store. Meanwhile, he's also already sold out the opening Detroit and Chicago dates for his live "Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not An Option" shows, scheduled for April 2-3. It reportedly took 18 minutes via Ticketmaster. Sheen says that $1 from each ticket sold will be donated to the Red Cross Japanese Earthquake Relief Fund.

On other Sheen fronts, his $100 million lawsuit is underway against Warner Bros. Television and Two and a Half Men creator/producer Chuck Lorre, who have termed it "as recklessly false and unwarranted as Mr. Sheen's rantings in the media." And Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says he's still very willing and able to cut a deal for a Sheen show on Cuban's HDNet cable channel.

"He (Sheen) continues to videotape and do a lot of different things, but we are exploring a lot of different options," Cuban told the New York Post in an interview posted Sunday. "I am pretty confident something is going to happen."

As previously posted on unclebarky.com, Cuban's Dallas-based younger brother, Brian, is a recovering addict who has serious issues with Sheen for "outing" Lorre as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Perhaps the Cubans should have a brother-to-brother talk about this.

But Sheen still has momentum to burn, it seems. And with two sold-out shows in a matter of minutes -- with more sure to come -- America is getting what it's willing to pay for. Personally, I wouldn't buy a Sheen t shirt if you paid me. But as a spectator sport, Charlie Sheen still seems to be more popular at the moment than the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament. Or Cuban's Mavericks for that matter.

First to worst: Has a big-time broadcast network ever been in sorrier prime-time shape than NBC?

Keeping hope alive at NBC is a pretty thankless task at the moment.

The network's new owner, Comcast, and its new entertainment president, Showtime import Robert Greenblatt, have miles to go before they can even feel safely ahead of Univision. And given the ongoing population shifts, that day might well never come.

Yep, NBC is in a really bad way, with Sunday Night Football its only winning proposition. Three problems with that:

1. The Peacock must fill half of each TV season with something else.
2. No broadcast network makes money on the NFL because of the huge rights fees commanded by the league.
3. Unless owners and players somehow settle their huge differences, there may not be much of a season -- or any season -- in 2011.

In the latest ratings week (Feb. 28 to March 6), Nielsen Media Research says NBC averaged just 5.5 million viewers in prime-time and a piddling 5 percent share of all TV sets in use. American Idol-fueled Fox had more than twice as many viewers (11.6 million) and double the audience share.

The Peacock also ran fourth among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds, drawing 2.1 million to Spanish language Univision's 1.9 million. That's not muy bueno for a network that now also runs a distant fourth on Thursday nights after dominating all comers for close to two decades with powerhouses such as The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, L.A. Law and ER.

NBC's latter day Thursday night comedies by and large are still pretty good, with Emmy-winners 30 Rock and The Office still in play. But 30 Rock has never been a ratings winner. And The Office is both sagging in the Nielsens and facing a very shaky future next season without linchpin Steve Carell.

NBC's post-NFL Sunday night lineup, unveiled on March 6th, is Dateline, America's Next Great Restaurant and two hours of Donald Trump's The Celebrity Apprentice. They respectively ran 54th, 70th and 34th in the weekly Nielsens, with only Celebrity Apprentice showing a bit of a pulse among 18-to-49-year-olds by placing 21st for the week.

NBC's top performer in the total viewer Nielsens is the midseason Monday night replacement series Harry's Law, starring veteran actress Kathy Bates as a sour-tempered storefront lawyer. But it ranked only 25th while sliding to 47th place among 18-to-49-year-olds.

It got no better for NBC on Monday of this week, when the two-hour return of The Event (after a 13-week absence) drew just 5.2 million viewers in performing below even the previous week's piddling prime-time average of 5.5 million viewers. The Event likewise was a non-event among 18-to-49-year-olds, running fourth in its time slot.

Another heavily promoted NBC entry, The Cape, collapsed into 78th place among total viewers last week, running behind all five installments of the Univision telenovela Triunfo Del Amor. Cape likewise came up a cropper with 18-to-49-year-olds, landing in 90th place. Bet your life savings that neither The Cape or The Event will be back next season.

There's this, too. NBC filled all three hours of last Thursday's prime-time schedule with repeats of The Office. The most-watched had 3.1 million viewers and the least-watched, 2.7 million. In that same week, two Monday night episodes of History Channel's Pawn Stars had 3.9 million and 3.5 million viewers. Cable's top draw, MTV's Jersey Shore, had more total viewers (7.8 million) than every NBC series except Harry's Law and Celebrity Apprentice.

NBC might be able to take some comfort in the fact that ABC isn't exactly lighting up the prime-time skies either. But despite its prime-time troubles, third-place ABC still averaged 1.1 million more total viewers than the Peacock did last week while also drawing 450,000 more viewers in the 18-to-49 age range. Plus, ABC has the calvary on the way in the form of Dancing with the Stars, which returns on March 21st. NBC has absolutely nothing of any import in reserve, unless you count more plug-in additions of Minute to Win It as very special events.

All of this and more give Comcast and Greenblatt possibly the steepest hill to climb in prime-time history. NBC has no thoroughbreds on the air at the moment. It can't bank on a single series to consistently win its time slot. And its year-to-year averages in both total viewers and 18-to-49-year-olds also are in far deeper declines than any rival broadcast network's.

Other than football, the Peacock's lone legitimate hit comes again this summer, when America's Got Talent returns to the living. NBC otherwise has got plenty of nothin' -- and three more months of it at that.

Sheen officially sacked; fires back with with another statment from Planet Looney Tunes

Sheen in scene from recent "Skunk, Dog Crap and Ketchup" episode. CBS photo
Warner Bros. Television, producer of network TV's most popular sitcom, officially cut the cord with Charlie Sheen Monday. Not that he's about to cut the crap.

The studio said that "after careful consideration," it has "terminated Charlie Sheen's services on Two and a Half Men effectively immediately."

Sheen quickly declared victory via tmz.com, hailing his firing as "very good news."

"They continue to be in breach, like so many whales," he added as only he can. "It is a big day of gladness at the Sober Valley Lodge because now I can take all of the bazillions, never have to look at whatshiscock again and I never have to put on those silly shirts for as long as this warlock exists in the terrestrial dimension."

Whatshiscock no doubt is a reference to the show's executive producer, Chuck Lorre, who now has one more reason to take Two and a Half Men into another season and try to make it work without Sheen's portrayal of prostitute-loving, constantly drinking Charlie Harper.

The bet here is that Lorre and CBS definitely will give it a shot, with possible replacement parts including the likes of all-purpose plug-ins Rob Lowe or John Stamos. Lorre, a proven sitcom maestro, also created The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly for CBS. He's not always a picnic either, but Sheen's long been the equivalent of fire ants.

Warner Bros. and the network officially dealt Sheen out on the same day CBS announced that its Monday night lead-off hitter, How I Met Your Mother, has been picked up for two more years, extending through the 2012-'13 TV season.

Fittingly, one of the last Two and a Half Men episodes that Sheen taped had the subtitle "Skunk, Dog Crap and Ketchup."

Maybe that also would be an apt title for any new show that Sheen and HDNet owner Mark Cuban might have in mind. As reported in these spaces Saturday, Cuban has talked to Sheen -- as much as that's humanly possible -- about doing a show for the still little-watched cable network.

"We all are curious about Charlie," Cuban said an email to unclebarky.com. "And if he wants to tell us and show us more, HDNet is happy to provide him a platform. I think it would be fascinating."

But would it? In this view, the pathetic, miserable, self-addicted, woman-abusing, desperately-in-need-of-help dung heap known as Charlie Sheen should receive no encouragement or support until he goes away for a long while in a concerted effort to heal himself before he's referred to in the past tense. But too many people are too busy either lionizing him or turning his latest crazed prattle into punch lines or ringtones. It's a damned sorry spectacle, but at least CBS and Warner Bros. have finally wised up.

Yeah, maybe it took the ultimate cardinal sin -- an employee very publicly insulting his boss. Still, Sheen's had this coming for a long time. And if he thinks he'll always be a bulletproof hot commodity, well, take a good, hard look at poor Jeff Conaway. Because that's gonna be your future, pal, unless you instead take a good hard look in the mirror and realize that whatshiscock is your own code word for you.

The needy overcome the contrivances in ABC's Secret Millionaire

Love Kitchen matriarchs Helen and Ellen; millionaire Dani Johnson ABC photo and photo from her website

Premiering: Sunday, March 6th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Millionaires who give some of their money away to worthy recipients
Produced by: Grant Mansfield, Claire O'Donohoe, Natalka Znak, Leslie Garvin

ABC's answer to Undercover Boss is pretty much an exact replica. Except that the needy recipients in Secret Millionaire don't directly work for the well-heeled benefactors who get all teary-eyed before bettering their lives.

Originally announced as part of ABC's fall lineup, Secret Millionaire instead arrives Sunday, supplanting the like-minded Extreme Makeover: Home Edition for a while. And although the situations may be contrived, the first group of people on the receiving ends of the millionaire's checks all seem to be eminently worthy. In fact it's hard to envision a worthier twosome than 82-year-old twins Helen and Ellen, who cook and serve meals for the needy and homeless at Knoxville, Tennessee's The Love Kitchen.

Dani Johnson, a self-made millionaire who herself was once homeless, descends upon Knoxville's "neglected neighborhood of Western Heights" after first introducing herself to viewers as a loving married mother of five who lives in a San Antonio suburb.

Johnson, whose website touts her First Steps to Wealth book and other means of becoming fabulously rich, says she "bootstrapped it, baby" after being raised in a crummy home.

"I don't have good memories for my childhood at all," she says. "My parents were very neglectful. They were on welfare."

So now she wants to "give back." And during the course of Sunday's premiere episode, Johnson writes $100,000 worth of checks to four recipients after first pretending she's part of a "documentary on volunteering," according to Secret Millionaire's very sober-voiced narrator.

Johnson also spend six days in a dumpy one-bedroom apartment, where she discovers "frickin' bugs," lives on $40 in food stamps and instantly feels hot and sweaty. Furthermore, "I couldn't sleep last night, because that's not a bed. It's a trampoline."

Western Heights is described as deprived by the narrator and dangerous by a cabbie who drives her there. Still, the very transparently busty and attractive Johnson is unafraid to promenade to and fro. A convenience store clerk tips her to Love Kitchen while a supposed chance sidewalk encounter with a bearded dude leads her to the non-profit Joy of Music school, where impeccably behaved needy kids learn how to sing and play instruments. One of them belts out the old chestnut "Oh Shenandoah." He may not be American Idol material, but Johnson is bowled over.

Here's the thing, though. Love Kitchen can use the money. So can the Joy of Music school. So can Special Spaces, which constructs "dream bedrooms" for kids with "life-challenging illnesses." And so can the hard-pressed parents of a five-year-old girl named Daisy. That's the overriding saving grace of Secret Millionaire, even if Johnson can be more than a little off-putting and self-aggrandizing. Particularly when she says, "I'm on my way to my first gifting."

Helen and Ellen of course will be the climactic giftees. And their enthusiasm and love of what they do can't help but stir the emotions while making fans of us all. Says one of Love Kitchen's volunteers, "Heaven's missin' a few angels, 'cause we got two of 'em right here."

Helen and Ellen in fact deserve their own show. So Oprah Winfrey's intendedly uplifting OWN network should get busy on this while they're still able to do what they do.

Meanwhile, a show that can make you feel this way can't be all bad. Even if its clandestine millionaires can be more than a little grating.

"Who gets what and how do ya pick that? It's definitely a challenge," Johnson says before hitting her four checkpoints.

Instead let's take it from Helen, a most grateful beneficiary: "Let me tell you something. She put a spark in my heart that I can do more."

That's more like it. And in the end, that's what makes Secret Millionaire a show whose ends trump its means.


New on the menu at ratings-famished NBC: America's Next Great Restaurant

The investors/judges on America's Next Great Restaurant are (from left) Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone. NBC photo

Premiering: Sunday, March 6th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone, Lorena Garcia, Steve Ells
Produced by: Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz, Ross Jacobson, Nan Strait, Amy Chacon

Absent those prime-time NFL games, NBC and ratings-starved go hand in hand on every night, in every time slot.

Fittingly then, here's a new food show. Unfortunately for the Peacock, though, Sunday's premiere of America's Next Great Restaurant is almost certain to be third in the reality series pecking order opposite ABC's far more emotionally charged Secret Millionaire (which also launches Sunday) and CBS' well-established The Amazing Race. So let NBC eat gruel again, even if the initial 21 Next Great Restaurant contestants are serving up the likes of "Saucy Balls," gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and "healthy wraps with organic ingredients that customers build themselves."

That last entree is from the show's lone Texan, Dallasite Fran Harris. In an earlier life she played on the WNBA's first championship team, the 1997 Houston Comets. Now she's trying to persuade this show's four investors/judges to fund the opening of The Sports Wrap in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. That's the grand prize awaiting the winner of this concoction, with opening day scheduled on May 1st. But in reality, how much is that worth on a network being watched by fewer and fewer potential customers?

Next Great Restaurant is a bit unwieldly for openers. There are too many cooks and not enough time for their presentations before the field is winnowed from 21 to 10 by ubiquitous chef Bobby Flay; "renowned" chef Curtis Stone (NBC's The Biggest Loser); executive chef/restaurateur Lorena Garcia; and Steve Ells, who started the Chipolte restaurants from scratch.

Supplicants must each make a representative dish within a specified time limit (Iron Chef, anyone?) and then defend it in a format that's very similar to ABC's Shark Tank. The four judges taste, critique and decide pretty quickly in most cases. The kiss-off line is "I'm sorry. We will not be investing in your restaurant." But yes, Ells actually tells one of them, "I just think you're biting off more than you can chew." Burp.

The show needlessly positions one contestant as a borderline racist. A cocksure guy named Joe (no last names are given) fancies himself a chicken expert. So does a guy named Jamawn, prompting Joe to remark, "Black guy, of course. That's what they do is wings."

It doesn't take any TV IQ at all to deduce at this point that Joe will put the judges off their feed, but Jamawn won't. "I'm not trying to talk bad about the guy, but he was a jerk," Jamawn eventually observes.

The "Saucy Balls" guy is bada bing Joey from Brooklyn, who plans to give his restaurant that name and whose meatballs are made from his grandma's recipe. NBC is the network of Saturday Night Live's famed "Schweddy balls" Christmas sketch with Alec Baldwin. So it's hardly a surprise when judge Stone comes up with the inevitable, "I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I love your balls."

Next Sunday's second hour picks up considerably. The 10 remaining contestants each must make enough food for 1,000 tourists assembled at Universal City Walk, part of the NBC Universal-owned theme park. The judges are on hand to rev up the crowd and then visit the concession stands to offer input. Eaters vote for their favorite food by depositing a coin in one of 10 glass jars, with the winner exempt from elimination.

The judges' critiques are both instructive and constructive in this episode. There's no resident Simon Cowell here, nor even a Britisher. So all in all, "your very first big lunch rush," as it's described, is fun and interesting to watch.

Next Great Restaurant will serve as an appetizer for NBC's latest edition of The Celebrity Apprentice, which is being served weekly in two-hour portions. The newcomer is unlikely to provoke much dinner table conversation, but goes down easily enough while trying not to leave any really bitter aftertastes. That's the job of Celebrity Apprentice, which just so happens to have Meat Loaf on its menu this season. Um, pass the Saucy Balls.


A&E's Breakout Kings doesn't raise the bars

Cons 'n' cops coalesce, co-exist in Breakout Kings. A&E photo

Premiering: Sunday, March 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on A&E
Starring: Laz Alonzo, Domenick Lombardozzi, Jimmi Simpson, Malcolm Goodwin, Brooke Nevin
Produced by: Matt Olmstead, Nick Santora

NBC's fugitive-catching Chase didn't catch on. A&E's Breakout Kings tries a somewhat different tack, teaming U.S. Marshals with snippy cell dwellers under the proviso that it "takes a con to catch a con."

In reality it doesn't. But perhaps two co-creators/producers of Fox's Prison Break don't know any better -- or have any really new ideas. So in this gambit, a killer convict escapes from behind bars and then is tracked by two badge-wearers and three temporarily released crooks. After ample sparring and wise-cracking, they of course get their man. In this case it's a sadistic, taunting bank robber named Tillman (guest star Jason Cerbone).

The marshals are by-the-book Charlie Duchamp (Laz Alonzo) and a surly, bald, renegade Vic Mackey type named Ray Zancanelli (Domenick Lombardozzi). Ray recruits three convicts that he previously salted away, but who impressed him with their elusiveness. The one who gets most of the good lines is Dr. Lloyd Lowery (Jimmi Simpson), a onetime child prodigy who ran afoul of the law after succumbing to a heavy-duty gambling problem.

Also enlisted are former "gang banger" Shea Daniels (Malcolm Goodwin) and con artist Philomena "Philly" Rotchliffer (Nicole Steinwedell), a former Miss Idaho 2001 who lets it be known that she was taunted in school as "Feel my wiener crotch-sniffer." Don't get too aroused, though. Philly is being written out after Sunday's premiere episode. The replacement part is Serinda Swan, who emoted as "Siren #2" in Tron: Legacy. Now she gets to be "sexy expert tracker" Erica Reed, whose dad was a bounty hunter.

Breakout Kings also has a resident computer whiz/researcher named Julianne Sims (Brooke Nevin), who lets her fingers do the walking in much the same way that Penny Garcia does on CBS' Criminal Minds and its new spin-off, Suspect Behavior.

The opener has an amusing line or two from the basically chicken-hearted Lowery, a comic con who relieves the tedium of Duchamp and Zancanelli clashing with one another over protocol. As in, "When I tell you to stand the hell down, you stand down." Which of course doesn't sit too well. Snore.

The tradeoff here is time off for good behavior each time a con completes an assignment without trying to escape. A&E apparently believes it's in it for the long haul with this series, because convict Shea Daniels returns to his cell to pencil in a piddling one-month reduction in his sentence. At that rate he'll be good to go by the time Justin Bieber is eligible for Social Security. But it probably beats landing on a Monopoly board's "Go Directly to Jail -- Do Not Collect $200" square.

Breakout Kings mainly succeeds in showing how far A&E must go to match the quality of original basic cable series on AMC, FX, and sometimes, TNT. There's nothing particularly striking or compelling here. But at least the escapee of the week will meet his fate at the end of each episode. On Prison Break, aren't some of them still on the run?


Music maestros: PBS hits high notes with Taylor/King in Troubadours and Harry Connick, Jr. on the Broadway stage

Now and then: James Taylor and Carole King PBS photos

Maybe you'd like a little night music -- other than the weekly Wednesday dose of American Idol.

PBS offers three hours worth with two disparate specials under the longstanding umbrella titles of American Masters and Great Performances.

Troubadours: Carole King/James Taylor & the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter (Wednesday, 8 p.m. central on KERA/13 locally) is hummable, strum-able and wistfully evocative. Harry Connick, Jr. in Concert on Broadway (following at 9:30 p.m.) is a straight-ahead dose of the retro crooner's repertoire.

Troubadours, whose title also represents Doug Weston's famed Troubadour proving ground on Santa Monica Blvd., has a magical air about it for those of us who inhaled during the 1970s. Its principals, Taylor and King, are seen in the flowers of their youths and in the throes of their affectionate reunions in a 2007 Troubadour performance and on tour together last year.

They were never an intimate couple, nor did they consider being one, King reflects. But they did make beautiful music, both together and individually. And one of the strengths of this 90-minute film is footage from their dawnings as signature singers of the '70s.

Taylor is seen at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, performing "Fire and Rain" for the first time before a large audience. "And it goes like this," he says, eventually receiving polite applause for what would become his anthem.

King's early years with her husband and co-composer Gerry Goffin are also reprised. Home movies from their 1960 wedding day and their early collaborations are a prelude to their 1968 divorce. Together they wrote standards such as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Take Good Care of My Baby." On her own, and with two young daughters in her care, King wrote and performed the classic 1971 album "Tapestry."

King and Taylor both prefer to play rather than talk about their music, letting the songs speak their volumes. But they're cozily comfortable together, a mutual admiration society from the very start and now in autumn years reunion mode. While revisiting the Troubadour, she asks him about kicking his well-documented drug addictions.

"I cleaned up in 1983 at the age of 35," he says, noting how fortunate he is to be among a small percentage of survivors. "It was one of the occupational hazards of being night folk."

King says she was never "night folk," instead returning home to her daughters during the height of her fame. Her solo debut at the Troubadour was in 1970, the year after Taylor first performed there. He heavily imbibed at the adjacent bar and otherwise. She seldom made those scenes.

Troubadours also includes new interviews with the likes of Jackson Browne ("Running on Empty" sounds better than ever in these surroundings), David Crosby, Elton John, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Martin, Cheech & Chong and a number of producers and musicians from those times.

Others of their vintage, most notably Joni Mitchell, are not participants. But she's always been ill at ease on camera. And it's almost enough to see and hear the early Mitchell after Kristofferson says, "Oh, Joni Mitchell. I thought she was Shakespeare reincarnated."

Some music critics didn't think much of the blissed-out California scene of the 1970s. Robert Christgau, who spent 37 years as music editor of The Village Voice, remains a naysayer. "Casual, cool arrogance," he says of the music and musicians showcased in Troubadours.

Guitarist Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar, also a friend of Taylor's since boyhood, bluntly fires back. Critics had "more clout" back then, he says. But now, "nobody remembers Lester Bangs (of Rolling Stone magazine). But everybody remembers James Taylor. The music always wins. Always."

The Troubadour club lately has gotten hot again, but without its flamboyant impresario. Weston died in 1999, leaving behind a reputation as a starmaker who took no small pleasure in acknowledging himself as such. Many of the artists he first showcased were contractually bound to perform at the Troubadour again and again.

"They Hate It But They Play It," according to a Los Angeles Times headline.

It's now all the stuff of a sentimental journey, with the film perhaps laying it on just a bit too thick at times. But once upon a time, in the early 1970s, music sales accounted for $2 billion a year in revenues, easily outstripping movie grosses. In that context, The Troubadour reigned as the starmaker of its day. Now American Idol hopes against hope that its latest winner will actually make at least a little money in today's depressed economy for music of any sort.

Wild about Harry?

Myself not so much, particularly during his moony crooning of languorous love songs during the first half of Harry Connick, Jr. in Concert on Broadway.

But things really pick up on the backstretch, with Connick and his big band (led by trombonist Lucien Barbarin) fully indulging themselves in the upbeat music of their native New Orleans.

By this time Connick has shucked his tie and white shirt to become a man in black. Whether at the piano or up on his toes dancing, he's fully up to the task of bring both the show and his audience alive.

Tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon temporarily steals the festivities with his scat singing on the "St. James Infirmary Blues." Connick Jr. graciously lets him have his big moment, and Weldon is more than up to it and up for it.

Some of Connick's best moments are on "Hear Me in the Harmony," a song he wrote in honor of his principal mentor, the late jazz pianist James Booker. It's a terrific composition, with Connick's vocals and piano playing both heartfelt and piercingly poignant.

In the concert's final moments, the star kicks his Steinway piano bench away and tickles the keyboards on a rousing "Mardi Gras in New Orleans." His side-by-side dancing with Barbarin is likewise invigorating. So if you're nodding off during the concert's first half, well, that's perfectly understandable. In the end, though, it won't be possible.

Troubadours: Carole King/James Taylor & the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter -- A
Harry Connick Jr. in Concert on Broadway -- B for starters, A down the stretch

PROGRAMMING NOTE: As a prelude to all of this, KERA13 is reprising In Performance at the White House: The Motown Sound at 7 p.m. in D-FW. So that's four hours of continuous musical entertainment for those who want more, more, more.

Russell and Rotolo -- two late women, two lasting images

A sultry Jane Russell in Outlaw; a happy Suze Rotolo with Dylan.

Two estimable women, each of whose lives were defined by a single still photograph, have left this image-making world for another.

The obituaries of Jane Russell and Suze Rotolo ran side-by-side, and at considerable length, in Tuesday's edition of The New York Times. Perhaps they would have enjoyed the symmetry.

Russell became notorious for the above provocative pose in the 1943 Howard Hughes film The Outlaw. She died at age 89.

Rotolo, the woman clinging to Bob Dylan's arm in his landmark early album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, is better known by that cover art than by name. She died at age 67.

Censors went nuts over the Russell poster for The Outlaw. It didn't get a national release until seven years after its nine-week run in San Francisco, according to the Times obit. In later years Russell resurfaced in TV ads for Playtex bras, touting their ability to contain full-figured women like herself.

Rotolo and Dylan lived together during his formative song-writing years in New York City. Their album art was shot in February 1963, says the Times obit. He soon went his way and she went hers, marrying film editor Enzo Bartoccioli in 1967. He survives her.

We all make our own histories, usually in relative obscurity. The deaths of Russell and Rotolo remind us that a photo, rather than a youtube video, can still be the very best way to be in the right place at the right time.

I'm sure that both women wrestled with these particular images before embracing them in their later years. Rotolo eventually wrote a book titled A Freewheelin' Time. And Russell pushed those bras.

Picturing them the way they were is now left to the rest of us.