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Ken Burns' Prohibition a rollicking/sobering look at America's nearly 14-year drinking game

Coppers gang up on booze, ultimately to no avail. PBS photos

The bar has been raised pretty high for Ken Burns. And that goes double for Prohibition, which after all is about drinking, the drive to end it and the abject failure to do so.

His vast portfolio of acclaimed documentary films for PBS dates to 1981's Brooklyn Bridge. The format remains the same: a blend of expert commentaries, celebrity voiceovers of historical figures, archival footage and stills, and mood music from three main sources -- pianos, horns, violins. This time keyboards have an upper hand.

The disparate topics are their own distinctive driving forces, though, with Burns and his longtime collaborator, Lynn Novick, sifting, winnowing and finally settling on what they hope will be just the right mix of audio and visual. Their new film is a masterpiece in that regard. It runs for five-and-a-half hours from Sunday, Oct. 2nd through Tuesday, Oct. 4th (7 p.m. central each night).

Prohibition of course is sobering at times. But it also can be almost riotously amusing in its depictions of what Prohibition wrought. Gangland violence wasn't exactly a blast. But speakeasies, flappers, the Charleston and a party girl columnist for The New Yorker -- whose pen name was "Lipstick" -- put a lot of bounce in this long look at the 18th amendment to the Constitution and its eventual repeal via the 21st. It's all perfectly narrated by Peter Coyote, who sets the table by observing that Prohibition "was meant to eradicate an evil. Instead it would turn millions of Americans into law breakers."

Sunday's opening chapter builds to the climactic Jan. 17, 1920 enactment of Prohibition after a series of false starts and scare tactics. Its early advocates aren't entirely dismissed as close-minded, wrong-headed buzz killers. Alcohol consumption, mostly on the part of men, amounted to an epidemic way of life that led to early deaths and oft-brutish treatment of women who feared the arrival home of their drunken husbands.

"Americans routinely drank at every meal, including breakfast," Coyote says.

Activists such as Eliza Jane Thompson and Frances Willard led marches and prayer vigils against demon rum and other forms of alcohol. They were taunted and in some cases stoned by saloon patrons. It was an early, primitive form of women's liberation, marked by considerable bravery on the part of those who dared to make their voices heard after years of staying at home, minding the children and wondering how they'd make ends meet after their husbands drank away the family income.

Carrie Nation, best known among the early protestors, literally took matters into her own hands by entering what were supposed to be illegal saloons in Kansas and smashing away at them with a hammer and other implements. Bar owners took to putting up signs reading, "All Nations Welcome Except Carrie."

None of this really worked. But then came the establishment of the federal income tax. From thereafter, "the government would no longer have to rely on alcohol (taxes) to fund its operations," Coyote says.

The film also notes that many advocates saw Prohibition as a way to keep alcohol away from immigrant Americans and blacks, who were seen as inferior classes with little class when it came to the bottle. Veteran New York journalist Pete Hamill, never one to mince words, says that strict Prohibition constructionists would have imprisoned Jesus for turning water into wine. That kind of distills it.

Keeping alcohol from the public never worked from the start. What America couldn't have was what America desperately wanted. And no amount of raids or other law enforcement tactics could quash the booming business in speakeasies or showy gangsters such as Chicago's Al Capone.

Burns uses former Dallas Morning News sports writer Jonathan Eig as his Capone expert. Eig's growing number of non-fiction books includes Get Capone. He says that the notoriously popular bootlegger "was the first media hound, the first publicity addict among the great gangsters." He held press conferences and bought off cops, politicians and reporters, reasoning that favorable copy about him would dupe the public because "most people are stupid enough to believe what they read in the newspapers." Capone also made the cover of Time.

Other colorful characters abound, including 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, who flamboyantly campaigned for repeal of Prohibition with the zeal of this year's crop of Republican candidates pledging to overturn "Obama care." But Herbert Hoover won election in a landslide after his allies branded Smith a dirty, drunken Catholic who would make illegal aliens of Protestant children and planned to build an underwater tunnel to the Vatican. Or at the very least allow the Pope to live in the White House.

That sounds pretty hilarious on paper, but some people bought it. Which meant that Prohibition endured through the Great Depression, which occurred on Hoover's watch and turned legions of his supporters against him. In the end, repeal of Prohibition essentially was viewed as a desperately needed jobs bill, with thousands of destitute Americans legally allowed to find employment in the beer and hard liquor industry. It all officially ended on Dec. 5, 1933 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This is only scratching the surface of Prohibition, which vividly and entertainingly recaptures an almost impossibly absurd era. In the end, it may be the most fun you'll ever have with a Ken Burns film. It probably will make you thirsty as well.


Dexter keeps up the carnage, spices it with spirituality

In the name of the father and the son and . . . Showtime photo

Showtime's latest publicity artwork for Dexter bills him as an "Avenging Angel" while picturing him in both a crucifixion pose and with bloody wings.

So there's an overriding religious motif at work as Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) again cuts to the chase while also eluding capture in Season 6 of the pay cable network's longest-running and most successful drama series.

What's the meaning of his life? Will Dexter ever bow to a higher power, other than his still materializing deceased father? Can he get his two-year-old son, Harrison, into the very exclusive Our Lady of the Gulf pre-school after telling its Catholic head nun he's a non-believer?

There also are two religious zealots at large, and they do really awful things to their victims in the name of some very twisted form of holy retribution. Add a supposedly reformed ex-convict named Brother Sam, whose blessed-is-the-Lord body shop gives fellow felons second chances. But is he for real? And if so, can Dexter learn something from Brother Sam's latter day relationship with God?

In this context, it's perhaps hard to believe that Sunday's season opener (8 p.m central preceding the new and very much recommended Homeland) comes off as a little sitcom-y at times before later hitting its stride. Episode 2 is the strongest of the three sent for review, mainly because it introduces the complex Brother Sam. He's played with striking effectiveness by Mos, who used to be Mos Def and was born Dante Terrell Smith.

He'll have a season-long arc, as will Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks (rebooting from Fox's made-in-Dallas The Good Guys). They're respectively cast as creepy Prof. James Gellar and his pliant disciple, Travis Marshall. What they do to a fruit stand vendor -- all of it off-camera -- makes Dexter's methods of execution seem like time off for good behavior. The remains are left for Miami homicide to pore over.

The sitcom-y reference is to Dexter's 20-year high school reunion, which he attends in hopes of obtaining evidence on a self-absorbed jock whom he suspects of murdering the classmate he married. Largely dismissed as a nebbish during his teen years, Dexter's "prestigious" job as a blood spatter analyst -- plus the grisly loss of his own wife at the end of Season 4 -- combine to make him both a sympathetic figure and latter day hunk to many of his former female classmates.

That's a pretty big stretch. And the episode spends too much time in this rather carnival-like setting before involving the athletically inept Dexter in a comedy-laced flag football game in which he's participating only to obtain a blood sample.

Dexter eventually gets back to basics, but can't resist another dose of religious symbolism. The killer classmate, who has a big Jesus tattoo on his chest, pleads for mercy by falling back on his "faith." That's not going to go very far with an atheist.

Episode 2 is appreciably better and the third hour includes a sterling guest shot by the redoubtable Ronny Cox, who plays an embittered retirement home coot with a sordid past and a dead-end future.

Dexter otherwise takes comfort in a nightly bedtime ritual with his son. First a little bubble bath, followed by some play activities and, initially, little Harrison's favorite "monster" story.

All of the cop shop principals, including Jennifer Carpenter as the title character's sister, Debra, are re-assembled and given new obstacles to overcome. There's no lack of one-on-one scenes with Dexter and Debra, even though in real-life Hall and Carpenter filed for divorce late last year after meeting on the set of the show and marrying in 2008. Their on-screen chemistry seems to still be in good working order.

Dexter likewise remains in solid shape, with new characters generating some additional heat while its namesake keeps plying his trade. It's always been a series unlike any other. And for those who swear by it, Dexter is still ably postponing its inevitable end-game with story lines that just won't let it quit.

GRADE: A-minus

New fall season: Showtime's Homeland stands as the first great freshman drama -- and it's not even close

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis propel Homeland. Showtime photos

Premiering: Sunday, Oct. 2nd at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood, Diego Klattenhoff, Morgan Saylor, Jackson Pace
Produced by: Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa, Gideon Raff, Michael Cuesta, Avi Nir, Ran Telem

No new fall drama series on the broadcast networks comes anywhere near Showtime's Homeland. And that's being charitable to the broadcast networks, who have served up retro Playboy bunnies, wistful Pan Am fantasies, curvy crimefighters and nothing at all exceptional.

Homeland, adapted from the Israeli series Prisoners of War, soars above this ho-hum field on the strength of its acting, storytelling and overall import in times when terrorist guessing games are still very much with us. It also gives Showtime television's best one-two dramatic punch, with the Season 6 premiere of Dexter returning Sunday as Homeland's lead-in.

Claire Danes, an Emmy winner for her exceptional work in the HBO movie Temple Grandin, stars as impassioned but unstable CIA agent Carrie Mathison. Her ongoing "mood disorder," controlled by clandestine doses of heavy medication, stems from lingering guilt that she "missed something" that might have averted the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. She's now exceedingly vigilant, perhaps to the point of obsession.

"I'm just making sure we don't get hit again," she tells mentor/boss Saul Berenson during Sunday's opening episode.

Mathison is first seen in Baghdad, scurrying to get last second information from a condemned, imprisoned Iraqi source who now feels betrayed. But his last words to her, whispered through cell bars, begin to loudly resonate 10 months later. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), presumed dead since he went missing in 2003, has been rescued after years of torture and confinement. And he's coming home an American hero. It's more than enough to put Mathison on Code Red alert. Because the source's last words to her were, "An American prisoner of war has been turned."

Homeland is a contemporary descendant of The Manchurian Candidate with elements of the landmark PBS reality series An American Family also in play.

That's because Mathison and a bugger for hire have rigged the Brody home with surveillance cameras just before he returns in the company of his wife, Jessica (former V villainess Morena Baccarin), and their children, Dana and Chris (Morgan Saylor, Jackson Pace). She had been sleeping with one of her husband's Marine buddies, Capt. Mike Faber (Diego Klattenhoff). Now there's little recourse, save to welcome him back and pretend that nothing happened in his long absence.

Watching this tableau from afar, Mathison at time feels like a voyeur, particularly when the Brodys are struggling to be intimate again. She frets in Episode 3 about whether the surveillance cameras will uncover anything of value or whether this all amounts to a non-stop "reality show" with a devoted audience of one.

Co-executive producer Howard Gordon, the principal force behind Fox's 24, told TV critics this summer that Homeland's 13-episode first season will satisfactorily answer the question of whether the freed Brody in fact has been turned. So we're going to hold him to that while also being transfixed by the myriad possibilities in play during the first three episodes sent for review. The second hour was in production when Osama bin Laden's death was announced. Ergo, Episode 2 has a reference to his demise after earlier creating its own fictional terrorist threat, Abu Nazir.

The performances in Homeland are uniformly first-rate. Lewis has been in uniform before, as Major Richard Winters in the acclaimed HBO World War II miniseries, Band of Brothers. He in effect plays three Brodys -- the bloodied captive in prison flashback scenes, the clean-shaven "hero" presented for public inspection and the tormented returnee who recites Muslim prayers in a closed-door garage away from the cameras' prying eyes.

Danes plays Mathison as a bundle of raw nerve endings, certain she's onto something but wracked with insecurities. Episode 1 has a terrific sequence in which she believes that all is lost after mentor Saul excoriates her for betraying him. A lone discordant jazz horn accompanies her agonies.

One of Homeland's reverberating lines comes in Episode 2, when Brody's behavior seems to be at odds with the conventional wisdom of how a double agent would proceed.

"No one said that becoming a terrorist was easy, Saul," Mathison blurts.

Homeland expertly threads its needles, keeping viewers guessing without becoming obtuse. It's compelling, enthralling and steeped in current realities. While the broadcast networks flail about with their new, mostly disposable dramas, Showtime threatens to overtake HBO as the premier locale for series that really count.


New fall season: CBS' How to Be a Gentleman aims at male delivery

Guess who the "gentleman" is. Give up? CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 29th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: David Hornsby, Kevin Dillon, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Dave Foley, Rhys Darby, Nancy Lenehan
Produced by: David Hornsby, Adam Chase, Ted Schachter

Several previously anointed "It Girls" populate the new fall season. In the interests of at least a semblance of equal time, there's an "It Guy," too.

He's Houston native David Hornsby (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), who not only stars in but produces and writes the CBS sitcom How to Be a Gentleman.

Unself-consciously prissy, Hornsby's character, Andrew Carlson, sounds like The Church Lady and worships at the altar of refinement. But there's very little future in that because we live in times when boorish and/or infantile behavior are bull market commodities.

Carlson, who writes a buttoned-down column for Marquis magazine, learns at the outset that his magazine is going in a new direction by "targeting people who don't read." This news is broken by his editor, Jerry (the invariably entertaining Dave Foley), who's 50, wants to keep his job and therefore will go along with the program.

A guffawing laugh track notwithstanding, there's obviously some serious and sobering truth to this. It's later further underscored when Jerry dyes his hair almost jet black in an effort to remain relevant. Also speaking volumes is his matter-of-fact notation that the magazine is going after "that demographic Holy Grail -- men in their mid-to-late 30s who act like they're 15."

"It goes against my principles. I've got to put my foot down," Andrew tells Jerry when told that his column will have to assume the position and target that crowd.

"Then I'll have to fire you."

"What time is it due?"

Again, though, this is a comedy. And true to the premise, it's broadly drawn in hopes of reaching some of those hard-to-get younger males. Another magnet is Kevin Dillon, who recently stopped playing braying Johnny Drama on HBO's Entourage. He's now in very similar form as gym owner Bert Lansing, a shoulder-punching "man's man" who used to regularly beat up Andrew when they were high school classmates.

Bert thinks it's funny to joke about his dad dying of "cancer of the penis." Nah, he really didn't. But his sense of humor is the polar opposite of rarefied. And the low-brow but likable big lug is determined to mold Andrew into an aggressor male willing to shed his $500 blazer in favor of a tank top.

This dynamic works surprisingly well for a show that unapologetically "is what it is." It made me laugh in fits and spurts, which CBS' more-praised 2 Broke Girls definitely didn't.

The cast also has a third familiar face in Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe from 24), who plays Andrew's tart sister, Janet. She's married to a compliant Britisher named Mike (Rhys Darby), who pretty much lets her walk all over him. But that's Janet's SOP.

"Oh, is this my birthday present from you?" Andrew asks after absorbing a volley of her insults at a family dinner. " 'Cause you gave me a hugh basket of bitchiness last year, too."

Mike and Janet's gift actually is an introductory session at Bert's Body Shop. So that's how they meet before forming an odd couple alliance in the interests of firming up Andrew's pecs and personality.

"When I look at you, I get sad," Bert tells him at a strip club. That's because Andrew knows "everything about bein' a gentleman but nothin' about bein' a man."

Paired with CBS' hit The Big Bang Theory on Thursdays, How to Be a Gentleman is alternately muscle-headed and muscular. Hornsby's writing isn't always razor sharp, but it pretty much gets the job done in an opening episode that both rings of truth and loudly rings the bell.

There's probably no danger of anyone laughing 'til they cry. But this is a comedy with a solid core group of characters and a chance to go the distance. Which in these times would be all the way to a second season. On opening night, viewers might find that Bert, Andrew and How to Be a Gentleman go pretty well with a well-mannered slice of brie -- and a bargain bottle of brewski.

GRADE: B-minus

Rooney leaving 60 Minutes after Sunday's farewell commentary

Didja ever think you'd see the day when Andy Rooney would step down from 60 Minutes?

Well, it's come.

CBS announced Tuesday that the Sunday, Oct. 2nd edition of the program will mark the 92-year-old icon's last regular appearance as the closing commentator. Rooney himself will say as much on the air, the network said. He has been on 60 Minutes since 1978, and this will be his 1,097th essay.

His sign-off from weekly duties will be preceded by Rooney looking back on his career in an interview with 60 Minutes colleague Morley Safer.

Rooney was not quoted in the CBS announcement. But CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager praised his "immeasurable" contributions to the program. "It's harder for him to do it every week, but he will always have the ability to speak his mind on 60 Minutes when the urge hits him."

Realistically, Rooney is very unlikely to return after Sunday's telecast. Whether he was pushed or is leaving entirely of his own accord, it's time for him to go. No one is entitled to these positions until death intercedes -- not even Rooney. Oft-parodied, sometimes controversial and suspended for three months in 1990 for his controversial off-camera comments about blacks and gays, Rooney arguably is irreplaceable but not immovable.

His first commentary for 60 Minutes, in July 1978, was about automobile fatalities on Independence Day, according to the CBS publicity release.

"There's nobody like Andy and there never will be," Fager said. "He'll hate hearing this, but he's an American original."

Rooney also has written a string of bestselling books and is a World II veteran who was drafted into the Army in 1941. In the many years since, he certainly has had his say. And become a household name while doing so.

New fall season: ABC's teenage wasteland is otherwise called Suburgatory

A dad and his unhappy daughter are front and center in Suburgatory. ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 28th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Jeremy Sisto, Jane Levy, Cheryl Hines, Carly Chaikin, Allie Grant, Alan Tudyk
Produced by: Emily Kapnek, Michael Fresco

Oh those kids.

They drive their parents crazy on The Middle and sorely vex them on Modern Family. Now ABC is copping more teen 'tudes with Suburgatory, which will be bridging its two established Wednesday night comedies.

Manhattan also is getting a full-blown workout in this new fall season. Innumerable characters are either living there or leaving against their will. Sixteen-year-old Tessa Altman (Jane Levy) is of the latter species. Single dad George (Jeremy Sisto) first finds an unopened box of condoms in her bedroom. Then he prematurely evacuates -- at least as far as she's concerned.

Safe, sound, sunlit surburbia is their destination. And the sitcom embellishments include an abundance of pink, ultra-immaculate lawns, boob jobs for all the moms, sugar-free Red Bulls for their kids and George as an incoming object of desire.

"Pretty ironic that a boxful of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic," Tessa bitingly narrates. There's a lot of that going around, too, with voice-overs setting the table -- and re-setting it -- on a bunch of freshman comedies and dramas. It's easier than staging scenes and also saves on the time and money it takes to film them.

Suburgatory, which like its Wednesday night running mates is without a laugh track, has some nice touches in its passably amusing opening episode. It also joins the likes of 2 Broke Girls, Whitney and Free Agents in its zeal to be sexplicit.

A scene at a shopping mall includes a rather jarring exchange among Tessa, incumbent surburban mom Dallas Royce (Cheryl Hines) and her spoiled teen daughter, Dalia (Carly Chaikin).

Mom first marvels at a pair of skimpy "boyfriend shorts" before Dalia says they'll "show off my belly ring."

"You know what else that will show off," Tessa fires back. "Your vagina."

Meanwhile, this is the first comedy series for Sisto, who previously has played Jesus in a CBS miniseries and an oft-creepy schizophrenic on HBO's Six Feet Under. He gets through the opening episode in pretty good shape, walking a tightrope between being Tessa's punching bag and a would-be bedmate for Dallas and other married or single lonely hearts. Architect George apparently hasn't had much action since "my mom ducked out shortly after they cut the umbilical cord," as Tessa puts it in one of her narratives.

Dad and daughter almost succumb to a full-out shouting match after she keeps calling him "George" while insolently sipping a can of Red Bull at the dinner table instead of eating the meal he's prepared. She storms out and he's left agreeing that he's ruined his only kid's life. The next morning at the breakfast table, she's reading "How to Become An Emancipated Minor" while he opts for "Is Adoption for You?"

But Tessa of course thaws a bit before the closing credits roll. Maybe suburbia and its over-the-top moms aren't so bad after all. Maybe dad deserves the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I'm amazed that an olive branch comes in the form of a gaudy pink bra bought for Tessa by Dallas, a woman "who knows a thing or two about bras."

Let's see how it all develops. For now, Levy is an OK mix of insolence and vulnerability, Hines is her usual hoot and Sisto shows signs of being nimble on his feet in an arena where he's still learning the ropes.

GRADE: B-minus

New fall season: CW's Hart of Dixie goes south without too many hick-ups

Hart of Dixie is headed by Rachel Bilson (center). CW photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 26th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Rachel Bilson, Scott Porter, Jaime King, Wilson Bethel, Cress Williams
Produced by: Leila Gerstein, Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage, Len Goldstein, Jason Ensler

Nicely spiced by broad but interesting characters, Hart of Dixie easily is the most grounded of The CW's three new fish-out-of-water serial dramas. Even if the network's latest transplanted young woman immediately throws her fried fish-out-of-water into the trash basket rather than eat it for lunch.

This one is set in fictional Bluebell, Alabammy, where nose-in-the-air Dr. Zoey Hart (Rachel Bilson from The O.C.) finds herself after failing to get a cardio-thoracic surgeon fellowship while interning in New York City.

Basically, her beside manners have never been operative. And when advised to go into general practice for a year, she scrunches up and says, "First of all, diarrhea and diaper rash -- ewww."

But Zoe ends up reluctantly responding to a series of postcards sent by a mysterious elderly gent who attended her college graduation four years earlier. He had kept inviting her to work at his small general practice in Bluebell, which is so remote that the bus taking her there doesn't get any closer than three miles away. Left to walk the rest of the distance on a country road, Zoe luckily encounters a handsome, refined attorney named George Tucker (Friday Night Lights alum Scott Porter). He's of course driving a pickup truck, because that appears to be the area's only mode of transportation. But he's nice 'n' friendly and loyal to his hometown after his own brief stay in Manhattan proved to be less than satisfactory.

"You can call it what you want," George says of Bluebell. "But I call it home."

Zoe gets her shots in early, initially dismissing Bluebell as a backwards hillbilly haven. The sight of southern belles dancing in Civil War dresses puts her off her feed more than the slathered fried catfish does.

"OK, someone needs to tell the people in this town that it's 2011," she says before dressing down a blonde throwback named Lemon Breeland (Jaime King) as "some southern xenophobe dressed up like a stick of butter."

But it gets better. Bilson's Zoe is appealing in her own stuck-up way, and her encounters with various townies are surprisingly well-played. One of them unfortunately won't be around much longer. Nancy Travis, cast as a down-home doctor's assistant named Emeline Hattenbarger, will be co-starring as Tim Allen's wife in ABC's upcoming Last Man Standing sitcom. So she'll have time for just one more episode of Hart before moving on.

Burt Reynolds, the name given to a roaming town alligator, also is being written out because he just didn't take direction very well, producers of the show told TV writers at the recent Television Critics Association "press tour." And Tim Matheson's flinty Dr. Brick Breeland -- "Believe you me, Zoe Hart, we are going to chase you away from our waters" -- will be at best a recurring character, although he'll appear in eight of the first 13 scheduled episodes.

There are still enough weekly regular characters under contract, though. Cress Williams (also from Friday Night Lights) is instantly likable as mayor Lavon Hayes. He's a self-assured former NFL star who refers to himself in the third person and got elected because of his longstanding football fame. Also residing in Bluebell is ladies man and would-be country rocker Wade Kinsella (Wilson Bethel), who tells Zoe she's "drunk as a boiled owl" before she impulsively makes out with him in his -- but of course -- pickup truck.

Hart of Dixie also afflicts Zoe with a domineering mom who blows into Bluebell to rescue her daughter from this living hell before a fairly surprising twist leaves her fresh out of ammo. By this time, Zoe has already come to the aid of a portly country girl with a belittling mother and a baby on the way.

The series overdoes it a bit with the banjo music and has a little too much narrative from Zoe. Still, it's an inviting first hour, with plenty of room to grow via a cast of solidly drawn central characters and whatever patients of the week pop into Zoe's new practice. There's nothing here to suggest that Hart of Dixie will cure cancer or garner any Emmy nominations. But it goes down pretty easy if you'd like to set down for a spell with a disarmingly pleasant little down-home melodrama.

GRADE: B-minus

New fall season: Fox'sTerra Nova goes picturesquely prehistoric but with a prototypical script

Standing tall in prehistoric Terra Nova. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 26th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Jason O'Mara, Shelley Conn, Stephen Lang, Landon Liboiron, Naomi Scott, Slana Mansour, Christine Adams, Allison Miller
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Peter Chernin, Rene Echevarria, Brannon Braga

Even with the cast's inflated salaries, at least 10 Jersey Shores could be made for the price of one Terra Nova. And that also includes the liquor bill.

So Fox should be credited for putting some real money on the screen and striving to add an "event" to the broadcast TV landscape. Absent miniseries and all but shorn of made-for-TV movies, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have long been nickel-and-diming it on the luster front. Terra Nova is a profligate spender, with its futuristic and prehistoric worlds of desolation and dinosaurs.

Not that Monday's delayed two-hour premiere isn't also laden with predictability, pat situations and a script that too often thuds instead of clicks. Originally scheduled to air after May's final performance edition of American Idol, its production problems apparently had everything to do with the special effects and little to do with punching up the storyline.

Head producer Steven Spielberg supposedly is very "hands-on" with this project, which unfortunately doesn't result in much overall originality.

There of course must be a slightly fractured family with a resentful teen and a wide-eyed little kid in the mix. His name is Josh. Her name is Zoe.

Later on, a pack of willful coming-of-agers, including Josh, is packed into an armored vehicle which is then assaulted by a "slasher" monster with a lethal tail while adults ride to the rescue. It's an an overlong sequence without any real bite or jeopardy.

Heavy-handed pronouncements also are front and center, with tough but compassionate Col. Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang of Avatar in full verbal battle dress. Referring to the renegade "Sixers" striving to topple him, Taylor sets his jaw and says, "I'll tell you this. I'm not gonna let them. I'm not gonna let anybody stand in the way of what we are building here. Terra Nova will succeed." Gotcha. Now have a milk shake.

This grand stage is first set with a big-print preamble: "At the dawn of the 22nd century, the world is on the verge of environmental collapse. Mankind's only hope for survival lies 85 million years in the past."

In other words, ignorance of climate change rather than a complete economic meltdown proved to be the ultimate lethal weapon in what publicity materials for Terra Nova say is the year 2149. (That's not quite the "dawn" of the 22nd century, but let's move on.)

The central family is the Shannons, who have secretly defied a law against having more than two children. But authorities move in and arrest former Chicago cop Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara) after he punches an onerous "Population Control" officer. His doctor wife, Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), looks on in horror, as do kids Josh (Landon Liboiron), Maddy (Naomi Scott) and illegal Zoe (Alana Mansour).

Jim gets a stiff sentence in unforgiving Golad Prison. And two years later, his wife and the two oldest kids are selected to travel through a portal to prehistoric Terra Nova. Through unconvincing means, Elisabeth slips Jim a key to his freedom while Zoe is smuggled in a backpack. They all make it in rather preposterous fashion to Terra Nova, where Josh suddenly cops a 'tude and says it's dad's "own damn fault" for being locked up and "you can't just come back after all this time and start telling me what to do."

Funny, but up until that time Josh didn't want to go to Terra Nova without his pop alongside them. During the series' various re-boots, did they simply veer implausibly into a new direction in order to input more conflict?

Dad decrees that "we're starting over -- as a family," before being assigned to pick giant weeds. But he quickly alters that career course by making a heroic effort that causes Col. Taylor to re-evaluate him. Taylor shows some signs of being enigmatic and driven by a secret agenda. But he mostly makes pronouncements for now.

There's a cute scene involving little Zoe feeding a long-necked gentle giant of a dinosaur. And the first major action sequence is pretty pulsating, with a Carnotaurus chasing a team of Sixers and the two leading men while they all race back to the protected settlement in low-riding armored vehicles. The climactic scene is poorly edited, though. Watch for it when Taylor lures a Carno with his gun blazing before Jim rides rather miraculously to his rescue.

Terra Nova also strongly hints at deeper secrets and entanglements, with a cryptic reference by Sixer leader Mira (Christine Adams) to the "real reason for Terra Nova's existence." Namely, "Control the past, control the future."

It's then time for the reunited Shannon family to gather in unison for a closing shot framed by a very full moon.

Under present plans, Fox says it can only air 13 episodes of Terra Nova per season. And that would include a Season 2 if it happens. For one, the series is expensive. It also takes longer for each episode to emerge with its special effects fully intact.

Will the network get enough bang for its bucks? Or will its biggest hit of the new season so far -- the comedy series New Girl -- end up being 10 or 20 times more cost-effective?

Terra Nova certainly doesn't lack ambition and scope, which is a plus. But its first two hours fall short in the storytelling department. There's still time to make this a series about more than dino-mite. At present, its creatures only have to roar in prototypically primal fashion. The humans get stuck with the scripts, which so far puts them in double jeopardy.

Going directly against a Dallas Cowboys game in Week 1 won't help matters either. Endangered quarterbacks provide a lot more real-life suspense than anything Terra Nova can dream up.


New fall season: ABC's Pan Am looks good, but has the dramatic heft of a plywood plane

All aboard for a little Pan Am glam. ABC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Christina Ricci, Margot Robbie, Kelli Garner, Karine Vanasse, Jonah Lotan, Michael Mosley
Produced by: Tommy Schlamme, Jack Orman, Nancy Hult Ganis

Mad Men has style and substance in abundance. ABC's new Pan Am, also set in the early 1960s, merits some style points but is a mere carry-on bag in the other department.

Life and air travel were different back in 1963. And in the early seconds of Pan Am, a mockup of a Life magazine cover has beauteous new stew Laura (Margot Robbie) under a "Welcome to the Jet Age" headline. Imagine leg room. Those were the days.

Beyond selling the glamour of it all, Pan Am may be very hard-pressed to come up with weekly storylines that impel viewers to climb aboard. The Love Boat had a spacious vessel, numerous compartments and Isaac the fun-loving bartender. Fantasy Island offered scenic beauty and the odd couple duo of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. Both welcomed assembly lines of celebrity guests, ranging all the way from Andy Warhol to Ruth Buzzi. You could eat an entire box of Whitman's Sampler chocolates while watching these things.

Pan Am's opening episode centers on a six-and-a-half-hour flight from New York to London, aided and abetted by numerous flashbacks to fill out the hour. You want jeopardy or hijinks? Well, one of the stewardesses, named Kate (Kelli Garner), is an apprentice in-flight secret agent of sorts. In the interests of Cold War intrigue, she's assigned to smuggle something into an officious passenger's briefcase. Can you feel the excitement? Nor could I.

The aforementioned Laura is a runaway bride who raced away with Kate (her sister) in a red convertible while mama had a fit. Both Laura and "rebellious bohemian" Maggie (the accomplished Christina Ricci wasting her time) yearn to spread their wings and see the world. But an officious middle-aged stewardess matron, with her hair in a tourniquet-like bun, makes sure that all of her charges are first dutifully wearing their girdles. If you want a 1960s reference, she looks like Lotta Lenya's villainous henchwoman, Rosa Klebb, in From Russia with Love.

The other featured stew is French Colette (Karine Vanasse), who -- ooh la la -- had an affair with a guy who turned out to be married. She learns this when the cad boards the New York to London flight with both his wife and their wide-eyed son in tow. A-w-w-w-w-wkward.

There are a couple of pilots, too, both of whom barely look old enough to navigate the planes at Disneyland. Weren't flyboys of that era at least George Clooney's age?

Whatever the case, Dean (Jonah Lotan) is a dashing twentysomething navigator who intends to marry stunning stewardess Bridget. But she instead pulls a disappearing act. Co-pilot Ted (Michael Mosley) considers himself a real cocksman out of the cockpit. "Yeah, who's filling in the rest of her?" he cracks when when told that Maggie is a last-minute fill-in for Bridget.

The planes are nice looking, though. And those pale blue Pan Am stewardess uniforms look great when all four principals are marching in lockstep toward a waiting plane while a little girl looks on in awe and dreams of someday being one of them. The period music's suitably retro-cool, too, with Mack the Knife in full swing down the homestretch.

But where do we go from here? Pan Am strives to sell the notion that "adventure calls," as Maggie tells Laura. But how so? Crashing into a body of water during a ratings "sweeps" period might be a one-time possibility. But in Sunday's opener there's really nothing more calamitous than a "patch of rough air."

Co-executive producer Tommy Schlamme previously helped to helm The West Wing, so maybe he can find a way to somehow sustain this thing. That seems doubtful, though. Even a sidetrip flashback to a Bay of Pigs rescue operation lays flat in the premiere episode. And as for the instantly unlikeable co-pilot Ted, there should be a law against him even once getting lucky.


New fall season: CBS' A Gifted Man gives the network a ghost of a chance to at last make a medical drama stick

She's a ghost, he's her ex-husband on A Gifted Man. CBS photo

Premiering: Friday, Sept. 23rd at 7 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Ehle, Margo Martindale, Pablo Schreiber
Produced by: Susannah Grant, Neal Baer, Carl Beverly, Sarah Timberman

CBS hasn't had a hit medical drama in ages.

It's done OK in recent years with the supernatural, though. Ghost Whisperer ran for five seasons on Friday nights and then Medium hung in for a year-and-a-half after CBS rescued it from NBC's cancellation.

So what to do next? Pair a hard-charging, career-obsessed doctor with an ex-wife who's returned from the dead. And lead off Friday nights with them in hopes that CBS viewers will have missed seeing ghosts on this night and at this hour.

A Gifted Man, the only one of five new CBS series to be "updated" with a revised inaugural episode, is still falling short of making a dynamite first impression. Still, it's a fairly affecting opener in which someone dies but at least isn't murdered. On crime-choked CBS, that qualifies as a stroll through the park on a beautiful day -- with benefits.

Patrick Wilson stars as Manhattan-based Dr. Michael Holt. He's first seen brow-beating co-workers in the operating room, making him initially seem like Dr. Gregory House or, for TV viewers with long institutional memories, Ben Casey.

But what if either of those guys were to be revisited by a beaming, sweet-tempered ex-wife who looks like a younger Meryl Streep? And what if they got along great despite their breakup in Alaska? And then what if Michael learned that Anna Paul (Jennifer Ehle) in fact had died two weeks earlier on the eve of taking a director's job at the Clinica Sanando in a poor NYC neighborhood?

Well, Michael at first is more than a little spooked. But Anna's soothing and recurring visits start to take the edge off his brusque behavior. He even starts behaving humanely, bringing a poor Hispanic mom and her sick kids to his high-toned hospital for some on-the-house health care.

First do no harm -- as they say in the medical profession. A Gifted Man won't kill any brain cells if you want to give it a try. But it's not all there yet with an unwieldy mix that also includes two life-threatening cases, a few scenes with Michael's frazzled sister, Christina (Julie Benz) and her problematic teen son and an attempted exorcism of sorts by a mystic named Anton (Pablo Schreiber). Publicity materials say he'll be a series regular, as will Michael's sharp-tongued aide, Rita Perkins-Hall (Margo Martindale fresh off her best supporting actress Emmy win for Justified).

There's also this central question: why did Michael and Anna break up in the first place? Yeah, he was starting to put his career first and she obviously was more of an idealist. But this is the sweetest woman on the face of the earth -- or so we have every reason to believe. And she's gorgeous, too.

In death, she's also life-affirming.

"I have all these things to finish. All these doors I left open," Anna tells Michael. Won't he help her close them? By the way, she asks him very, very nicely.

"You don't fit into who I am," he replies. "I can't be delusional."

"Why can't I be the one thing in life you don't understand?" she counters.

But he says that's always been the case.

Don't worry, though. She's not going anywhere, because CBS may well need a friendly ghost to make one of its medical dramas finally click.

Your Friday night alternatives at this hour on the other four major broadcast networks are ABC's transplanted Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, NBC's on-its-last-legs Chuck, Fox's hell-raising Kitchen Nightmares and The CW's ass-kicking Nikita.

In that realm, CBS' spirit is willing and a viewer's flesh is weaker if you're lucky enough to have reached the end of another long work week. Soothing the soul with an otherworldly massage may not be such a bad idea under the circumstances.


New fall season: Winging it without a flight plan in ABC's new Charlie's Angels

Bosley's pretty, too, in yet another new Charlie's Angels. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 22nd at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Minka Kelly, Annie Ilonzeh, Rachael Taylor, Ramon Rodriguez
Produced by: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Drew Barrymore, Leonard Goldbert, Nancy Juvonen

Nothing against eye candy, "jiggle" or memories of Farrah Fawcett making outstanding contributions in both.

But Charlie's Angels surely is a worn-out franchise after the campy, iconic original, two feature films and a pair of failed efforts -- Angels '88 and Angels '89 -- that both fell short of full series status despite the presence of Tea Leoni.

By now you know, though. ABC is rebooting anew with a Charlie's Angels in which they're all former criminals given second chances by condescending old Charlie Townsend. It leads off the network's Thursday prime-time schedule, with the action originating in Miami and the scripts apparently bought from Godawful, Inc.

Here's the lineup, introduced by Charlie himself (Robert Wagner backed out and Victor Garber reportedly will voice the new Charlie, although ABC still won't officially confirm anything.):

Abby Sampson (Rachael Sampson) used to be a "Park Avenue princess turned thief."

Gloria Morales (Nadine Velazquez) was "court-martialed for a deadly mistake."

Kate Prince (Annie Ilonzeh) is a former "dedicated police detective turned dirty cop."

Except that one of them is going to be blown to bits early in Thursday's premiere episode. That leaves an opening for former Friday Night Lights co-star Minka Kelly as Eve French. She's fresh from four years in the slammer after pleading no contest to grand theft auto and manslaughter.

John Bosley is the only same-named character from the original series. But he's no longer a pudgy court jester. This Boz is a hunk played by Ramon Rodriguez. And in a sting operation set at a "Heaven and Hell" costumed soiree, he even gets to seduce an evil Russian Natasha whose name is actually Nadia.

Missing amid the action scenes is any real sense of fun. Instead the script groans with lines such as "You know, I never thought my heart could hurt this much." Or this from Charlie, for whom a gag order should be issued: "Just remember, you're Angels of justice, not Angels of vengeance."

Minka's newbie Angel also gets to be rather gruesomely tortured by Carlos Bernard of 24 fame, who plays a thoroughly nasty child trafficker named Pajaro. He might as well be twirling a handlebar mustache while he punches and electro-shocks poor Eve.

The acting pretty much dips to the level of the opening night script, which may well be what a reviewer or two said of the 1976 premiere episode of the original Charlie's Angels. But that series had a wink-and-a-nod sensibility in addition to its scenic beauties. Thirty-five TV seasons later, the new Angels strives to take itself seriously, even when Abby spouts lines such as, "We're Angels. Not Saints." And by the way, they "don't exactly play by the rules either." Guh-roan.

Eve plays a bit hard to get before of course joining the crew. Just what does Charlie expect of an Angel, she wonders. And will there at least be a gift basket (she doesn't wonder).

"He keeps his criteria close to his vest," Bosley replies in one of the clunkier lines ever written for anybody.

The theme song at least hasn't been changed. It remains oddly listenable in a Montovani sort of way. Who the hell's Montovani? Case closed, before my head explodes.


New fall season: NBC's Prime Suspect is an applause-worthy encore

Hats off to Maria Bello in the new Prime Suspect. NBC photos

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Maria Bello, Aidan Quinn, Brian F. O'Byrne, Tim Griffin, Kirk Acevedo, Damon Gupton, Peter Gerety
Produced by: Peter Berg, Alexandra Gillespie, Sarah Aubrey, Julie Meldal-Johnson, Paul Buccieri, Lynda LaPlante, John McNamara, Kenny Johnson

How dare they try to do a new Prime Suspect series without Helen Mirren as put-upon, hard-boiled London detective Jane Tennison.

Well, NBC has taken that dare and done a very decent job of it in a Manhattan-based version starring Pennsylvanian Maria Bello as tough-minded detective Jane Timoney.

Renaming her a bit doesn't seem all that necessary. Not that it's of any capital concern once Bello gets rolling. She's convincingly ambitious and resilient from the start, when her biggest adversary is the cigarette-smoking she's just given up.

We first see her jogging, coughing, spitting and chewing nicotine gum before having a set-to with a recalcitrant cab driver. Then it's on to the featured crime scene, which is thoroughly and graphically blood-soaked.

And of course the victim is a woman because research tells the networks that viewers will be more "invested" in catching the perpetrator if his prey is considered more vulnerable or sympathetic. Unfortunately, the number of women murdered in the name of various crime shows -- added to the number of little girls kidnapped -- has long ago over-stepped the boundaries of exploitation. Whatever the overall quality of Prime Suspect, it's same old/same old in that respect. The depictions of the corpses, as well as the descriptions of what's been done to them, should also be cause for concern. Unfortunately, though, there's no statute of limitations on this.

Back at the Prime Suspect cop shop, the resident boys club still considers Timoney the enemy. Rumors that she slept her way into a transfer have prompted some of the animosity. It still seems at least a little over-played, though, even if Timoney has an ally in Lt. Kevin Sweeney (solid work by Aidan Quinn). He's the department boss, trying to exercise a firm hand while also allowing his personal office to be an ad hoc bar where the men drink jumbo shots of straight liquor from cartoon-emblazoned jelly jars.

Timoney finds herself running in place until one of these guys drops dead from a heart attack. She brazenly lobbies for his cases and pisses Sweeney off before he gives them to her.

The opening episode has been re-worked to all but eliminate a side case involving a woman thrown from the top of a 152-story building. Timoney instead turns her energies toward solving the serial rapist case. She sometimes wears a smallish fedora while on the street in her police uniform. From this perspective it's an odd distraction. But Kojak had his lollipops and Columbo his rumpled raincoat. So we'll see.

Timoney also lives with a guy named Matt (Kenny Johnson) and has time to visit her supportive pop, Desmond (Peter Gerety). The denouement in Thursday's opening episode leaves her strikingly bloodied for a woman detective. Her first question of a fellow cop: "Do you have a cigarette?"

Co-executive producer Peter Berg brought Friday Night Lights to the small-screen, so he's not afraid of TV adaptations. His drama series invariably look "authentic." And Prime Suspect is studiously gritty.

Bello's performance is the prime reason to watch, though. She's got the chops to succeed Mirren, even if she never surpasses her. The best new crime drama of the fall season doesn't necessarily have to be an original idea. It just has to have the right people in place.


New fall season: CBS' Person of Interest had this person pretty interested

Jim Caviezel & Michael Emerson star in Person of Interest. CBS photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Chapman
Produced by: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Jonathan Nolan, David Semel, Greg Plageman

Men o' action used to be plentiful in prime-time. Handy with their fists and at ease with weaponry, they'd slug and shoot their way through whatever crooks were available.

Now they're a dying breed. Women call the shots in most of this fall's new dramas, with just one of them dependent on a hard-charging leading man. Old school CBS is the carrier and Person of Interest is the show. Buckle up.

Jim Cavaziel, beaten to death in The Passion of the Christ, gets a chance to mete out punishment as a presumed dead former government operative who feels betrayed and looks like hell until Michael Emerson from Lost finds him.

The Lost link extends to co-executive producer J.J. Abrams, who initially masterminded that series before pretty much leaving it to others. He's now behind Person of Interest, a vigilante-style numbers game in which Emerson's "Mr. Finch" has an incredible array of data but otherwise needs some muscle to keep bad things from happening. That's where Cavaziel's Reese comes in, with neither principal character getting a full name so far.

In what amounts to the obligatory flashback scene, Reese is first seen in the sack with the love of his life, Jessica. The date turns out to be Sept. 11, 2001. And from that day on, Reese apparently had some very bad things happen to him, including Jessica's demise. It's led him to the point of being a very disheveled looking suicidal drunk who's slouched in a Manhattan subway car when accosted by a group of young punks.

They shouldn't have done that. Because Reese easily bloodies, bruises and subdues all four of them before being taken to the cop shop for questioning. His interrogator, a homicide detective named Carter (series regular Taraji P. Henson), tries to feel his inner pain. But her mystery man is soon bailed out and taken off to meet Mr. Finch. "You need a purpose," Reese is told. "More specifically, you need a job."

So Finch riddles him this. He has a post 9/11 wealth of social security numbers at his disposal, and a woman prosecutor currently is at the top of his list. This means that in the very near future, she's either in jeopardy or plans to jeopardize others. Reese's mission, should he accept it, is to avert whatever's about to happen. He's at first reluctant, of course, but gets quickly into the swing of things.

Reese's specialty in Thursday night's opener is shooting adversaries in their thighs. This serves to disable them without deep-sixing them. "I don't particularly like killing people," he says. "But I'm very good at it."

Reese also is well-practiced in the arts of breaking and entering, and cell phone tapping. It greatly aids him in keeping tabs on the mark of the week. Meanwhile, Finch limps along at his side -- literally -- while otherwise exhorting him from afar to act quickly or all is lost. It's somewhat akin to The Equalizer, the 1980s CBS action series in which a disillusioned former government secret agent came to the aid of innocents while also occasionally consulting with his former Agency boss.

Person of Interest cuts deeper than that, with viewers also getting a little treatise on why Finch is so good with numbers. Ya see, the federal government built this incredible array of all-seeing devices and machines after 9/11. And Finch designed and built the principal hardware before becoming haunted by the idea that only major life-and-death situations were of interest to the feds. Garden variety murders, at the rate of one every 18 hours in Manhattan -- were not on the government's radar for some reason. Finch felt bad about that, even though he expects to be murdered himself some day for his rogue efforts.

Emerson is well-suited to this stuff after six years as the manipulative Benjamin Linus on Lost. Cavaziel plays his role straight up and a little creepily at times. His sense of humor occasionally kicks in. But even Chuck Norris on Walker, Texas Ranger had an overall more jovial temperament.

Person of Interest, which has a dank but filmic look to it, will also be unraveling layers of both men's traumatic back stories. Because that's the way Abrams rolls. Pretty much everything is a conspiracy.

"Let's just say you're not the only one that's lost something," Emerson's Finch tells Reese later in the premiere episode, emphasizing the word "lost" in case you somehow couldn't place him.

Together they'll be the brains and brawn of this operation in times when the broadcast networks aren't particularly interested in take-charge men with acquired tastes for pounding the hell out of bad guys -- or shooting them in their thighs. Thanks. We maybe needed that.


New fall season: NBC's Whitney gets off to a smart 'n' snappy start

Whitney Cummings is in front of cameras for her 2nd fall show. Photo: Ed Bark

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 22nd at 8:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Whitney Cummings, Chris D'Elia, Rhea Seehorn, Zoe Lister-Jones, Maulik Pancholy, Dan O'Brien
Produced by: Whitney Cummings, Scott Stuber, Quan Phung, Betsy Thomas, Barry Katz, Andy Ackerman

NBC has branded Whitney Cummings this fall's "It" girl. It doesn't necessarily mean she's the best thing about the new sitcom Whitney, although she's still quite a bit better than good.

The revelation here is Chris D'Elia, who plays Whitney's live-in boyfriend, Alex. He's the low-key, but quick-with-a-quip anchor of a series in which the title character and her two likewise high-strung girlfriends are far less likely to tone it down.

D'Elia, who like Cummings comes from the standup comedy world, is a solid delivery man when it comes to making the most of his somewhat secondary role. At a wedding reception, for instance, Whitney is caught in the act of prematurely glomming onto the cupcakes after earlier being talked out of wearing white.

"Wow, you're on fire tonight," D'Elia's Alex notes. "What are you closing with -- blackface?"

The two of them have been together for three years, with no inclination to become Mr. and Mrs. Her parents have both been divorced three times, so it's Whitney's opinion that "getting married is so dumb." Alex is more than OK with that, although their lax sex life could use a little boost. Or at least Whitney feels that way, prompting her to wear a naughty nurse's outfit to surprise Alex when he returns home. First, though, he'll have to fill out the patient forms. It's a funny bit, and you're probably assuming it doesn't end well. It doesn't.

Cummings, whose career began catching fire on the E! network's Chelsea Lately, is very busy this fall. She's also the co-creator and executive producer of CBS' 2 Broke Girls, which rocked the ratings with a Monday premiere that capitalized on the coattails of the preceding debut of Ashton Kutcher as Charlie Sheen's replacement on Two and a Half Men.

Whitney, the only NBC comedy with a studio audience and attendant laugh track, is slotted after The Office on Thursday nights. So it's also following a show in transition, with James Spader stepping in to fill the void left by Steve Carell.

Cummings has nowhere near the acting experience of any of the aforementioned stars. But she acquits herself well in Whitney's opener, with D'Elia landing some welcome softer punchlines. How nice it is to have a guy who's neither a shouter nor a whiner.

Sitcoms also can rise and fall on the strength of their supporting players. Whitney's so far/so good gal pals include a sardonic divorcee named Roxie (Rhea Seehorn) and the much sunnier Lily (Zoe Lister-Jones), who's proud of her frequent sex with boyfriend Neal (Maulik Pancholy). A rather tiresome would-be playuh named Mark (Dan O'Brien) rounds out the ensemble. He's also a cop.

The premiere episode for the most part is snappily written and bracingly vibrant. And D'Elia can be relied on to take it down a notch when needed. It all makes for a promising start on a network whose best comedies invariably wind up on Thursday nights. Whitney is already there, and looks as though it just might belong.


New fall season: ABC's Revenge seems fated to plot 'n' plod along

See that steely look? This girl wants plenty o' Revenge. ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 21st at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Emily VanCamp, Madeleine Stowe, Gabriel Mann, Henry Czerny, Josh Bowman, Nick Wechsler, Christa B. Allen, Ashley Madekwe, Connor Paolo
Produced by: Mike Kelley, Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey

Confucius doesn't get referenced much on network TV these days. After all, the very ancient Chinese philosopher skews way past the desired 18-to-49-year-old network demographic. Even most college kids likely are more familiar with the musings of a Kardashian.

But there he is, setting the table for ABC's new Revenge serial drama with a little printed advice right up top. "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves," he supposedly advised long before even Larry King could book him as a guest.

Then comes the rather lengthy narrative of the very wronged Emily Thorne (Emily Van Camp), a coming-of-age masquerader with an unbending agenda to thoroughly eviscerate a filthy rich Hamptons family .

"For the truly wronged," she says in part, "real satisfaction can be found in only one of two places -- absolute forgiveness or mortal vindication. This is not a story about forgiveness."

OK, OK, got it. But Revenge keeps redundantly driving this point home throughout Wednesday's frequently heavy-handed premiere. It also often looks and sounds like a CW series, with a willowy young blonde beauty at its center and irksome pop music vocals never far away.

ABC has strong-willed women at the throttles of all four of its new fall season dramas while men are on doofus patrol in the new sitcoms Last Man Standing and Man Up. In Revenge, the plots are driven by both avenging Emily and haughty "Queen Victoria" Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), who specializes in sense-of-entitlement charity functions when she's not screwing underlings into submission.

The new season is heavy on flashbacks, and Revenge certainly has its share. There's an apparent murder in the opening minutes, with Emily seemingly the orchestrator while also attending a lavish nighttime engagement party at which she's the fiancee.

Then it's back to three months earlier, with Emily moving into a sprawling beach house located next door to the Graysons' high-priced spread. By the way, Emily's not her real name. And she's come to avenge the framing of her beloved, recently deceased father, with whom she's seen as a very happy little girl via those aforementioned looks at her past.

The Grayson home, not an altogether happy one, is also populated by unfaithful hubby Conrad (Henry Czerny), vacuous teen daughter Charlotte (Christa B. Allen) and her reasonably serious-minded older brother, Daniel (Josh Bowman), who's just returned home for the summer after another semester at an expensive college.

There's also indulgent Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), who wears twitty pants and knows of Emily's past. Add well-ground, boat-owning young Jack Porter (Nick Wechsler), who also has a past association with Emily but doesn't yet know it.

The story gets fairly intriguing after awhile, with the ring-wise Stowe crafting a formidable villainess. But Van Camp's Emily tends to be too much a purveyor of intense stares and redundant vows to cross everyone off her list. And she keeps this up right until the end.

"They say vengeance is a dish best served cold," Emily says with a solemnity that by now has gotten rather laughable. "But sometimes it's as warm as a bowl of soup." In other words, she's just doctored a sap's bisque in the interests of making him pay.

I'm not sure this is sustainable, particularly in a time slot opposite two long-running close-ended dramas. NBC is still in there punching with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and CBS has transfered CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (central), where it very well could be rejuvenated with redoubtable Ted Danson in the cast.

Revenge, on the other hand, is a dish that might leave you kind of cold. Sometimes you just want a single serving, with the table cleared by episode's end. This one keeps passing its spinning plates while re-stating the obvious.

"Like I said," Emily concludes. This is not a story about forgiveness."

Then please stop saying it.


Two and a Half Men welcomes Kutcher, leaves Sheen decidedly dead

Ashton Kutcher symbolically emerges from a cloud of Charlie Sheen's ashes on the season premiere of CBS' Two and a Half Men. Photos: Ed Bark

Dust to dust to Dustbuster.

Few if any TV characters have been dumped more unceremoniously than Charlie Sheen's womanizing Charlie Harper. Two and a Half Men and its creator, Chuck Lorre, saw to that Monday on the hit sitcom's ninth season premiere. At the same time Sheen himself was being roasted on Comedy Central by a who's who of who are theys and what have they done lately. What a night.

Two and a Half Men began with a closed casket funeral service for Charlie Harper, with his trademark shirt and shorts as a backdrop and brother Alan (Jon Cryer) trying to get through a eulogy while various attendees ripped on his late brother.

"Gave me herpes," said one of Charlie's conquests.

"Chlamydia," said another.

And let 's hear it for "vaginal warts."

Charlie's stalker neighbor, Rose (Melanie Lynskey), then described how he died after one of his many ex-girlfriends, played by Jenny McCarthy, carped, "I didn't come all this way to spit on a closed coffin."

But alas, Charlie supposedly slipped on a metro platform and fell in front of a speeding train while he and Rose were in Paris and planning to be married. But he "didn't suffer," she added. "His body just exploded like a balloon full of meat."

So much for sentiment -- and for the funeral service.

Back home at Charlie's Malibu pad, brother Alan fretted about having to sell the place. A few guest stars popped in to look the place over -- Jon Stamos plus Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson still in character from Dharma & Greg. Then an urn of Charlie's ashes arrived.

Alan prepared to sprinkle them on the beach before a figure appeared at the sliding glass door. A startled Alan flung Charlie's ashes into the air. And as the cloud settled, viewers got their first glimpse of Ashton Kutcher as a broken-hearted internet billionaire named Walden Schmidt. The studio audience reception was tumultuous. And Alan later got around to vacuuming up Charlie's remains with a Dustbuster.

Sheen lately is apologizing to all concerned in hopes of getting a network to pick up his planned new comedy based on the movie Anger Management. But it's hard to fault Lorre for sticking it to him while also making Sheen's character symbolically disappear from the show before the air cleared and his replacement stood front and center.

Whatever his state of mind, Sheen viciously tore Lorre apart during his only recently ceased "bitchin' rock star from Mars" daze. Now Lorre is having his say, writing Charlie Harper off in no uncertain terms before having Kutcher's new character tell his brother, "I'm sorry I made you spill him."

Whether this new dynamic will work is still an open question. Kutcher's character was fresh from trying to drown himself after his wife, Bridget, dumped him. But the ocean water proved to be too cold, leading him to the Harper pad.

Kutcher initially played Walden as a teetotaling manchild with lots of money. But Alan took him out to a bar and got him loaded on appletinis before they returned with two women in hand. Both ended up sleeping with Walden, who was pretty proud of himself the next morning while walking naked around the house. He's "hung like an elephant," Alan noticed. And by the way, Walden also will be buying Charlie's Malibu digs, setting up a new Two and a Half Men with the same old premise. An on-the-rebound Walden gets the girls, and no doubt will enjoy this new lifestyle. Alan again is left at the altar.

Kutcher's performance was OK for starters. He took the edge off by redeploying elements of his old doofus Michael Kelso character from That '70s Show. So he likely won't be as cynical as Sheen's Charlie. And off-camera, Kutcher also likely will show up for work in reasonable working order.

It's hoped that Sheen's latest rehab effort will be long-term. He seemingly hasn't killed his career just yet. But in case there were any lingering doubts, his time on Two and a Half Men is emphatically over. Lorre literally exploded Charlie Harper, ridiculed him at his funeral and then left his ashes fit for a Dustbuster.

It doesn't get much more final than that.

New fall season: Unforgettable gives CBS another sturdy crime hour with a gimmick and two tested stars

Poppy Montgomery stands out in another new crime drama. CBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 20th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Poppy Montgomery, Dylan Walsh, Daya Vaidya, Michael Gaston, Kevin Rankin
Produced by: Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, Ed Redlich, John Bellucci

Conventional crime-solving doesn't really cut it anymore, particularly on a network with so many "procedurals" already on the books.

It's better to have a gimmick in the same way that long-running "reality-competition" series now need a "twist" to keep viewers coming back for new editions. On CBS' Unforgettable, a former detective with hyperthermesia is able but not always willing to acutely remember every day of her life. Marilu Henner says that she has this very rare condition. And she's now a consultant on Unforgettable, which also falls back on an old TV standby.

That would be established star power. And the two principals in this new whodunit, Poppy Montgomery and Dylan Walsh, respectively had long runs on CBS' Without A Trace and FX's Nip/Tuck.

The Popster, never afraid to showcase a still laudable bod, has her hair dyed red for the role of New Yorker Carrie Wells. She used to be a Syracuse cop, as was Walsh's Al Burns. They also shared some sack time before a breakup that she took very personally. But as luck would have it, Carrie just happens to live in a Queens apartment building where a stabbing murder occurs. And Al is on the case before he learns of her new whereabouts.

Uneasily together again, they reconstruct the crime through Carrie's immense attention to detail. In her recollections, she is both out-of-body Carrie and on-the-scene Carrie. That in Itself is another pretty good gambit on a series that looks as though it can step right in and be the latest hit CBS crime hour. It's not a great series, but it looks to be a solidly commercial one. And Tuesday's opener does a workmanlike job of unraveling the ID of the killer in understandable fashion while also poking at the Carrie-Al backstory.

Poppy's figure also figures in. She twice shows about as much skin as an advertiser-supported broadcast network can withstand. Viewers also can catch her in a skin tight supah-slinky dress during a night of blackjack card-counting that briefly puts Carrie in jeopardy with the dese/dem/dose muscle guys.

Meanwhile softer Carrie volunteers at a nursing home, in large part because one of the ailing denizens is quite close to her. There's also the matter of the unsolved murder of her older sister, Rachel, which happened when Carrie was just a kid. Haunting visions of that snowy, horrible day still plague her, and for the first time in a long time she's again starting to put together how it might have happened and who did it. But remains a cold case for now.

Unforgettable has an effective heart-to-heart talk between Carrie and Al as they begin to repair their relationship. Another scene -- in a diner -- doesn't work as well. Al sweet-talks her -- "You look good, Carrie" -- and then tempts her sweet tooth with an offer to split a piece of pecan pie. While he goes to get it, she recalls the two of them in bed together. How sweet it was. Then it's back to the crime at hand.

ABC will go directly against Unforgettable with another red-headed wrong-righter -- Dana Delany in the returning Body of Proof. Which might well mean that NBC's competing Parenthood will take a further ratings hit from which it can't recover.

The first episode of Unforgettable also works in a little off-hand plug for CBS' longest-running "procedural," which will be moving to Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (central) this season while Ted Danson joins the cast in place of Laurence Fishburne.

"Gotta love CSI," Walsh's Al says during a first encounter with his latest crime scene. "Everybody's an expert now."

Given all the on-screen clutter these days, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see a simultaneous pop-up ad for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation touting its new night, time and star.

Old-school, straight-ahead crime-solving dramas need all the help they can get these days.

GRADE: B-minus

New fall season: The star of Fox's New Girl isn't conventionally foxy (but that's the point)

Zooey Deschanel stands out in New Girl's male threesome. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 20th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Zooey Deschanel, Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson, Lamorne Morris, Hannah Simone
Produced by: Liz Meriwether, Jake Kasdan, Peter Chernin, Katherine Pope, Dave Finkel, Brett Baer

She's lately being dubbed "adorkable," which pretty much fits. Even at age 31.

Zooey Deschanel, still on the cusp of being quite famous after her role in Cameron Crowe's 2000 Almost Famous, is far and away the principal selling point of Fox's New Girl.

Whether bawling her eyes out during another viewing of Dirty Dancing or singing little ditties whenever the mood strikes, Deschanel has the same instant appeal America Ferrera had in ABC's Ugly Betty. She's disarming, oddly charming and equipped to say "Pink wine makes me slutty" in a way that makes her endearing instead of "Real Housewife" material.

In New Girl, nicely paired with the returning Raising Hope on Tuesday nights, Deschanel plays the freshly jilted
Jess Day. She tried to spice it up with her boyfriend by making a surprise return to their apartment in nothing but a trenchcoat. But her would-be stripper fantasy turned into a well-worn sitcom setup. He was in bed with another woman and she suddenly needed a new place and a fresh start.

New Girl cuts quickly to this chase, with Jess auditioning to be the incoming roommate of three not entirely bright but pretty functional guys.

Schmidt (Max Greenfield) is the resident horn dog whose inappropriate blurts find him constantly sticking dollar bills into the "Douche Bag Jar." He also enjoys taking his shirt off to reveal a pale, hairless torso with budding muscular development. His trainer/roommate, called "Coach," is played by Damon Wayans, Jr. in the first episode.

Wayans apparently wasn't super-confident that his previous comedy series, Happy Endings, would be picked up by ABC. But it made the fall schedule (on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. central), requiring him to honor his contract and return.

A new character, named Winston (Lamorne Morris), will move in next week. Premise: he returns from playing basketball in Latvia and takes back the bedroom he had sub-letted to Coach. The usual tack would have been to re-shoot portions of the pilot with the new actor as Coach. But a penny saved is a penny earned, particularly in these tough economic times. And the Douche Bag Jar just hasn't taken in enough money yet.

Bartender Nick (Jake Johnson) is the third man about the house. He's still recovering from his girlfriend dumping him six months ago. And he can get a little weepy about it. Jess also has a best friend model named Cece (Hannah Simone), who immediately has the boys prototypically drooling.

All three male actors have their moments in Tuesday's opener. with Greenfield's Schmidt so far the most amusing. But this series basically belongs to Zooey, whose big sister Emily Deschanel already has made her bones as the co-star of Fox's long-running Bones. Her little mannerisms and misadventures are sometimes indescribably delicious, whether she's striving to pull off a "hot farmer's daughter" look for an ill-fated blind date or trying to perfect a flirtatious smile. Although the above Fox artwork doesn't show it, she regularly wears dark-rimmed specs.

Some of this can be just a bit much, with Jess's impromptu theme song for herself not exactly a laugh riot in either the opening credits or in a subsequent little scene. Fox seems to be on the right track, though, with a lead character who has ample potential to gawkily bloom and grow.

The fall season is dominated by new comedies and dramas that will sink or swim on the strength of their featured female characters. New Girl will be asking a lot of Zooey Deschanel, and so far she seems primed and ready to make her mark.


Football night in America: Friday Night Lights scores its first major Emmys on a winning night for broadcast over cable networks

Kyle Chandler exults at end of acceptance speech. Photos: Ed Bark

Reversing their fortunes from recent years, free over-the-air broadcast television networks won almost twice as many Emmys as their pay cable counterparts in Sunday night's 63rd annual ceremony on Fox.

Paced by ABC's Modern Family and PBS' Downtown Abbey, the final score of 16-9 was a mirror opposite of last year's results, when cable programs took home 17 of the 26 statues. (Miniseries and made-for-TV movies were combined in the same category for the first time, resulting in one less award.)

NBC's Friday Night Lights, nominated for the first time as best drama series in its fifth and final season, couldn't quite win the big one. AMC's Mad Men triumphed in that category for the fourth straight year, tying three former NBC stalwarts -- Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, The West Wing -- for the most wins ever in this competition.

But the made-in-Austin drama, set in fictional Dillon, Texas, won its first two major Emmys, with Kyle Chandler honored as the best lead actor in a drama series while Jason Katims won for writing.

Chandler, who played tough but tender high school football coach Eric Taylor for FNL's five seasons, began his speech with a "Wow" before adding that he'd written nothing in preparation because "I knew for a fact that I would not be standing here."

He later thanked "the people of Austin, Texas, who welcomed us into their home and filled those stadiums and brought the show to life while we were there."

Katims ended his speech with FNL's signature exhortation on game nights: "Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't lose."

The series, which struggled in the Nielsen ratings throughout its run, survived to win Emmy gold because DirecTV stepped in to help NBC finance it for the last three seasons. Under the arrangement, DirecTV showed the episodes first before NBC repeated them.

FNL had won only one previous Emmy, in the "Creative Arts" category for best casting of a drama series.

Modern Family had the most Emmy wins Sunday night, climactically repeating as prime-time's best comedy series in the closing minutes of the three-hour telecast while also winning four other statues. The best supporting actor and actress Emmys in the comedy category went to first-time recipients Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen, both of Modern Family.

PBS' Downtown Abbey ran right behind Modern Family with four Emmys, including a triumph in the best movie or miniseries division. That category long has been ruled by HBO, whose Temple Grandin was a dominant force last year. But HBO won just four major Emmys this time out, including a lead actress prize for Kate Winslet and a best supporting actor nod for Guy Pearce in the miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce.

There were a slew of first-time winners but repeaters also flexed. Besides Mad Men, Comedy Central's The Daily Show won for the ninth straight year in the Variety, Music or Comedy Series competition while CBS' The Amazing Race prevailed for the eighth time in nine tries as television's best "Reality-Competition" series. Its only loss was last year to Bravo's Top Chef.

That again left prime-time's most popular series, American Idol, winless in this still relatively new category. Host Ryan Seacrest and judge Randy Jackson did not seem amused during a fleeting reaction shot after Amazing Race again was announced as the winner. Host network Fox ended up with no Emmy victories at all on Sunday night, although its cable cousin, FX, got some stage time with Justified, whose Margo Martindale won for best supporting actress in a drama series.

The Daily Show's win was preceded by presenter Scott Caan's prediction of the inevitable. "Let's see who's gonna lose to The Daily Show this year," the Hawaii Five-O co-star and recurring Entourage cast member deadpanned before ticking off the other nominees.

Host Jon Stewart resisted any retaliatory one-liners, praising the competition and adding, "We're acutely aware of how fortunate we are."

Emmy host Jane Lynch was an exuberant dazzler Sunday night.

Jane Lynch very capably rose to the task of Emmy host, fronting an opening song and dance film that marked the only time she briefly wore her trademark track suit as Glee's acidic Sue Sylvester.

Lynch otherwise opted for a series of shimmering low-cut gowns throughout the night. After losing the best supporting actress in a comedy statue to Bowen, she cracked that were she not hosting, "I'd be home by now eating a tub of turkey meatballs."

Modern Family won the night's first four Emmys, prompting Lynch to tell the audience after a commercial break, "Welcome back to the Modern Family awards."

The openly gay Lynch, who won an acting Emmy last year, made a couple of references to her sexuality. But not for long. "You know, a lot of people are very curious why I'm a lesbian," she said late in the telecast. Lynch then immediately introduced the cast of Entourage, which presented some movie/miniseries awards.

A lately chastened and remorseful Charlie Sheen, in the midst of a mea culpa tour that took him to NBC's Tonight and Today shows late last week, showed up to present the lead actor in a comedy series Emmy to repeat winner Jim Parsons of CBS' The Big Bang Theory.

Sheen's former Two and a Half Men co-star, Jon Cryer (whom he had called a "troll"), was shown applauding the fired "Rock Star from Mars" from the audience before he said of Two and a Half Men, "From the bottom of my heart, I wish you nothing but the best for this upcoming season."

Sheen's replacement, Ashton Kutcher, later joined Cryer onstage as a presenter. "And John, I want to tell you something," he said. "I do not think that you're a troll." Cryer then mock-wept in his arms.

In one of the night's nicer touches, the six nominees for best lead actress in a comedy series all gathered one-by-one onstage as their names were announced. The surprised winner, Melissa McCarthy of CBS' Mike & Molly, then received a crown and roses before she made her acceptance speech. "Holy smokes," McCarthy said twice.

Nominee Steve Carell of The Office also was in attendance, but again left empty-handed. It was his ninth Emmy nomination without a win, with six of them for his signature role of Michael Scott in NBC's acclaimed version of the British original. Mad Men leading man Jon Hamm also lost anew, and is now 0 for 6.

Carell has left The Office while Hamm currently is in production on the fifth season of Mad Men. Are both fated to join other prominent TV stars who have never won an Emmy? It's already too late for the late Jackie Gleason; the list of snubs also includes Andy Griffith, Jason Alexander, Angela Lansbury, Larry Hagman and Desi Arnaz.

Here is a complete list of Sunday night's winners:

Drama series -- Mad Men
Comedy series -- Modern Family
Movie or Miniseries -- Downton Abbey
Reality-competition series -- The Amazing Race
Variety, Music or Comedy series -- The Daily Show
Lead actress, drama series -- Julianna Marguilies, The Good Wife
Lead actor, drama series -- Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
Supporting actor, drama series -- Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Supporting actress, drama series -- Margo Mardindale, Justified
Lead actor, comedy series -- Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Lead actress, comedy series -- Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly
Supporting actress, comedy series -- Julie Bowen, Modern Family
Supporting actor, comedy series -- Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Lead actress, movie or miniseries -- Kate Winslet, Mildred Pierce
Lead actor, movie or miniseries -- Barry Pepper, The Kennedys
Supporting actress, movie or miniseries -- Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
Supporting actor, movie or miniseries -- Guy Pearce, Mildred Pierce
Writing, drama series -- Jason Katims, Friday Night Lights
Directing, drama series -- Martin Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire
Writing, comedy series -- Steven Levitan, Jeffrey Richman, Modern Family
Directing, comedy series -- Michael Spiller, Modern Family
Writing, movie or miniseries -- Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey
Directing, movie or miniseries -- Brian Percival, Downton Abbey
Writing, variety, music or comedy series -- dozens for The Daily Show
Directing, variety, music or comedy series -- Don Roy King, Saturday Night Live

Primetime Emmys again will get tackled by Sunday Night Football, but here are my picks anyway

Jane Lynch of Glee is the latest Emmy host. Fox photo

The 63rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards are coming, and it's a pretty safe bet that no one has an office pool going or a big dress-up party planned.

These aren't the Oscars, after all. They're just the Emmys, which will be soundly whipped opposite NBC's Sunday Night Football game in which Philadelphia Eagles QB Michael Vick returns to Atlanta to play his former team.

But for the record, Sunday's scheduled three-hour ceremony (7 to 10 p.m. central on Fox) will be hosted by Glee's Jane Lynch and produced by Mark (Survivor) Burnett. Here are the nominees in major categories, and my picks of who should win.


The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Glee (Fox)
Modern Family (ABC)
The Office (NBC)
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
30 Rock (NBC)

Modern Family merits a second straight trip to the winner's circle.


Friday Night Lights (NBC)
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Dexter (Showtime)
The Good Wife (CBS)
Mad Men (AMC

Gotta root for the home state team in what will be FNL's first and last chance to win an Emmy. Realistically, though, I think Boardwalk Empire has the inside track, although The Good Wife could surprise and Mad Men hasn't lost yet in its first three seasons of eligibility.


Mildred Pierce (HBO)
Cinema Verite (HBO)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
The Kennedys (ReelzChannel)
Too Big to Fail (HBO)
The Pillars of the Earth (Starz)

I'm picking Downton Abbey in an upset, although I'd rather see Mildred Pierce win.


The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO)
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC)
Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Conan (TBS)

Fallon is very well-liked in the industry and really makes an effort to involve his guests in creative skits. So this would be another upset, but I kind of think his time has come. Notice that neither David Letterman or Jay Leno is nominated. And it's about time they weren't.


The Amazing Race (CBS)
American Idol (Fox)
Dancing with the Stars (ABC)
Project Runway (Lifetime)
So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)
Top Chef (Bravo)

Amazing Race had never been beaten in this category until last year, when Top Chef won. That leaves Idol still Emmy-less. So I'm going to go with the highest-rated series in all of television, if only to see the look on Simon Cowell's face if the show wins in its first season without him.


Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
Hugh Laurie, House (Fox)
Timothy Olyphant, Justified (FX)
Jon Hamm, Mad Men

Hamm still hasn't won an Emmy. That's ridiculous. C'mon, people! He's long overdue.


Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Kathy Bates, Harry's Law (NBC)
Mireille Enos, The Killing (AMC)
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men

I'd like to see Britton win, and Moss likewise would be a great choice. But you know what? I think they're going to give it to Bates, who's 0 for 8 so far and really is the sole reason to watch Harry's Law.


Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Johnny Galecki, The Big Bang Theory
Matt LeBlanc, Episodes (Showime)
Louis C.K., Louie (FX)
Steve Carell, The Office
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock

Hard to believe, but Carell has never won and this is his last chance for The Office. You've just got to give it to him.


Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Laura Linney, The Big C (Showtime)
Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly (CBS)
Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope (Fox)
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation

Linney undoubtedly should win. But if not, Poehler would be a good fallback choice.


Idris Elba, Luther (BBC America)
Laurence Fishburne, Thurgood (HBO)
William Hurt, Too Big to Fail
Greg Kinnear, The Kennedys
Barry Pepper, The Kennedys
Edgar Ramirez, Carlos (Sundance Channel)

I'm going to go with Elba.


Taraji P. Henson, Taken From Me; The Tiffany Rubin Story (Lifetime)
Diane Lane, Cinema Verite
Jean Marsh, Upstairs Downstairs (PBS)
Elizabeth McGovern, Downton Abbey
Kate Winslet, Mildred Pierce

Winslet should have this one safely in hand.

As for the supporting categories, I'm going to make my picks in lightning round fashion.

Supporting actress comedy series -- Julie Bowen, Modern Family
Supporting actor, comedy series -- Ed O'Neill, Modern Family
Supporting actress, drama series -- Kelly Macdonald, Boardwalk Empire
Supporting actor, drama series -- Andre Braugher, Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
Supporting actress, miniseries or movie -- Melissa Leo, Mildred Pierce
Supporting actor, miniseries or movie -- Tom Wilkinson, The Kennedys

And if I'm wrong, so what? There'll be far more viewers deeply involved in Fantasy Football Sunday.

New fall season: It's pretty much bunny ha-ha in NBC's The Playboy Club

Three bunnies are all ears, among other things. NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Eddie Cibrian, Amber Heard, Laura Benanti, Jenna Dewan Tatum, David Krumholz, Naturi Naughton, Leah Renee, Jenifer Lewis, Wes Ramsey
Produced by: Brian Grazer, Chad Hodge, Francie Calfo, Jason Burns, Dick Rosenzweig, Ian Biederman

Thanks for getting this far. If you're seeing these words, you've at least briefly taken your eyes off the above Playboy bunnies and are now reading this for the article. And that's still why everyone pages through Playboy. Right? Even if the magazine's subscription base has taken a deep dive over the years.

In that respect, NBC's The Playboy Club potentially could breathe some life into a dying empire. Set in the early 1960s, it harkens to times when . . . well, let the series' mock Hugh Hefner explain it in his opening narrative while a bunny vocalist coos "Chicago."

"The scheming, corrupt, crime-filled Windy City may have been all those things," an unseen Hef impressionist tells viewers. "But I built a place in the toddlin' town where everything was perfect. Where life was magic. Where the rules were broken and fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the doors. It wasn't the '50s anymore. Yes, it was a place where anything could happen to anybody. Or, any bunny."

The series itself is as hackneyed as Hef's come-on. But no one was expecting Masterpiece Theatre or even Nash Bridges. So perhaps the Peacock's easy-on-the-eyes ode to America's first full-figured bunny hatch will draw enough oglers to somehow survive a tough 9 p.m. (central) slot opposite ABC's Castle, CBS' Hawaii Five-O and ESPN's Monday Night Football.

Just in case, though, NBC has dumped a big vat of gangland intrigue onto these proceedings. New bunny Maureen (Amber Heard), fresh from Fort Wayne, quickly ends up on the receiving end of a drooling mobster's advances while she goes backstage at the club to replenish her cigarette case.

In the initial pilot, he was a "key player" who ended up dead with Maureen's stiletto heel in his ear. The revised version has a much more prolonged struggle, with both Maureen and suave playboy attorney Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) trying to fight off the creep. She ends up kicking him in the neck and hitting him square in the jugular with the business end of a bunny shoe. And this time he's not just a key player. He's crime family head Bruno Bianchi. Uh-oh.

In either case, Maureen didn't mean to kill him. And Bruno ends up deposited in the Chicago River while Maureen and Nick try to engineer a cover-up. His previous mob ties complicate matters. As do his ambitions to run for state attorney, which he can't consummate without more than a little help from his unsavory friends.

Maybe NBC would have been better off just showing the bunnies off. Which it does to good effect in a scene where a mock Tina Turner encourages everyone to "shake a tail feather." Which they do. Woo-hoo.

But no. Playboy Club is pockmarked with dialogue that gives cliches a bad name. Such as Nick telling Maureen, "You have no idea what these people are capable of." And Maureen shooting back, "I've been on my own since the day I was born. And I've worked too hard to get here. And I'm not gonna let anyone stop me."

This particular discourse occurs in Nick's swank, two-story, impeccably furnished penthouse, where he's spent many a night with a veteran bunny and girlfriend named Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti). She of course pops in unexpectedly while Maureen hides in the closet but leaves her discarded bunny outfit in plain sight.

"This isn't what you think," Nick protests.

"You don't know what I'm thinking," retorts Carol-Lynne, who later informs Nick that she's a "one-strike girl, baby. And I'm walkin' away."

Groan. Why couldn't the script have been deep-sixed along with big Bruno?

OK, let's meet the rest of the bunnies, who are given their daily marching orders by club manager Billy Rosen (a mis-cast David Krumholtz from Numb3rs).

Bunny Janie (Jenna Dewan Tatum) has been known to have sex with the bartender on company time. She also enjoys those delicious blueberry crepes with vanilla sauce after a long, long night of partying at Hef's nearby Mansion, where the bunnies all hole up. If she eats too many, Janie just sticks her finger down her throat and vomits as part of "this new diet I heard about."

The newly installed "bunny mother" -- that would be Carol-Lynne -- has nothing against crepes but quickly establishes some new rules that otherwise cramp Janie's style. No more sex with club employees or customers, she commands. And furthermore, "your tails are poofier and your corsets tighter."

Bunny Brenda (Naturi Naughton) is the self-described "chocolate" member of the crew. She aspires to be the first centerfold of color because "you can't discriminate against these babies." (Scroll to the above picture for proof, but then ya'll come back again, ya hear?)

Bunny Alice is "married," but shares a big secret with her "husband."

Add saucy Pearl (Jenifer Lewis) as the club seamstress and garnish with Hef, who will only be heard and occasionally seen from the back, according to the producers.

At an earlier interview session during the Television Critics Association "press tour," all concerned swore that Playboy Club is primarily a case study in the "empowerment" of young women who had few chances to better themselves in those times. Mock Hef sells this laughable notion near the end of Monday's premiere, saying of his bunnies: "Nobody ever knew their last names. It was the early '60s, and the bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be."

"So, c'mon in," he beckons. "You can be anyone you want to be. But like it says on the door, if you don't swing, don't bring."

That said, it's tempting to grade on the curves when it comes to The Playboy Club. Subtract its clunky dialogue, ludicrous plot devices and empowerment nonsense, and you're left with its heightened sense of pulchritude. Which may be more than enough of a drawing card. Because when she's in costume, "you can bounce a dime off her ass," club manager Billy says approvingly of Maureen.

A penny for your thoughts.

GRADE (on a curve): C

New fall season: CBS' greasy spooned 2 Broke Girls has a potential breakout star but a lousy joke menu

Beth Behrs, Kat Dennings of CBS' 2 Broke Girls. Photo: Ed Bark

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 19th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Kat Dennings, Beth Behrs, Matthew Moy, Garrett Morris, Jonathan Kite
Produced by: Michael Patrick King, Whitney Cummings

The newly refurbished Two and a Half Men plus the brand new 2 Broke Girls equals two broad and sex-plicit comedies set to run back-to-back on CBS' Monday night schedule.

The network has declined to make Ashton Kutcher's Two and a Half Men debut available for review. That leaves critics with the "retro-hip" Williamsburg diner to chew on. It's the base of operations for a prototypically saucy waitress named Max (Kat Dennings), whose work and home lives are shaken up by the arrival of destitute Manhattan socialite Caroline (Beth Behrs). She's homeless and penniless after her family's fortune is left for dead by dad's Ponzi scheme and his subsequent arrest.

Max's lippy, back-of-the-hand treatment of customers is immediately established with boob and vagina one-liners in the opening scene. The humor is not exactly rarefied, but Dennings knows how to sling the hash. She's already in full command of this sitcom by the time Behrs' Caroline pops in to replace a fired Russian waitress who left behind a stained and smelly uniform after being caught having loud sex with a cook.

"I hope that's clam chowder," Caroline says in one of the ickier sitcom lines of recent times. She soon learns it's not.

The waitress uniforms are mustard and ketchup colored while every line is delivered with relish. That includes a truly tasteless crack by the restaurant's geriatric cashier, Earl (played by former Saturday Night Live charter cast member Garrett Morris).

"That girl is workin' harder than Stephen Hawking trying to put on a pair of cufflinks," he crows. As previously posted, co-executive producer Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City) has no intention of cutting it because, well, you know, it's "edgy." Wonder how the openly gay King would feel about a similarly sub-moronic "fairy" joke at his expense.

2 Broke Girls also includes the diner's new Asian owner, Han Lee (Matthew Moy), who speaks broken English and hopes to Americanize himself by changing his name to Bryce Lee. And although she's portrayed as thoroughly street smart, Max nonetheless has fallen for a muscle-headed, live-in boyfriend named Robbie (Noah Mills), who specializes in flaunting both his abs and his butt crack before being further exposed by Caroline.

Meanwhile, Max somehow finds time to bake and sell luscious cupcakes on the side, and has a second job as nanny to a dim bulb diva whose babies are named Brad and Angelina. In the end, Caroline persuades her new friend to dream big and start raising the $250,000 they'll need to open their own bakery. Judging from a printed kicker at the end, their sum total toward that goal will be updated each week.

I liked this first episode better the first time around. Upon further review, its excesses and kitchen sink humor aren't wearing as well. Dennings may well be a TV star in the making, though. And 2 Broke Girls stands a good chance of surviving in a comfy slot between Two and a Half Men and Hawaii Five-O.

Really, though, improve the joke menu. At least just a little.


New fall season: Witches brew hoo hooey in CW's The Secret Circle

Britt Robertson doesn't know which way is witch. CW photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 15th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Britt Robertson, Thomas Dekker, Phoebe Tonkin, Shelley Hennig, Gale Harold, Louis Hunter, Ashley Crow, Natasha Henstridge
Produced by: Kevin Williamson, Andrew Miller, Leslie Morgenstein, Gina Girolamo

The introspective teens of Dawson's Creek didn't have otherworldly powers, but were haunted nonetheless by the prospect of growing into stale dead-end adults in fictional little Capside, MA.

The principal teens of The Vampire Diaries are mostly fanged immortals or werewolves prowling fictional little Mystic Falls, VA.

Both TV series, the latter based on a batch of bestselling books, are produced by Kevin Williamson, who won't grow up, no, he'll never grow up.

On the contrary, he's got another one for ya. The Secret Circle, premiering Thursday on The CW after Vampire Diaries, presents a coven of teenage witches, none of whom is named Sabrina. Adapted from a series of books by the Vampire Diaries author, it originates in fictional little Chance Harbor, WA. That's where cutie Cassie Blake (series star Britt Robertson) has come to live with her grams after moms got burnt to a crisp in a house fire started by an evil adult male witch.

Williamson, 46 and also the guy behind the four Scream movies, still doesn't seem ready yet for anything other than variations on the trials and tribulations of minors -- with maybe a few college students mixed in. Teen angst, lately spiced with supernatural powers, is his go-to field of play. And Secret Circle possibly offers the possibility of a crossover in which a vampire or two comes swaggering into town, or vice-versa.

His latest kid heroine doesn't appear to be any great shakes as an actress just yet. But she does know how to run off when feeling threatened or show off a series of nifty little nightie tops while tucking herself into bed. Cassie otherwise doesn't learn of her powers until sneering Fay Chamberlain (Phoebe Tonkin), the resident meanie teen witch, gets in her grill after tiring of all the small talk.

"Oh for God's sake, spit it out!" she bellows. "You're a witch. You're a full-blooded, 100 percent witch. We all are. There. Done."

Such truth in packaging prompts Cassie to run off again, this time into the woods. She's followed by the well-intended Adam Conant (Thomas Dekker), a doe-like witch who has a steady witch girl named Diana (Shelley Hennig) and a spooked, beaten-down drunken dad. In the premiere episode's one really charming scene, Cassie and Adam combine their powers to make a drop of water levitate from a leaf before more follow. Cassie then runs off again.

Secret Circle, replete with The CW's usual heavy doses of sappy pop music mood-ruiners, eventually gets around to outlining its basic plot point. Namely that Cassie completes a full complement of six witches, whose powers now will be magnified "100 times over." This enables the demonic Fay to quickly conjure up a fierce thunder and lightning storm. Before that, her bag of tricks was pretty much limited to scaring poor Cassie by making her little car get smoke-filled with her locked inside.

Meanwhile, the super-evil Charles Meade (Gale Harold) is conspiring with Fay's mother, Dawn (Natasha Henstridge), the foxy high school principal. They've got big, unsavory plans for these witch kids.

Fans of Vampire Diaries likely will happily play along. And maestro Williamson will keep repeating himself all the way to what definitely won't be the blood bank.

GRADE: C-minus

New fall season: NBC merits a buyers' market for Free Agents

Hank Azaria & Kathryn Hahn are a winning non-couple. NBC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 14th at 9:30 p.m. (central) before moving to its regular 7:30 p.m. slot on the same night.
Starring: Hank Azaria, Kathryn Hahn, Anthony Head, Mo Mandel, Al Madrigal, Natasha Leggero, Joe Lo Truglio
Produced by: John Enbom, Todd Holland

Many a new TV series -- whether comedy, drama or a mix -- begs the question of whether its principal leads will "do it." And if so, when. Moonlighting. Cheers. Northern Exposure. Castle. To name a select few.

NBC's Free Agents begins with the lights out and its two stars sighing with post-coital satisfaction. But how will they un-do this? Alex (Hank Azaria) is recently divorced and still weepily missing his kids. Helen (Kathryn Hahn) continues to mourn her dead fiancee after a year's time. His pictures are all over her apartment and even on her coffee mug. Alex and Helen otherwise share the same workplace, which makes things awkward for these two consenting adults with baggage to spare.

Be assured, though, that this is a comedy, and an altogether nicely played one at that. It's adapted from the same-named British series, which premiered in 2008 and can first be seen by American audiences on Oct. 8th, courtesy of cable's BBC America. So it's a good chance to compare and contrast if you're either a true TV junkie or a hapless TV critic. And from this view, neither series is really inferior or superior to the other.

Both versions have Anthony Head (formerly of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as a big boss man named Stephen. In the British original, he heads a talent agency. On NBC it's a damage-controlling corporate public relations firm.

In both cases, Stephen likes to kick off the morning group meeting with talk of any previous night's sexual exploits. The British Free Agents is appreciably more verbally graphic in this respect, although the f-bombs will have to be bleeped for U.S. consumption on an advertiser-supported network. In the U.S. version, there's talk of various sexual positions, including the "reverse crab" and "The Flying Dutchman."

A few more comparisons/contrasts. Curly-topped Stephen Mangam, best known to U.S. audiences lately as a co-star of Showtime's Episodes, is a little bit bigger basket case than Azaria's vexed Alex. And the British Helen, played by Sharon Horgan, is more amused by Alex than Hahn's version is.

Both actresses are very winning in this role, though, with Hahn particularly good in a grocery store scene where she loads up on red wine and upbraids a clerk for asking whether she's having a party. In the British Free Agents, Helen is merely seen exiting a store with armloads of wine. Point goes to NBC.

The Peacock probably errs, though, in having one or two too many fast-talking workplace sub-characters. Emma (Natasha Leggero), described in publicity materials as the "spitfire" office assistant, is too pro forma lippy for starters. And Dan (Mo Mandel) is too much the prototypical bachelor on the prowl in search of a suitable "wingman." Alex is his latest designee but for only a few moments before he bails on a cat-loving blind date in favor of responding to Helen's SOS call. None of this is in the British version, at least not in the first episode.

NBC's Free Agents could well get lost in the shuffle on Wednesday nights, where its lead-in is the inferior new Up All Night. It's good enough to merit a second chance spot on the network's longstanding Thursday night comedy bloc if a quick rescue mission is required.

Despite its lead characters' fragile makeups, Free Agents is a niftily scripted, bracingly grownup comedy when in the hands of its two leads. Helen calls Alex an "absolute mess." He agrees in part: "I'm a mess. I'm not absolute."

Or if you prefer, the British Alex tells Helen, "I don't do 'wild,' OK. I do 'cautious.' I do 'inhibited.' "

Both bear watching.


New fall season: The CW's H8R just might leave you giddy with guilty pleasure

Jake Pavelka gets "real" with hater Danielle. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 14th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: So-called celebrities and their so-called "haters," with host Mario Lopez
Produced by:Mike Fleiss, Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, Maria Lopez, Jeremy Spiegel

Most pseudo-celebrities just can't get enough of themselves. Marching straight to the head of that class is Dallas-born Jake Pavelka, the pilot turned "fame whore" in the words of fellow fame whore Vienna Girardi.

Their made-for-TV love story on ABC's The Bachelor led to an acidic, tabloid-trumpeted breakup shortly after Pavelka got voted off the network's Dancing with the Stars. A staged one-on-one confrontation during a subsequent ABC special then led to Girardi leaving in tears after Pavelka sort of yelled at her.

He recently segued to ABC's The Bachelor Pad, where Girardi and her new made-for-TV love, callow Kasey Kahl, roundly denounced him as a phony, lying poser. Pavelka tried to play a gallant apologetic Sir Galahad before his fellow contestants knocked him off the show.

Now comes The CW's new H8R (short for "Hater"), where Wednesday's opening episode finds -- pause, one-two -- the ubiquitous Pavelka and fellow "reality" show creation Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi confronting commoners who think they're garbage.

H8R aims to convert these heretofore anonymous cheap-shotters into at least semi-fans of their targets. It's Celebrity Rehab in open spaces with drinking allowed. And during an extremely weak moment, your friendly content provider is going to admit that this steaming pile turns out to be guilty pleasure-approved, even if it's almost assuredly all an act on the part of everyone. That includes a genial and sometimes giddy Mario Lopez. He's the host, slumming from Extra. Or is it vice-versa?

Snooki is first at bat. Her hater, a pudgy guy named Nick, supposedly thought he was auditioning for a new "pop culture" TV show. So he feels free to denounce Snooki as a "drunken donkey" among other things while the "pint-size powder keg" of Jersey Shore watches from a secret control room.

She later bursts into a bar where a supposedly shocked Nick is playing pool with a pal. "You are a bully. You are a (bleeping) bully," Snooki informs him after he initially stammers about.

"Clearly you were not expecting this," Lopez later tells Nick, who probably was but had signed a contract to play along. Anyhoo, they end up going grocery shopping for a big sit-down dinner with Nick's family. Snooki says she'll be making chicken cutlets for the whole bunch of 'em, just like she does with her mom on Sunday nights. During the course of this little adventure, Snooki introduces Nick to the pleasures of a big pickle. "You have to suck on it," she instructs him before demonstrating. It could not be determined whether the pickle had been circumcised.

Let's just say that Snooki wins out in the end, and there's some fun to be had in getting to this point. But Pavelka is a ridiculous spectacle throughout, whether he's more or less addressing rumors that he's gay or lamenting to Lopez, "Story of my life. People passing judgment and they don't even know me." The host then bills him as "one of the most hated men in America" before introducing him to his designated H8R, a young blonde named Danielle.

Performing like a trained seal, a topless Pavelka follows Lopez's instructions to first portray himself as a vain jerk while Danielle sits poolside.

"Your job is to go out there and act like the Jake Pavelka that she hates," Lopez tells him. It's a bit hard imagining John Barrymore or even Joey Lawrence acquiescing to something like this. But one gets the feeling that Pavelka will do just about anything at this point to keep himself in front of a camera. Or hear anything, too. Because Danielle repeatedly calls him a "douche" (as well as a "creep" and a "pervert") while H8R's supposedly hidden cameras capture all the action and play it back to Pavelka.

"Some of the stuff I've read, I wouldn't like me either," he says lamely. "And she deserves to know the truth."

Not to give everything away -- oh hell, why not? -- but Pavelka takes all of this guff and comes back for more. He also takes Danielle on a plane ride, escorts her to the real Bachelor mansion and claims he had a troubled relationship with his father in hopes of turning her into an admirer of his. But all he gets is this in the end: "He's arrogant. He obviously thinks his (bleep) don't stink. And it does."

H8R hardly smells like a rose. Still, there's a good solid traffic wreck of a show here, with Snooki actually managing to renovate herself just a bit while Pavelka sinks deeper into his role as America's sad sack punching bag.

Future episodes promise to involve the likes of a few celebrities with actual accomplishments -- Eva Longoria. Charles Barkley, Maksim Chmerkovskiy -- while also revisiting the reality heap to put haters in close proximity to Kim Kardashian and that dope from The Hills.

Damned if the dumb thing isn't going to be on my DVR.


New fall season: Up All Night gives NBC a very rare prime-time baby but no cigar

Christina Applegate & Will Arnett star in Up All Night. NBC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 14th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC before moving to regular 7 p.m. slot
Starring: Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, Maya Rudolph, Nick Cannon
Produced by: Lorne Michaels, Emily Spivey

NBC will try just about anything at this point, including a sitcom with an actual kid in it. And a newborn at that. Desperate networks call for desperate measures -- even desperate parents.

The Peacock for decades has made a concerted effort to keep its comedies childless. The onetime network of The Cosby Show instead put almost all of its eggs in the workplace -- or in the hands of singles who gathered in diners and coffee shops. Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation -- its denizens could be infantile but they never changed any diapers, read any report cards or chaperoned any proms.

Which probably makes Up All Night an overall bad fit for a network that just doesn't know what to do with a parental unit anymore.

ABC lately has excelled on Wednesday nights with two first-rate mom, dad and the kids sitcoms, The Middle and Modern Family. After a sneak preview following the season finale of America's Got Talent, NBC will lead off Wednesdays with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as beleaguered first-time parents of a baby girl named Amy. It will be followed by the workplace comedy Free Agents. No need for the Peacock to go hog wild here.

Up All Night also spends half of its time out of the home. Applegate's Reagan Brinkley toils for Maya Rudolph's talk show host Ava, a continuation of her Saturday Night Live send-ups of Oprah. Reagan's husband, Chris, for now is trying to be a stay-at-home dad.

The original pilot had Rudolph playing a batty public relations firm boss. But those portions were re-shot in the interest of giving her more opportunities to ply her old shtick as a talk show diva. In that respect, it's hardly coincidental that SNL creator Lorne Michaels is a co-executive producer of Up All Night, which also belatedly has added America's Got Talent host Nick Cannon as Ava's "wildly popular co-host." He's seen for just a few seconds in Wednesday's opener.

Arnett and Applegate look convincingly worn down during their maiden voyages with cute little Amy. But Up All Night is a messy diaper in terms of what to do and where to go long-term. The revamped but still unwieldy first episode is pretty much all over the place, with Chris panicked in a grocery store, Reagan proposing a women's health week (with a badly backfiring "cleansing" segment), nobody getting any sleep and everybody winding up drunk at a karaoke bar.

A cute little closing segment isn't enough to offset all the forced comedy preceding it. And in the real world of a Wednesday, 7 p.m. slot, Up All Night has no realistic chance to last many future nights in competition with The Middle, CBS' Survivor: South Pacific and Fox's big ballyhooed The X Factor.


New fall season: CW's Ringer a splashy double dip for Gellar

Sarah Michelle Gellar doubles down in return to prime-time. CW photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 13th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nestor Carbonell, Kristofer Polaha, Ioan Gruffudd, Tara Summers
Produced by: Pam Veasey, Peter Traugott, Richard Shepard

Three networks have a hand in Sarah Michelle Gellar's new dual identity drama.

The pilot episode came from ABC Studios, although CBS is where it almost landed. But all concerned eventually deemed Ringer a better fit for CBS' kid sis sibling, The CW. Or so the story goes.

Gellar's return to prime-time, after leaving Buffy the Vampire Slayer behind eight seasons ago, qualifies as li'l CW's biggest fall season event since its 2006 launch as an amalgamation of The WB and UPN. She's a ripened 34 now, putting her at the far north extremity of CW's prime target audience of females 18 to 34. But Gellar's not quite grizzled yet. Nor is she a frisky kid anymore in what comes off as CW's most grown-up series of the fall season, both new and returning.

Gellar is first seen in jeopardy, hiding and then on the run from a masked man with a tire iron. Then comes a mini-flashback to "Nine Days Earler" in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where her Bridget Cafferty is a recovering addict, former stripper and star witness to a murder.

She's scheduled to testify, with FBI agent Victor Machado (Nestor Carbonell attempting to navigate a Lost afterlife) dutifully hovering and promising to protect her. But a night in the Double Nickel Motel apparently convinces Bridget that there might be better things in life. So she's off to New York in hopes of rekindling a relationship with twin sister Siobhan Martin (Gellar), who's a wealthy, unhappily married schemer.

The plot twists are plentiful in Tuesday's opening hour, with Bridget quickly awash in the apparent drowning death of the sister she's just re-met while a pregnancy, an infidelity and a bratty teen stepdaughter are also stirred in. There are no otherworldly creatures, though, because CW already has those covered in Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, America's Next Top Model and another newcomer, The Secret Circle.

Siobhan's husband, Andrew, who now in effect is the masquerading Bridget's spouse as well, is played by Britisher Ioan Gruffudd. His name might have been changed to something like Cliff Diver back in Hollywood's old days. There's also Siobhan's best friend, Gemma (snappily played by Tara Summers) and her philandering husband, Henry (Kristofer Polaha on the rebound from CW's relatively short-lived Life Unexpected).

Gellar shares the same frame with Gellar in a few early scenes. The camera trickery is fairly impressive, but her acting tends to be more than a bit sedate. It's as though both characters are still on mood depressants no matter what startling revelations befall them. Still, the developments move along briskly and pretty unpredictably, giving Ringer a lot of balls in the air by the end of its first hour.

The marquee star of the show has become a mom (her marriage to actor Freddie Prinze Jr. endures) who's acted sparingly since Buffy ran its course. Ringer gives Gellar a full-immersion opportunity to re-tune her skills and put some extra bounce into both characters. Tuesday's premiere certainly has enough intrigue for starters. What it needs is more overall electricity.


Showtime's The Love We Make revealingly documents McCartney's post 9/11 musical masterstroke

Paul McCartney organized and closed The Concert for New York City. Showtime photos

Perhaps you're looking for a keepsake among the many and varied Sept. 11, 2001 anniversary specials coming this weekend.

My recommendation is The Love We Make, a new and stellar 93-minute film recapping the eight days leading to The Concert For New York City, an Oct. 20, 2011 magical musical landmark orchestrated by Paul McCartney. It premieres on Saturday, Sept. 10th at 8 p.m. central Showtime
and will be repeated throughout the month.

Filmed and co-directed by the renowned Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), Love We Make in a small sense is a followup to his 1964 fly-on-the wall documentary, What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. In each case the subjects were asked to ignore the filmmakers and just act naturally. That was something of a revolutionary concept back then.

McCartney expansively discussed Love We Make and his formative years as a Beatle at the recent Television Critics Association summer "press tour." One refrain got specifically to the point of music as a balm in times of trouble.

"More than words, more than speeches, more than comedy -- which are all important -- music has some property that can really be very healing," he said via satellite from Cincinnati (where he was performing that night). "So yeah, I'm very interested in that whole idea. And I think as time goes on we probably will discover more . . . It can bring you to tears, it can make you smile, it can make you flash back to a memory. You know, people often say to me, 'Thank you for the music. It's the soundtrack of my life.' It's one of the things I'm most proud of, actually, to have lucked out to be in a profession like this where I can help, heal and let people get in touch with their emotions."

McCartney was in New York and on an airport tarmac when terrorist-flown planes hit the World Trade Center towers. His flight to England was canceled, leaving him grounded in New York City and wondering what to do next. The Concert For New York City soon became a work in progress, with McCartney contacting Maysles and asking him if he'd like to film the ramp-up. He agreed and did so, but "nothing ever came of it," McCartney said. So as the 10th anniversary neared, they reconnected and collaborated anew.

"It just seemed like it would be a good opportunity," McCartney said. "We did not put it together and finish it till quite recently."

Mostly filmed in black-and-white, Love We Make begins on Oct. 12, 2001, with McCartney briefly talking to the camera before plunging into a rehearsal of an old Beatles tune, "I'm Down." The film clearly is Paul-centric, but there's a lot to be said for seeing him au natural in a variety of settings.

Everyone wants a piece of Paul, whether it's New Yorkers on the street or interviewers ranging from Dan Rather to Howard Stern.

Rather, now basically a non-person in the CBS News scheme of things, interviewed McCartney for 60 Minutes II, which likewise has been canned in the years since. McCartney initially is skeptical when told that Rather is running late for their interview, but will arrive imminently. He's heard it all before. But it turns out that the delay was caused by an anthrax scare in Rather's office.

He later has a chance encounter with Barbara Walters, joking later that he's glad she didn't mistake him for a mugger.

McCartney also walks the streets of NYC, agreeably signing some autographs and even listening somewhat apprehensively to an apparent street person who basically talks gibberish to him. Meanwhile, a woman is beside herself after sighting him, excitedly phoning a friend on one of those over-sized cell phones of a decade past.

It all takes its toll after a while. This is, after all, the city where John Lennon was shot and killed. "Get me out of here," he even-handedly tells his elderly chauffeur, George. He then re-calibrates by telling himself, "And -- relax."

McCartney's taxi cab confessions -- even though he's not in one -- can be fascinating. We learn that his father adamantly refused to have his picture taken because he didn't like the way he looked. And that McCartney became a big Yankees fan after he sat "in those amazing seats (Saturday Night Live creator) Lorne Michaels gets behind home plate."

Rehearsals and more interviews also are a constant. It's terrific fun seeing McCartney mess around with "Fly Me to the Moon," ending with a Frank Sinatra-esque "Do be do be do." He also practices "Let It Be" on the piano in tandem with Billy Joel before The Who's Pete Townsend pops in to demonstrate that he's a man of very few words.

A bit later, Rather's producer is instructing McCartney where to walk and what to do before a second interview for 60 Minutes II kicks in. "It's ring-in-the-end-of-the-nose time," McCartney says. "Just stick a hook in it, pull me around."

And in the end . . . McCartney closes the show, which raised more than $20 million for the victims and survivors of Sept. 11th.

As the film progresses, the star power escalates. Mick Jagger is seen only fleetingly behind-the-scenes, and David Bowie isn't seen at all before taking the stage at Madison Square Garden to perform Simon & Garfunkel's "America." But the "green room" where McCartney hangs out before closing the show becomes a passing parade of Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Jodie Foster, Jim Carrey, Sheryl Crowe, Harrison Ford, Bill Clinton and so on. McCartney and Elton John, who precedes him onstage, share a kiss on the lips during their brief criss-crossing.

Clinton, whose notably bulbous nose looks red even in black-and-white, is typically gabby and somewhat immersed in his first-person self.

He twice notes that he's in the same age group as many of the music stars who performed at the concert. "You can say whatever the hell you want about the generation of the '60s. But we were good at hangin' in there," Clinton proclaims.

Snippets of the performances are shown in full-color, making one long to see the entire show. And Maysles cheats viewers out of Roger Daltrey's primal trademark "Yea-h-h-h-h!" near the close of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Instead he cuts back to the backstage goings-on. It's his only seriously questionable editing decision.

Still, this is a remarkable and valuable film, documenting a McCartney-led rallying cry during severely shaken times. It ends as it should, with the star of the show visiting a fire station three days after the triumphant concert. Floral arrangements and pictures of the deceased line the sidewalk outside. And those are the final images.


Perry under the microscope in MSNBC's "Ponzi scheme" debate

Texas Gov. Rick Perry during his "Ponzi scheme" moment Wed. night. Photos: Ed Bark

Rick Perry dug in his spurs, took the bull by the horns and possibly impaled himself Wednesday during his first night in a nationally televised debate arena.

The thick-haired (thick-headed?) Texas governor and lately the runaway frontrunner among Republican presidential candidates emerged without question as the life of the party during MSNBC's almost two-hour event at California's Reagan presidential library.

Perry unflinchingly derided Social Security as a historically fraudulent "Ponzi scheme" and "a monstrous lie to our kids," took a disbelieving weird science approach to climate change and said that President Obama either was either misinformed by inferior "intel" or is an "abject liar" for saying last spring that the border town of El Paso is safer than ever.

His repeated Ponzi scheme assertion -- a defense of Perry's 2010 book Fed Up! -- has been characterized as politically toxic in a one-on-one general election by both former vice president Dick Cheney and longtime GOP svengali Karl Rove. But Perry dismissed Rove as being "over the top for a long time" before adding a bit later, "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country." He also emphasized that no current Social Security recipient has anything to worry about.

No one could accuse him of piloting a plane to namby pamby land, even if Perry at one point threw a fleeting pity party for himself by lamenting, "I kind off feel like the pinata here at the party."

Mitt Romney, defrocked as the lead GOP candidate after Perry's entrance into the race, found himself looking newly "presidential" while standing just to the left of the Texas governor on home screens. Romney and his equally impressive coif were hardly provocateurs. But he did tactfully disagree with Perry on occasion while seeming to be in full possession of his job creator mantra.

Romney also figuratively patted Perry on the head after he was criticized for a now infamous and later scrapped executive order that mandated cervical cancer vaccines for Texas schoolgirls. Fellow Texan and perceived fringe candidate Ron Paul brought that one up, but Romney later said that Perry "had his heart in the right place." Subliminal message: even if he basically screwed up.

For his part, Perry said "I hate cancer" (now there's a platform we all can support) and "at the end of the day, I will always err on the side of saving lives." But he did concede that he "probably" should have consulted the legislature beforehand on his vaccine initiative.

Another candidate currently on the outer rim of the race, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, had Perry in mind when he said that Republicans "can't run from science" if they want to defeat President Obama.

But Perry said the "science is not settled" on climate change and that even "Galileo got out-voted for a spell." The reference was to the revered physicist/mathematician/astronomer whom Stephen Hawking has said is principally responsible for "the birth of modern science." But hey, he was jailed during The Inquisition after running afoul of Pope Urban VIII, who left the papacy hugely in debt and was reviled by his flock in later years.

The eight candidates surprisingly invoked Ronald Reagan's name rather sparingly. An at times grumpy Newt Gingrich led the charge with nine mentions while Paul and Rick Santorum each chipped in with four. Huntsman added three RRs and Michele Bachman, two. Perry threw in a lone reference, while Romney and businessman Herman Cain went Reagan-less. In fact, Bachman may have deployed the words "Obamacare" more often than the entire night's Reagan output. She of course wants it dead, as do all the other Republicans in the field.

Perry makes a point; Romney tries to see right through him.

The debate questioning was capably handled by co-moderators Brian Williams of NBC News and John Harris of Politico. Neither participated in MSNBC's prolonged post-debate analysis, which was led by the network's liberal quintet of Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Lawrence O'Donnell, Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton.

All agreed that Bachman was now reduced to an inconsequential "second tier" candidate. But Perry's performance of course was Topic A, with Schultz offering some backhanded praise after Matthews initially skewered the Texas governor for his attitude toward science. The United States risks being a "Yahoo country" if Perry is elected president, Matthews deduced.

But Perry came off as a hero to his corporate America base, Schultz said. "Most of all he didn't back down . . . I think Rick Perry is gonna get a lot of accolades tonight."

On the contrary, Perry "destroyed his candidacy," O'Donnell contended. "Perry cannot survive on his 'Ponzi scheme' campaign."

"The real headline tonight is 'Romney Lives,' " O'Donnell added. Reagan, who raised taxes 11 times during his two-term presidency, "would have been the wild lefty in the room," he said.

Sharpton agreed that Reagan would have come off as "the Democrat" in the current GOP field while Maddow declared Huntsman "the big loser" Wednesday night.

Matthews later tossed Perry a thorned bouquet: "All you have to do in this race is reach a minimal level of IQ, which Perry did tonight . . . He was good enough. He didn't make a fool of himself."

Veteran Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who helped lead the McCain-Palin ticket to defeat in 2008, said that Perry "was almost like a boxer who ran out of steam in the middle to late rounds." Perry remains a "soft frontrunner" while Romney would be far more dangerous to Obama in a general election than the Texas governor, he said.

Still, Perry stirred the drink Wednesday night. Without him, what would they have talked about? MSNBC even accepted an anti-Perry ad from Paul during a commercial break. He was ridiculed as "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader" during his days as a Democrat.

But Paul's current poll numbers couldn't carry Perry's pom poms. And after Wednesday night, the game is officially on.

The new fall season again flies cable's colors

FX's American Horror Story quickens the pulse while HBO's Enligthened and Starz's Boss offer damaged goods in lead characters played by Laura Dern and Kelsey Grammer. FX/HBO/Starz photos

Another new fall season is nigh, but is excitement running high?

There's rhyme and reason leading into this basic deduction. If you're hooked up to cable or a satellite dish, then the possibilities are sky high. If not, the new offerings by the five broadcast networks again are mostly nothing to run home about.

ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW again are rolling out plenty of new models. And not all of them are clunkers, particularly on the comedy front.

Still, there are no instant natural highs on the order of Lost, 30 Rock, Modern Family, The Good Wife, Desperate Housewives and Heroes. All were laudable fall newcomers of relatively recent vintage. It felt good jumping immediately on their bandwagons, even though Heroes couldn't stand the test of time -- and horrible NBC scheduling -- while DH devolved from a lip-smacking whodunit to a theater of the absurd.

There's certainly some potential this fall in Fox's New Girl and Terra Nova; CBS' 2 Broke Girls and NBC's Whitney and Prime Suspect. Maybe they'll all bloom and grow. But don't expect much from the heavily publicized retro trio of NBC's The Playboy Club and ABC's Pan Am and Charlie's Angels. Brave new worlds? No chance, although Pan Am at least gets some style points.

The fall cable picture again is infinitely brighter, with five new scripted series standing out while three standouts start anew. HBO's Boardwalk Empire begins its second season on Sept. 25th, Showtime's Dexter enters Season 6 on Oct. 2nd and AMC's The Walking Dead brings its sophomore year to life on Oct. 16th. They have a combined 26 Emmy nominations going into the Sept. 18th prime-time ceremony on Fox.

Five new and very noteworthy cable drama series seem like locks for future awards ceremonies. Two are at the head of my fall class.

Showtime's Homeland, which will launch on Oct. 2nd alongside Dexter, is a contemporary political mystery/thriller with a Manchurian Candidate feel. It stars Damian Lewis (from NBC's under-appreciated Life) as a presumed dead Marine sergeant who's discovered in captivity and Claire Danes (an Emmy winner for HBO's Temple Grandin) in the role of a mentally unstable CIA agent who thinks he may have been "turned." The first episode is both enthralling and refreshingly easy to grasp, with the still young Danes again showing why she's among the very best actresses of her generation.

HBO's Enlightened showcases Laura Dern as an executive for a health and beauty company whose workplace affair and subsequent meltdown send her in search of a "higher self." She emerges from a Hawaii healing facility with a not entirely blissed-out determination to be "an agent of change." It may sound sappy, but it decidedly is not. Dern is terrifically compelling, with strong support from Diane Ladd (Dern's real-life mother playing her mother) and Luke Wilson as her drug-enamored ex-husband. Episodes are only a half-hour, but Enlightened primarily plays like a drama.

Three other cable dramas likewise have airs of distinction.

Starz's Boss, scheduled to premiere Oct. 21st, affords Kelsey Grammar a chance to curse and throw his weight around in his first-ever weekly dramatic role. Judging from the first two episodes, he'll be succeeding beyond expectation as iron-fisted Chicago mayor Tom Kane. Besides running the city, he's running scared from a newly diagnosed, rare and incurable disease that his doctor says will be the death of him within three to five years. So there's a new sense of urgency to Kane's governance, with Grammer and a solid supporting cast giving Boss the big shoulders it needs.

FX's American Horror Story, set for an Oct. 5th premiere, puts stars Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) and Dylan McDermott ( The Practice) on a thrill ride devised by Glee and Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy. Following his marital infidelity, they move across the country and end up in a stately but spooky house bought at a bargain price. Jessica Lange again steals scenes with ease, this time as a willful, imposing next door neighbor. The pilot was shown on a big screen on the Fox lot at the recent Television Critics Association summer "press tour." It definitely got everybody's attention, starting with the distinctly different opening credits. This may or may not pan out as a sustainable weekly series. But for now it's one scary SOB.

Finally there's AMC's Hell on Wheels, a post-Civil War western riding into view on Nov. 6th. Despite all the buzz and awards for Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC's most-watched attraction ever is still 2006's two-part Broken Trail, which starred the tall-in-the-saddle duo of Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church. So the network wanted to try its hand with a weekly horse opera. This one chronicles the building of the transcontinental railroad, and all of the subterfuge and violence that went with it. Relative newcomer Anson Mount cuts an imposing figure as a former Confederate soldier with festering scores to settle. The first episode has scope and grit, but not the instant giddyup of HBO's Deadwood. Still, it shows strong signs of earning its spurs.

Full reviews of all the new fall series, on both cable and broadcast TV, will be coming along as the season unfolds. But prime-time's thoroughbreds are on cable. Meanwhile, the free, over-the-air networks again demonstrate that you get what you pay for. Maybe next year.

FX's Rescue Me puts out its last fire

Rescue Me and star Denis Leary flame out Wednesday night. FX photo

Hook, ladder and sinker. After 92 previous episodes spread over seven seasons, FX's ever-uncompromising and often thoroughly degenerate Rescue Me bows out just four days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Subtitled "Ashes" (9 p.m. central on Wednesday, Sept. 7th), the series finale underscores the plusses and minuses of a dramedy that might have fared better by dousing some of its excesses. But that wasn't the style of co-creators Peter Tolan and Denis Leary, who also starred as incendiary firefighter Tommy Gavin.

Rescue Me portrayed its protagonists as heroic only when faced with what to do in a burning building. In those cases, they'd always opt for saving lives no matter how much theirs were endangered. And that held true to the end, with two kids crying out for help at the close of last Wednesday's penultimate episode while Gavin and five of his colleagues turned deaf ears to their own safety while explosions erupted around them.

The men of New York City's 62 Truck were otherwise portrayed as beasts with burdens. Drunks. Filthy minds. Commitment phobias. Racist tendencies. There were occasional bright spots amid the soot and oft-sordid goings-on. But no vulgar penis joke was ever dismissed out of hand. And in the finale, well, it's almost indescribable what happens en route to a gravesite ceremony. For Rescue Me, enough has never been enough -- to its detriment on any number of occasions.

Still, an aversion to sentimentality is also what kept both this series and Seinfeld on their games. Rescue Me stayed true to its title's double meaning. No one needed more help than Leary's volatile Tommy Gavin, whose cousin Jimmy died on 9/11. His subsequent drinking binges, estrangements from wife Janet (Andrea Roth) and crash/burn sexual encounters with Sheila Keefe (Callie Thorne) were all self-destructive coping mechanisms. Tommy's rages and bridge-burnings were never few and far between. They both fueled and immolated him. Something had to give.

Co-creator Tolan has already let it be known that Tommy makes it to the end of Rescue Me, although darker denouements were envisioned. At an interview session last month with TV critics, Tolan said he had considered having Tommy give up by just sitting down in the middle of a fire. He also toyed with an ending that would have had him walking naked out to sea -- and never returning -- in the vicinity of cancer survivor Kelly McPhee's (Maura Tierney) beach house.

But for once Tolan and Leary actually did compromise a bit. "You don't want to bring people along on a journey that long and then say, 'No, he's not going to survive.' " Tolan said. "It's just a very negative message. So we decided to, at that point, go with something a little more hopeful."

The end result is funny in spots, overly gross in others and upbeat in Rescue Me's typically offbeat fashion. Is it entirely satisfying? No, not really. And that's mainly because the willful determination to go too far -- and you'll know it when and if you see it -- remains embedded in this show's DNA. It has something to do with Tolan's sudden impulse to drop his own pants during that final session with TV writers. Although in that case, it brought down the house.

Rescue Me always played its very own siren songs -- and they sometimes got in the way of what might have been some better rendered melodies. Wednesday night's last notes are typically uneven, but not destructively so. None of these guys ever walked softly. But they always carried those big hoses.


Ooh scary? Syfy's Paranormal Witness instead is "Oh, please."

You're supposed to be really afraid of Paranormal Witness. Syfy photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Starring: Various freaked-out earthlings
Produced by: Dimitri Doganis, Bart Layton

Paranormal is the new normal on Syfy, which already is the haunted home of Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters Academy, Ghost Hunters International and Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files.

Now comes Paranormal Witness, which raises the question of why HGTV doesn't yet have a Haunted House Hunters in its arsenal.

Syfy, part of the NBC Universal chain, warns reviewers to "make sure the lights are on and the doors are locked before you watch this screener." Then "get ready to be terrified" with this new addition to the network's Wednesday "prime-time paranormal programming block" in league with Ghost Hunters.

Hell, I didn't even pee my pants. Carrot Top at all hours of the day or night is scarier than the opening episode of Paranormal Witness.

The one-hour series is drawn from recollections of real-life earthlings who supposedly have been severely shaken by events they can't explain. Actual witnesses testify in tandem with actor-fortified reenactments. The production values aren't bad, but the overall terror level falls well short of an attic spider web.

Two lemon chillers are recounted in Wednesday's premiere. Baltimore parents Brian and Lauren first talk about how scared they became when their little daughter, Isabella, began seeing the ghostly Emily. They initially thought she was a harmless imaginary friend. But no. Emily turned out to be a supposed "malevolent spirit" who had the power to make things fly around dangerously. She also defaced Lauren's Wizard of Oz mural, making the Tin Man look like an ax murderer, etc.

"I never believed in ghosts, but I do now," Brian tells the camera on several occasions. Meanwhile, the sound effects and shrill music ramp up comically before an actress playing Lauren is choked by her allegedly possessed husband, who just wasn't himself that night. But both obviously lived to tell this cockamamie tale. Hey, pay me a few thousand bucks and I might remember the night I was haunted by the ghost of Chill Wills.

In the second shorter story, a mom named Stephanie and her 'tude-copping teen daughter, Misty, recall witnessing a mysterious girl with a hollowed-out face while driving back home at night.

"It was the most terrifying, most horrifying thing I've ever seen," says mom, who apparently is yet to see Sex and the City 2.

Yes, it's true. Some people take these things very seriously. But seriously, the stories told on Paranormal Witness are about as believable as an Oscar nomination for Dolph Lundgren. Although that would be scary.

GRADE: C-minus

FX's Sons of Anarchy gets its bikers back on track

Wheel deal: Ron Perlman is still SOA's top SOB. FX photo

Fourteen months behind bars have not exactly been a deterrent for eight rough 'n' tumble members of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original.

They're released en masse -- and very theatrically so -- in the opening Season 4 montage of FX's most popular series ever, particularly among elusive young male viewers. Last year's Sons of Anarchy averaged 4.412 million viewers per episode, surpassing the season highs of FX stalwarts such as The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me, which will have its series finale on Wednesday, Sept. 7th.

SOA re-guns a night earlier, on Tuesday at 9 p.m. central. And in the season opener alone, there's a wedding; a gangland-style mass execution; an even more gruesome payback killing in the prison infirmary; a seemingly sincere vow to go straight by the club's featured young lion; and a new, stern sheriff in the northern California town of Charming. He's played by Rockmond Dunbar, who used to be on the lam in Fox's Prison Break.

FX sent the season's first three episodes for review. I'm still not a full-blown fan, but there's a definite latent appreciation for what still amounts to The Sopranos on two-wheelers.

Ron Perlman, as increasingly amoral club president Clarence "Clay" Morrow, can't match the presence or the power of James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano. But you wouldn't to face him in a bar fight -- or cross him in any way, shape or form.

Headstrong stepson Jackson "Jax" Teller (Charlie Hunnam), Clay's heir apparent, risks doing just that by vowing to "start fresh somewhere" with pediatrician Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) as his bride. But first he needs to "make myself some bank." And the fastest way to both freedom and a big payday appears to be signing off on an unholy alliance with a drug-running Mexican cartel. The Sons so far have specialized in illegal weapons dealing, which is considered honorable under their twisted code. But coke smuggling? Some of the club's veteran members would sooner sit through a Maurice Chevalier film festival.

Caught in the middle is Clay's leathery wife, Gemma (Katey Sagal), SOA's steely Mama Bear/Carmela. She has a conscience, albeit a malleable one. But drug-running is abhorrent to her, as is Clay's verbal strong-arming when she finds out.

The so-called good guys of SOA can't be Boss Hogg buffoons. Otherwise the series completely loses its edge. The aforementioned Dunbar's Sheriff Eli Roosevelt is a sturdy addition in that respect. But the most intriguing new lawman is assistant United States district attorney Lincoln "Linc" Potter, who's terrifically played by Ray McKinnon. He steals all of his scenes as a semi-eccentric master planner who rides a Harley, sports long hair and a beard, but wants the Sons done and gone.

Kurt Sutter, SOA's creative mastermind, has kept the scripts tight and the action invigorating. He gets a gold star for that, but none of his characters merits a good conduct medal. This is, after all, a drama in which a new and deadlier gun is a prized wedding gift while the marital vows include a promise by the groom to "treat you as good as my leather and ride you as much as my Harley."

FX still wouldn't have it any other way. Beginning with The Shield, it's forged a brand identity all its own, with seriously flawed males wearing anti-hero hats at best. The hairy beasts in Sons of Anarchy now and then may generate a few little pitter-pangs of sympathy. But in reality they're mostly ruthless brothers in arms dealing, protecting their turf by any means necessary while erstwhile law enforcers brand them "white trash barbarians."

It's pretty good stuff.