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Must-see TV: No, really

Comedy tonight: My Name Is Earl, The Office, Scrubs and 30 Rock give NBC some big kicks in a rejuvenated Thursday night lineup.

Seems like old times for NBC. Four first-rate comedies are back in play on Thursdays, which hasn't happened since The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers and Night Court were happy together in the mid-1980s. Now come My Name is Earl, The Office, Scrubs and 30 Rock, massed for the first time on Thursday, Nov. 30. You really should be there for them.

These otherwise are very different times, though. Those Cosby-led comedies dominated the Thursday ratings on No. 1 NBC. These comedies are battling for their lives on a resurgent, but still No. 3 network. Rivals have taken most of Thursdays away from NBC and are beating the Peacock over the head from 7 to 9 p.m. (central time) with the likes of Survivor, Grey's Anatomy, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the new Ugly Betty.

Another big difference. NBC's hit comedies of yore all had laugh tracks and were shot on sound stages before live studio audiences. Earl and company are bracingly without laugh tracks, marking the first time any network has dared to offer a back-to-back quartet without any background noise. Sorry Fox, we're not counting cartoons.

NBC's comedies also find themselves fighting for the very survival of the genre. The same can be said of CBS' conventionally made, laugh track-fueled Monday night foursome of Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, The New Adventures of Old Christine and The Class.

Twenty seasons ago, the Peacock's fall prime-time schedule accommodated 13 comedies. Now we're down to Thursday's funsome foursome, with no new laughers on tap as midseason replacements. CBS likewise has just four comedies in its otherwise crime-fueled lineup. It had six in 1986, but viewers also could laugh at its mix of broad prime-time soaps (led by Dallas) and banter-laced buddy hours such as Simon & Simon and Scarecrow & Mrs. King.

NBC now looks to be network TV's last, best hope for daring, improvisational comedy that might forever be immune to blockbuster ratings. Earl, Office, Scrubs and 30 Rock aren't really sitcoms. In fact it's an insult to call them that. They all live on the edge, looking for laughs without ever being obvious about it. Their salvation may be younger audiences for whom the laugh track is an antiquated intrusion. Consider them comedies for the YouTube generation, except that NBC's weekly short films are genuinely and consistently funny. These are pros, and it shows.

Thursday's latest Earl is Christmas-themed, at least to the point of having some visible holiday decorations. Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) is making 274 baloney sandwiches in hopes of crossing off No. 146 on his list of restitutions. It seems that he stole "gay Kenny's" (Greg Binkley) lunches throughout the 5th and 6th grades.

Meanwhile, dense brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) is almost finished with his "love poem" for Catalina (Nadine Valazquez).

"What's somethin' that rhymes with cartilage," he asks Earl. "Or Florida. I can go either way."

Earl's ex-wife, Joy (Jaime Pressly), is in group-counseling for anger management, otherwise diagnosed by her therapist as Pathological Impulse Control Disorder.

"Hot damn," Joy blurts. "Does this mean I can get crippled people parkin'?"

Earl gets away with this because it knows how to walk a tightrope between off-putting bad taste and good riddance to the most rigid forms of political correctness.

The Office also works without a net. Thursday's episode finds bossman Michael Scott (Steve Carell) again mismanaging a touchy situation. An ex-convict, who happens to be black, is one of his merged firm's new employees. Ah, the old stereotype. So it's time to ham-handedly confront the staff.

"You show me a white man you trust and I will show you a black man I trust even more," Michael challenges.

But the ex-con turns out to be a white collar criminal whose time in prison was pretty comfy. In fact, comfier than working for Michael, the employees grouse. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, creators of the original British version of The Office, lent their writing talents to this episode, which is a classic.

Scrubs then returns after a long layoff, with Dr. JD Dorian (Zach Braff) still in a panic over the pregnancy of his girlfriend, Kim (Elizabeth Banks). The wives of docs Christopher Turk (Donald Faison) and Perry Cox (John C. McGinley) likewise are expecting in an episode that also works in a Joe Piscopo joke, a cameo by Blue Man Group and Britney Spears' "Bye, Bye, Bye" as the virtual national anthem of Sacred Heart Hospital. Who could ask for anything more?

On 30 Rock, TV show producer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is re-dating old flame Dennis (Dean Winters), who's still selling beepers for a living. But the sex is great. Or as Lemon puts it, "Fast and only on Saturdays. It's perfect."

Her boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), again feels the need to mentor. He wants her to appreciate the "finer things in life." One of his earlier makeovers already has seen the light. He's now the polished "vice president of locomotives, and a rising star at GE," Donaghy crows.

Lemon is more concerned about the new face tattoo on Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), her variety show's unpredictable star.

"I can't be normal. If I'm normal, I'm boring," he reasons after a magazine picture shows him conventionally walking out of a Starbuck's as an everyday person.

In real-life, Morgan recently was busted a second time for driving under the influence. He needs to be more normal, even if NBC's Thursday comedy lineup is anything but. Its longterm future is up in the air and is now up to you.

It's a responsibility that should be taken seriously.

New series review: Big Day (ABC)

Headstrong mom battles embattled, budding bride on Big Day

Premiering Tuesday night, Nov. 28th, 8 central, 9 eastern, ABC
Starring: Marla Sokoloff, Wendie Malick, Josh Cooke, Kurt Fuller, Miriam Shor, Stephen Rannazzisi, Stephnie Weir
Created by: Josh Goldsmith, Cathy Yuspa

It's always something, as we all well know by now. But on a big "I do" day, "always something" is triple-strength magnified into ALWAYS SOMETHING!!!

This brings us to ABC's comedic, manic-depressive, 24-like look at a day in the life of a wedding. Originally part of the network's fall season launch, Big Day arrives fashionably late during the early stages of the holiday season. Gifted Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me) is reason enough to watch as domineering Mother Jane.

See her slap down the very idea of a Caesar's salad in the opening half-hour. Then next week catch her in the throes of a full-blown orgasm triggered by a toe massage. We'll have what she's having.

Jane's youngest daughter, Alice (appealing Marla Sokoloff), is the beleaguered bride waiting to take vows with gangly Danny Garfinkle (irritating Josh Cooke). The clock for Big Day starts at 8 a.m., with most of the principals already gathered at Alice's parents' house. Her older, bitter beer-faced sister, Becca (Miriam Shor), again is fated to be a bridesmaid. So she got pretty looped up the night before and slept with Danny's best man, Jay "Skobo" Skobinski (Stephen Rannazzisi).

On their morning after, Becca inadvertently swallows Skobo's contact lenses, which had been left in a bedside glass of water. This prompts a recurring sight-less gag, with Skobo groping around after first calling Becca a "sexy woodchuck" to whom he's just not all that attracted. She's eventually gonna get him for that, as you can see next week.

Big Day, which navigates without a laugh track, hits its comedy sweet spots in fits and spurts. Danny and Alice have agreed to walk down the aisle to their song, the theme from What's Happening!! What a great and also instantly funny tune that is. Seriously. It should be played at lots more weddings -- or at the very least at wedding receptions. Goes like this: "Bwa-da-da-da-da-da-
-da-da-da-da. Bwa da-da-dah!" Lyrics by Cole Porter.

Alice's stern Dad, Steve (under-appreciated Kurt Fuller), thinks Danny is a doofus. This assessment is enhanced when his future son-in-law bounds into the kitchen to say, "There's my sweet ass bride."

Early invited guests include Johnny (Terry Chen), who used to date Alice, and Fred (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who wants to date Danny. There's also a hard-pressed wedding planner named Lorna (Stephnie Weir), who's hopelessly caught in the middle of the salad battle. Jane demands a dignified mix of baby field greens with poached pear vinaigrette. Daughter Alice has her heart set on a simple Caesar, which mom dismisses as a "ridiculous salad!" Lettuce pray they settle this.

Big Day's second episode introduces Danny's oddball dad, "The Garf," played to perfection by Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky. He arrives all sweaty and rank from a lengthy bike ride. But after some tough sledding in the "dry ice game" and a little hand-modeling on the side, Garf thinks he's found his niche as a foot massager. Jane reluctantly succumbs to one, and then is very happy she did. This leads to a truly inspired double entendre retort from her hubby after "The Garf" puts on a tux in hopes of making amends for getting off on the wrong foot.

Big Day definitely has its moments in the early stages of a long-haul wedding day. But can they be sustained, and will viewers even buy the premise? Maybe 24's dogged Jack Bauer could amp things up by dropping in for a few minutes at the reception. He could use a little levity, and certainly a good foot massage.

Grade: B

New series review: My Boys (TBS)

Jordana Spiro is one of the guys in TBS' My Boys

Premiering: Tuesday night, Nov. 28th, 9 central, 10 eastern, TBS
Starring: Jordana Spiro, Kyle Howard, Jim Gaffigan, Jamie Kaler, Reid Scott, Kellee Stewart, Michael Bunin
Created by: Betsy Thomas

She hosts a weekly poker night, manages an amateur baseball team, drinks beer, covers the Cubs and has the Sunday NFL preview show on before her pack of male friends even gets to her place.

You also can get to third base and beyond with PJ Franklin (Jordana Spiro). What's more, you'd want to. So welcome to Fahn-tasy Island, dudes. Except this is My Boys, a new TBS comedy series that looks as though it could round into shape with both sexes.

Created by Betsy Thomas, a self-described "guy's girl" in real life, it's more often than not a winning combination of sports and the sporting life. PJ's oft-used baseball analogies sometimes run in circles when applied to the dating game or her mostly male posse. But it doesn't matter all that much because she's in there pitchin' and we'd like to see her win. An appealing cast and the bracing lack of a canned laugh track make up for an error here or there. My Boys easily is the best comedy ever developed for TBS. Not that there've been many on a veteran network that still relies heavily on broadcast TV reruns.

PJ's Chicago-based pals include roommate Brendan Dorff (Reid Scott), a hunky rock DJ still battling an addiction to a longtime girlfriend who's deemed bad for him. Horn dog Mike Callahan (Jamie Kaler) is a semi-oafish Cubs employee whose game plan is one-night stands. Kenny Moritorri (Michael Bunin), a balding guy who runs a sports memorabilia store, makes little impression in the first two episodes. So far he's the equivalent of Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And well-worn Jim Gaffigan plays PJ's older, married brother, Andy, whose so far unseen wife has him on a standard-issue short leash.

New to this mix is sportswriter Bobby Newman (Kyle Howard), who covers the Cubs for a rival newspaper and is recruited to play shortstop on PJ's nine. He's soon making a short stop at her place, with PJ donning a more revealing "cute top" at the behest of "girly" girlfriend Stephanie Layne (Kellee Stewart).

"Baseball players go through a routine as they step up to the plate," she narrates while warming up for him. "You knock the dirt off your cleats, you tighten your glove and you just pray you make contact."

Alas, a very willing PJ doesn't quite get to Bobby's bat. Her guy-wired vocabulary is "kinda freakin' me out a little bit," he tells her. And when she goes the other route, Bobby thinks he's mocking him. You win some, you lose some and a few are called off on account of performance anxiety.

Otherwise the performances are more than adequate and the writing is serviceable if not yet sharp enough. Spiro shines in the lead role, infusing PJ with the likeability needed to keep My Boys in play for a while.

Still, they should put a lid on those sports analogies. As when PJ says in Episode 2: "If you're going for the ball and you don't see the warning track, chances are you're going to run right into a brick wall."

OK, got it. Now stop making my head hurt.

Grade: B

Come again: Match Game, CBS Sunday Night Movie reconnect for a night

Gene Rayburn presided over The Match Game's menagerie. And the once Clueless Alicia Silverstone is now a brave, beloved mom.

Two throwbacks, one only recently departed, return Sunday night to show us how their times have passed.

Cable's GSN, where old game shows still make whoopee, goes a bit deeper than usual with The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank (7 p.m. central, 8 eastern). And CBS gives its once vital Sunday Night Movie franchise a once-over with Candles on Bay Street (8 p.m. central, 9 eastern). It's the only new broadcast TV movie airing during the entire November "sweeps" ratings period, which ends Wednesday.

CBS had reserved the last two hours of its Sunday night lineup for movies until the start of this season. That's when Cold Case and Without A Trace ended a 20-year run of films ranging from Sarah, Plain and Tall to Spring Break Shark Attack. You probably can guess which of those aired under the Hallmark Hall of Fame banner, which is flown anew with Candles. Unfortunately it otherwise doesn't fly, in no small part due to an incredibly ill-chosen, mood-fouling music track.

The script and storyline are no great shakes either. But it's the constant intrusion of loud, discordant piano tinkles and hokey harmonica riffs that makes one want to blow out Candles well before its time. Aspiring to be a feel-good film full of good hearts and gentle people is all well and good. Still, you've got to be far more subtle and lots more dynamic to really pull it off. Candles in fact does have a tearjerking, uplifting finale in store for viewers willing to go the distance. In that sense it's harmless in the end but cloying and pokey much of the way.

Alicia Silverstone, now 11 years removed from her breakthrough role as Cher Horowitz in Clueless, has the centerpiece role as prodigal Dee Dee Michaud. After a 13-year absence, she's returning to the small eastern seaboard community of her youth with an 11-year-old son named Trooper (Matthew Knight) in tow. This immediately attracts the interest of veterinarian Sam Timmons (Eion Bailey), whose wife, Lydia (Annabeth Gish), co-runs their animal clinic.

Sam, you see, was clenched up and repressed until the free-spirited Dee Dee lit up his youth. He's still a pretty dull guy, but without her long-ago friendship Sam might find himself going through life in a figurative fetal position. Anyway, Dee Dee suddenly up and left town without saying goodbye. Now she's back to open her own candle shop while reopening Sam's feelings for her.

The story very slowly takes a sad turn that you'll probably see coming. Silverstone's performance sometimes shines through it all, and veteran Polly Bergen gets to sing a song or two as the town matriarch.

The director, old-timer John Erman, is behind some of network TV's finest hours, including An Early Frost, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, Who Will Love My Children? and several chapters of Roots and Roots: The Next Generations. This film can't hold a candle to those, but at least has nothing to do with forensics. There's more than enough grisly crime on CBS' schedule, and it is after all, a holiday weekend. So Candle might well find an appreciative audience. There's certainly no hurt in that.

Match Game found a lot of audience in the mid-1970s, when it was daytime's No. 1 show. Host Gene Rayburn was snarky before anyone used the term. And his ribald celebrity panelists, led by Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers, Richard Dawson and Fannie Flagg, usually were feeling no pain after having a few belts backstage between tapings. It helped prime the pump when the late Rayburn threw out bait such as "I got my (blank) caught in a soda bottle." Or, "Everybody at the North Pole was shocked to see Santa Claus being (blanked) by his elves."

GSN's one-hour Behind the Blank includes new interviews with Dawson and Somers, who before Match Game was Jack Klugman's wife and little else. It's clear that she's still tart and "Sir Richard" remains egomaniacal.

Dawson "was about as sexy as a snail," she says. And when he left the show, "everybody was thrilled."

"I moved on to greener pastures," says Dawson, namely Family Feud. He also doesn't argue with the notion that he was the game's brainiest player, invariably the go-to guy for Match Game's climactic bonus round. In later years contestants had to spin a "Star Wheel" to keep them from always picking Dawson. He still sees it as an affront that hastened his decision to leave.

The special also has one of Rayburn's last interviews. Originally Steve Allen's sidekick on the first version of The Tonight Show, Rayburn says he "enjoyed being in charge" for really the only time in his TV career.

"We were just a buncha people who got together and had a good time," he says.

Rayburn's daughter, Lynn, says he took it hard when the show went off the air in 1982. Her Dad then "basically killed himself by doing nothing," she says, dying in 1999.

It was fun while it lasted, and Match Game reruns still are dotted throughout GSN's lineup. Once upon a time, Flagg showed up wearing a top emblazoned with two fried eggs where her bosom broke the plain. And Rayburn sent her into hysterics by once asking, "Speaking of bazooms, Fannie, would you show us yours?"

He meant the answer on her card -- more or less. It seems so long ago, far away. Wardrobe malfunctions hadn't even been invented yet.

Grades: Candles on Bay Street -- C; The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank -- C+.

Ted Koppel: Free to be afoot in Iran

Ted Koppel personalizes Iran in a new Discovery Channel special.

Toiling in his new vineyard of choice, Ted Koppel must be diplomatic about what he can do now but couldn't do then.

"If I were to say I feel liberated, that would make it sound as though I'm so glad to be out of the clutches of ABC News," Koppel says in a telephone interview. "I love ABC News. But the nature of the industry has changed. There absolutely is no way that you could get a two-hour documentary on Iran on ABC, NBC or CBS. It just ain't going to happen."

Instead it's happening on The Discovery Channel, where his consistently fascinating Iran -- The Most Dangerous Nation premieres Sunday night, Nov. 19 (8 central, 9 eastern). It's Koppel's second extended piece for his new employer, where he has the title of managing editor. On Sept. 10, he spent three hours on The Price of Security, which was followed by a live town hall meeting.

While much of the media go cuckoo over the "TomKat" wedding and other sugary junk food, Koppel continues to peddle serious, nutritive news of the sort that's immune to high ratings. It's fulfilling for him, though. In this case, he revisits the country that put him on the map in 1979 when Nightline was birthed amid the Iranian hostage crisis.

All these years later, as he notes Sunday night, the U.S. still defines Iran as part of the "axis of evil" while that country in turn indoctrinates its children to chant "Death to America" as part of their school curriculum. "Welcome to Tehran," Koppel says early in the special, while standing next to one of the city's plentiful ""Down with USA" signs.

He also shows the other side. Seventy percent of the country's population is under the age of 30, and a clear majority of these younger Iranians said in a recent poll that they want better relations with the U.S. The downside: an Iranian man who assisted the pollsters was jailed for two years. In an earlier life, he was the same man who organizing the seizing of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

"It's a nasty system over there," Koppel says in the telephone interview. "But the Iranians are a really interesting, cultured, sophisticated people. I think it's crazy that we don't have diplomatic relations with Iran. We have them with all kinds of scoundrels around the world.

"There are only three ways of influencing Iranian behavior," he adds. "Diplomacy, economic sanctions or military options. The sanctions haven't worked and a military operation almost certainly would be a fiasco. Basically that leaves diplomacy."

Koppel could not land an interview with Iran president Mahmoudd Ahmadinejad, whose pursuit of nuclear technology has the Bush adminisration on edge. Ahmadinejad also has no shortage of critics in his own country, the special shows.

One of them is "Sister Mary," who once served as spokeswoman for the hostage-takers. She's no fan of President Bush either, terming him "a very outspoken religious figure."

Koppel and his crew moved relatively freely through Iran but occasionally were squelched for what appeared to be no good reason.

"At times it's totally bizarre," he says. "There were rockets going off at one point, and our government minder couldn't have cared less that we filmed it. But then a security crew actually stopped our cameraman from shooting a sunset because we didn't have specific permission. They locked us down so thoroughly that I got very angry and insisted that something be done."

His mediator turned out to be a well-connected official known as "The Fat Guy." Koppel says he at first "seemed like a total buffoon" during a dinner the previous night. "But when 'The Fat Guy' took me under his wing, things started to happen. Figuring out who's in charge there can be a challenge."

Koppel's next special for Discovery will be titled The Long War, meaning Iraq. During his autumn years on Nightline, he joined U.S. troops on their march into Baghdad. This time, though, he'll report from afar.

"No, I don't think I'll be going back there," he says. "I've covered big wars and piddling wars. But I promised my wife that I won't go back to another one."

Knowing Koppel, though, don't hold him to that.

Dan Rather: Re-starting from scratch

Dan Rather and Mark Cuban unveiled their new partnership in July to a full house of skeptical but intrigued TV critics. AP photo

Missing in action since June, here comes Dan Rather to a television screen and a network that most Americans don't yet have in their homes

His Tuesday night debut, as "host and global correspondent" of HDNet's Dan Rather Reports, is both a milestone and possibly a millstone. Does the 75-year-old former CBS News standardbearer have an audible last hurrah left in him? Or, try as he might, will he go quietly into the night on a still wee network that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban launched in 2001?

"It's liberating, interesting, exciting and pretty daunting," Rather says in a telephone interview Monday with unclebarky.com. "I have no illusions about this. We knew when we started that we're going to be climbing a pretty high mountain. And all the climbing will be up the north face."

HDNet reaches about four million homes nationally, many of them via satellite on either the DirectTV or Dish networks. It's still not a part of Time Warner's sprawling cable menu in Cuban's hometown of Dallas. Rather's new venture, which will detail him in high-definition for his first time, has the added burden of premiering opposite Tuesday night's performance finale of ABC's Dancing with the Stars (7 p.m. central, 8 eastern). Still, he admits to "some opening night jitters," even though most of the first one-hour program already is in the can.

"This may be the longest sustained period that I've been off the air in, whew, maybe ever," Rather says. "But I haven't missed the daily broadcast and being on the air as much as I thought I would. I do miss the people, the camaraderie of the newsroom. I've never kidded myself. Everything in television is very ephemeral. But I've still got a chance to have my best work still ahead of me when my feet hit the floor every morning. So I'm usually giving thanks for just one more day of doing it."

Those last two sentences long have been his mantra. Stained and steeled by the "Memogate" debacle, he's forever hard-wired to a newsman's life. And others from the old days will still march beside him, including former CBS News veterans Janice Tomlin, Dana Roberson, Toby Wertheim and David Small. They and ex-ABC News editor Sarah Josephson are all part of his Dan Rather Reports staff.

They've finally decided on the show's opening story after "working on a number of projects simultaneously," Rather says. It will be a long, hard look at the psychological and physical wounds suffered by returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There's a problem that many don't seem to want to face," he contends. "Many of these troops will require sustained and acute health care for a long, long while. And the question is, 'How to pay for that?' "

Rather plans to open most of his programs from "somewhere in the field," which he regularly did as the "mobile anchor" of the CBS Evening News.

"Strange as it may seem to you, I don't have an anchor desk," he says. "Nor for that matter do I really want one. We've got a small studio set up in Manhattan but I hope it'll gather cobwebs."

Rather lost a good friend and former 60 Minutes colleague Thursday when Ed Bradley died of leukemia. He wasn't included in Sunday night's 60 Minutes tribute to Bradley. CBSNews.com didn't solicit his thoughts either as part of its voluminous sendoff. If it's a sore spot, Rather won't talk about it. But he does want to say this:

"Ed was a great pro, but I think what's missing in some of these well-deserved salutes is he was a great person, too. He had tremendous integrity, honesty, loyalty and character. He stood by and stood up for his friends. And he gave a lot back to his country and his community, much of which has never been publicized. He deserves a lot of credit for being a pathfinder. But all Ed ever asked was to let him work, and to judge him on the basis of that."

Rather risks being judged on the basis of the one story that took him out -- a campaign 2004 investigation that questioned the length and depth of President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service.

He simply doesn't want to talk about it anymore. Rather's next mountains are 42 weekly news hours a year under the terms of a three-year contract with Cuban.

"I don't have any corporate constraints now," he says. "Mark Cuban has been tremendous to me. He's given me total, complete and absolute editorial control, and he's written that into the contract. All he's asked for in return is that I be as fearless as I can be."

Whether anyone will notice is anybody's guess.

Ed Bradley: Goodnight and Godspeed

Ed Bradley recently, with his wife, Patricia, and in 1969. CBS photos


Ed Bradley's hour had come. On Sunday night, 60 Minutes returned it to him in full with a tribute to his public and personal life.

"I don't have enough years left myself to ever get over missing Ed Bradley. Not ever," said Andy Rooney, 87. Bradley was 65 when he died of leukemia Thursday.

His quarter-century at 60 Minutes, for which he did 500 stories, made Bradley one of television's most enduring and important newsmen. He also ranks among the medium's all-time most influential African-Americans. As 60 Minutes showed, Bradley ranged far and wide. He covered wars, exposed corruption and sat down with some very big names in the world of crime, entertainment and athletics. They included Timothy McVeigh, Michael Jordan, Bob Dylan, George Burns, Laurence Olivier, Muhammad Ali and his favorite subject of all, Lena Horne.

Off camera he was a music buff and an onstage ham. Two of his very best friends were Jimmy Buffett and Wynton Marsalis.

"I got so much joy out of watching him attempt to be a shameless performer," said Buffett, who rushed to Bradley's bedside from Hawaii to be with him near the end.

Trumpeter Marsalis played Bradley off at the end of Sunday's 60 Minutes. "How could you not love him?" he asked rhetorically. "You couldn't help it."

Bradley wasn't much of a self-promoter. He didn't do many interviews with reporters. Nor did he let his colleagues at 60 Minutes know that he had been diagnosed with leukemia years ago.

I'll never forget my one up-close experience with Bradley. It was in 1976, and I was a political reporter for The Capital Times in Madison, Wis. For a half-day I got to travel with the national press corps covering Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. By early evening we were flying from a stop in Illinois to Milwaukee, where Carter would be making a nighttime address.

Just before touchdown at Billy Mitchell Field, Bradley donned a gas mask and led a small V-formation of reporters onto the airport tarmac. He did so in support of a colleague who'd had his arm broken when a Milwaukee cop slammed a door on it during an earlier campaign visit. Bradley now approached a very unamused officer to inform him that this time the reporters were ready for action. Point made and lasting impression imparted.

Bradley always stayed his own man, wearing an earring on the air in later years just because he damn well wanted to do it. His sudden and very unexpected death also made me think about where he belongs on a list of television's 10 most influential African-Americans. As you might deduce, Bradley ranks pretty high. Here's how it came out:

10. Diahann Carroll -- Her 1968 sitcom Julia marked the first time a black woman had starred in a weekly TV series as something other than a white family's servant. Sixteen years later, she joined the cast of Dynasty to become the first featured black character in a prime-time soap.

9. Bernard Shaw -- He was CNN's first signature anchor, leading the cable upstart to a place at the table with CBS, NBC and ABC. His point-blank 1988 debate question to presidential candidate Michael Dukakis -- what if his wife, Kitty, were raped? -- is still the stuff of campaign lore.

8. Don Cornelius -- The black community's Dick Clark created the syndicated show Soul Train in 1971 and hosted it for 22 years. It remains in production today as a showcase for both new black artists and the latest dance moves.

7. Arsenio Hall -- Late night television's one and only successful black host endured for five years (1989-94) during times when Johnny Carson was winding down and Jay Leno and David Letterman were winding up. Bill Clinton's sax-playing appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show became the signature visual of the 1992 presidential campaign.

6. Robert Johnson -- He launched BET in 1980 as one of cable television's first signature networks. Some argue that Johnson enriched himself at the expense of creating a superior -- and more expensive -- scripted drama or comedy series. But BET remains entrenched on virtually every cable system in the country, which is no small feat.

5. Flip Wilson -- No black performer had fronted a successful variety series until NBC's The Flip Wilson Show rocketed to prime-time's No. 2 spot in its very first year on the air (1970). Catchphrases ("The Devil made me do it") and characters such as Geraldine Jones (Wilson in drag) kept the show in the top 20 for three seasons. It's the last time a variety hour has hit such heights.

4. Bryant Gumbel -- He co-hosted NBC's Today for 15 eventful years (1982-97), excelling as an interviewer while also making news with his own blunt-spoken opinions. A subsequent stint at CBS made Gumbel richer still, but otherwise paid few dividends. He continues to host HBO's distinguished Real Sports series and later this month will do play-by-play on the NFL network's inaugural batch of games.

3. Ed Bradley (for reasons stated above).

2. Bill Cosby -- NBC's The Cosby Show, which premiered in 1984, almost singlehandedly lifted a dormant NBC from third to first place. It also cut across racial lines, ranking No. 1 for five consecutive seasons. The comedy's colossal 34.9 Nielsen rating in its 1986-87 season hasn't been approached in the 20 years since. And it never will be in an increasingly fragmented universe now further split by broadband and cellphone viewing options.

1. Oprah Winfrey -- She's still reigns over the most successful daytime talk show in TV history. Whatever Oprah wants, Oprah gets -- including a who's who of mostly awed A-list guests. Her enormously influential book club and Oprah's super duper car giveaway are among many other attendant splendors. And oh yeah, Tom Cruise jumped up and down on her couch, providing a pop culture moment quite unlike any other.

Review: Prime Suspect: The Final Act (PBS)

One more time: Helen Mirren as Det. Supt. Jane Tennison

Her majesty, Helen Mirren, has been playing queens of late. But she's also found time to perform last rites on her crowning achievement.

PBS' Prime Suspect: The Final Act (8 p.m. central, 9 eastern) plays out in two acts on Nov. 12 and 19. Presented under the Masterpiece Theatre banner, it's the seventh and last look at increasingly dissipated Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison, Nearing retirement, she's battling the bottle, loneliness and her father's impending death from cancer. It's all etched in her color-drained face, the most visible evidence of the toll taken by Tennison's mostly solitary life of crimesolving.

Mirren first played the character in 1992, when she fought chauvinism within Scotland Yard while also exposing corruption within the force. That force has not always been with her, even to this day. Tennison's boss, seeing the effects of her alcoholism, would rather she take sick leave than stay the course on a case involving the brutal murder of 14-year-old Sallie Sturdy (Maxine Barton). But she prevails and perseveres, along the way befriending and nurturing young Penny Phillips (Laura Greenwood), the daughter she never had.

We first see Tennison awakening after another boozy night in her apartment. She notices a discolored lump on her forehead, but has no clue where it came from. Nor does she remember receiving a phone call about the missing Sallie. Fortifying herself with another big belt, she shows up at work in a cloudy state of disrepair. But she's Tarzan, she's Jane, and there's one last riddle to be cracked before they carry her out on her shield.

Final Act is driven by Mirren's ebbs and flows but also has standout performances from Gary Lewis as Sallie's surly father, Tony, and Stephen Tomkinson in the role of school headmaster Sean Philips. Might either or both be implicated in Sallie's death? Tony wants to hear nothing of the sort. "There's your DNA!" he rages after spitting it in Tennison's face.

Sentiment is in short supply throughout this last tale of justice and just desserts. Tennison's conversations with her dying father, Arnold (Frank Finlay), and estranged sister, Pauline (Carolyn Pickles), are strained through years of interpersonal neglect. She is closer to her Dad, but not to the point where they can muster much to say to one another. Tennison is more animated while dancing alone in her abode to a well-worn pop record skipping about on an old school phonograph. The music to her ears is not for sharing.

It all ends a little too abruptly next Sunday, for both Tennison and the legions of Prime Suspect fans who long have watched her from a respectful distance.

Down the homestretch, she snaps at a fellow detective, "Don't call me ma'am. I'm not the bloody queen."

She has been on thrones of late, both in last year's Elizabeth I , for which she won an Emmy, and the current The Queen, for which an Oscar nomination is likely. Jane Tennison will always stand taller, though. She's a piece of work and a body of work, a woman who gave her all at the expense of all else.

In the end, Tennison needed that stinkin' badge. And in real life, it's the one Prime Suspect keepsake that Mirren says she took with her. They are, after all, inseparable.

Grade: A-minus

Koppel to Kerry: Can the comedy

John Kerry's bungled joke on the Iraq war clearly didn't hurt the Democrats on election night. But take it from Ted Koppel, he's no George Carlin.

"Kerry should steer clear of comedy. It ain't his gig," Koppel told unclebarky.com in a telephone interview Thursday. "He just shouldn't be allowed to crack a smile anymore."

Koppel, who's readying a two-hour special on Iran for the Discovery Channel, also spent considerable time embedded with U.S. troops while still with ABC's Nightline. The volunteer Army is "one of the best I've ever seen," he said. "Well-educated, smart, tough. But they're over-burdened."

Kerry took a pasting from Republicans and Democrats alike when he recently said at a college rally, "Education -- if you make the most of it and you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

The Massachusetts senator later apologized, saying he had blown a joke aimed at President Bush. Koppel believes him.

"It's insane for anyone to say that John Kerry would deliberately trash the U.S. military," he said. "Apart from his own military record, he's a politician. And politicians know better than that. So I truly am prepared to believe that he just made a terrible mistake. I think now it's over, as probably are his presidential ambitions."

Koppel's Iran -- The Most Dangerous Nation, his second documentary for Discovery, is scheduled to premiere on Nov. 19. More on that later, but for clips, go here.

"Danisms" and elephant dung: Comedy Central's Midterm Midtacular

On an overall big night for the Democrats, Texas gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell got dumped on by Comedy Central.

Its latenight Midterm Midtacular, co-anchored by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, dressed up the standard graphics and mug shots of winning and losing candidates. In Bell's case, he was pooped on by a Republican elephant symbolizing Texas governor Rick Perry's easy victory. Talk about being No. 2.

Later, Dan Rather dropped in to drop a few "Danisms" at Stewart's urging.

"She ran away with it like a hobo with a sweet potato pie," he said of Hillary Rodham Clinton's reelection to the Senate.

Rather was billed as "Global correspondent, HDNet," a role he'll assume Tuesday as anchor of the weekly Dan Rather Reports on Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's fledgling high-definition channel.

Actually, the best "Danism" of the night came from ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, who said Clinton's victory had "all the surprise of a Doris Day movie."

That one flew right over most kids' heads. No matter. They were watching Comedy Central's election coverage anyway.

Ed Bark

Review: Directed by John Ford (Turner Classic Movies)

Ford had a better idea. All you had to do was ask him.

Hard-driving director John Ford tended to treat famous actors like children. They were, after all, playing in his sandboxes. And he mostly had an unerring eye for showing us a good time on screen after first showing his hired hands who was boss.

"With Ford it's not a relaxed set at all," recalls the late James Stewart. "There's tension every place. Everybody's on edge."

Turner Classic Movies' brilliantly restored and updated Directed by John Ford plays as fluidly as any of his films. The final word on my notepad is a capital-lettered "STUPENDOUS!" And actually, that's faint praise.

Premiering Tuesday, Nov. 7th (7 p.m. central, 8 eastern), the two-hour documentary combines the best of Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 work with valuable new interviews and perspectives. So on the one hand we get great anecdotal remembrances from Stewart, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and, to a degree, from Ford himself. We're also party to fresh evaluations from some of today's directorial giants, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood.

Here's one example of how very good this film is. Scorsese vividly remembers a scene from one of Ford's lesser films, 1961's Two Rode Together. It was an extended, riverbank conversation between characters played by Stewart and Richard Widmark. Their natural give-and-take made a huge impression on him, Scorsese says. Then we see exactly what he's talking about, and not via a snippet. Bogdanovich lets the scene play out, and it's a marvel that the two actors carried it off in just one take. Ford always preferred it that way. Don't let your actors get tired. Encourage them to get it right the first time, and put them in the right frame of mind by sometimes playing mind games with them.

"He was not influenced by a politically correct generation that we live in today," says Eastwood. "He could go flat out ... Ford was afraid of nothing."

The clips are magnificently chosen, with occasional narration from Orson Welles. Ford won four directing Oscars, a record still unmatched, for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man. Clearly he also should have won for The Searchers, in which Wayne commanded the screen as the embittered Ethan Edwards.

Ford's westerns, shot in majestic Monument Valley, are still unmatched cinematically. Simply put, the man knew what he was doing. Says Scorsese: "There's a sense of no matter where that camera was placed, it was the best position. It was the right position. It was the position of poetry."

He died in 1973, and the documentary includes revealing audio from a near-death conversation with Katharine Hepburn, with whom Ford had an affair before she segued to Spencer Tracy. It's a warm talk between two old friends who know how their games are played. Directed by John Ford fully captures the man and the screen legends who willingly became his minions.

Above all, actors wanted to please him, Stewart says. Mission accomplished -- over and over again.

Grade: A

Man law: Is there one against watching Dancing with the Stars?

Edyta & Joey, Cheryl & Emmitt, Karina & Mario: What's not to like?

Put on your high-sneeled sneakers and join me in watching ABC's Dancing with the Stars semi-finals Tuesday night.

No? All right, be that way. Lots of male TV critics, and probably every sports talk radio show host in the land, are firmly united on one front. They don't, won't and won't ever watch Dancing with the Stars despite the presence of a burly NFL legend and an array of lithe, skin-baring women. It's a Man Law, pure and simple.

As a Dallas-based writer, I've got a built-in local angle in Emmitt Smith, the former Cowboy who's ventured all the way to the show's crunch time with partner Cheryl Burke. But here's the thing. I also willingly watched the first two editions of Dancing, and not under duress either. Maybe it's a hangover from my polka-dancing past in Racine, Wis., where you could bounce around like a pogo stick at a constant carousel of wedding receptions. That and early indelible exposure to The Lawrence Welk Show have left their marks.

Dancing's also a throwback to TV's daring, doing formative years. It's a legitimately live production, meaning that someone's going to fall down and go boom someday with no chance to save face in an editing room. Furthermore, this is a bonafide athletic competition, requiring stamina, coordination and no small amount of courage. It's not easy to risk making an ass of one's self. The agony of the feet indeed.

Most men, of course, don't like to dance. They 'd sooner enter a jalapeno-eating competition. And on Dancing, contestants do risk being called "lovely jubbly," which judge Len Goodman laid on Emmitt. It happens.

In the end, you've really got to credit the guy with venturing way outside his comfort zone, as did fellow future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice on the last edition. Now Emmitt is up against the Gumby-like Mario Lopez and painfully earnest Joey Lawrence, whose statuesque partner, Edyta Sliwinska, somehow stays within the confines of prime-time's most risque costumes. Edyta's jaw-dropping Halloween outfit made her look like a cross between Xena: Warrior Princess and Cher in her prime.

On a recent episode, Emmitt rebutted those who think it might not be manly to rumba, samba or mambo in a glimmering outfit before a judge who has called him both "Twinkletoes" and "Sir Shimmy."

"If someone came up to me and said, 'Real men don't dance,' I'm going to say to them, 'Real men try to do things that they think they cannot do,' " he said. "That's the difference between another man and a real man."

This member of the male species figures he's a better man than many of us. So floor it, Emmitt. Dance the night away. You can't come out smelling like a rose if you're a wallflower.