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Zucker is CNN's new leading man after long up-and-down career at NBC

Jeff Zucker at a summer 2010 NBC Universal party. Photo: Ed Bark

Jeff Zucker pledged allegiance to non-partisanship while promising to "broaden the definition of what news is" during his first hour on the job as president of CNN Worldwide.

The former architect of the Today show's morning dominance and the prime-time Jay Leno fiasco won't officially step in at CNN until sometime in January. But the granddaddy of cable news networks officially welcomed him aboard Thursday via a teleconference with TV writers.

Zucker, 47, spent an up-and-down quarter-century with NBC before new owner Comcast bounced him in 2010 as head of the NBC Universal Television Group. He lately has been executive producer of Katie Couric's new syndicated talk show Katie, but will leave that position in mid-January, Zucker said.

Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of CNN's parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, emphasized that the NBC broadcast network's ratings free-fall during Zucker's tenure are beside the point in terms of what he brings to CNN.

"I did a lot of diligence, and I was looking for a very specific talent here, which is someone who would be a great leader of a news organization," Kent said during the teleconference. "Asking Jeff today about things that might have gone differently in his background as an entertainment executive is just not relevant."

Zucker will replace Jim Walton, who announced in July that he would resign at the end of this year. CNN needed "new thinking" at the top, Walton said.

Zucker said his "most rewarding years" at NBC were as a news producer. Besides Today (which he began producing at the age of 26), he also helmed the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw and coverage of the Persian Gulf War and 2000 presidential election.

"In some ways this is a return to a daily form in which I felt most comfortable," he said. "There's no doubt I made mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those."

NBC's broadcast failings were somewhat offset during the Zucker years by his success stories with the network's cable properties, which included USA, Syfy and Bravo.

"If we didn't have a broadcast network, we'd probably be the strongest media company out there," Zucker told unclebarky.com at a summer 2010 NBC Universal party. "The cable networks are doing great, but until NBC is stronger we're not going to get enough credit for that."

During Thursday's teleconference, Zucker was understandably non-committal on any specific changes he has in mind for CNN. But he won't make the network a political soapbox in league with cable rivals Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

"I think the important thing is that CNN continue to remain editorially independent," he said, noting that it would be a mistake to let either FNC or MSNBC dictate CNN's future direction. Instead he plans to "continue to broaden the definition of what news is, and understand that our competition is not just Fox and MSNBC."

"The key is that CNN remain true to its standards of great journalism, but at the same time be vibrant and exciting," he added. "Just because you're not partisan doesn't mean that you can't be exciting . . . We need more passion and more fans, and that shouldn't be mistaken for partisanship."

Zucker twice made it a point to say that "news is more than just politics and war." It indicated a possibly softer future for CNN, with more "lifestyles" and entertainment coverage.

He declined to offer any remedies for CNN's struggling morning show, but Kent made it clear that this is a priority for the network.

"It's not lost on any of us that occasionally HLN's (CNN's Headline News channel) morning show beats CNN's morning show," Kent said before lauding Zucker as "one of the great innovators in that daypart."

Zucker will continue to be based in New York, where his triumphs and tribulations have long been under a microscope.

"If you don't learn, especially from your failures, then you haven't learned anything," he said.

Accept no substitutes: Television often leaves its stars with one role above all

The death of J.R. Ewing -- er, Larry Hagman -- leaves us with another vivid reminder of television's power to imprint an actor or actress with a single, signature role.

It doesn't much matter what else they've accomplished. Hagman also had a nice run as astronaut Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie. But he'll always be diabolical J.R. in the public's mind while all of Barbara Eden's obits someday will be topped by her ties to a sexy genie named Jeannie.

Movies generally don't work this way, at least when you're a long distance runner. What was Robert De Niro's signature role, for instance? Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull? Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver? The young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II?

Successful television roles go on and on and on. But on the big screen, a sequel or two will pretty much do it. Even then, will Clint Eastwood be best remembered as "Dirty Harry" or a bearded loner in a cowboy hat?

Some enduring TV stars have two or more long-running series in their arsenals. But very few can provoke a debate as to which starring role is their everlasting calling card. Michael Landon is one of those, though. Do most people know him as "Little Joe" Cartwright from Bonanza? Or Charles Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie? Or maybe even Jonathan Smith from Highway to Heaven?

Dick Clark also is a player. American Bandstand vs. New Year's Rockin' Eve. A fairly tough call, although Bandstand probably deserves the nod over those countless Times Square countdowns.

Here's another one: Robert Young as Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best or as the title character of Marcus Welby, M.D.? And there also might be a strong division of opinion over whether James Garner's signature TV role is Jim Rockford or Bret Maverick.

It's almost always pretty clear cut, though. So let's keep playing, and see if you agree.

LUCILLE BALL -- She had several incarnations as a title character named Lucy. But "Lucy Ricardo" is the only one that matters.

CARROLL O'CONNOR -- We'll always think of him first and foremost as Archie Bunker, although he also had a long run as Southern-fried Sheriff Bill Gillespie in the TV series version of In the Heat of the Night.

MARY TYLER MOORE -- She came to stardom as Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show, but TV newswoman Mary Richards is her signature role.

ANDY GRIFFITH -- This one's a bit closer call. But Sheriff Andy Taylor still ends up winning every time opposite Ben Matlock.

RAYMOND BURR -- His portrayal of Perry Mason will always stand taller in competition with Burr's wheelchair-bound Robert Ironside.

BEA ARTHUR -- Maude Finley still wins hands-down against Dorothy Zbornak of The Golden Girls.

WILLIAM SHATNER -- Capt. James T. Kirk continues to fly high over either T.J. Hooker or Denny Crane.

SHERMAN HEMSLEY -- His ever-cantankerous George Jefferson wins in a walk over Deacon Ernest Frye of Amen.

TED DANSON -- Bartender Sam Malone on Cheers will alway out-pace his title role on Becker or his lead character on the latter day version of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

BUDDY EBSEN -- Jed Clampett is an easy call over Barnaby Jones or Davy Crockett's wingman, Georgie Russell, in those timeless Walt Disney adventure yarns.

TOM SELLECK -- It doesn't matter how long Blue Bloods lasts. He'll always be private investigator Thomas Magnum.

BOB DENVER -- Maynard G. Krebs got him started, but call him Gilligan.

CAROL BURNETT and JOHNNY CARSON -- As themselves, although very nice work on all of those supporting characters they created for their respective variety and talk shows.

Others are slam-dunk indelibles, with no other TV role remotely close. To name just a few:

James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon
Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane
Roseanne Barr as Roseanne Connor
Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano
Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden
Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable.
Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher
Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw.
Peter Falk as Columbo
Michael Richards as Kramer
Ed Asner as Lou Grant
Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock
Henry Winkler as "The Fonz"
Richard Thomas as "John Boy" Walton

And their beats go on.

An appreciation: Larry Hagman (Sept. 21, 1931 to Nov. 23, 2012)

Larry Hagman lived to see his reincarnation of J.R. Ewing TNT photo

Few TV characters could match the on-screen wattage or off-screen eccentricities of Fort Worth-born, Weatherford-raised Larry Martin Hagman.

His black-hearted J.R. Ewing oft wore an off-white cowboy hat during his long reign as the world's most famous fictional evil-doer. In private life, Hagman regularly wore funny hats and flowing robes, observed Silent Sundays for a quarter-century and used a miniature fan to blow cigarette smoke back into the faces of anyone who dared to puff in his presence.

His death on the day after Thanksgiving, at the age of 81, put a shroud over Black Friday. He had survived for 17 years with a new liver before finally succumbing to complications from throat cancer. The end came in a Dallas hospital after Hagman spent his last fall filming Season 2 of TNT's Dallas reboot. So he died with his boots on, figuratively if not literally. And what a life he had after being born to fame as the son of Broadway legend Mary Martin.

My experiences with Hagman spanned more than 30 years, starting with the "Who Shot J.R.?" summer of 1980 and ending with the May 31st world premiere of the new Dallas at the Winspear Opera House in downtown Big D.

Hagman and his wife of 59 years, the former Maj Axelsson, threw a party for TV critics in their Malibu home during the height of "Who Shot J.R.?" frenzy. He was constantly surrounded by a gaggle of 20 or more writers striving to hear his every utterance amid the constant din. At one point, the Hagmans' beachfront Texas flag got a little too close to a bonfire and nearly went up in flames before someone pulled it out of harm's way.

"Wow, can you imagine what shit I'd be in if I burned the Texas flag?" Hagman cracked.

Later that night, the toilets overflowed, prompting next door neighbor Burgess Meredith to graciously offer assistance. "Who shot J.R.'s septic tank?" became the lead sentence in my subsequent dispatch.

A generation and a half later, in January of 2012, Hagman and old Dallas stalwarts Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy joined the TNT version's new cast members at the reboot's first national media event in Pasadena, Calif.

Josh Henderson, who plays J.R.'s suitably villainous son, John Ross, was asked what it was like to be slapped by "the iconic J.R." in an early episode.

"It was an honor, actually," he said. "And I asked for more takes. I told him, 'Just go ahead and hit me.' It's amazing to see them and their characters come back to life, and to be a part of it."

With Barbara Eden in Jeannie and original cast of Dallas

Hagman didn't lack for fame. I Dream of Jeannie put him on the map in 1965 as Capt. Tony Nelson. And then Dallas put him over the moon after premiering on April 2, 1978 and running all the way until May 3, 1991 on CBS.

But before both of those roles came the classic 1964 film Fail-Safe, in which Hagman had a significant part as a Russian interpreter. Most of his scenes were opposite Henry Fonda's president of the United States.

Hagman was excellent in the role. But a year later, he succumbed to Jeannie rather than attempt to further his reputation as a "serious" actor.

"I took whatever came along. I was glad to work. I had a family to support," Hagman said in a 2001 interview tied to his autobiography, Hello Darlin': Tall (and Absolutely True) Tales About My Life. "I wasn't managing my career and nobody else was either. But I've done pretty well. I'm probably the most famous actor in the world. I mean, really. And I've made a ton of money."

What he never received was an acting award of any real import. Two Emmy nominations as J.R. Ewing and another four Golden Globe nods added up to zero wins. And almost criminally, Hagman still hasn't been inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame.

He always sloughed it all off, even if it really hurt at least a little -- or a lot.

"Was I?" he asked in that 2001 interview after being reminded of his two Emmy nominations for Dallas. "I don't watch awards shows. I'm so embarrassed to see the people sitting there waiting to win, picking their noses. And then they don't. That always makes me uncomfortable. To be nominated is one thing. That's an honor. But then you have to sit around waiting to be rejected while they make millions of dollars off of you. I don't like that . . . I don't like accolades. I can't handle 'em. I like the money in the bank. That's fine for me. That and the fun of makin' 'em."

The original "Big Three" with newcomer Brenda Strong. TNT photo

A lot of actors owe a lot of their money to Hagman's salary holdout between the time J.R. got shot to when the world learned who plugged him on the night of Nov. 21, 1980.

Hagman felt he had the ultimate leverage. Others didn't, including then MTM Productions head Grant Tinker.

"He was shot. Maybe he shouldn't recover," Tinker told TV critics in a 1980 interview. "Whatever CBS is paying Larry Hagman, you could kill a disease with it. When somebody goes bananas on an MTM-produced show, we tend to excuse them . . . I think it would have been a celebrated opportunity to show that the inmates don't run the asylum."

But Hagman got what he wanted -- and in fact deserved. His salary jumped to a then unheard of $50,00 per episode of Dallas. It rose to $200,000 by the end of the road, which seems quaint in light of the $1 million per episode hauled in by each of the six cast members of Friends in Seasons 9 and 10. Hagman put that money truck in motion with his unwavering demands. And in his autobiography, he figures there at least should be an award for that.

"Nowadays I look at the salaries that are being paid to top TV actors . . . and I think, 'Good for them.' " Hagman wrote. "I also think they should give me a little nod for blazing the trail for episodic television."

The end of the original Dallas, after 13 seasons (seven of them in prime-time's Top 10), found Hagman ready to move on and be someone other than the broadly drawn J.R. Ewing.

"Once you're doing it, you don't think about being canceled," he said in a 1991 telephone interview. "CBS had an option to do another year and they just opted not to take it. There are a lot of shows on the air that have ratings even lower than we do. But Dallas got too expensive to make."

He didn't envision himself starring in another TV series, but in 1993 succumbed to NBC's short-lived Staying Afloat. Hagman also said he'd be game for "an Airplane! style of Dallas, because Patrick (Duffy) and I are very good at comedy. I kind of doubt we'd be able to work with each other again otherwise. After playing brothers for 14 years, that'd be kind of difficult."

But by 1996, Hagman, Duffy and fellow Dallas stalwarts Gray and Ken Kercheval were re-teaming for the two-hour CBS movie Dallas: J.R. Returns. During an interview on the set, Hagman noted that he'd soon be celebrating the six-month anniversary of his new liver.

"See those little white capsules?" he asked of the handful of pills he had to take for the rest of his life. "A hundred bucks apiece!"

The new J.R. emerged ruthless but newly sober.

"Everyone who watches this show is going to be vividly aware of Larry's personal history and his liver transplant," Duffy said. "So it's the appropriate thing to do, for Larry to say as J.R., ' Well, the doctor took me off the booze. He said it was killing me.' But Bobby still pours himself a bourbon. So it's not like we're going to all of a sudden beat the Prohibition drum."

Hagman, in the interview tied to his autobiographical book, said that drinking came natural to both his father, Ben Hagman ("a two-fisted, drinking, good old Texas boy") and his stepfather, Richard Halliday, whom he came to loathe.

"The anecdotes were not hard to come up with," Hagman said over diet sodas at a Dallas hotel. "But I found I was spending too much time on my stepfather. So I edited a lot of that stuff out. I didn't realize I resented him as much as I did. We both had alcohol problems but I was never obstreperous or cruel in any way. He was. That was his modus operandi. But everyone follows their own star, and his was not in sync with mine. So I forgive him now."

Hagman continued to drink on the set during filming of the original Dallas series. During what turned out to be its last day of on-location filming in Dallas -- in November 1988 -- he downed screwdrivers and white wine during a rather seamy scene at the Million Dollar Saloon. Near the end of the day's filming, a stripper named Nicole danced topless within close distance of an approving J.R.. Somehow five takes were required. "Nurse!" Hagman yelped.

The heavy drinking nearly killed him. But Hagman later credited LSD and marijuana as stabilizing forces. His first acid trip was courtesy of David Crosby.

"Your lose your ego," Hagman said in the 2001 interview. "It led me into having no fear of death, because you've been there, done that on LSD, and it ain't so bad. Matter of fact, it's wonderful."

As for pot, "why that stuff should be illegal is beyond me," he said. "It's so benign compared to alcohol. When you come right down to it, alcohol destroys your body and makes you do violent things. With grass you sit back and enjoy life. I don't smoke dope anymore. I'm in the 12-step program so I can't do any of that. Anyhow, that's my take on it. People say, 'Well, you shouldn't talk like that. They'll nail ya.' What do I care? I'm not carrying. I don't use. What're they gonna nail me for -- talking too much?"

A face in the crowd at TNT's world premiere of Dallas. Photo: Ed Bark

A clean and sober Hagman made two Dallas TV movies and also participated in a 2004 cast reunion special. Recurring guest star roles in Nip/Tuck and Desperate Housewives likewise kept him busy, as did another shot at series stardom in the quickly canceled 1997 series Orleans, in which he played flamboyant Judge Luther Charbonnet.

During a 2004 appearance at Southfork Ranch to plug the Season 1 DVD release of Dallas, Hagman showed anew that he'd speak his mind whenever he pleased. During an interview deep in the heart of George W. Bush country, Hagman said the president had become a manifestation of J.R. Ewing's basic incompetence. So John Kerry was his man.

"You know, J.R. never made any money for his company," Hagman reasoned. "He was a bankrupt guy. And finally his wife ended up running what little was left."

For that reason, Hagman said he regularly wore a T-shirt with "J.R. for President" on the front and "Oops, he already is" on the back.

"Bush is ruining the country," Hagman said. "He's ruining the world, is what he's doing. I know a lot of people don't agree with me, but they have to look around and see what's happening. It's frightening."

Two years later, Hagman exuded buttery charm during a 2006 one-man show at Fort Worth's Casa Manana theater. Titled Laugh With a Texas Legend, it seemed to firmly plant Dallas in his past. While showing off a picture of his mother with Bing Crosby, Hagman noted that the late crooner's daughter, Mary Crosby, went on to plug him while playing the role of Kristin Shepard.

"Shot heard 'round the world -- and it all went in my pocket," Hagman said to applause.

His wife, Maj, later joined him onstage for a question-and-answer session. "The things that poor woman has had to put up with all these years," he said affectionately.

No one, including Hagman, envisioned any final bows as J.R. Ewing. But then along came that January 14, 2012 press conference, with Duffy particularly happy to be there.

The end of Dallas as a weekly series "was the heartbreak of my career because these are my two closest friends," he said of Hagman and Gray. "And I knew somewhere in my heart that we would never work together again because the three of us couldn't come into a scene without everybody saying, 'Oh, there's J.R., Sue Ellen and Bobby.' And that hurt me. I really wanted to work with them again. So this is the best thing that could happen in my career life."

"I got a tear in my eye," Hagman said. And he seemed to actually mean it.

The second season of TNT's Dallas is scheduled to begin on Jan. 28th. Fifteen episodes have been ordered, and Hagman reportedly worked in about six of them before his passing.

So at some point next year, Dallas will have to hold a funeral for Larry Hagman's indelible, show-stealing J.R. Ewing. And in truth, no one will have to act. Those tears will be all too real.

Last call: Larry Hagman at the close of Dallas' world re-premiere. Photo: Ed Bark

Fall season report card: hits & misses among broadcast network newcomers

Elementary looms larger; Last Resort is doomed. CBS/ABC photos

It's been a topsy turvy season so far for the Big Four broadcast networks.

Long-dormant NBC is still No. 1 among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds. It also won the November "sweeps" in this key demographic.

CBS is in its usual spot atop the total viewer Nielsens but has a higher percentage of official cancellations far than its rivals.

And Fox is fourth across the board, ahead of only the little CW network.

As the November "sweeps" ratings period ends and holiday season repeats kick in, let's look at the fates of the new fall series on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW.


Last Resort -- canceled but will be allowed to play out the string of original 13-episode order. Way too serious for Thursday lead-off slot.
666 Park Avenue -- also being dropped after 13 episodes air.
Nashville -- given a full-season order, but ratings remain problematic.
The Neighbors -- still hanging on despite drubbing from TV critics.
Malibu Country -- probably the best bet to return next season after late start. Reba McEntire still a gamer with compatible old-timey sitcom lead-in from Tim Allen's Last Man Standing.


Made In Jersey -- won coveted trophy awarded to season's first cancellation.
Partners -- newly axed after failing to hold its own as part of network's longstanding Monday sitcom quartet.
Elementary -- received full-season order as well as prime post-Super Bowl slot in February.
Vegas -- also basking in full-season pickup but needs to do a bit better following potent NCIS: Los Angeles on Tuesdays.


The Mob Doctor -- still on the schedule but will give way to new Kevin Bacon drama, The Following, on Mon., Jan. 21st. No one expects it to return.
Ben and Kate -- muddling along as part of new Tuesday sitcom lineup. Longshot for sophomore season.
The Mindy Project -- pretty much the same outlook as B and K.


Animal Practice -- canceled after NBC screwed up closing ceremonies of Olympics with special preview episode.
Revolution -- cushy Monday slot following The Voice has made it a hit. But Peacock puzzlingly doing its best to kill momentum by benching until March 25th following last November episode.
Go On -- very likely to be back next fall. Third time's a charm for Friends alum Matt Perry after previous flops with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Mr. Sunshine.
The New Normal -- likewise has gotten a full-season pickup but ratings flagging. Only 50-50 shot for Season 2.
Guys with Kids -- still on the schedule but won't see another September.
Chicago Fire -- doing well enough opposite Nashville to merit full-season order. Sleeper pick to return for sophomore year.

The CW

Arrow -- it's the network's first buzz show since Gossip Girl. Virtual lock for second season.
Beauty and the Beast -- No way it comes back.
Emily Owens, M.D. -- has a better chance to survive than B and B, but still an unlikely returnee.

Lifetime's Liz & Dick a festival of ick

Cocksure Dick and layabout Liz on set of Cleopatra. Lifetime photos

Lifetime's Liz & Dick is another hallmark of our times.

Not that it should have been made at all. But because it exists for the sole exploitive purpose of baiting the masses with another heavy-duty show biz basket case. There's a lot of that going around.

FX gainfully took the plunge with Charlie Sheen in Anger Management. Fox is deploying Britney Spears as an X Factor judge after recycling loopy Paula Abdul in the show's first season. Chris Brown got more prime-time exposure at Sunday night's American Music Awards on ABC, where the heavily tatted woman beater performed shirtless. Super-dysfunctionals Ryan and Tatum O'Neal starred in a reality series on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network. Dr. Drew Pinsky only recently kicked his addiction to Celebrity Rehab, which ran for five seasons on VH1. And the Kardashians remain omnipresent.

Lindsay Lohan effortlessly rises to the top of the above list. And now here she is as Elizabeth Taylor in a thoroughly ridiculous movie that at least finds her perfectly at home with a drink and cigarette constantly at the ready. Then again, she's had a little practice.

Liz & Dick premieres Sunday, Nov. 25th at 8 p.m. (central) on Lifetime, which is getting lots of attendant publicity as expected. Lohan recently "disapponted" Barbara Walters (to hear Babs tell it on The View) by stiffing her for a scheduled interview and instead segueing to the cozier confines of Jay Leno's Tonight Show. And the movie's executive producer, old-line veteran Larry A. Thompson, has been happily promoting Liz & Dick by regaling interviewers with stories about having to get "incarceration insurance" for Lohan in case she got hauled away.

The finished product, with New Zealand actor Grant Bowler (True Blood, Ugly Betty) along for the ride as Richard Burton, is basically a collection of spliced-together snippets in which the two boozy principals live lavishly, insult one another, make up, rinse and repeat.

Charitably put, Lohan just doesn't have the looks to play Liz. Nor anywhere near the acting chops. She's so unsexy in the role that her "Elizabeth wants to play" come-on, delivered in a negligee while sucking on a cigarette, is more an invitation to flee in horror than to give in. Lohan amazingly is still only 26. But all that hard-living already makes her more fit for The Ethel Merman Story.

Liz & Dick begins in Celigny, Switzerland on "The Last Day of Richard Burton's Life," viewers are informed in print. He's writing a death bed letter to her while Dean Martin's "Just In Time" livens things up. Sample passage: "I fell for you the moment I saw you. All those years ago at a party in Hollywood. You were everything I wanted. Even when you looked at me with utter disdain, I thought you were just luscious."

They didn't connect until the notoriously expensive film Cleopatra. But before Liz & Dick gives that epic a bargain basement look, we get Liz and Dick in black against a black backdrop. They're talking to the camera and to each other, remembering the way they were via a recurring save-on-production-costs device that never achieves liftoff.

Both were married during Cleopatra, Dick to Sybil Burton (Tanya Franks) and Liz working on husband No. 4, singer Eddie Fisher (Andy Hirsch). As the movie depicts it, Taylor had no interest in the infatuated Burton until he climbed aboard during a love scene and lengthily kissed her into submission. Liz & Dick then makes sport of aides' efforts to hide their affair from the two jilted spouses, resorting to jaunty Muzak while Sybil and Eddie are diverted from the two stars' trailers.

"I don't need a pool. I've got a while ocean in you," Dick eventually gets around to telling her after they emerge from a bubble bath and onto a hotel bed. When he amuses her, Lohan's Liz often responds with a Nicotine laugh.

Liz & Dick also makes a little room for her mom, Sara (Theresa Russell), and his brother, Ifor (David Hunt). Both are thinly drawn, around mainly to fret or become exasperated by the excesses and bad behavior on display. At one point, Lohan's Liz cries out, "I'm bored! I'm so bored!" And at another, "I need a ring. A big ring."

Through it all, Dick affectionately calls Liz "Dumpy" in times when he's not angering her with a "Miss Pudgy Digits" putdown. She's fond of throwing things -- at him or against a wall -- while he drinks deeply straight from the bottle on those occasions when he's miffed, depressed or happy. The film's second half rockets them through time and space, faking it to New York, Montreal, Puerto Vallarta, Portofino, Sardinia, Switzerland and Budapest.

Bowler somehow manages to summon a few halfway decent moments as Burton while Taylor is reduced to a spoiled, weepy, moody attention-seeker. She was far more than the sum of those parts, but Lohan perhaps just opted to play herself.

Those looking for depth will find none. Liz & Dick triumphs, however, as an amusement park for fans of the deeply dreadful. That's probably what they were going for anyway.

GRADE: D-minus

Ken Burns' latest film: dust to dust -- and more dust

Masking the problem during Dust Bowl decade. PBS photos

Four hours worth of Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl might seem like too much to bear for even his most ardent fans.

But naw, they'll come around. Even while working up a powerful thirst.

The drought-stricken, spirit-sapping Great Plains of the 1930s get the lyrical and learned Burns treatment in a two-parter premiering on Sunday, Nov. 18th and concluding the following night (at 7 p.m. central on KERA13 in D-FW).

"It was a decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions," says narrator Peter Coyote. And Dust Bowl has the striking stills and film to prove it -- over and over again.

Unlike the History network's oft-frenetic, slam-bang Mankind: The Story of All of Us, this is story-telling at a measured, meaningful pace. It might induce yawns in some younger viewers. But Burns has never been particularly concerned with audience demographics. His formula -- dating to The Civil War epic that put him on the map -- is to meld words and images to maximum effect without resorting to artificial abracadabra. And although Mankind has its share of awesome CGI-generated moments, Burns' beets overall are much better for you than the other guy's cotton candy.

Dust Bowl has the added advantage of eyewitnesses, all of whom were kids when their parents and grandparents found themselves battling the unrelenting elements in the heart of The Great Depression.

"Well, it was pretty bad," says Imogene Glover, who vividly remembers wearing dresses made out of flour sacks.

"We ate so poorly that the hobos wouldn't come to our house," says Clarence Beck.

The writings of Oklahoman Caroline Henderson, dubbed "The Homestead Lady," likewise resonate throughout the four-hour film. She and her husband, Will, stuck it out on their small farm. And many of her first-hand accounts made it to the pages of The Atlantic magazine.

The Dust Bowl's apex, where the strongest storms always seemed to hit, was the so-called "No Man's Land" in and around Boise City. Located in Oklahoma's thin western tip, it's bordered by Texas, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. You didn't want to be there a lot of the time in the "dirty thirties." But on "Black Sunday" -- April 14, 1935 -- the most horrific dust storm of them all finally sent some 25 percent of the area population packing off to California and other locales. It spawned the enduring Woody Guthrie song "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya," which is used to close out Sunday night's Part 1.

Virtually every Burns film has a moral. And in this case, nature struck back with unprecedented fury only after the soil had been despoiled by a wave of incoming, mostly dirt poor farmers seeking prosperity. They specialized in growing wheat during boom times for the crop. And a new method of tractor ploughing pounded the previously abundant grassland into submission. The winds then had their way, turning the defenseless dirt into massive black blizzards. Livestock were defenseless and humans, particularly children, became susceptible to "dust pneumonia."

Still, many stuck it out. They were resilient, stubborn, foolish and often without the wherewithal to simply pack up and leave. This was their home, after all, with its occasional blue skies or precipitation holding the promise of a new day and an end to the abundant misery.

Pictures tell these stories better than many of Dust Bowl's spoken words. A little boy traces traces the outlines of a house through dirt on the family's dining table. Gargantuan dust clouds loom in the background before turning day into pitch black. Rampaging, starving, crop-destroying jackrabbits are clubbed to death by the thousands. In one incredible piece of film, they're stacked into a huge pile of corpses in a manner similar to the mass Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust.

Dust Bowl also underscores the inescapable fact that federal government assistance helped to save the day for many. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not turn his back on the Plains, as some of his advisors said he should. Instead his Works Progress Administration created jobs for many of the up-against-it breadwinners. Farmers also were taught a deeper, better but slower form of "contour" plowing that greatly helped to curb erosion.

"To us he was a saviour," says Virginia Frantz. "He gave us hope where there was none."

For many proudly independent farmers, asking for any form of federal aid was an absolute last resort. But ask they eventually did. And they received.

Monday's Part 2 includes a near-magical picture of FDR, whose triumphant visit to Amarillo near the end of the 1930s drew a crowd of more than 200,000 in addition to a "World's Largest Marching Band" assembled for the occasion. A downpour erupted during the president's speech, with a front page picture the next day showing him beaming with approval in a rain hat.

This is what Burns has always done best. Find a story worth re-telling. Illustrate it with images that keep speaking to us. And perhaps proselytize a little along the way.

In this particular case, Dust Bowl sings the praises of government intervention in times when doing nothing would have been inhumane. In one ravaged county, 80 percent of the population ended up receiving some form of federal assistance.

"When your back is against the wall, all ideology goes out the window," says historian Donald Worster.

That currently holds true with Hurricane Sandy, which took just a day to devastate the Jersey Shore. The Dust Bowl, in contrast, was a decade in the making -- and is now three quarters of a century behind us. That's where Ken Burns steps in. And his films continue to leave lasting footprints.


Satanic Stones of yore get their ya-ya's out in HBO's evocative Crossfire Hurricane

Vintage Stones, with the late Brian Jones on far right.

Younger generations -- and even older heads who grew up with the Rolling Stones -- might find their jaws dropping over the manic chaos gripping the group's early performances.

"You stayed there for as long as you could until you got besieged," Keith Richards recalls in HBO's Crossfire Hurricane.

He doesn't seem to be exaggerating. Premiering on Thursday, Nov. 15th (8 p.m. central) and being repeated throughout this month, the one hour, 50 minute film has footage showing the Stones under constant attack from rabid fans. They stormed the stage, jumped band members and sometimes pelted cops in their zeal to be an oft-brutal part of shows that eventually couldn't go on.

"There are whole armies of parents who become almost homicidal at the sight of them," said a bespectacled British commentator from the 1960s. A newspaper headline from those days is also typical as well as laughable. " 'Too-scruffy' Stones are refused lunch," it says.

This was pretty much by design. The band's first full-time manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, positioned and merchandised the Stones as Lucifers to the Beatles' archangels. Or as Richards puts it in a new interview, "The Beatles have got the white hat. What's left? The black hat."

Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and former Stones Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor contribute new interviews for Crossfire Hurricane, which is tied to the band's 50th anniversary and upcoming tour. But no cameras were allowed for this, making it sometimes difficult to decipher just who's talking during the otherwise brilliantly edited archival footage assembled by filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture).

Richards solves some of this problem. A number of his off-camera comments are punctuated by that unmistakable death rattle laugh. So thanks for that.

Crossfire Hurricane, which draws its title from a lyric in "Jumping Jack Flash," is also in some ways a reunion among the surviving Stones and charter member Brian Jones, whose life ended at the bottom of a swimming pool on July 3,1969.

"Keith and I took drugs," Jagger recalls. "But Brian took too many drugs of the wrong kind."

Jones, a superb instrumentalist, was around for most of the full-blown mayhem -- both onstage and off-. in one of his pithier comments in Crossfire Hurricane, he says matter-of-factly, "Georgia is full of idiots."

He gradually disengaged, telling an interviewer, "Let's face it. The future as a Rolling Stone is very uncertain."

Increasingly unsure about whether he'd show up and what shape he'd be in, Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wyman reluctantly dismissed Jones in June of 1969 and replaced him with Mick Taylor. Less than a month later he was dead. And Jagger still wonders if the band could have done more to keep him on track.

The music unleashed in that period remains thrilling to hear and behold. Crossfire Hurricane shows the Stones' rehearsing "Tell Me," the first original song written by Jagger. There's also the early raw power of "I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," with Jagger telling an interviewer at the time, "I can't express myself in the right way when I feel satisfied with the world."

A great early version of "It's All Over Now" is performed within the relatively intimate confines of a TV studio before a group of delirious fans. Crossfire also brings home the sheer enormity of the Stones' Hyde Park concert (which became a requiem for Jones) and the foreboding free performance at Altamont, where the Hells Angels provided security during the course of stabbing a rowdy concert-goer to death. "Festival of Horror Contrasts with Woodstock peace," said a newspaper headline.

In its aftermath, Richards nearly followed Jones to the grave. "I was definitely on another planet at this point," he recalls. "I took to the stuff."

Heroin he means. And during the stark "Exile on Main Street" recording sessions in the south of France, it's easy to see the tracks on Richards' arms.

All these years later, Taylor says the principal reason he abruptly left the Stones in 1974 was to keep from becoming Keith. "I slowly became addicted to heroin," he reveals. So he dropped out to survive. Wood agreed "in a New York minute" to replace him. "Fitting into their mold was easy for me," he says.

Richards kicked his addiction after being busted in Canada for heroin possession. At age 33, he was fortunate to receive one year's probation in lieu of a lengthy prison term. "That's when I stopped," Richards says.

"I was quite relieved when he cleaned up some," Jagger adds.

He's now 69. And the 68-year-old continues to cheat all predictions of his imminent death. So there are still a few more bucks to be made and stages to conquer as the Stones hit the half-century mark.

Crossfire Hurricane serves as a marketing launch pad in that respect while more importantly giving viewers the Stones in all their primitive glory. They survived the near-Satanic image laid out for them while the comparatively angelic Beatles disbanded and now are half the men they used to be.

Take it from Keith Richards, who says near film's end: You just don't (f...) with the Stones. This is a simple rule. It don't pay."

For good measure, he then lays down another death rattle cackle.

GRADE: A-minus

Rockin' the past with History network's "epic" Mankind

A very rare quiet moment in Mankind. History photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Nov. 13th from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on History and continuing on the same nights and times for the next five weeks
Narrated by: Josh Brolin
Produced by: Jane Root, Ben Goold

Slam. Bang. Zoom.

Stuck on hyper-drive and stuffed with hyperbole, Mankind: The Story of All of Us is history a-go-go from a programmer that used to obey a few speed limits.

Not so with History network's "epic" 12-hour successor to America: The Story of Us. It's another breakneck trip aimed at a drive-through, short attention span nation. The special effects again are impressive and even jaw-dropping when it comes to the super-speed constructions of a modern day bridge and The Great Wall of China. So this is a production that will look great in HD while also assaulting your senses with a drum-pounding/ heavy metal whoosh through the first chapters on "Inventors" and "Iron Men."

History network sent only these two opening hours for review, with 10 more to come on successive Tuesdays. It seemed like more than enough to get the drift, though. Josh Brolin narrates this time-shifting panorama of re-enactments, many of them featuring costumed extras in various forms of warfare.

The talking head experts include NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who as usual is impeccably starched and pressed. He's also relatively calm compared to the likes of former Navy SEAL Richard "Mack" Machowicz, who acts and looks as though he'd be more than happy to re-arm himself and join the Spartans in their battle to repel the rampaging Persians.

"They're the baddest human beings on Planet Earth," he says with relish. "And they wanna stay that way."

Military historian Mike Loades also fits right in as a semi-crazed hand-talker with a particular fondness for crossbows. Brolin, who has a lot of verbiage to unload in these first two hours, thankfully is a lower-keyed tour guide in comparison to these two. Still, the overall over-the-top approach at times overwhelms him.

The title could just as easily have been Humankind in the interest of the many women who also made history. But Mankind it is, and these first two hours indeed are notably short on both female experts and characters. In truth, though, it was a highly chauvinistic man's world during the mostly B.C. centuries depicted on opening night. Brief attention is paid, though, to the world's first farmer, who is said to be a woman.

Dr. Mehmet Oz and tart chef/world traveler Anthony Bourdain join Williams among the experts popping in. But only Williams gets much air time, and really not all that much. "We are a restless bunch, we humans," he says for openers. "We are always looking 'over there' . . . This is our hard-wiring. Our DNA."

Tuesday's second hour ends with an image of Jesus Christ bleeding under a crown of thorns. Next week's third hour initially will spotlight His crucifixion, but perhaps not to the heavy metal soundtrack that accompanies most of the battle scenes. One gets the feeling, though, that Christ's tortuous march to Golgotha might well be whooshed through before -- whoosh -- there He is on the cross. And -- whoosh -- then came the resurrection. Forever and ever, amen.

Mankind is a visual banquet, though. And even grade schoolers surely won't be bored by its cavalcade of battle scenes, some of which almost seem like video games. In other words, it's classroom ready.

During its formative years, History network could be counted on for grainy black-and-white newsreel footage and a seeming fixation with World War II battleships. Lately it's been home to the Emmy-laden miniseries Hatfields & McCoys and those "jaw-dropping CGI" effects touted in publicity materials for Mankind.

Sober, scholarly substance can get short-changed in these cases. But more viewers than ever before are watching this venerable network, whose 18-to-49 viewership likewise is on the rise. No television executive wants to be known for letting a channel go extinct. So History network continues to rock the past -- and make itself more contemporary as well.

GRADE: B-minus

CMT's Big Texas Heat is happily thick with corpulent cops

Trinity's finest: Chief Steven Jones and "Big Sexy." CMT photos

Premiering: Saturday, Nov. 10th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on CMT
Starring: The plus-sized protectors of Trinity, TX, population 2,697
Produced by: Chris Gillen

Although just a dot on the East Texas map, Trinity (pop. 2,697) remains spacious enough to encase the super-corpulent cops of CMT's Big Texas Heat.

They eat a lotta donuts and do a lotta nuthin' in this latest stupefying "reality" series. Texas has been home to a lot of 'em over the years, but Big Texas Heat takes the cake. Which Chief Steven Jones and Officer Donald "Big Sexy" Givens would gladly devour in one sitting.

This is a series that doesn't mind flaunting its principal stars' obesity. In fact it was renamed -- from Trinity 9-1-1 -- to revel in it. Chief Jones and the preening "Big Sexy" in particular are intended to be ongoing sight gags. The other members of Trinity's finest are also overweight, even though pudgy young officer Justin Sikes is nicknamed "Little Man" because he's not quite a full-blown porker yet.

Chief Jones regularly totes a dozen donuts to the workplace, prompting portly Sgt. Randy Wheeler to declare, "Chief brings in a box, I'm probably gonna eat one." Just one?

In Episode 2, Wheeler contentedly resumes munching a donut while driving his squad car. He's relieved after a dispatcher tells him that a donkey blocking traffic on Main Street has "moved on." We don't see the donkey, and it's doubtful there ever was one.

In Saturday's lifeless premiere, it's supposed to be high drama when the Chief's wife, Melanie, gets a little mad at him for attending a rival beauty salon's ribbon-cutting. Not only that, the proprietor is a former lady friend of his. Meanwhile the buffoonish officer in training, Felix Morales, tells "Little Man" that one of his hobbies is "ghost hunting."

It probably really isn't. But the producers of this half-hour dawdler seem desperate to inject something -- anything -- into these proceedings. "Little Man" then sniffs, "I think it's all jibber jabber. And I'm not gonna believe any of that mess."

The officers otherwise seem to take pride in their "real nasty" cells, where inmates have been known to crap and pee, says the loquacious "Little Man." So the officer bringing in the least number of offenders on "Warrant Roundup" day will have to clean the cells out -- or at least pretend to for a few seconds while the cameras roll.

Next week's half-hour also includes something that's not amusing on any level. The Chief and eager beaver Morales spot a black man riding a bicycle who makes an inconsequential improper turn or something on the largely barren streets of Trinity. They chase him down as though he's just robbed a bank, with Morales earning his spurs by handcuffing the guy after putting him face down on the ground. Did anyone consider for even a second how this would look on national television?

Big Texas Heat is the caboose of CMT's big Saturday night of IQ-impairing "reality" series premieres. The Season 2 launch of Redneck Island kicks things off at 8 p.m. (central) before the debut of Chainsaw Gang leads into dumbo circus.

Trinity might be all revved up about this thing, and perhaps it'll pump a few nickels into the local economy. In return, though, don't expect your city or your police force to be taken seriously. Aw, who cares. We get to be on the teevee!


Hitting a few beats: TBS' Wedding Band

Pathetic spectacles seem to be cheaper by the dozen these days. Still, Heidi Fleiss is tough to beat.

The former "Hollywood Madam," who served a 37-month sentence for "pandering" until her release in September 1999, is the focus of HBO's notably stuporous Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal.

The 110-minute documentary, premiering Monday, July 21 at 8 p.m. (central), is almost as lousy as its as its still-life title. That said, it's all foreplay, with the now 42-year-old, crinkle-lipped head case striving to open a cathouse catering to women clients in Godforsaken Pahrump, Nev., where such businesses are legal with the proper license.

Fleiss begins by claiming to have "conquered the world" in her 20s while Alexander the Great waited until his 30s to do the same.

"And he's dead and I'm alive," she adds, apparently hoping to convince her interviewer that she's a more formidable force than he ever was.

Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, earlier responsible for the likes of Inside Deep Throat and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, follow a none-too-steady Fleiss on her quest to establish a thriving "Stud Farm" on 60 acres of property that she managed to buy dirt cheap.

Alas, she never gets so far as a permit in this oddball ode to all things Heidi. She does, however, befriend an infirm ex-madam with a caged bird collection. One of them is a misfit parrot named Dalton, with whom Fleiss bonds. It's all supposed to be touching, showing another side of a notorious figure who nonetheless is immediately disliked by Pahrump-ians in positions of authority.

One of them is tart saloon owner Miss Kathy, who tells Fleiss with certitude, "There's no way women are going to drive this far off to get poked."

Another is George Flint, flinty director of the Nevada Brothel Owners Association.

"My biggest fear of Heidi Fleiss is Heidi Fleiss," he says. "Because she wants to be Miss Visibility."

Fleiss unfortunately, but typically, hooks up with an apparently crooked brothel baron named Joe Richards, who's charged with numerous counts of bribery. She has a doofus gofer named Michael Smallridge, too. He's fired after losing a flashlight during a dead-of-night search for decorative rocks.

The filmmakers also record Fleiss's declaration that she's the world's worst at oral sex. And that, yes, her breasts are "fake."

That pretty much covers the high points of a film that turns out to be quite a bit beneath HBO. In the end, Fleiss opens a laundromat she dubs "Dirty Laundry" while waiting for the stink to blow off of Joe Richards.

Alexander the Great shouldn't worry unduly about being upstaged. But Anna Nicole Smith might have some cause for concern.

Grade: C-minus

Sawyer, Rove, Trump: An election night to remember

ABC News made do with a loopy Diane Sawyer. Photos: Ed Bark

Diane Sawyer. Karl Rove. Donald Trump.

And in other news, voters re-elected President Obama to a second term Tuesday.

Every election night has its moments, but this one was notable for the oddities contributed by ABC, Fox News Channel and NBC anchor Brian Williams with a searing critique of his network's billionaire embarrassment.

Let's begin with Sawyer, whose overall discombobulation lit up the Twitter-verse with jokes and speculation about whether she was liquored up, off her meds, on some meds or just plain dead on her feet.

Her speech patterns were sometimes slurry, making Sawyer sound a little like Tom Brokaw does all the time. She also giggled at odd moments, mispronounced words on occasion and generally seemed "off her game" throughout the night.

The 66-year-old Sawyer's mushy, halting closing valedictory, just after Obama finished his victory speech shortly before 1 a.m. (central), had the feel of a badly dehydrated marathoner staggering to the tape. She seemed to have a hard time getting the words out, let alone stringing them together. "It is a reminder," Sawyer said in part, "what an extraordinary, exceptional and inspiring country this is on a night like this when we have all come together to vote."

Positively Paula Abdul-ish. Sawyer also "scored" by indecorously telling Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, "You've been there for losing candidates so many times."

Sawyer and her colleagues weren't helped by a nearly 20-minute power failure that hit ABC studios just before 10 p.m central. Most affiliate stations throughout the country were cutting away to their local late night newscasts, giving the network time to vamp and troubleshoot while its election coverage was off the air in the majority of markets.

Later Tuesday night, political analyst Matt Dowd seemed to contract Sawyer-itis when he twice declared, "This may be the last presidential election in which two white men run for president."

It sent the entire ABC News team into a prolonged giggle fit before correspondent Jake Tapper, stationed at the Obama celebration in Chicago, reminded one and all that the president isn't a white guy.

On Wednesday morning, the ABC News publicity department sent out two of Sawyer's tweets, including, "During 25 minute power outage. Read your tweets the good, bad, and the funny."

ABC also attached an election night media story by Brian Stelter of The New York Times. It had further details on the power outage while also noting the Twitter chatter about Sawyer, who "repeatedly slurred her words."

"Some people at ABC had an explanation," Stelter wrote. "Ms. Sawyer was simply exhausted. The network had no official comment about the Twitter chatter, except to say that her successful anchoring during a prolonged blackout of her studio spoke for itself."

FNC anchor Megyn Kelly interviews members of "Decision Desk."

And then there was Karl Rove, best known as the orchestrator of President George W. Bush's two winning campaigns.

Rove's final electoral map projections had Romney winning by a 285 to 253 margin, with Ohio's 18 electoral votes the keys to the kingdom. He went into a severe state of denial when Fox News Channel projected Ohio for Obama and then almost immediately declared him the election winner at 10:17 p.m.

Rove first argued with Chris Wallace, saying that Ohio remained way too close to call with many votes left to be counted. He was insistent to the point of absurdity, prompting co-anchor Megyn Kelly to leave her desk for a rather long and winding trip to the network's "Decision Desk," from where the Ohio call originated. (NBC earlier had given both Ohio and the election to Obama with the first game-over call of the night at 10:12 p.m.)

Cameras followed Kelly on her route. "They're w-a-a-y down the hall," she told viewers. ""So we'll do a little interrogation and see if they stand by their call, notwithstanding the doubts that Karl Rove has attempted to place."

At last reaching her final destination, Kelly was told that "there just aren't enough Republican votes for Mitt Romney to get there" in the Ohio areas remaining to be counted.

"Percentage of certainty?" Kelly asked.

"95.95 percent," she was told.

Rove still wasn't buying it, stealing the night's comedy achievement award trophy from Sawyer when she seemed to have a lock on it. Veteran FNC politico Brit Hume meanwhile praised Obama for pulling off a victory in the face of a still very troubled economy.

"I think it is a major political achievement," he said, "because it wasn't easy."

Dan Rather toiled in relative obscurity on Mark Cuban's AXS channel.

Before turning to the sorry spectacle of Donald Trump, let the record show that Dan Rather was still in there anchoring on election night.

The 81-year-old warhorse did his level best for Mark Cuban's AXS TV, which until recently was HDNet until the Dallas Mavericks' owner threw in with a group of new partners that includes American Idol host Ryan Seacrest. The above picture documents Rather's presence for the millions of viewers who had no idea how or where to find him on election night.

Trump, the braying, bellicose host of NBC's The Celebrity Apprentice, took the news of Obama's re-election with his usual grace. He began bombarding his followers with base level tweets. They included:

"We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!"

"This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!"

"Let's fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! the world is laughing at us."

"Phoney (sic) electoral college made a laughing stock out of our nation. The loser one!"

"Votes equals a loss...revolution!"

Trump subsequently deleted the last two tweets. But NBC anchor Brian Williams had both seen and heard enough. He told viewers that Trump has "driven well past the last exit to relevance and veered into something closer to irresponsible."

An "All-Star" edition of Trump's Celebrity Apprentice is set to premiere March 3rd on NBC, occupying two hours of the network's prime-time Sunday real estate for four weeks before downsizing to one-hour episodes on March 31st.

Isn't it about time that NBC stepped up and fired Trump rather than keeping him on its payroll? When Hank Williams Jr. equated Obama to Hitler, ESPN stepped up and discontinued his longstanding opening serenade to Monday Night Football.

Trump would be tougher to dump because Celebrity Apprentice helps to keep the Sunday night lights on after football goes away in January. Still, it's the right thing to do at this point. And Williams for one wouldn't mind in the least.

A few other observations on election night coverage.

***CNN's John King and his "Magic Wall" are easily ridiculed. But he does a terrific job of zeroing in on where votes are left to be counted in closely contested states. Viewers benefit from his knowledge of which candidate might hold the upper hand. King's breakdowns of the Florida and Ohio contests were particularly instructive.

*** CBS' election night coverage looked like a stripped down economy car compared to the looks and gadgets of principal broadcast network rivals ABC and NBC. And the onetime network of Rather and Walter Cronkite pretty much got lost in the shuffle, running a distant third in the national prime-time Nielsens with an average of 8.42 million viewers to NBC's 12.56 million and ABC's 11.15 million.

***MSNBC's partisanship is far more overt than Fox News Channel's, although Rove almost singlehandedly made it seem otherwise Tuesday night. Principal anchor Rachel Maddow is tolerable, but prolonged exposure to desk mates Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz is toxic at best.

We'll close with a picture of NBC's "Democracy Plaza," which again stole the election night show with its sheer visual grandeur.

And the winner is . . .

Here we go. Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney is now in the hands of me and you and a boy named Sue.

We'll be tweeting throughout the day and likely deep into the night on how television is handling judgment day. MSNBC will be the official Obama network while Fox News Channel plays up Romney's chances. That leaves a lot of networks somewhere in the middle -- at least compared to these two.

The above electoral projection maps give you something to mull. One is based on an amalgamation of polls. The other is from Karl Rove's website, with the former George W. Bush orchestrator not surprisingly picking Romney to pull it out.

The biggest difference in these two polls? It's Ohio. Rove gives the Buckeye state to Romney while the consensus favors Obama. The only other disparity is Iowa. Give Romney those two states and he moves from a losing 261 electoral votes to a winning 285.

So place your bets. Will any of the other handful of "battleground states" -- Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, etc., -- have different outcomes than both of these maps project? And will any of the networks make a projection they're later forced to take back?

Gotta love democracy. Now if only they'd scrap the long-antiquated electoral college and make everyone's vote weigh the same.

SEAL Team Six: a mini-"controversy" on a minor network

Anson Mount from Hell On Wheels heads the cast of SEAL Team Six. National Geographic Channel photo

Some supporters of Mitt Romney have questioned the timing of National Geographic Channel's SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden.

After all, it's premiering just two days before the presidential election (Sunday, Nov. 4th at 7 p.m. central) and supposedly was belatedly re-cut in order to ramp up the role of President Obama via archival news footage.

I've got another question, though. Where's Carrie Mathison? The Claire Danes-played bipolar heroine of Showtime's Homeland would fit right in here as a counter-terrorist CIA agent obsessed with bringing down bin Laden.

Instead we get something of a stand-in. A fictional counter-terrorist agent named Vivian Hollins (Kathleen Robertson from Starz's Boss) is the most empathetic character in SEAL Team Six. She cajoles, she persists and in the end she gets her man despite resistance from the top until almost the very last drop.

The 90-minute film, intercut with a half-hour's worth of commercials, carries the usual "docudrama" disclaimers. "This story is inspired by real events," viewers are informed. "Some characters, dialogue and action have been dramatized."

Originally planned as a feature film titled Code Name: Geronimo (the moniker give bin Laden by those out to kill him), SEAL Team Six comes from The Weinstein Company and its Obama-backing chieftain, Harvey Weinstein. According to an Oct. 23rd report in The New York Times, he strongly suggested to director John Stockwell that more footage of Obama be included in the finished product. Stockwell complied, explaining that Weinstein's suggested revisions "gave the movie context and helped root it in reality."

On the other side of the coin, National Geographic Channel president John T. Owens told the Times that the network insisted on removing footage in which Romney appeared to oppose the raid on bin Laden's compound.

Whatever you believe, SEAL Team Six in reality is highly unlikely to influence any votes. It's airing on a relatively obscure network on a night that's loaded with big-ticket competing attractions ranging from Homeland to NBC's Sunday Night Football to CBS' The Good Wife.

Beyond that, it's a decently made but hardly exceptional movie without any high wattage star power but with a few familiar faces.

William Fichtner and Robert Knepper, former co-stars of Fox's Prison Break, respectively play a CIA major domo and a SEAL commander. Anson Mount, star of AMC's ratings-challenged Hell on Wheels western series, and Freddy Rodriguez (Six Feet Under), are fictional SEALs known as "Cherry" and "Trench."

Cherry is sometimes at odds with team leader "Stunner" (Cam Gigandet). So much so that they doff their armor and weapons at one point to duke it out before Knepper's character breaks it up. Who knows whether that really happened?

In one of his frequent talk-to-the-camera interludes, Cherry later says, "He thinks I'm a hot-headed redneck, which I am. I think he's a surfer boy. Which he is. And uh, it takes all types."

The real-life Bin Laden is seen fleetingly in old news footage. But on the May 2, 2011 night of his death, an actor standing in for him is never shown full-faced before or after taking a bullet to the forehead from Cherry.

Obama is something of a central player, exclusively via archival video. Early in the film, he laughs it up at the White House Correspondents dinner when comedian Seth Myers tells a bin Laden joke. We now know what the President fully knew then -- that a make or break raid on bin Laden's Pakistan compound was imminent.

The President almost gets to close the film with the words, "Justice has been done." Mount's character then adds a kicker -- "It was a good day to be an American" -- as the SEALs return to their own compound for a secret celebration of a job very well done.

SEAL Team Six often has a documentary feel, even when actors are involved. But it's not entirely bloodless and includes some affecting scenes in which team members talk via Skype to their loved ones before heading off to hopefully take out "Geronimo."

Knepper, the head weasel of Prison Break, is effective in an entirely different guise as the team's rock-jawed commander. And the aforementioned Robertson nicely plays the dogged Vivian Hollins. Mount's cowboy-ish Cherry also breaks through on occasion, even if his long hair and beard make him look as though he's still very much in character for Hell on Wheels. One half-expects him to ride in on a horse for at least a scene or two.

Another depiction of these SEALs and their mission is coming to the big screen this December. And Zero Dark Thirty will be directed and produced by Kathryn Bigelow, an Oscar-winner for The Hurt Locker.

SEAL Team Six at least can say it got there first and created a little controversy in the process. But it's otherwise likely to be comparatively little-seen -- as well as quickly forgotten.

GRADE: B-minus

Back to the drawling board with ABC's Malibu Country

Reba McEntire & Lily Tomlin drawl 'n' squabble in Malibu Country. ABC photo

Premiering: Friday, Nov. 2nd at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Reba McEntire, Lily Tomlin, Sara Rue, Justin Prentice, Juliette Angelo, Jai Rodriguez
Produced by: Kevin Abbott, Michael Hanel, Mindy Schultheis, Narvel Blackstock, Dave Stewart, Pamela Oas Williams, Reba McEntire

Outlandish and thoroughly TV Land-ish, Malibu Country belongs on the network of Hot In Cleveland, Happily Divorced and other broad, blast-from-the-past sitcoms.

Instead it's on ABC, paired with Tim Allen's Last Man Standing in an effort to at least partially rebuild the network's old laff track-spiked TGIF comedy franchise.

Reba McEntire, who long has felt entitled to be called just "Reba," plays a jilted former country singer named Reba after starring in the now defunct WB network's Reba from 2001-'07. Her co-star is the great Lily Tomlin, now reduced to the role of a cantankerous granny who at one point says, "But you jarred loose my bunion pad." These are the times we live in.

The set-up for Malibu Country is same-old, same-old. Reba's philandering husband, country music star Bobby Gallagher (guest star Jeffrey Nordling), is caught having an affair while on his "These Vows Are Sacred Tour." A Nashville news conference is supposed to end with Reba playing his docile, stand-by-your man spouse. Instead she gets fed up and spouts, "He's a moron. And I'm leavin' his lyin', cheatin' butt. Was that the kind of support you were lookin' for?"

So she loads up the truck and they move to Beverly -- Malibu that is. In tow with Reba are Lillie Mae (Tomlin) and her two grandchildren, Cash (Justin Prentice) and June (Juliette Angelo). Get it? Cash and June. Hee hawwwwwww!

Anyhoo, philandering Bobby just happens to have a nicely appointed, ocean-front Malibu party pad that Reba knew nothing about. So they all settle in and immediately are invaded by next door neighbor Kim (Sara Rue), a ditzy, touch-feely Malibu-ian. Lillie Mae is soon pouring shots -- and throwin' hers back.

Transplanted Reba and company aren't exactly the Beverly Hillbillies, but it's OK if you see them that way. When Kim's stepson, Sage (Hudson Thames) proclaims himself gay, Reba begins on a country wrong note: "I'm sorry, you just thew me. I mean, you don't seem gay. You seem normal. I'm not sayin' that gay isn't normal. I was just . . . stammer, stammer . . . I'm gonna go put my head in the freezer." High-larious.

Meanwhile, Lillie Mae gets high on medical marijuana in the form of a "happy lolly" prescribed by a nearby doctor. "I just saw a pelican poop," she tells her daughter after a distraught Reba returns from a no-go meeting at a record producer's office.

Maybe they're just not cut out for Malibu. But then there'd be no series -- which would be a good thing. Wait, though. Reba's not gonna give up just yet. If they want a hit song, then she'll darned well give 'em one. Goes by the name of "Say Hi to the New Me." Time for Kim to pop back in and declare, "I think I heard a hoe down!" She's wearing a cowboy hat and lifting a glass of wine to enhance the mood.

ABC's old TGIF comedy lineups from the 1990s weren't exactly heavy-lifting either. Family Matters, Boy Meets World, Step By Step, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, etc.

But those shows -- with the exception of Mr. Cooper -- primarily were driven by their kid stars and watched by droves of kiddoes, tweens, teens and their accommodating parents. Reba McEntire, Lily Tomlin and Tim Allen are the primary drive shafts of Malibu Country and Last Man Standing. None are on the radar of your basic Justin Bieber worshipper. And adults in the mood to unwind have better Friday night options in CBS' competing Undercover Boss or Fox's Kitchen Nightmares.

Saucy Reba and a tart-tongued Tomlin -- "She said you're a horn dog just like your daddy" -- are for the most part a sad turn of events in Malibu Country. No one's yet said "That dog won't hunt." But this dog won't.

GRADE: C-minus