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FALL TV PREVIEW: Returning series -- Dexter (Showtime)

Keith Carradine joins Dexter this season as a "rock star" FBI agent.

Newly impotent in his own uniquely shivery way, "America's Favorite Serial Killer" is having a tough time cutting it as Showtime's Dexter returns for a 12-episode second season.

Those who missed the first or have largely forgotten how it ended will get a pretty thorough recap (Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. central) before the plot re-thickens.

In short, a spooked Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is fresh from executing the notorious "Ice Truck Killer," who turned out to be the brother kept secret from him. He's also being doggedly followed by the surly Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), who's long been suspicious of Dexter's crimesolving techniques with the Miami PD.

"I'm coiled, and I'm ready to strike," says Dexter, who's gone more than 36 days without carving up someone who deserved it. He then rolls a bowling ball toward 10-pins as a member of the "Bowl Till You Bleed" team. Love this show's style.

Dexter's heightened urge to kill again initially isn't matched by his ability to follow through after he's meticulously immobilized a victim. At the start of the new season's Episode 2 (Oct. 7), he lays it all out: "Where is the orderly, controlled, effective Dexter? How did I lose him? How do I find him again?"

This second episode, where the show really starts humming again, also introduces old reliable Keith Carradine as formidable FBI agent Frank Lundy. He's been sent to town to track the so-called "Bay Harbor Butcher." That would be Dexter himself, whose carefully packed trash bags full of various body parts are discovered deep underwater by a pair of divers.

This adds a big monster of a storyline, with Dexter still desperate to kill on a regular basis while Lundy and company try to piece together evidence that might well lead to him.

"There is no such thing as the perfect crime," says Lundy. And he says this with the certitude of a man who's already caught some big fish in his day.

Also returning to the series is Dexter's still traumatized foster sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), a fellow cop who unknowingly had been dating the "Ice Truck Killer" before nearly becoming his victim. And Rita Bennett (Julie Benz) is back for another stab at being Dexter's girlfriend. He's always had problems with intimacy, but she's someone he reluctantly really cares about.

Hall continues to make Dexter one of the more oddly compelling characters in prime-time history. Will he eventually get boxed in? Can he ever really love someone who's still among the living? For now, Dexter mostly loves a challenge. And he's ready to play cat and mouse to the hilt with Lundy and anyone else he enlists.

There's always that Dexter-ous sense of humor, too. As when Rita calls while he's sinking his latest victim in a new watery grave.

"I was just droppin' somebody off. Can it wait?" he asks.

No, Dexter isn't for everyone. But neither was The Waltons.

Grade: A-minus

Cops: 20 seasons of Saturday night takedowns

Cops creator John Langley knows what he wants by now: Action!

American clearly has an inexhaustible supply of low-life troublemakers. That's where Cops comes in.

Now in its 20th season, it's been a no-frills Saturday night mainstay on Fox since the days when competition included the likes of Empty Nest, Mr. Belevedere, 227 and China Beach.

"No narrator, no script, no host, no reenactments. None. Period," creator John Langley says in a recent interview. "Don't try to enhance reality. Just show reality. Make it as pure as possible."

It also helps, he adds, that "we're still the cheapest show on network TV."

Langley has assembled a suitably motley collection of chases, fights, car wrecks and in-denial drunks and drug dealers for Cops: 20 Years . . . Caught on Tape. It unrolls and unravels on Saturday, Sept. 29 from 7 to 8 p.m. (central). Fox thoughtfully sent a breathalyzer along with the review DVD.

Cops' initial guinea pigs were Fort Lauderdale, Florida's long arms of the law. The show since has trained its cameras on more than 140 U.S. police departments and also traveled to China, England, Russia and Central and South America. A Season 8 car chase from Forth Worth leads off Saturday's anniversary special. Dallas is also in the mix.

Whatever the locale, the show's unchanging theme song, "Bad Boys" by Inner Circle, has become as familiar to the ear as Monday Night Football's anthem. Langley at first included other music within the body of the show, but quickly opted to let viewers hear only the basic, natural sounds of day-to-day police work.

Saturday nights have been stripped down, too. Once aggressively programmed by the broadcast networks, they're now mostly a repository for reruns. That leaves Fox as the only purveyor of totally first-run programming, with Cops leading off and America's Most Wanted closing out.

"I wouldn't change it for the world," Langley says. "We just keep doin' our thing and pluggin' along. Leave me on Saturday nights. Leave me alone."

Langley's son, Morgan, has been an off-and-on part of the Cops crew since he was 12. Having learned at the foot of the master, he's now the principal producer of MyNetworkTV's new Jail series, which airs on Tuesday nights.

All of the arrestees on both shows have to sign release forms to be shown full-faced on camera. Morgan says that most of them have no problem making unpaid appearances in unsavory settings.

"It's amazing," he says. "It's a Warhol-ian world, I guess. It's gotten to the point now where we're so deluged by images and media that it's no big deal."

Although a pathfinder in the reality genre, Cops has never won an Emmy and likely never will. So then as now, happiness is a warm gun.

"It really has made its mark on history, so I look at it from that perspective," says the senior Langley. "Are we underappreciated in terms of the critics? Probably. But the fans stick with us. You can't have everything."

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Moonlight (CBS)

Three out of four are vampires. They all have dark hair.

Premiering: Friday, Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Alex O'Loughlin, Sophia Myles, Jason Dohring, Shannyn Sossamon
Produced by: Joel Silver, Ron Koslow, Rod Holcomb

The lazy path of easiest resistance is to write that CBS' new vampire series really sucks.

Path taken. That's the way it goes when your notepad includes the notation, "PLEASE END SOON!"

CBS canceled the far superior Close to Home to accommodate Moonlight, deemed to be a better Friday night follow up act this season for a darkened Ghost Whisperer.

Home actually drew more total viewers than Whisperer. But its overall audience was appreciably older than that for the Jennifer Love Hewitt dollop. That's a punishable crime in prime-time, even on CBS these days. So Home got foreclosed on in favor of a series that's a bit clever only in its first few minutes.

That's when finger lickin' handsome vampire Mick St. John (Aussie Alex O'Loughlin) imagines being interviewed about the ins and outs of vampires. He sleeps in a freezer, not a coffin. A stake through the heart can't kill him, but a flamethrower can. Yes, it's true that he doesn't like the daylight. But this particular vampire doesn't bite people "unless they really ask for it."

Alas, Mick then awakens from his reverie. It's Moonlight's signal to become a bloody awful mess. It's not particularly graphic. But it is particularly inept in its flashbacks, murder mystery of the week and just about any other measure of whether a series will merit your time.

Mick was "turned" 60 years ago by his bride, Coraline (Shannyn Sossamon), who must have given him a helluva wedding night. On the plus side, though, he's been forever 30 ever since. It's a restive 30, though, with Mick chafing and philosophizing. He's trying hard to be a Casper the Friendly Vampire, but fellow bloodsucker Josef Konstantin (Jason Dohring) keeps demanding that he get with the program.

There's also "ambitious Internet investigative reporter" Beth Turner (Sophia Myles), whom Mick saved from vampire-dom as a child. Now she's all grown up, and he kinda likes her. So coming to blonde Beth's rescue looks like it's going to be pretty much a weekly occurrence. You know how these Internet journalists are. Well, actually she's very much unlike most of them. Beth actually hits the streets in search of stories that she then embellishes.

Myles plays this role with all the range of a Nerf bazooka gun. The acting in general is generic, as is the script. Never involving but definitely annoying, Moonlight probably is best experienced under the influence of a half-dozen Bloody Marys. That way you're likely to be passed out, and none the wiser.

Grade: D

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Big Shots (ABC)

Big Shots: Presenting the ABCs of CEOs from four BFFs.

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Dylan McDermott, Michael Vartan, Christopher Titus, Joshua Malina, Peyton List, Paige Turco, Jessica Collins, Amy Sloan, Nia Long
Created by: Jon Harmon

"The rich are different from you and me," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.

"Track down the 'tranny,' " say the very rich men of Thursday's only new series.

ABC is very into wealth with its two new 9 p.m. dramas this fall. "Trannys," too. Both Dirty Sexy Money and Big Shots trade heavily on lucre and transvestites, long hand for that word rhyming with granny.

Big Shots, fronted by Dylan McDermott (The Practice), is supposed to provide a peephole into what it means to be a man these days. It'll be easier to relate if you're also a fabulously wealthy Manhattan-based CEO. Which means that relatability is not one of Big Shots' strong suits.

McDermott plays Duncan Collinsworth, head of Reveal Cosmetics. He's first seen having hot sex with his ex-wife, with both enjoying it more now that they're not married. But their 19-year-old daughter, Cameron (Peyton List), can't stand him. Calls him Duncan rather than dad.

Duncan's three musketeers are Brody Johns (Christopher Titus), Karl Mixworthy (Joshua Malina) and James Walker (Michael Vartan). Respectively they're the CEOs of Alpha Crisis Management, Fidelity Pharmaceuticals and Amerimart Industries. Only Walker doesn't know this quite yet. He's just been sacked by Amerimart's potentate during the course of a posh party. But then a golf cart carrying a fresh load of jumbo shrimp runs him down and kills him. Big Shots doesn't place a premium on overall believability. Or likeability.

Dweeb-ish, married Karl, the most accessible character of the bunch, is enjoying clandestine sex with the bountiful Marla (Jessica Collins). But she's a bit jealous of his every move with wife Wendy (Amy Sloan). So on this show she makes a modicum of sense when asking, "What kind of a man would be so deceitful as to lie to the woman he's cheating on his wife with?"

Smart ass Brody is married, too, but feels "whipped" and manipulated by an unseen spouse who seems more interested in the perfect pastries for parties than sex. Ah, but he loves her -- and occasionally gets lucky.

And true-blue James is crushed after deducing that his wife had been sleeping with the aforementioned dead bossman. Hey, no fair! Only guys get to have affairs. "I may be leaving, but I'm not the one who walked out," he huffs.

All of this kafuffle comes to a head in a luxurious steam room/pool where the four mates have gathered. An actual black man can be fleetingly seen swimming past them before Duncan sends out the show's all-points bulletin: "Men. We're the new women."

That's pretty much a load of crap coming from these guys. But lest we forget the "tranny," he/she hooked up with Duncan at a truck stop in the dark when he was "lonely." Then cops pulled a Larry Craig on him in a men's room stall. So they've got to "track down the tranny" and pay her off. And so it goes.

Big Shots, to be successful, will somehow have to suck in the loads of women who watch the preceding Grey's Anatomy on ABC. That's not an impossible dream, although a ratings nightmare seems like a better bet.

Meanwhile, most of us other men out here would like you to know we're not a lot like these guys. It's just that you'll have to settle for takeout from Louie's Chinese instead of dinner at La Cost-A-Plenty. The house in the Hamptons is out, too. But surely you'll understand.

Grade: C

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)

Peter Krause is sucked in by Donald Sutherland on Dirty Sexy Money.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Peter Krause, Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh, Natalie Zea, William Baldwin, Glenn Fitzgerald, Seth Gabel, Samaire Armstrong, Zoe McLellan
Created by: Craig Wright

The title's a highly promotable beauty, not coincidentally popping off the page like another little ABC series called Desperate Housewives.

The show's a grandstanding show-off, too, and that's meant as a compliment. Dirty Sexy Money puts its money on the screen in Wednesday's premiere episode. Wisteria Lane is pretty and all, but has no real scope. DSM looks cinematic, feels big and even has latter day suer Dan Rather cameo-ing as himself and asking one of the rich, spoiled, Manhattan-based Darlings whether he'll make a run for the U.S. Senate.

Principal star Peter Krause (Six Feet Under) is returning to ABC after a previous turn in the well-regarded but low-rated Sports Night. This time his chances look much better as Nick George, whose mostly absentee father, Dutch, handled the Darlings' many and varied predicaments until dying in a plane crash.

Nick, a low-paid, do-gooder lawyer for the disadvantaged, has vowed to wash his hands of dad's business. But patriarch Tripp Darling (terrifically played by Donald Sutherland) wants a familiar face that he can trust implicitly. This dawns on Tripp after he considers Johnnie Cochran -- only to learn he's dead -- and takes a shot at obtaining Bill Clinton's services. Or so he tells Nick, whom he seduces with an offer of $5 million to be spent as he pleases on charity work.

Double it, says Nick. Done, says Tripp, who also will be paying Nick a very handsome salary.

Not that he doesn't earn it. The five younger Tripps are all high maintenance messes.

Oldest son Patrick (William Baldwin), New York's attorney general, can't bring himself to break off an affair with a transvestite. He wants Nick to do it for him.

Middle son Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) is an Episcopal priest with a son out of wedlock. He also views Nick as "just like his dad. He's a glorified parasite."

Weepy oldest daughter Karen (Natalie Zea) is thrice-divorced and about to make another bad marital decision. But she still has a longstanding crush on Nick, who's got a wife and daughter.

Twins Jeremy and Juliet (Seth Gabel, Samaire Armstrong) respectively are a drunk and a ditzy "celebutante." There's also weary Darling matriarch Letitia (Jill Clayburgh), who enjoys everything that billions can buy.

Krause has mastered the exasperated look, and he gets to flex it a lot in DSM's one-hour premiere. If anything, though, the show plays too much like a comedy, even though Nick comes to believe that his father was murdered. More gravitas will be needed to carry that overriding storyline from episode to episode.

For now, the Darlings, save for Tripp and Letitia, are mostly portrayed as goofballs. A good deal of fun can be had at their expense. But at some point that could get older than old money.

Grade: A-minus

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Life (NBC)

Sarah Shahi, now and then, co-stars in the new NBC series Life.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 9 (central) on NBC
Starring: Damian Lewis, Sarah Shahi, Adam Arkin, Brooke Langton, Robin Weigert
Produced by: Rand Ravich, Far Shariat, David Semel

Prime-time's most intriguing new character at first seems hatched from a standard-issue premise.

Cop wrongfully convicted of crimes he didn't commit. Does hard time. Conviction overturned. Returns to the force amid some resentments. Secretly looks for real killers while solving a crime of the week.

NBC's Life is a multi-layered original in its own right, though, largely because star Damian Lewis plays detective Charlie Crews with such distinctive precision. Locked up and regularly beaten by fellow prisoners for 12 years, Crews is now fabulously wealthy after a multi-million dollar settlement. As the attorney who sprung him says, "Life was his sentence, and life is what he got back."

Scars remain, of course. Quirks, too. Crews lives alone in a sprawling, largely unfurnished mansion. He has attachments only to a wide array of fresh fruits he couldn't get behind bars. Women come and go. Moods range from whimsical to dark. Crews is both a poignant, compelling figure and an unconventional crackerjack cop. In short, he sees things very differently now. Wouldn't you?

His new partner, Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi), also has some dog-eared back pages. She's been off drugs for quite a while, but still gets high on bar pickups, as Episode 2 shows. Shahi, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and calendar cover girl, had a drug-hazed Vegas fling with Tony Soprano earlier this year. She's quickly become an accomplished actress, and she has to be to keep up with Lewis.

Reliable Adam Arkin also co-stars as a former cellmate whom Crews befriended and kept alive. He now handles most of his legal affairs while living in an upstairs room above the mansion's garage. And Robin Weigert (indelible as Calamity Jane from Deadwood) plays police lieutenant Karen Davis, who plots to have Crews removed from the force. Weigert is minimally used in the first two episodes. That needs to be rectified.

Life unfortunately may have a short life span opposite CBS' still potent CSI: NY and ABC's far showier and more promotable newcomer, Dirty Sexy Money. But from this view, NBC has the fall season's most interesting and involving new drama. It would be a shame to see it sent to bed without a full-out effort to find a home for it.

Grade: A

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Private Practice (ABC)

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Kate Walsh, Tim Daly, Taye Diggs, Amy Brenneman, Audra McDonald, Paul Adelstein, KaDee Strickland, Chris Lowell
Created by: Shonda Rimes

Bereft of McDreamy, McSteamy and any further McReasons to stay at Seattle Grace, headstrong surgeon Addison Forbes Montgomery permanently heads south to L.A. for more McAngst.

ABC's Grey's Anatomy spinoff, pre-launched near the end off last season, is now fully operative in Private Practice. That doesn't mean the operation is a success. Wednesday's premiere often is too cute, far-fetched or far-flung for its own good.

Addison (Kate Walsh) almost immediately is glimpsed in the nude by her new next door neighbor and colleague, the newly divorced Dr. Sam Bennett (Taye Diggs). Way too much is made of this, of course, after Addison arrives to surprise the dug-in staff at the Oceanside Wellness Center. Its majority owner, Dr. Naomi Bennett (Broadway star Audra McDonald), didn't tell anyone she'd been hired. They don't like that, leaving Addison feeling like an outcast again.

Diggs and Tim Daly, who plays Dr. Pete Wilder, both are rebounding from failed ABC series -- respectively Day Break and The Nine.

Another familiar face, Paul Adelstein, is segueing from the second season of Fox's Prison Break, where he got killed, to the role of pediatrician Cooper Freedman, whose hobby is serial Internet dating. Amy Brenneman, veteran of both Judging Amy and NYPD Blue, plays psychiatrist Violet Turner. So there's lots of star power in this mix. Egos, too.

The opener also throws in three cases. A woman patient of Turner's is on her hands and knees in a department store, obsessively counting tiles. But why? An old crow is planning to make a sperm deposit, but he dies instead. Both his young girlfriend and ex-wife then battle over his in-body procreative juices. And the pregnant daughter of an icy father must undergo a life-threatening delivery. Typical day at the office.

Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rimes already has shown her ability to juggle medical crises with pleasures of the flesh. But she launched Grey's with a mostly unknown cast that initially would obey all orders. Private Practice doesn't afford her that luxury.

Even relative newcomer Chris Lowell, who plays Oceanside's receptionist and would-be midwife, has some notches on his resume after playing "Piz" Piznarski on Veronica Mars. Keeping everyone happy off-camera may end up providing Private Practice's principal drama. The opening episode already shows signs of wandering off into too many subplots. As several characters say in unison at one point, "Focus!"

Grade: C

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Bionic Woman (NBC)

Battle of the bionics: Vet Sarah Corvus vs. rookie Jaime Sommers.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Michelle Ryan, Chris Bowers, Miguel Ferrer, Will Yun Lee, Molly Price, Lucy Kate Hale, Katee Sackhoff, Mark Sheppard
Produced by: David Eick, Jason Smilovic

Actually there are two of them. So make that Bionic Women -- at least for now.

NBC's long-hyped remake of the 1976 original comes crashing into view Wednesday with a deft and decidedly dark premiere starring Britisher Michelle Ryan in the role made famously campy by Lindsay Wagner.

There's no day-glo comic book pop-fizz here, although the dialogue occasionally goes droll. As when a high-tech matriarch introduces herself to the new hardware-infused Jaimie.

"I'm Ruth," she says.

"I'm pissed."


We begin three years earlier in a blood-soaked tunnel. It's where the first bionic woman, Sarah Corvus (Katee Sackhoff), started to lose it.

"I didn't want to. I'm not in control," she wails before "specialized operations leader" Jae (Will Yun Lee) lets loose with a point-blank pistol shot.

Bionic women aren't into dying, though. That's a good thing for this first episode, which is greatly energized by a stormy night catfight between stalker Sarah and game Jaime, who's still testing her abilities to run like the wind, leap tall buildings in a single bound and use her fists as sledgehammers.

Supporting players include top-secret technology overlord Jonas (inevitably played by the always grim-faced Miguel Ferrer) and Jaime's biotech boyfriend, Will Anthros, (Chris Bowers), who operates on her after a near-fatal car accident. Jaime also has a snippy, resentful kid sister named Becca (Lucy Kate Hale).

Ryan's star-making performance makes all of this intrigue worthwhile. She brings high-voltage intensity to the role, summoning a new and furious resolve after initially wishing herself dead. Outfitted with two new legs, an arm, an eye and an ear, she's ready to be the full sum of all these parts. You go, girl.

Grade: B+

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Cane (CBS)

Jimmy Smits is front and center in the new serial drama Cane.

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Jimmy Smits, Nestor Carbonell, Hector Elizondo, Paola Turbay, Rita Morena, Polly Walker, Michael Trevino, Alona Tal, Samuel Carman, Lina Esco, Eddie Matos, Ken Howard
Created by: Cynthia Cidre

Hispanics haven't been known to watch Hispanics speaking English in prime-time.

Instead they continue to mostly favor Univision's Spanish language telenovelas, according to the weekly Nielsen ratings.

The new serial drama Cane makes an obvious effort to recruit more Hispanics by having its Cuban-American characters occasionally speak Spanish with English subtitles. But will this turn off a segment of the so-called mainstream CBS audience? Or could Cane be the first English language network series to lure a large slice of the ever-growing Latino audience?

Credit CBS with a landmark effort to shift this balance of viewing power. Cane easily has the largest Hispanic cast in the history of conventional network television.

Numero uno is time-tested Jimmy Smits, who already has L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and The West Wing under his belt. This time he's imposing Alex Vega, newly named president and CEO of the South Florida-based Duque rum and sugar company. The premiere episode's signature line -- "Sugar is the new oil" -- of course belongs to him.

Is Smits' presumed drawing power enough, though? Cane is a very busy series in its first hour, with variously motivated characters swarming the small-screen in large numbers. There's no at-home score card available, though, so you'll have to be a good sorter outer.

Alex is the adopted son of ailing patriarch Pancho Duque (Hector Elizondo), whose beauteous daughter, Isabel (Paola Turbay), is Alex's wife. The Vegas have three children, two of them rebellious. And Pancho has a pair of blood offspring, including embittered Frank Duque (Nestor Carbonell from Lost). He deeply resents Alex's rise to prominence, and as payback is in consort with the sinister Samuels family and in bed with tarty Ellis Samuels (Polly Walker of Rome).

There's also Pancho's devoted wife, Amalia, played by the near-legendary Rita Moreno. She has little presence in the opener, largely because the camera keeps its eye on Smits, who festers a lot. Unlike J.R. Ewing, he doesn't seem to have time to sleep around. But Alex does hold the power, and he won't pussyfoot around with it.

Tuesday's heavily promoted premiere also has a big, Latin-themed Fourth of July party with music, fireworks and side dishes of intrigue. Amid all this, the now 52-year-old Smits can still carry the ball. He'll be getting ample support, though, from younger cast members with firmer flesh and a willingness to flash it in pools and sex-capading South Beach clubs.

Cane will have to be able to stitch this all together both plausibly and compellingly in a challenging time slot opposite NBC's Law & Order: SVU and ABC's Boston Legal. Both of those veteran series have their season premieres Tuesday night. So calling all Hispanics. You could be the difference-makers if you're willing.

Grade: B

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Reaper (The CW)

The Devil wants his due from sad sack Sam Oliver.

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Bret Harrison, Ray Wise, Tyler Labine, Missy Peregrym, Rick Gonzales, Valarie Rae Miller
Created by: Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters

Reaper should be a keeper.

Its unexpected lair is The CW, which played dead in its freshman season but now seems creatively juiced. Which is another way of saying that its new series don't all stink.

This is the best of the new crop, a darkly funny fable about a 21-year-old semi-loser who learns that his soul now belongs to the devil. His parents did the deed after dad got "really, really sick." The Olivers then vowed to remain childless rather than sell their firstborn to Beezlebub when he or she became old enough to drink.

Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison) unexpectedly arrived anyway, and now he's suddenly someone else's property. The Devil (Ray Wise), snappily attired and fond of his own wit, demands that his newest "bounty hunter" recaptured fugitives from hell and send them back for more deep-frying.

"God wins," he reasons. All of these no-goods are simply going back where they belong.

Wise, the possessed killer from Season 1 of Twin Peaks, is a smooth natural for this role. And Harrison's Sam (Grounded for Life) is a welcome addition to the new season's shopping bag full of sad sacks.

His workplace is The Work Bench, where he and and coarse best friend Bert "Sock" Wysocki (scene-stealing Tyler Labine) have the usual soul-draining jobs. There's also a sweet, pretty girl named Andi (Missy Peregrym), for whom Sam pines.

"You lucky bastard. Nothing cool like that ever happens to me," Bert gripes after Sam tells him he's the devil's newest workshop. For now, though, he's afraid to confide in Andi.

Tuesday's promising premiere puts Sam, Bert and second-string pal Ben (Rick Gonzalez) in not-so-hot pursuit of an arsonist. They're initially armed only with a Dirt Devil mini-vac with super sucking power. Depositories are the town's various "hells on earth," in this case the Department of Motor Vehicles office.

Reaper is largely played for laughs, and merits some. But it can get a bit grim, too, because the devil doesn't mess around with people who think they can defy him.

"You will do it," he tells Sam. "Or I'll take your mother."

And later: "Word of caution. I don't accept failure -- ever."

A hockey arena ice machine also makes a bloody kill before the hour's up. But deaths and return trips downstairs are all justified as good deeds. And that logic actually works in a diabolically entertaining series that somehow seems heaven-sent.

Grade: B+

Talkin' junk: Cuban leads with mouth before stepping out

Cuban tunes up with partner Kym Johnson at Dallas dance studio.
ABC photo

His fox trot won't be flooring it until Tuesday night's Dancing with the Stars. Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban gave ABC what it wanted by lipping off on Monday's live season premiere.

Host Tom Bergeron approached the six male celebrity competitors after they watched a like number of women perform for the show's often blunt-spoken judges. Might Cuban fire back at them, as he's been known to do with the NBA's zebras?

"Absolutely, positively," said Cuban, wolfing down the bait. "Because I am a lean, mean dancin' machine. And you better know it."

On an earlier taped segment, he twitted "all the pretty boys" he'll be up against, although Wayne Newton doesn't seem to fit that description.

"No one will have more fun" than him, Cuban guaranteed. "When I step on the floor, be afraid. Be very afraid."

Trash talk is cheap, and too much of it won't wear well with this show's older-skewing audience. Better to have the grace, likability and international following of Jane Seymour, the hit show's oldest woman competitor ever at age 56.

She scored a 24 with her smooth, no-frills fox trot Monday, tying for second place with former "Scary Spice" Melanie "Mel B" Brown. Tops with judges was Disney Cheetah Girl Sabrina Bryan, whose hyperactive cha cha cha got a 26.

However he fares Tuesday night, Cubes should be able to outlast model Josie Maran, who scraped bottom with a 16 score and likely is little known to the masses. But he'd be better off lowering the volume in the early going at least. Foot in mouth isn't what this show's all about. Gotta charm 'em first.

OK, Uncle Barky, retire your sequined shirt for the night and shut your own yapper.

FALL TV PREVIEW: Battle of the Network Nerds -- Chuck (NBC) vs. The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

Chuck and Morgan; Sheldon and Leonard. Take your pick, ladies.

Chuck, premiering Monday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Joshua Gomez, Adam Baldwin, Sarah Lancaster
Created by: Josh Schwartz, McG

The Big Bang Theory, premiering Monday, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helbert, Kunal Nayyar
Created by: Cuck Lorre, Bill Prady

Nerds loom large in the new fall season, with two pimple-muscled duos going head-to-head Monday night.

NBC's Chuck stars Zachary Levi as computer geek Chuck Bartowski, whose best pal, Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez), works with him as part of the Buy More store's "Nerd Herd." They're fated to meet a lush blonde.

CBS' The Big Bang Theory stars Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons as physicists Leonard and Sheldon. They have the people skills of amoebae. Still, they're fated to meet a lush blonde.

Both shows are entertaining, but CBS clearly out-dweebs NBC with its pair of socially challenged goofs. Sheldon and Leonard (a nice salute to the late producer Sheldon Leonard -- The Andy Griffith Show, I Spy, etc.) are first seen at a sperm bank specializing in high IQ deposits. Of course they chicken out, returning to their walkup apartment to spot a new neighbor across the hall.

She's the very cute and curvy Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who incredibly doesn't run away in horror after asking, "What do you guys do for fun around here?"

"Well," says Sheldon, "today we tried masturbating for money."

They muster the gumption to ask her over for lunch rather than watching Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica on DVD with the commentary activated this time.

Leonard's smitten and Sheldon is snooty. He resents Penny taking his spot on the couch and then goes all Enstein on her after she tells them she's a Sagittarius.

"That probably tells you way more than you need to know," Penny adds.

"Yes," retorts Sheldon. "It tells us that you participate in the mass cultural delusion that the sun's apparent position relative to arbitrarily defined constellations at the time of your birth somehow affects your personality."

Again, why would she stay, let alone shower in the boys' apartment because hers isn't working? Bewitched seemed more grounded in reality.

Penny hangs in even after meeting two more sub-girlymen -- Howard (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh (Kunal Nayyar). They all end up driving to a karaoke sushi place in a final scene that plays more creepy than funny.

The writing has its moments, though, with Galecki (formerly of Roseanne) and newcomer Parsons working hard in the service of oft-crisp punch lines and serviceable sight gags. Co-creator Chuck Lorre also has Monday's following Two And a Half Men in play, so he knows how to make a sitcom pop. This one may wear pretty well, even if Penny really must be crazy to hook up with guys who make even Richard Simmons seem manly.

NBC's Chuck begins at the title character's birthday party, where sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) as usual is having no luck hooking her brother up.

Meanwhile, Chuck's former college pal, Bryce Larkin, is spending his last moments downloading all of the government's top secrets. He emails them to Chuck, who somehow manages to have them all implanted in his brain. This makes him of paramount interest to gung-ho National Security Agency dude John Casey (Adam Baldwin) and sexy CIA operative Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski).

She's a lot nicer, quickly befriending Chuck to the amazement of socially inept best pal Morgan. Adventures and misadventures ensue, with the overall tone veering from Get Smart to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. -- and back again.

Levi (Less Than Perfect) is an appealing and amusing head geek, with newcomer Walker adding abundant sex appeal. In Episode 2, Sarah rather ridiculously becomes a pig-tailed cook at the Wienerlicious restaurant in order to keep an eye on the nearby Buy More. Surly agent Casey has a better idea, directly joining the fractious Buy More work force.

This episode is highlighted by a crackerjack fight at the hot dog emporium between the two jealously protective agents. The overall story line is kind of a mess, though, making one wonder how far they can carry this stuff.

Chuck potentially might score big, though, with younger viewers warming up for the following Heroes. Even so, Big Bang Theory is more comfortably nestled on an already established comedy night. Can Monday accommodate all of these nerds at once, though? We'll get back to you on that.

Chuck -- B+
The Big Bang Theory -- B

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Journeyman (NBC)

Our hero's dazed, confused and destined to re-meet his late fiancee.

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Kevin McKidd, Gretchen Egolf, Reed Diamond, Moon Bloodgood
Created by: Kevin Falls

San Fran newspaper reporter Dan Vasser keeps missing deadlines after mysteriously disappearing, sometimes for days at a time. It's suspected he might be on booze, drugs or both again. Or maybe he's just philandering. No wonder his editor loves him.

NBC's Journeyman asks a lot of its audience, assuming there is one opposite CSI: Miami and The Bachelor. A number of this fall's new series require viewers to suspend disbelief. But this one demands more than a few too many big gulps during the title character's to and fro time travels.

For starters it's Dan's (Kevin McKidd) wedding anniversary. Alas, a flash of light sends him to a bar whose patrons are celebrating Terrell Owens' last-second 1999 playoff game TD catch against the Green Bay Packers. (Note to fellow faithful Packer fans: the team got screwed when the refs failed to call an earlier fumble by 49ers receiver Jerry Rice.)

Dan's not there to undo that injustice, though. Instead he'll jump through several more back-and-forth hoops, at one point encountering his old self with dead fiancee Livia Beale (Moon Bloodgood from last season's similarly constructed Day Break). By that time you'll likely be wondering whether this is really worth all the trouble. You also might be curious as to why the city's cable car operators seem blithely unaware of humans standing or lying directly in their paths.

Reporter Dan also has a wife, Katie (Gretchen Egolf), a little son, Zach (Charles Henry Wyson) and a cop brother named Jack (Reed Diamond). They're vexed by his disappearances, at one point staging an intervention. But that plot point vanishes as quickly as Dan, who's fated to do good deeds that deposit him in various years. Livia, who died in a plane crash, is a fellow time traveler, but can't seem to explain why. Then again, she's also her old pre-crash self in some scenes. Oh never mind.

McKidd, one of several sturdy Brits starring in new dramas this fall, has migrated from the lusty lad trappings of HBO's Rome. He's mastered the art of the furrowed brow, perhaps because he's as confused as many viewers might be.

A second episode sent for review is somewhat less murky even if no more plausible. This time Dan initially finds himself aboard a 1970s airliner whose passengers are smoking like chimneys, drinking like fishes. So what's he to do? He delivers a baby while a drunken doctor observes.

Dan's editor keeps him on the payroll, though. And his wife sucks it up after he proves to her that he indeed can disappear somewhere into the past at any moment. This includes a vanishing act during their plane flight to Oregon to have "lots of sex." Shouldn't she just have shackled him to a bedpost?

Although not flat-out terrible, Journeyman likely will be part of prime-time's past before a new year dawns. Luckily for Dan, though, he can't see into the future.

Grade: C


Bloody hell: The D-Day invasion of Normandy by Allied troops

Premiering: Sunday night, Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. (central) on PBS. Continuing Monday through Wednesday and then Sept. 30 to Oct. 2
Directed and produced by: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
Written by: Geoffrey Ward
Narrated by: Keith David

There's a certain truth to this, even though it's patently false. History hasn't really happened yet until filmmaker Ken Burns gets around to it.

He bites off a gargantuan chunk with PBS's The War, a roughly 15-hour look into the agony and ecstasy of America's bloodily triumphant victories over aggressors Germany and Japan.

Many have have come before him in this endeavor. So it seems as if people of a certain age should know World War II by heart. But Burns of course bears witness as others simply can't. Quibble with his by now standard touches, first manifested in full with 1990's landmark The Civil War. But in the end -- for those who stick it out -- it's impossible not to salute him for a monumental melding of images, music, eyewitness recollections, writing (by longtime collaborator Geoffrey Ward) and narration (again from the redoubtable Keith David).

The War perhaps is a bit melodramatic at times. And Lord knows it's easy to quickly tire of the thick-as-molasses musings of Mobile, Alabama's deep-drawling Katharine Phillips. Still, that's a bit like saying that a perfect night at a 5-star restaurant was spoiled by the sight of a stray crumb on white linen. There is too much of inestimable worth to pay her too much mind.

Each of the documentary's seven chapters begins with a printed disclaimer of sorts: "The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war."

Said towns are Mobile, Luverne, Minn., Waterbury, Conn. and Sacramento, CA. And few if any of the townies are any more eloquent than soft-spoken Sam Hynes of Luverne, a former Marine Corps pilot.

"I don't think there's such a thing as a good war," he says in setting the table Sunday night. "There are sometimes necessary wars."

Narrator David, never better than this, then weighs in with another overview that can't be denied. "The Second World War brought out the best and the worst in a generation, and blurred the two so that they at times became almost indistinguishable."

In Wednesday night's Chapter 4, WWII veteran Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a U.S. senator since 1963, talks matter-of-factly about the elation he experienced after drawing a bead on a German soldier and then claiming him as his first combat kill.

"I felt pleasure, and the men applauded," he says. Inouye killed many more times, lost his right arm in battle and won a Medal of Honor. Unlike some among a dwindling number of surviving veterans, he seems to have survived without any ghosts or nightmares from the horrors he witnessed and in some cases perpetrated.

Not so Glenn Frazier of Alabama, a survivor of the infamous Bataan death march who then spent the rest of the war being further mistreated in various Japanese prison camps.

"I did not want my body pushin' up Japanese daisies," he says of his will to survive.

Frazier also hoped to reconnect with a woman back home who spurned his love and prompted his enlistment. It turned out she had reconsidered and was eagerly awaiting his return. But it got harder and harder to hold a candle for a presumed dead man.

Finally safe back home, Frazier spent much of his next 35 years haunted by those experiences and consumed by a hatred for the Japanese. His first-person recollections speak for many who were never quite whole again after a war that took the lives of more than 405,000 American serviceman. Amazingly, those were by far the fewest casualties of a major combatant.

Burns and his longtime collaborator, Lynn Novick, bring many a ghastly image to the screen in telling the full story of WWII. Still pictures and film from the German concentration camps are horrific testaments to why the U.S. had to fight and prevail. And the killing grounds of Okinawa are indeed, as one soldier put it, a manifestation of "hell's own cesspool."

The Japanese internment camps in California and the U.S. military's continued segregation of troops also are an ugly part of this story. As is racism back home, particularly in unyielding Mobile.

The War tells it all, often to the accompaniment of period music or original compositions overseen by Wynton Marsalis. None are more touching than "American Anthem," performed with exquisite nuance by Dallas-raised Norah Jones.

Tom Hanks, who co-produced HBO's stellar Band of Brothers and now is working on The Pacific, also is in fine voice as the late Al McIntosh, owner and editor of the Luverne-based Rock County Star-Herald. McIntosh knew how to boil a story down to its essentials without making it bloodless. And Hanks knows how to reprise them without any undue affectation.

The sounds of full-out combat also pound out notes from an entirely different score. The whistles and thumps of incoming mortar rounds. The rat-a-tat of automatic weapons fire. The big bad booms of bombs dropped by the dozens from just a single fighter plane.

Much of the aerial combat footage is still jaw-dropping. And Burns orchestrates it like a grand conductor.

Fighter pilot Quentin Aaenenson of Luverne recalls dropping so many bombs that his right hand became inoperative while in the cockpit. He had to steer himself back to safety with his left hand. And to this day his right arm still goes numb without warning.

Still, Aaenenson sometimes couldn't help but revel in the excitement and intensity of what his country demanded of him. Few can really know what it's like. So even now, well into his 80s, "I find there are times when I'm pulled back into the whirlpool," he says near The War's end.

It also should be noted that Burns took considerable heat from Hispanic groups for neglecting their contributions in the original version of his epic. He responded by including additional interviews with Latino veterans Bill Lansford and Pete Arias, and Native American Joe Medicine Crow. Totaling 29 minutes, they run at the end of Chapters 1, 5 and 6.

Burns insists that these interviews won't look as though they're "tacked on." But they do in fact feel that way, particularly after Jones already has seemingly brought an emotional end to Chapter 1 with her first singing of "American Anthem."

Lansford does have a gripping story to tell, though. He was with the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion during the prolonged and vicious battle for Guadalcanal. He remembers a night shrouded in complete darkness, with a nearby fellow Marine being hit by enemy fire. They couldn't see him, but could hear his screams and prayers throughout the night. It prompted some of his dog-tired fellow Marines, including Lunsford, to mutter that he should shut the hell up and just die. The next morning Lunsford learned a terrible truth about the dead Marine.

"When you wish a guy dead and it turns out to be your best friend, you know, it's the pits," he says in closing out Chapter 1's postscript.

That's a story worth retelling that almost wasn't told. It embodies much of what The War recaptures -- men under extreme duress fighting their own fears and flaws while banding to defeat enemies that couldn't be allowed to trespass any further.

Back on the home front, the country rallied behind them as never before or since. Ken Burns and his filmmaking troops now have built their lasting memorial to all who lived, died and kept the home fires burning. History happens anew, and again is very well-served.

Grade: A

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Kid Nation (CBS)

Mike manned up, Sophia won a $20,000 gold star and little Jimmy up and called it quits on the premiere episode of CBS' Kid Nation.

The kids are all right, and their show doesn't merit all the "controversy" heaped on it before Wednesday night's premiere.

CBS had better corral more advertisers, though, or Kid Nation will be building a big deficit instead of a new town. Stupidly withheld from critics by CBS, the opening episode didn't have a commercial break until 39 minutes into the show. All in all, its paid advertising added up to roughly one-third that of a typical one-hour slice of prime-time television.

Little eight-year-old Jimmy of Salem, N.H., Kid Nation's youngest "pioneer" and first voluntary quitter, pretty much summed up what faces CBS during the opening bus ride into deserted Bonanza City, New Mexico.

"I think I'm going to die out here," he said. " 'Cause there's nothing."

Sued for $70 million earlier in the day by Dan Rather, CBS snuck the first episode of Kid Nation into selected classrooms, including a high school in Mesquite. Then it encouraged some of its stations to run a "story" on the kids' reactions.

CBS11, owned and operated by the network, unfortunately had to knuckle under during its Wednesday, 6 p.m. newscast. Boy, the kids sure looked as though they were enjoying the show. Meanwhile, genuine journalism took another swift kick in the nuts.

The show itself has nothing to be particularly ashamed of. In fact, it's a lot less childish than many reality shows. Thirty-six kids between the ages of 8 and 15 got off a bus in a barren "middle of nowhere" before their pre-appointed quartet of town council leaders descended in a helicopter.

Host Jonathan Karsh was there, too. He's the show's congenial Ranger Rick, periodically appearing to announce pre-arranged competitions and rewards for winning same. Kind of like Survivor? Bingo, except there are no mandatory vote-offs.

Plucky, bespectacled, 11-year-old Mike from Bellevue, WA almost instantly became Kid Nation's first breakout star. He's a slightly built kid in a cowboy hat taxed with trying to take charge along with fellow leaders Taylor, 10, Anjay, 12 (from Pearland, TX), and Laurel, 12.

"I'm trying to be a leader here, and it's just disappointing," said a soon flustered Mike, who repeatedly fought back tears in Episode 1.

He persevered, though, surviving a little dustup with oldest kid, Greg, 15, who's basically cast as the evil Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story. For that matter, Mike might as well be Ralphie Parker, the movie's soft-faced but resilient hero.

The kids first were made to pull wagonloads of gear and supplies down a long, imposing dirt road. One of them, 14-year-old DK, fell down and hurt his leg a bit. So he got to ride in one of the wagons. And in his view, it was just a flesh wound. "They stepped up, and they were great," he said of his comrades.

Once in town, the kids taught themselves how to make very basic meals through trial, error and the dumping out of a big pot of macaroni. The town then quickly got divided into four districts -- red, yellow, blue and green.

In the show's first four-way "Showdown," they had to pump water from tower tops into bottles after first finding the right in-ground tubes. The winning team got to be the "Upper Class," with wages of $1 an hour eligible to be spent at the town's well-stocked candy and soda shops. From there it went to "Merchants" (50 cents an hour), "Cooks" (25 cents) and "Laborers" (a dime). But you can always live the high life by jumping up a notch or two in future competitions.

Each episode's hardest worker, as chosen by the four council leaders, gets a genuine gold star worth $20 grand. That turned out to be 14-year-old Sophia, who's also admittedly bossy.

Anyone who wanted to leave also could do so. Jimmy decided to return home despite the kids' urging him to stay. There was no shame in it, though. And he didn't have to have his torch extinguished or anything.

Kid Nation clearly is edited with an eye toward emphasizing group cooperation in the face of divisions and adversity. Children and their parents can watch it together without any fear of seeing a remake of Lord of the Flies. It's more inspiring than exploitive in times when roughing it now means going without an iPhone for too many early teens and tweens.

Unfortunately, CBS fed into any preconceived notions of "child abuse" by keeping the premiere episode under wraps while at the same stealth-showing it to selected advertisers and classrooms. But only a few advertisers, including Sears and Maybelline, bit on opening night. Now it's up to the Nielsen ratings and the first wave of reviews to either bolster Kid Nation's prospects or maybe soon send the show home just like little Jimmy.

Grade: B-minus

Giving himself a black eye: Rather sues CBS long after his fall

There's no joy in saying this, as Dan Rather still says with sometimes numbing regularity. But the former CBS News steam engine likely is making a fool of himself by suing his former employer.

Rather and his attorneys filed a $70 million lawsuit Wednesday afternoon, contending that CBS brass, led by Leslie Moonves, had railroaded him in the aftermath of a Sept. 8, 2004 investigative report that questioned President Bush's Texas National Guard service during the Vietnam War era. Now anchoring a weekly program for Mark Cuban's HDNet, the 75-year-old newsman plans to elaborate on Thursday's edition of CNN's Larry King Live.

Subsequently dubbed "Memogate," the Rather-anchored 60 Minutes II piece led to the ouster of four CBS News staffers after an in-house investigation co-chaired by the first President Bush's attorney general, Richard Thornburgh.

Rather eventually left the CBS News anchor chair under duress in March 2005, a year earlier than he had planned. Transfered to 60 Minutes, where he had little to do, he then exited CBS entirely in June 2006 after negotiating an early out. Through his attorney, Rather then said that CBS "had not lived up to their obligation to let me do substantive work there (at 60 Minutes)."

CBS of course says the lawsuit is without merit. But Rather simply has waited too long to make what now looks like a money grab. His old network recently settled an accusatory lawsuit filed by Don Imus, who barely waited a minute to take CBS to court.

Rather, very belatedly, says his final indignity at CBS was being denied an opportunity to report from New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The 32-page lawsuit filed by his attorneys lauds Rather as "the most experienced reporter in the United States in covering hurricanes. CBS refused to send him . . . furthering its desire to keep Mr. Rather off the air."

Rather's retaliation reflects poorly on him at this point. CBS indeed may have treated him shabbily, or at least unceremoniously, in the twilight of his 44-year career at the network. But it also built him into an overpaid superstar, enduring considerable flak along the way when Rather seemed to go off various deep ends.

He has always billed himself as a consummate hands-on reporter, an "all-news, all the time" grinder who sniffed out stories like a hound on a fox hunt. But in the lawsuit, Rather now presents himself as little more than a reader of the hotly disputed Bush report. Others prepared it, and he simply recited their words on the air after being persuaded by CBS News management to devote most of his time to Hurricane Frances and Bill Clinton's heart surgery.

At least that's the story now. And if true, Rather should be ashamed to admit it. The Bush investigation, principally prepared by longtime trusted producer Mary Mapes, was no mere trifle. It potentially had explosive consequences for Bush's re-election campaign just two months removed from election day. So how could Rather not devote his full attention to it?

It's a shame and a pity that it's come to this. I interviewed Rather at length many times during his long career at CBS. He invariably underscored his loyalty to the network, joking more than once that he had the famed CBS Eye tattooed on his backside. Now he's making a way too tardy attempt to fight back, contending that his once beloved benefactor made him a "scapegoat" and "seriously damaged his reputation."

Mapes, who was fired, at least had the courage to tell her side very vividly in a book that mostly fell on deaf ears. Rather at the time wouldn't even comment on it, or mention her name when questioned about it. I can attest to this personally. Dan wasn't much of a standup guy then.

CBS News is no paragon of virtue either. There are still plenty of vipers in place. But the network seems to hold almost all of the cards against Rather, who mostly looks foolish. He'd be far better off writing a book in his defense rather than seeking a last payday from a network that paid him far more than enough to set him up for life.

Rethink it all, Dan. Because really, there's been no joy in writing this.

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Back to You (Fox)

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Fred Willard, Ty Burrell, Josh Gad, Ayda Field, Laura Marano
Created by: Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd

Fictional? Yes. Oh so true? That, too.

One of Back to You's magical, truth-telling moments comes when beaten-down street reporter Gary Crezyzewski (Ty Burrell) heads out for yet another late night live shot. This time it's in front of a courthouse where nothing's happened since daylight. But, as Crezyzewski says sardonically, "It adds action and urgency for me to stand out in the cold in front of a dark, empty building."

Cut to just about any real-life nighttime local newscast on any given night to see Crezyzewskis up the wazooskis. This one just happens to work for Pittsburgh's fake WURG-TV in the season's by far funniest new comedy. Belly laughs ensue, not only during Wednesday's premiere but in an even better episode next week.

It greatly helps to have two stars who really know their way around a conventionally mounted, studio audience-goosed sitcom. Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) and Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) are pros with few peers. Add a crack-up Fred Willard and get ready for Anchorman with a firmer foundation. Back to You is broad in approach but built to last. If this one tanks, then thanks for the memories of days when comedies set prime-time's table. Last season, just one -- CBS' Two and a Half Men -- ranked among prime-time's 20 most-watched shows (at No. 17).

Grammer plays self-important Chuck Darling, whose profane on-air tirade sends him crawling back from L.A. after previous upwardly mobile stops in Minneapolis and Dallas. (Dallas? Apparently D-FW wasn't big enough for two Ted Baxters. But let's leave poor _______ alone.)

Darling's longtime co-anchor, Kelly Carr (Heaton), remains at WURG long after drunkenly falling into bed with Darling just before he left.

"This just in," he says at one point after making a suitably grand re-entrance.

"Your exact words that night if I recall," Carr snaps back.

The writing is crisp if usually broad. One-liners are snapped off with mostly precision marksmanship. Willard, as backslapping sports anchor Marsh McGinley, hardly needs to say anything. Sporting the orange/brown dye job of countless aging TV personalities, he's funny just by virtue of showing up.

There's also cleavage-flaunting weathercaster Montana Diaz Herrera (Ayda Field) and pudgy kid news director Ryan Church (Josh Gad), whose underarm sweat won't quit. And Carr has a 10-year-old daughter named Gracie (Laura Marano from Fox's Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?). Might she be the result of the Darling-Carr one-nighter? This just in: maybe yes, maybe no.

Next week's Back to You is built around Darling's continuing efforts to keep a gift goldfish alive. Also, McGinley tries to figure out how a magician made an orange materialize in a man's shorts while Carr says at a news meeting, "I think Montana should cover the pumpkin festival."

The great state of Montana initially misunderstands. Think about it.

Back to You may not be as cooly "smart" as NBC's The Office or 30 Rock. Still, it's a time-honored, first-rate throwback to the "traditional" form that also has served comedy very well throughout most of TV's history.

All In the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld and many other classic sitcoms were filmed before live audiences and sweetened with laugh tracks when deemed necessary. In the end it's the material and the performances that give a comedy its luster. Back to You seems to have those essential ingredients in abundance. Or as Darling says, "What's an anchorman but a loud guy to keep people from flippin' the channel?"

Grade: A-minus

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Kitchen Nightmares (Fox)

Gordon Ramsay fires up the staff at an unappetizing Italian eatery.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Gordon Ramsay
Produced by: Gordon Ramsay

Summertime's Hell's Kitchen is barely off the front burner. Now Kitchen Nightmares is being served.

Your not-so-congenial host for both Fox series is peppery Gordon Ramsay, Scotland's favorite f-bombing chef.

Ah, but he means well, even when he's telling you to shove that spatula up your bleepin' bleep and get the bleep outta here before I bleepin' stick your bleepin' hand in the mixin' bowl and serve it as bleepin' blood sausage.

But we exaggerate -- a bit. Ramsay is somewhat milder than his usual self in the premiere episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Consider him a culinary SuperNanny to dysfunctional eateries. In Wednesday's premiere episode it's Peter's Italian Restaurant in Babylon, NY, where Ramsay goes up against Peter the bulbous meathead.

His sister, Tina, owns the place, but Peter throws his weight around like a swaggering wrestling villain. Their hangdog old man, Yogi, looks like Al the malt shop owner on Happy Days. His air of resignation hangs over the place until Ramsay accepts the "monumental challenge" of turning things around.

As with most reality series, the drama is heightened to points of absurdity and beyond. But this absurdity is kind of fun to watch, whether it's Peter trying to pummel bill collectors or Ramsay gagging his way through the rotting kitchen produce.

Miraculously, our hot-tempered hero has the kitchen rebuilt, the menu entirely redone and even Peter at bay after just four very loud days. Over 200 "satisfied customers" then jam the place and tax the staff. But life is just a bowl of cherries in the end, with Peter becoming a pillar of the community and Ramsay dispensing hugs.

Kitchen Nightmares is about as believable as me whipping up a gourmet meal and everyone living to tell about it. Still, it's morbidly entertaining, with Ramsay's breakout personality making another show cook.

Grade: B-minus

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Gossip Girl (CW)

Hey, we're catty, bratty and boorish. Watch. You'll see. xxx.ooo.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. (central) on CW
Starring: Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Chace Crawford, Penn Badgley, Taylor Momsen, Ed Westwick, Matthew Settle, Kelly Rutherford, Nan Zhang, Nicole Fiscella
Produced by: Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage

"Did B think S would go down without a fight? Or can these two hotties work it out? There's nothing Gossip Girl likes more than a good catfight. And this could be a classic."

Yes, the B.S. is spread pretty thick on CW's Gossip Girl, which is hardly a classic. Adapted from the series of "young-adult" novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, it's producer/writer Josh Schwartz's followup to The O.C. Oh see if you can stand his new set of "privileged prep school teens" and the unseen but regularly heard blogger who chronicles their single-minded pursuits of self-gratification.

Kristen Bell, former star of Veronica Mars, happily dishes the dirt off-camera. What a tease. "And who am I?" she asks rhetorically. "That's one secret I'll never tell. The only one."

Gossip Girl clearly isn't aimed at critics old enough to have post-teenage kids, I say rhetorically. So take that under advisement while yours truly wonders what kinds of messages are being sent by the show's vacuous, value-less Manhattan preppies.

For one, they drink and diss with abandon -- and with their parents' money, of course. See them cluster by night at a very exclusive "Kiss on the Lips" party, to which sudden outcast Serena "S" van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) isn't invited.

Serena's newly back in town after briefly and mysteriously exiling herself to a Connecticut boarding school. Former best friend Blair "B" Waldorf (Leighton Meester) is now her enemy, particularly after learning that Serena got drunk and very familiar with boyfriend Nate Archibald (Lubbock-born, Plano-raised Chace Crawford). He's no relation to the former NBA scoring champ that some icky oldsters remember.

Sub-callow Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) is on the prowl, too. He's a drunken, womanizing, prancing pig who should be flung off the Chrysler building to his death before a needy homeless person runs off with his Rolex. Instead, of course, he's popular.

Gossip Girl's white knight, for now at least, is prep school newcomer Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley), not yet in a clique. His dad, Rufus (Matthew Settle), is an art gallery owner who used to be part of a rock group dubbed by Rolling Stone as one of the Top 10 Forgotten Bands of the '90s. (P.S. RS might well sell its soul for a mention on According to Jim these days.)

CW seems to think it has a hot property in Gossip Girl, which supposedly speaks to a new generation of younger viewers to whom Rolling Stone might as well be Reader's Digest. Frankly, though, it insults their intelligence. Or at least that's the hope.

The nose-in-the-air denizens of Gossip Girl offer next to nothing of value or substance. A good number of today's teenagers are in Iraq risking their lives or hard at work trying to make ends meet. This show's teens mostly are taxed with little more than what to wear and drink -- and who to screw.

Grade: D

Censors have a Field day on Fox Emmy telecast

Mouth to mouth: Winner Sally Field and presenter Ray Romano.

Chalk up another memorable acceptance speech from Sally Field. Only this time she didn't quite get to finish it before Fox cut her off and left ample room for Monday morning tongue-wagging about her anti-war offensive.

Field's upset Emmy win on the network's live Sunday night telecast put the veteran actress in a fast-talking, increasingly frazzled state.

She first dutifully praised the cast and crew of ABC's Brothers & Sisters for making her third Emmy win possible.

"But at the heart of Nora Walker (her character), she is a mother," Field then detoured. "So surely this belongs to all the mothers of the world. May they be seen, may their work be valued and raised, especially the mothers who stand with an open heart and wait -- wait for their children to come home from danger, from harm's way and from war."

The audience loudly applauded as the show's play-off music kicked in. But Field wasn't finished.

"Hurry up, quiet! I have to finish talking!" she said in what charitably could be called a near-hysterical shriek. She then had serious trouble re-gathering herself, stammering "Um, um, uh, um" before finally coming to this: "As to war, I am proud to be one of those women. And let's face it, if the mothers ruled the world, there would be no god . . . "

Fox cut to five seconds of silence at that point, freeze-framing TV screens with a juxtaposition of a large metallic-looking ball, portions of the Emmy audience and a giant Emmy statue in the background. Viewers then heard Field say, "Thank you so much" to loud applause before the show's producers cut to the annual montage of the past year's TV dead. Bizarrely, it began with a clip of the late Jane Wyatt from Father Knows Best.

Later reports said that Field closed her speech by saying "goddamned wars in the first place." In Fox's defense, you can't let that out over the public airwaves in times when the highly unpredictable FCC stands ready to levy heavy fines for whatever it deems indecent or profane. But the network's corporate ties to Fox News Channel no doubt will prompt many to argue that the cut-off was politically motivated.

Frankly, that's nonsense in light of what happened near the start of the three hour, 14 minute telecast. Comedian Ray Romano, in a decidedly less than hilarious mini-monologue, chided his former Everybody Loves Raymond co-star, Patricia Heaton, for sleeping with Kelsey Grammer on their new Back To You Fox sitcom.

Romano reportedly used a dicier word than "sleeping," however, prompting Fox to also briefly black him out. A bit later in the show, censors had to act even faster to at least partially waylay an expletive from Katherine Heigl of Grey's Anatomy. But viewers clearly could see her mouthing "Oh (s-word)" from the audience after winning winning a best supporting actress Emmy.

Romano immediately left the Shrine Auditorium, but Field later told reporters backstage that she didn't mind being bleeped.

"Oh well. I've been there before. Well, good, I don't care," she said. Field later added, "I would have liked to have said more bleeped-out words."

In her much-parodied 1985 Oscar acceptance speech for Places In the Heart, Field trilled, "I can't deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you really like me." That was benign. This time she's unleashed something far more fierce.

Host Ryan Seacrest gets medieval while America Ferrera wins again.

Fox found itself in a no-win situation on another front, too. It claimed none of the 29 major Emmy awards up for grabs, with its American Idol losing yet again to CBS' The Amazing Race in the contest for "Outstanding Reality-Competition Program." That turned out to be CBS' only win of the night, with NBC, ABC and HBO otherwise dominating.

The two big prizes, best comedy and drama series, went to the Peacock's freshman 30 Rock and HBO's The Sopranos, which won for only the second time in the category.

The Sopranos took three major Emmys overall, tying AMC's Broken Trail, NBC's Tony Bennett: An American Classic and PBS' Prime Suspect: The Final Act for the night's top prize-winners.

Host Ryan Seacrest did no undue harm, even when briefly changing into an award-winning costume from Showtime's The Tudors.

"You know, this looked a lot less gay on the rack," he cracked. "Can I keep it?"

Seacrest mostly schmoozed with the front row celebrities surrounding a six-step theater-in-the-round at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. His principal American Idol foil, Simon Cowell, was notably out of view. But the host did aim a jab at judge Paula Abdul, who reacted with seemingly feigned disapproval when Seacrest riffed, "I mean, Weeds, a great show, an amazing after-party. Isn't that right, Paula?"

Many in the audience were faced with watching presenters' and performers' backs, prompting lead actor in a drama series James Spader (Boston Legal) to grouse, "I've been to thousands and thousands of concerts in my life. And I can tell you these are the worst seats I've ever had."

Wayne Brady, host of Fox's Don't Forget the Lyrics! presided over the show's funniest bit after describing Seacrest as a "medieval pimp" while he ran offstage in his Tudors outfit.

Brady's higher purpose was emceeing a singing competition between Rainn Wilson of The Office and rapper Kanye West.

West intentionally got one of the lyrics wrong from his new song, "Stronger," ending with "That's how long I've been on you."

But the correct word is "ya," Brady said. "You picked a bad time to speak properly."

The victorious Wilson then rapped, "Let's get lost tonight. You can be my black Kate Moss tonight."

A game West carped, "I never win," a reference to his second straight shutout at the previous Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards.

Pre-show rumors were that Britney Spears somehow would apologize at the Emmys for her exhaustively chronicled VMA debacle. Thankfully, that never materialized on a night when Sally Field very much made her presence felt instead.

Here's the complete list of Sunday night's 29 winners:

Best Drama Series -- The Sopranos (HBO)
Lead Actor, Drama Series -- James Spader, Boston Legal (ABC)
Lead Actress, Drama Series -- Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters (ABC)
Supporting Actor, Drama Series -- Terry O'Quinn, Lost (ABC)
Supporting Actress, Drama Series -- Katherine Heigl, Grey's Anatomy (ABC)

Best Comedy Series -- 30 Rock (NBC)
Lead Actress, Comedy Series -- America Ferrera, Ugly Betty (ABC)
Lead Actor, Comedy Series -- Ricky Gervais, Extras (HBO)
Supporting Actress, Comedy Series -- Jaime Pressly, My Name Is Earl (NBC)
Supporting Actor, Comedy Series -- Jeremy Piven, Entourage (HBO)

Best Miniseries -- Broken Trail (AMC)
Best Made-For-TV Movie -- Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (HBO)
Lead Actor, Miniseries or Movie -- Robert Duvall, Broken Trail (AMC)
Supporting Actor, Miniseries or Movie -- Thomas Haden Church, Broken Trail (AMC)
Lead Actress, Miniseries or Movie -- Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect: The Final Act (PBS)
Supporting Actress, Miniseries or Movie -- Judy Davis, The Starter Wife (USA)

Best Variety, Music or Comedy Series -- The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
Best Variety, Music or Comedy Special -- Tony Bennett: An American Classic (NBC)
Best Individual Performance in Variety or Music Program -- Tony Bennett, Tony Bennett: An American Classic (NBC)
Best Reality-Competition Program -- The Amazing Race (CBS)

Writing for Variety, Music or Comedy Program -- Head writer Mike Sweeney and 15 others, Late Night with Conan O'Brien (NBC)
Writing, Drama Series -- David Chase, The Sopranos (HBO)
Writing, Comedy Series -- Greg Daniels, The Office (NBC)
Writing, Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special -- Frank Deasy, Prime Suspect: The Final Act (PBS)

Directing for Variety Music or Comedy Program -- Rob Marshall, Tony Bennett: An American Classic (NBC)
Directing, Drama Series -- Alan Taylor, The Sopranos (HBO)
Directing, Comedy Series -- Richard Shepard, Ugly Betty (ABC)
Directing, Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special -- Philip Martin, Prime Suspect: The Final Act (PBS)
Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Television -- Current TV, founded by Al Gore

FALL SEASON PREVIEW: Fox's Prison Break goes directly to jail again, does not collect $200

Motley crew: Prison Break bellies up to the bars anew.

Third season premiere: Monday night, Sept. 17 at 7 (central) on Fox
Starring: Wentworth Miller, Dominic Purcell, Robert Knepper, Wade Williams, William Fichtner, Amaury Nolasco, Robert Wisdom, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, Danay Garcia, Chris Vance
Produced by: Paul T. Scheuring

Yes, it's still shooting in North Texas. No, it sure doesn't look like it.

Fox's Prison Break gets back to basics with a vengeance Monday, beginning its third season within the sub-filthy confines of a no-holds-barred Panama prison run by a select few of its inmates.

The fictional Sona lockup, "inspired by" the real-life Carandiru Prison in Brazil, is front and center during the show's effective and oft-grisly first two episodes. Las Colinas is the site of the down-and dirty prison yard, where resourceful pretty boy Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) looks like a marshmallow amid flank steaks. Can he somehow mastermind another escape? Or will a sadistic "warden" known as Lechero (new cast member Robert Wisdom) beat him down before older brother Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) finds ways to help spring him?

Prison Break's first-season slammer was a ferris wheel ride compared to this place. Back in the Fox River pen, for instance, burly Brad Bellick (Wade Williams) was a brutal prison guard. Now he's stooped, bared and badly bloodied, wandering around in what looks like a Depends diaper during the times he's not cleaning Sona's sorry-ass latrine.

Fox already has given away other plot particulars on its own Web site. So we'll spill a few here, too, for those who'd like to get a bit ahead of the story.

Basically, Michael again finds himself at the mercy of "The Company." This time they want him to arrange the escape of James Whistler (Chris Vance), who's well-hidden within the prison walls and allegedly killed the mayor of Panama City's son in a bar fight. What's the incentive? If Michael doesn't play ball, then his girlfriend Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), and Lincoln's only son, L.J. (Marshall Allman), will be executed after a one-week grace period.

(Reports are that Callies isn't coming back to Prison Break dead or alive after recently having her first child, a baby girl. But that's just today's story, so don't rule anything out.)

Complicating Michael's plans are two fellow new Sona inmates with close ties to him. Twisted Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell (Robert Knepper), with whom he escaped from Fox River, is now sucking up to Lechero and branding Michael a "snake." And FBI pursuer Alexander Mahone (William Fichtner), cleverly framed by Michael, is now both a friend and enemy.

All of this meshes into a compelling re-start for Prison Break, which meandered all over the place last season. Wisdom as Lechero is a solidly menacing addition, as is the horrid new prison itself.

The show seems to have its legs back under it, which oddly enough wasn't the case when the prisoners were on the run. This time its overriding watch words have a familiar and almost comforting ring to them.

"So how are we getting out of here?" Whistler wonders at the close of Episode 2.

"I have no idea," says Michael.

Now we'll see how long they can keep this stinkhole in play -- and other location shoots at bay.

Grade: B+

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series--K-Ville (Fox)

Cole Hauser and Anthony Anderson partner up in Fox's K-Ville.

Premiering: Monday night, Sept. 17 at 8 (central) on Fox
Starring: Anthony Anderson, Cole Hauser, Tawny Cypress, John Carroll Lynch, Blake Shields
Created by: Jonathan Lisco

Location, location, location.

K-Ville's virtue is that it's filmed entirely in New Orleans, which sorely needs some economic lifts. So grading on the curve seems like the humanitarian way to go.

Its vice is an overcooked, pedestrian premiere episode and a made-in-hell time slot opposite NBC's Heroes, CBS' Two and a Half Men and the last half-hour of ABC's Dancing with the Stars.

It helps that Fox is launching K-Ville ahead of the season premieres of those three beasts. Still, an off-putting first impression won't help at all. And the climactic, ridiculous gun battle in K-Ville, preceded by two briefer ones, sets the wrong tone for a series that's supposed to be about much more than that.

Laughable police captain analogies -- "There's more loose ends than a whorehouse here" -- aren't going to make any sales either. But next Monday's second episode shows some signs of improvement, so let's pause briefly to hear what series creator Jonathan Lisco says he wants K-Ville to be.

"We're not just about the blood spatter, or getting a fingerprint off a brick," he says in a letter to TV critics. "If viewers want a surplus of that, they can watch 10 other shows . . . If they want the universality of the buddy cop show married to the innate specificity of New Orleans, this is the show for them."

He gets points for "innate specificity," which is impossible to say even five times really fast, let alone 10.

It's also true that the sights, sounds and oft-sorry states of the Big Easy get ample screen time Monday night. The opening plot is pretty preposterous, though. And the notably shaky camera work, particularly during chase scenes, might make some viewers feel as though they're being jolted by a series of bumper car hits.

K-Ville begins on Sept. 1, 2005, with New Orleans still very much awash in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Police officer Marlin Boulet (Anthony Anderson) is striving to keep hope alive. But his partner cops out and speeds out of town in a squad car.

We then fast-forward to two years later, with a frayed Boulet steadfastly fighting the good fight even after his wife and their daughter blow town, too. Into this stew comes new partner Trevor Cobb (Cole Hauser), who of course turns out not to be entirely as advertised.

Their first assignment together is providing security for a 9th ward benefit that gets shot up by unknown assailants, leaving the lead singer dead. A second benefit also is attacked by gunmen after Boulet first water-tortures a suspect. He later pulls a gun on his partner before amazingly and suddenly deducing what's behind the two assaults. All is forgiven after a prolonged chase and gun battle puts the crooks in the can.

"You went off the grid a little bit, and that pissed me off," lectures police cap James Embry (John Carroll Lynch). "But you did good."

Oh mercy me, what originality.

A second episode sent for review is compatibly built around a prison break, as is Fox's preceding Prison Break. The gunplay is down-shifted, although so is the "innate specificity of New Orleans." But the characters are better drawn here, as is the storyline. This time it's at least halfway plausible.

Anderson and Hauser are solid enough in the lead roles, so at least there's a foundation to build on. You get the feeling, though, that K-Ville just isn't long for this world. It's well-meaning, but not particularly well-executed. And where's the audience for it once the heavyweight competition enters the ring?

Grade: B-minus

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Nashville (Fox)

Girls of Nashville: 3rd from left is Terry Bradshaw's daughter, Rachel.

Premiering: Friday night, Sept. 14 at 8 (central) on Fox
Starring: Rachel Bradshaw, Chuck Wicks, Mika Combs, Clint Moseley, Sarah Gunsolus, Matt Jenkins, Lindsey Hager, Jeff Allen, Monty Powell
Produced by: Gary and Julie Auerbach, Liz Bronstein, Tina Gazzerro, Hans Tobeason

Country cute and rarin' to lasso themselves some stardom, the boys and girls of Fox's Nashville are way too young to really remember Robert Altman's Nashville.

His groundbreaking 1975 film mostly didn't follow a script, but worked within the confines of a basic storyline. The new TV reality series, from the "creative minds behind" MTV's Laguna Beach: the Real Orange County, is similarly programmed within pre-set parameters. Its key characters aren't actors, but certainly are part of the act.

So if you hear it once, you hear it a half-dozen times during Friday's one-hour premiere. Nashville's a make or break place that breaks all but a few of its big-dreamin' young denizens. Ya got that? Stardom is rare and failure is common. Just so ya know what you're gettin' into.

Some don't, or at least that's the built-in storyline for Rachel Bradshaw, daughter of Hall of Fame quarterback and star Fox football gabber Terry Bradshaw.

"I wanna be a star" with all the trappings, she tells daddy back in Dallas.

"Be careful what you wish for," he warns before sending her off to Nashville to absorb a few hard knocks.

Better situated is Chuck Wicks, of whom his young manager says, "You just have everything. The voice, the look. Everything about you is right."

He's pretty much got that right. Chuck lands a recording deal after impressing some record label wheeler/dealers at a Nashville "Showcase" of his talents. Meanwhile, Rachel sacks her back-home boyfriend and takes up with rich, duplicitous Clint Moseley, whose father makes a killing selling jet planes. He throws a big party, invites her and then spends much of the night wrapping his arms around other fetching creatures.

"It's sleazy and it's disrespectful," says Rachel, who can be a tease herself. Still, you'd like to see her old man stiff-arm Clint into the next county.

There's also an apprentice Loretta Lynn named Mika Combs. She's a real-life coal miner's daughter from Kentucky who hopes to rise and shine in "the biggest small town in America." Well-meanin' Matt Jenkins takes an immediate likin' to her. But he's down on his luck after making it all the way to the Grand Ole Opry stage and then havin' his recordin' contract kicked out from under him.

Wouldn't ya know it, though, they manage to sneak into the Opry, take the stage and find a mike in workin' order. She sings like an angel and he moons over her before Clint makes his inevitable move at Chuck's goin' away party. This, of course, leaves Rachel feelin' hurt, too, and just after she and Clint had patched things up.

All of this is pretty much telegraphed but also decently executed. The venue at least is different, and the star players are mostly digestible. What's more, Terry Bradshaw can make this a regular bit during Fox's Sunday NFL pre-game show. Show a clip of his daughter getting screwed -- not literally -- and then have Terry threaten to go down there and pound some sense into the perpetrator(s).

Then again, Nashville is scheduled on Friday nights, where Fox hasn't had a hit since Bradshaw was still playing quarterback.

Well, it hasn't been quite that long, but the point is made. So he'd best get down to Nashville in a hurry.

Grade: C+

Documentary review: Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq (HBO)

Army Cpl. Jonathan Bartlett talks to a receptive James Gandolfini.

Premiering: Sunday night, Sept. 9 at 9:30 (central) on HBO.
Featuring: James Gandolfini with 10 wounded Iraq war veterans
Produced by: James Gandolfini, Alexandra Ryan

Sad, poignant, painful and inspiring, HBO's Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq won't let you forget it anytime soon.

It joltingly brings home the resilience and suffering of veterans who were spared death but not a lifetime of coping with irretrievable losses. One by one they talk to actor James Gandolfini on a spare New York sound stage. These are the real made men and women, as even Tony Soprano would attest.

All the told, the 10 participating veterans are missing 10 limbs, two eyes and portions of their brains and psyches. The "Alive Day Memories" portion of the documentary's title refers to the date of their injuries.

"It's burned into your memory," says former Army sergeant Bryan Anderson, 25, who understandably wishes it weren't.

People want to celebrate the day, "and I can see their point," Anderson adds. "But from my point of view, it's like, 'OK, we're sitting here celebrating the worst day of my life.' Great, let's just remind me of that every year."

Ex-Army corporal Jonathan Bartlett, 21, is now getting around on two artificial limbs. He's typical of those who fought in Iraq and almost didn't live to tell about it. He doesn't want anyone's pity.

"I don't view it as a sacrifice," he tells Gandolfini. "I was a soldier. I got hurt. It happens."

This is no latter day act on the part of Gandolfini, who long has spoken out on behalf of America's soldiers in Iraq. On Alive Day Memories he mostly stays out of the picture. But one of the documentary's more affecting moments comes when Jay Wilkerson, previously an Army staff sergeant, talks about trying to regain his memory after taking shrapnel in his cheek that then lodged in his brain.

"You feel empty," he says. "You feel like you're lost."

"Give it time," Gandolfini responds. "Give it time."

"Thank you," Wilkerson says.

"No man, thank you," Gandolfini replies before shaking Wilkerson's hand and hugging him.

Much of this one-hour program might well move you to tears.

Twenty-two-year-old Eddie Ryan, once a Marine sniper, arrives with his caretaker mom. She'd been told he'd never recognize her again after suffering a traumatic brain injury.

"He doesn't want them covered. He's proud of his scars," she says of Eddie's still very visible wounds. But he knows who she is and he still remembers the words to the Marine Corps Hymn.

Ex-Army private Dexter Pitts, also 22, worries about his long-term stability. He's suffering from severe post-traumatic stress and "I don't want to be crazy Uncle Dex that fought in the war."

Dawn Halfaker, 27 and a former Army 1st lieutenant, is without her right arm and shoulder. She wants to be a mother, but knows she'll never be able to pick up her child with both hands. The thought leaves her speechless and teary-eyed.

Combat footage "released by insurgents" shows some of the terrible explosions that claimed the lives and limbs of U.S. soldiers. In many cases we also see the way they were before an "Alive Day" blindsided them. Former Army sergeant Bryan Anderson, 25, used to be a boxer and a gymnast. Forty operations later, he has a functioning right hand remaining.

As of June, more than 25,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded in Iraq. For the first time in American history, some 90 percent are surviving their injuries. Alive Day Memories powerfully tells a very small fraction of their stories, ending with that of former Marine staff sergeant John Jones, 29.

He meets Gandolfini in his dress blues after 46 operations and 16 months in the hospital. Both of his legs are history, but he still has his wife and two children, who "call me dad with robot legs."

They think it's pretty cool, and, in a way, Jones does, too. Latter day video shows him still being able to ice skate with his family.

This is a documentary for the ages.

Grade: A

New series review: Tell Me You Love Me (HBO)

Undersexed Dave and Katie have a good listener in therapist May.

Premiering: Sunday night, Sept. 9, at 8 (central) on HBO
Starring: Jane Alexander, Ally Walker, Tim DeKay, Adam Scott, Sonya Walger, Michelle Borth, Luke Farrell Kirby, David Selby, Sherry Stringfield
Produced by: Cynthia Mort, Gavin Polone

The network of Real Sex has some wondering about the realness of the sex in Tell Me You Love Me.

For instance, is that an actor-owned penis being stroked and brought to climax Sunday night by actress Sonya Walger? Or is a prosthetic device just happy to see her?

And how about the balls and all lovemaking between engaged couple Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby)? Is it possible they actually "did it?"

HBO executives and the show's producers and performers are dismissing such questions as irrelevant to the grand scheme of Tell Me You Love Me.

"I've never seen intimacy dealt with that honestly and that bravely on American television ever," HBO co-president Richard Plepler told inquiring TV critics during the mid-July TV "press tour" in Los Angeles. "In that regard, it's quintessentially an HBO show."

Actress Borth says the abundant sex scenes are "a pretty integral part of the storyline. We are not porn stars. We're actors. And I think part of our job in any scene . . . is to do the best that you can do it, authentically and honest."

That doesn't exactly settle that. But it has generated a wealth of pre-premiere publicity for Tell Me You Love Me. HBO, which needs a boost after the departure of The Sopranos and the quick collapse of John From Cincinnati, has done nothing to quell any of this "Did They or Didn't They?" speculation. But the network's increasingly formidable rival, Showtime, says that real sex among actors would be strictly taboo.

"I wouldn't even think about having actors do it," said Showtime entertainment president Robert Greenblatt, whose network doesn't spare the skin in series such as The L Word, The Tudors and its new Californication. "That's how it would be for us at the moment. I don't know how you can't sort of simulate anything and get the same effect."

"Simulated sometimes works better, I think," chimed in Showtime CEO Matthew C. Blank.

"Even in your own life," Greenblatt rejoined. Pause, one-two. "Did I say that out loud?"

After all is said and done -- or not done -- perhaps many viewers will, in a sense, "read Tell Me You Love Me for the articles." It's indeed a pretty compelling relationship show -- at least through the first three episodes I've seen of the 10 HBO has ordered.

Ally Walker, former star of NBC's Profiler series, is a standout as the increasingly vexed Jamie. She and husband Dave (Tim DeKay) have been married for 12 years. But his constant professions of love for her haven't played out in the bedroom for the past year. Instead she sees him masturbating, leading her to seek solace from sex therapist May Foster (Jane Alexander).

Jamie's sessions with May are terrifically acted. Unlike Tony Soprano, she's not bombastic, just deeply hurt. Actress Walker's eyes and expressions communicate every nuance of her character's growing depression. It's an Emmy caliber performance with nary a coupling for her so far.

The series' other two couples are Palek and Carolyn (Adam Scott, Sonya Walger), who long to have a child, and the aforementioned Jamie and Hugo, whose engagement can't withstand her jealousy and his lukewarm commitment to monogamy.

Therapist May's love life also will be on display in subsequent episodes, with the 67-year-old, now white-haired Alexander getting down with partner Arthur (David Selby).

Despite all this, Tell Me You Love Me can be pretty dreary and depressing in the early going. Escapist TV it's not. But the third episode seems to turn the corner. Caring about these characters is essential to the series' staying power, and that gradually starts to get easier.

Otherwise the sex scenes might keep some viewers hanging on while the characters in some cases let it all hang out. HBO frankly doesn't care why you watch. Bereft of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and Deadwood, it'll settle for just about any signs of affection.

Grade: B+

Returning series review: Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)

Larry and pal Jeff Garlin caught in a rare display of all-out levity.

Premiering: Sunday night, Sept. 9, at 9 (central) on HBO
Starring: Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman, Bob Einstein, Vivica A. Fox, Tia Carrere, Richard Lewis
Created by: Larry David

Forever fated to take it in the shorts, sourball Larry David is back on track in 10 new and welcome episodes of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm.

This time events conspire both on-and off-camera. In the country's No. 1 and 5 TV markets, Curb will be competing with the Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game on opening night of NBC's Sunday Night Football.

Also off-camera, he's being divorced by environmental activist wife Laurie David, who wants half his considerable spoils.

David otherwise is in fine comedic shape. Sunday night's sixth season opener, "Meet the Blacks," is a gem from start to finish. Two subsequent episodes sent for review aren't as finely tuned, but still get high passing grades.

Larry begins the new season asleep in bed with TV wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines). A loud, beeping sound sends them in search of a battery-drained smoke alarm, which he smashes to smithereens. This of course will have consequences down the road.

Cheryl otherwise is nudging Larry to take a family made homeless by a recent hurricane. He balks, of course, but she later has the hammer after an impromptu playing of The Newlywed Game leaves him locked out of the bedroom.

Guest stars Richard Lewis, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, all of whom play themselves, also are served by the twist-laced, somewhat twisted storyline. More importantly, though, Larry and Cheryl pick up evacuees Loretta Black (Vivica A. Fox), her two children and Auntie Rae. Imagine a black family with the surname Black. Larry's ham-handedly amazed.

"That's like if my last name was Jew," he says. "Like Larry Jew."

As noted, events keep conspiring before Larry again winds up a Sad Sack. It's a perfectly orchestrated comeuppance that sets a high bar for following episodes. Next Sunday's No. 2 has its moments, but doesn't do enough with this season's Blacks and white premise.

Loretta's brother, Leon, also moves in and immediately is accused of leaving a little stain on a guest bedsheet. Meanwhile, the "law of the dry cleaners" leaves Larry without his treasured No. 25 Joe Pepitone Yankees jersey. But everything doesn't come out in the wash this time, leaving Curb with a limp ending.

Episode 3 returns to the living, even as high-strung pal Marty Funkhouser (Bob Einstein) grieves over the loss of his mother. There's also a "sample abuser" at an ice cream shop. Larry browbeats her until learning that he'll have to quickly suck up. Purloined flowers and perfume then come into play, with Larry again ending up neck-deep in predicaments of his own making.

David has made the usual 10 episodes and of course is coy on whether he'll ever make another one. Curb does, however, help to pay the rent, even if the star already is beyond wealthy with residuals from Seinfeld.

Estranged wife Laurie will be taking a big slice of that, though. So if Larry eventually commits to another season, will it further reflect his real-life situation? TV wife Cheryl is as curious as anyone.

Overall Grade: A-minus

Katie Couric goes to war

Katie Couric with Pres. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus. CBS photos

It's often not easy being Katie Couric. Sometimes it's almost as hard as writing about her.

CBS executives seldom miss a chance to contend that Couric has paid an unfair price in the media for being a woman in what long has been a man's world.

Her personal appearance is critiqued. Her initial softer approach to the CBS Evening News, undertaken with management's full approval and encouragement, is ridiculed as typical of her gender. Her motherhood is seen as a detriment to covering the news in dangerous locales. She's either too bubbly or not bubbly enough.

CBS News president Sean McManus put all of these eggs in one basket during an earlier interview with unclebarky.com.

"She has to worry about a lot of things the male anchor doesn't have to worry about," he said. "How she looks or what she's wearing or how her makeup is or how her hair is. She's under enormous, enormous scrutiny on the peripheral elements of what she does. And then there are the core elements -- her interviewing skills, her delivery. For someone who's been under that scrutiny, I think her performance has been outstanding."

And now she's in Iraq, marking her first anniversary as anchor by traveling to a war zone for the first time. It's the serious business of serious news, with Couric and CBS making an all-out effort to re-sod her broadcast.

Previous attempts to make the CBS Evening News breezier or more appealing to younger audiences have been scrapped in favor of attracting a larger percentage of those older, "core" audiences for dinner hour newscasts. They're the ones who will make or break you. CBS finally gets that.

Couric ostensibly went abroad with an eye toward "the much-anticipated release to Congress of Gen. David Petraeus' status report on the U.S. effort in Iraq." That's how the CBS press release put it, but clearly there's another mission in play. This is the very week that Couric took over the Evening News in September 2006. So it's important to reboot the conversation toward something other than her continued distant third-place ranking behind ABC's World News with Charles Gibson and the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

Going to Iraq is a pro-active statement by CBS News, underscoring its intent to somehow make this work. It certainly didn't hurt that President Bush made an unannounced Labor Day visit to Iraq, and that Couric and her producers arranged a one-on-one interview with him.

Then she followed up Tuesday with an escorted trip to Anbar Province for a walking, talking Q&A with a receptive Gen. Petraeus.

"Some people might be watching this and saying this is a nice dog and pony show," Couric ventured. "Yeah, there are some areas of calm, but if you look at the country as a whole, it's still a nightmare."

Petraeus said the violence is ebbing, although still "unacceptable" in the country at large.

Basically, she asked the right questions of both Bush and Petraeus. But this is an impossible situation for a reporter of any gender. The cbsnews.com comments sections are filled with amazingly blunt and sometimes vicious responses to both Couric's reporting and the war at hand. Says one:

"Can you believe this? Katie just happens to be in Iraq when the President shows up? This is nothing more than in-your-face corporate collusion with the NeoCon agenda . . . Katie, I am glad you are in Iraq to witness the death and destruction that you and CBS are in part RESPONSIBLE FOR."

That's one of the tamer reactions. In fact, TV critics as a whole are docile beasts in comparison.

It's yet to be seen if Couric's trip to Iraq nudges the ratings meter upward or builds a firmer foundation for her second year in the CBS Evening News anchor chair.

Skeptics can't be faulted for viewing all of this as a stunt. It would be progress, though, if Couric someday could go to the scene of a big story without anyone questioning whether she's in essence trying to prove her manhood. Gibson and Williams are free of such critiques. They're allowed to get in touch with their feminine sides at will -- even when reporting on the latest advances in "The Pill."