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Old Kirk livens up Oscars aimed at "desirable demographic"

Captain Kirk made it work early on Sunday's Oscars. Photos: Ed Bark

Youth was served on Sunday's Oscars, with Anne Hathaway telling co-host James Franco near the start, "You look very appealing to a younger demographic as well" after he told her she looked smashingly "hip."

The kids were all right. But the night's moments to remember came from a vocally impaired 94-year-old Hollywood legend and an actress old enough to be the 28-year-old Hathaway's mom.

Kirk Douglas took the stage, with help from a cane, to eventually present the best supporting actress award to 50-year-old Melissa Leo for her role in The Fighter.

His voice still impaired by a 1996 stroke, Douglas nonetheless commanded the stage with a presentation that walked a fine line between embarrassing and endearing but came out well on top. He played around with actors Hugh Jackman and Colin Firth, flirted a little with Hathaway ("Where were you when I was making pictures?") and then further delayed the night's first big reveal by first wrestling a young assistant for his cane and then noting after opening the envelope, "Ya know, I will never forget this moment. Three times. And I lost every time."

For the record, Douglas had three best actor nominations, all in the 1950s, for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life. He then received an honorary Oscar in 1996 during the days when those awards were still part of the big show. On Sunday night, however, the longest living epitome of Old Hollywood pretty much made the show with a strong assist from the frazzled Leo.

The former co-star of NBC's long-running but always ratings-challenged Homicide: Life on the Street began by noting that "I'm just shakin' in my boots here." She soon inadvertently dropped an f-bomb (bleeped by vigilant ABC censors), while noting, "When I watched Kate (Winslet) two years ago, it looked so (bleeping) easy."

Oh behave yourself. Leo reacts to her slip o' the tongue.

The crowd laughed/gasped while Douglas stood nearby. The two of them then ambled offstage, with Leo comically using his cane to steady herself. All of this happened in the first half-hour -- and Oscar didn't have all that much to offer for an encore.

The three big winners -- The King's Speech for Best Picture and Colin Firth/Natalie Portman for Best Actor/Actress -- were all pretty much as predicted. All involved gave nice acceptance speeches, though, with Firth noting his imminent need to visit the restroom to remedy a rumbling in his stomach. And Best Director Tom Hooper, also honored for The King's Speech, graciously noted that his mother had brought the idea of the movie to him after seeing a stage reading. "And the moral to this story is, 'Listen to your mother,' " he concluded while she beamed from the audience.

Hathaway and Franco began the festivities with an amusing but not exactly side-splitting or innovative sendup of Inception, during which they incorporated themselves into some of the year's nominated films. Hathaway did have a funny line, though, while standing amid a big speechifying scene from The King's Speech. "I have good news from the future," she proclaimed. "Microphones get smaller."

She was cute and winningly giggly throughout the show while the comparatively sleepy-eyed Franco delivered his lines in what appeared to be a practiced cue card-fixated monotone. But he scored a couple of times, first when appearing in a pink dress and blonde wig next to the tuxedoed Hathaway, who had just performed a little song.

"The weird part is I just got a text message from Charlie Sheen," he cracked.

Later on, Franco professed to be uncomfortable with the not-ready-for-network TV titles of some nominated movies, including Winter Bone and Rabbit Hole. "How to Train Your Dragon. That's disgusting," he added.

The ceremony's annual tribute to the dead was livened by Celine Dion's performance of Smile while most of the clips and stills of the deceased showed them doing just that. Halle Berry then came on to do a brief, separate salute to Lena Horne as a pathfinding black actress/singer.

As always, the show seemed to go on and on and on. But it came in at a relatively trim three hours and 15 minutes, which included all of the closing credits. Last year's ceremony ran three hours and 37 minutes. The all-time record holder, telecast on March 24, 2002, lasted a whopping 4 hours, 23 minutes.

That marathon marked songwriter Randy Newman's first Oscar win in 16 tries. "I don't need your pity," he deadpanned.

On Sunday night, Newman won for the second time in 20 tries -- for "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3. He again noted his lousy track record in a nicely tuned self-deprecating acceptance speech that had actor/presenter Kevin Spacey visibly cracking up from the audience.

Win or lose, though, this much is certain. No one's going to be humming or singing this song 10 years from now -- or even on this morning after. Those days seem to be all but gone.

Thanks. You've been a great audience.

Latest Sheen diatribe prompts CBS and Warner Bros. to end Two and a Half Men production for the rest of this season

Charlie Sheen may have finally killed his golden goose. CBS photos

Charlie Sheen's increasingly out-of-control conduct, spiked by Thursday's crazed radio interview, has prompted CBS to end production on prime-time's most popular sitcom through the rest of the ongoing TV season, which officially ends in May.

"Based on the totality of Charlie Sheen's statements, conduct and condition, CBS and Warner Bros. Television have decided to discontinue production of Two and a Half Men for the remainder of the season," the two entities said in a statement sent to TV writers Thursday evening.

Production already had ceased at least temporarily on the series, with CBS resorting to a Two and a Half Men repeat on Monday of this week during the heart of February "sweeps" ratings period. But Sheen's interview with radio personality Alex Jones apparently backed both the network and Warner Bros. into an untenable corner.

During the interview, first posted on tmz.com, Sheen called Two and a Half Men's executive producer, Chuck Lorre, a "turd" and a "clown" whose real name is "Haim Levine."

He also said, referring to Lorre, "I've spent, I think, close to the last decade, I don't know, effortlessly and magically converting your tin can into pure gold. And the gratitude I get is this charlatan chose not to do his job, which is to write."

Lorre, who also produces The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly for CBS, is a far more valuable long-term asset to the network than Sheen is. The actor said, in an earlier interview on the Dan Patrick radio show, that he's clean, sober and ready to immediately return to work. But Lorre balked, saying he needed more time to regroup. Production instead had been scheduled to resume next week, with four more episodes remaining to be filmed as part of an already shortened order from 24 to 20 for this season.

In an interview session with TV writers during CBS' portion of the winter network "press tour," network entertainment president Nina Tassler had to field several questions about Sheen's conduct. She mostly deflected them after saying "I have a tremendous trust and respect in the way they (Warner Bros.) are managing the situation. So on a personal level, I'm obviously concerned. On a professional level, he does his job. He does it well. The show is a hit, and that's really all I have to say. Next question."

They've only just begun.

Hathaway & Franco: Will they indeed freshen up Sunday's really big show?

OK, here's why these two just might be surprisingly good together as hosts of Sunday's Oscar-cast on ABC. Presenting the final -- and funny -- training video for Anne Hathaway and James Franco. Whaddya think?
Ed Bark

The CW pounds a familiar beat with Shedding for the Wedding

Houston's Chase & Lindsey shake, shake, shake. CW photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Feb. 23rd at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Hosted by: Sara Rue, with trainers Nicky Holender and Jennifer Cohen, and wedding planner Brian Worley
Produced by: Dave Broome, Rick Hurvitz, Ari Shofet

From the creator and executive producer of The Biggest Loser comes -- The Biggest Loser.

Except that it's called Shedding for the Wedding and it's on The CW instead of NBC. Otherwise nine overweight, engaged couples vie to drop the largest percentage of pounds in pursuit of "the wedding of their dreams" after host Sara Rue, a former plus-sizer herself on ABC's Less Than Perfect, says it's her "absolute privilege" to accompany them on this journey.

Let them eat cake? Not just yet. First they'll have to sweat, suffer, "gag vomit" and try on bride/groom attire that doesn't fit them before the big weekly weigh-in sends the two least-losing couples spinning into a climactic " 'Til Death Do Us Part" elimination competition. It doesn't get much better than that.

The nine couples include two from Texas, Arlington's Taylor and Peter, and Houston's Lindsey and Chase. The heaviest groom, 367 pound David of North Hollywood, also has the bulkiest fiancee, 230-pound Valerie. Taylor is the only prospective bride to outweigh her prospective groom, by a count of 228 pounds to 210.

All of the contestants are likable and fun-loving enough, at least during Wednesday's scene-setting premiere episode. And the contrast in body shapes will be striking, with the doughy denizens of Shedding for the Wedding following CW's "Cycle 16" launch of America's Next Top Model and its stick-thin aspirants.

Shedding otherwise is groaningly familiar in every way with its mix of taskmaster trainers, supportive yet firm host and heavyweights who are in it to win it. To that end, emotions ebb and flow while bared male breasts sag like popped balloons during the gut-churning weigh-ins. Women are covered up, but viewers of these shows apparently have come to expect full frontal male obesity -- and lots of it.

So no tank tops for the guys. Just put it out there and let the nips fall where they may. On your basic local or network newscast, though, you still can't shoot anyone above the chest for all those stories on America's obesity epidemic.

A couple of the couples get off some pretty decent lines. Austin says he used to have a six-pack. "Now he drinks a six-pack," says fiancee Laura.

Ginny and Marc first met at his New York comedy club. They're both pack-a-day smokers, and Ginny, for one, says "it's the oral fixation that I miss most" while on the Shedding for the Wedding regimen.

"Well, we can fix that," Marc says with a bada bing grin on his face.

The nine competing couples are all given nicknames, which range from "Team Beach Romance" to "Team Eco-Lovers." Perhaps it would be bad business for various fast food chains to go ahead and outfit them in the official colors of their double stuffed crust pizzas, Angus McQuadruple burgers or chicken fried baconwiches with cheese.

Oh well. The winning couple will end up walking down an aisle in better shapes than they began while The CW tries not to bust its somewhat meager programming budget on too big of a dream nuptial. So Shedding for the Wedding gets marked on the curve for its end result, with the hope that some of these couples actually will continue to eat healthy once the cameras stop forcing the issue.


Criminy, it's Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior on (where else?) CBS

Forest Whitaker is point man for Criminal Minds spinoff. CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Feb. 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Kelly, Beau Garrett, Matt Ryan, Kirsten Vangsness
Produced by: Mark Gordon, Edward Allen Bernero, Deborah Spera

The head deadens at the thought of yet another crime-in-the-title spinoff on blood-spattered CBS.

But hold that thought for just a few secs. The network of three CSIs, two NCISs and now a pair of Criminal Minds also at least gets credit for having the most black actors in lead roles instead of as spare parts in ensembles. And they're not exactly hunky Denzel Washington types either.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is headed by Laurence Fishburne while NCIS: Los Angeles finds LL Cool J as very much an equal partner alongside Chris O'Donnell. The network's Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, premiering Wednesday after just plain Criminal Minds, makes it a threesome by topping its cast with Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. No other broadcast network can touch that kind of representation. So kudos to CBS for finding ways to make it happen.

OK, recess is over. Suspect Behavior is another wretched excess on a network that just can't help itself in light of its failure to launch a successful hospital drama (Three Rivers, Miami Medical); a musical (Viva Laughlin); a serial soap (Cane) or a bed-hopping period piece (Swingtown).

So, alas, it's back to the old grind. And Suspect Behavior is in every way a grind, with even the usually very capable Whitaker looking lost at sea with his halting, stumbling, keep-pausing-for-effect portrayal of crime team head Sam "Coop" Cooper.

His FBI associates are no less painful or ponderous to watch.

John "Prophet" Sims (Michael Kelly) is the resident loose cannon who's on probation after previously going trigger-happy and killing a child abductor. He still enjoys roughing up suspects but is trying to be a good boy in hopes of getting past his current "agent pending" status.

Beth Griffin (Janeane Garofalo) comes off as colorless but dedicated. Gina LaSalle (Beau Garrett) doesn't really register at all in the two episodes made available for review. And Mick Rawson (Matt Ryan) is the requisite jaunty Brit.

Bridging the two series is wisecracking computer master Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness), who pounds the keys and not the pavement in directing both Criminal Minds teams toward their weekly vermin.

Wednesday's premiere episode find them all in pursuit of a Cleveland child abductor played by Raphael Sbarge, who once upon a time was a budding CBS star in the short-lived 1986 sitcom Better Days. Now he plays creeps more often or not, with his receding hairline perfect for such roles. He kidnaps and terrifies two pre-teen girls in Suspect Behavior before Sims -- who else? -- gets the drop on him.

In an episode scheduled for March 2nd, viewers are introduced to a Tucson killer who carves one victim's eyes out and imbeds an ice pick in the ear of a second.

"What am I gonna tell my kids?" the widow of the first target weepily asks Whitaker's Coop.

"You should tell them that their father loved them," he answers in his slowly unwinding manner. "That's the only thing that's gonna make a difference. Tell them that."

The man's two eyeballs later are found in a newspaper vending box, horrifying a buyer. As if the industry didn't have enough problems.

Whitaker keeps trying to act up a storm, but the script invariably rains on his parade. As when he's asked what the killer's trying to communicate. And he answers in a trio of single-word sentences: "I'm. Not. Done." Or when Coop tells a comely Tucson homicide cop, "I get lost myself sometimes (in a killer's mind). You know what they say. The only way out" -- pause, one, two -- "is through."

No matter. Rest assured there's going to be an appetite for this in a Wednesday night slot in which the competition is pretty feeble -- ABC's failing Off the Map and NBC's fading Law & Order: SVU.

So whether us TV critic types like it or not, CBS will keep loading up while at the same time scraping bottom on new ways to kill, abduct, stalk, terrorize and apprehend. For its part, Suspect Behavior already seems to be running on empty. But since when is that a deterrent?


Supporting characters offer something to like in CBS' Mad Love

Mad Love's Tyler Labine and Jason Biggs collaborate on a subdued high-five while promoting the new Monday night sitcom. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Feb. 14th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Jason Biggs, Sarah Chalke, Tyler Labine, Judy Greer
Produced by: Matt Tarses, Jamie Tarses

The semi-dreaded but not altogether unwelcome "not terrible" tag is visited upon CBS' latest Monday night comedy entry.

Once again we're in New York, where a chance meeting atop the Empire State building leads to budding Mad Love between characters played by American Pie alum Jason Biggs and former Scrubs co-star Sarah Chalke.

Biggs, as straitlaced Ben Parr, is trying to find the gumption to break up with his controlling girlfriend Erin (guest star Rachel Boston). Chalke's Kate Swanson, who's terminally unlucky with guys, is first seen battling a toilet that has swallowed her cell phone. There are no stimulative pastries in the Valentine's Day premiere, although Biggs joked during a recent session with TV critics that "I have sex with a sheet cake in the second episode."

The character much more likely to have sex with a sheet cake is Ben's slovenly best friend, Larry Munsch (Tyler Labine), who also serves as Mad Love's book-ending narrator.

"I'm sort of like a god-like love ranger, or a love ninja," Larry says in closing. "The point is, every love story should have one of me."

This actually is true in this case. Most of the show's fun -- and sparks -- are from the insult banter between talkative Larry and Kate's sour gal pal, Connie Grabowski (Judy Greer). She's immediately repulsed by him and he's up for being her punching bag. So Larry just rolls with it while Connie regularly aims unfriendly fire on the order of "I'm a nanny. So I'm used to hanging out with pudgy people who whine a lot." He also looks familiar to her, but only because she's been to lots of pedophile conventions. And so on. Clearly they're made for one another, although this will take some time.

Biggs' character in contrast is pretty dull, even though his less than scintillating Ben strives to talk a good game.

"There's no fireworks, Larry," he says of his stagnant relationship with Erin. "I need more than just pretty and organized. I need laughter and affection and an opinion on who would win a fight between Batman and Superman."

"Plus, her lease is almost up and she wants to move in," Larry adds before Ben repeats that line verbatim. It all makes for a sluggish, labored start before Harry meets Sally, er, Larry meets Connie.

Mad Love will be nestled between the fading How I Met Your Mother and the Charlie Sheen-fouled Two and a Half Men, which again has stopped production while its star battles or flaunts his various additions, depending on which account one reads. Meanwhile, Rules of Engagement is relocating to Thursdays, supplanting William Shatner's $#*! My Dad Says, which at this point seems unlikely to return next season.

All of these comedies are equipped with laugh tracks, with CBS the last of the Big Four networks still steadfastly clinging to that old sitcom religion. Mad Love in fact is hardly a laugh riot, but might well prompt a few chuckles beyond the canned ones. If so, look for Larry and Connie to supply them during their anti-quality time together.

Will & Grace found itself in similar straits when Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes kept stealing a majority of the laughs from the lead characters. But that was hardly a problem. The show ran for eight seasons on NBC. Egos aside, all involved with Mad Love almost assuredly would be smitten with that tradeoff.


Former CBS11 anchor Suzanne Sena redeploys as Onion News Network's super-vain Brooke Alvarez

Suzanne Sena admittedly can be a bit restless. But she at last may have found her true calling as vainglorious news anchor Brooke Alvarez on IFC's new Onion News Network (9 p.m. central on Fridays).

Or might it be just another waystop? Sena's Chutes and Ladders-like career has taken her on an up-and-down tour of virtually every show business and TV news occupation. This includes a two-year tour from 2004 to '06 at Fort Worth-based KTVT-TV (CBS11), where she co-anchored weekend newscasts and did some entertainment/lifestyles reporting before heading back to Los Angeles and then landing at Fox News Channel for the next two years.

Sena, 47, previously worked as a red carpet reporter for E!, where she also hosted the network's Celebrity Homes series. Her recurring co-host stints with Regis Philbin made her a front-runner for the permanent job when Kathie Lee Gifford left a decade ago. She's also toiled for the syndicated entertainment show Extra, been a teenage lead singer in a wedding band, was a pitchwoman for Wesson Oil, performed jingles for radio commercials, starred in various regional stage productions and had bit parts in movies ranging from Death & Texas to Revenge on the Highway.

"I have a lot of ambition," Sena says in a telephone interview with unclebarky.com. "I welcome opportunities. Sometimes I try something on that doesn't fit -- and then I try to improve on that."

She had specialized in entertainment news reporting until the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks spun her head around. "Everything sort of changed career-wise for me," she says. So her agent entertained an offer from CBS11, which had a weekend anchor vacancy.

"At the time they were making a lot of changes and were trying to jazz things up," Sena says. "So they brought me in for an interview. Obviously it was a huge departure, not only going into legitimate news but also going into a local market. And that's something I wasn't prepared for. It was grueling . . . Dallas offered a lot of opportunity, but it wasn't something I saw as a long-term fit."

Her official website still includes a CBS11 clip with weekend co-anchor, Clif Caldwell, who's also no longer with the station. Sena says she left CBS11 with an eye toward covering entertainment again. But then Fox News Channel unexpectedly came calling. "So I took the meeting," she says. "I have a mantra. You always take the meeting, right?"

She lasted two years at FNC, most of it on the overnight shift. And advancement to daytime hours wasn't looking good.

"I just knew I wasn't happy working those kinds of hours," Sena says. "When you're married and you've got kids, the life of a newscaster can be a perfect job. There's a good income, there's a regular schedule, there's longevity. But if you're single, it's not easy to work late night hours. I didn't even have any pets. To be honest, it was a little empty. I came from a creative background, and I was looking to explore my creativity again."

Sena, who's been divorced since 2000, still wonders what might have happened had she been married with children at the time that both Entertainment Weekly and The New York Post anointed her as the frontrunner to replace the departing Gifford. Instead Kelly Ripa stepped in to join Regis Philbin.

"I never thought I was definitely going to get the job," Sena says. "But I did know that Regis and I had a fantastic rapport. The hiccup in all that was that I was single with no kids. I didn't fit the format. They wanted someone with a family. In all honesty, though, Regis and Kelly also had a wonderful rapport. And to her benefit and advantage she was already working with ABC (on the soap opera All My Children)."

Sena became Brooke Alvarez -- "the most revered, powerful news anchor in the world" -- after first playing news reader Ana Genry in the online version of Onion News Network. The weekly IFC series, an oft-savagely satirical undressing of 24-hour cable news networks, launched on Jan. 21st with Alvarez's "FactZone" show its marquee attraction.

Sena's acclaimed performance is brimming with letter-perfect affected inflections and pompous references to the fake anchor's own prowess. She's guilty as charged of modeling Alvarez at least in small part on her previous lives as a hard and fluff news anchor/reporter.

"I think there's a bit of parody of how we all do the news," Sena says. "We do it a bit too seriously and sometimes a bit over-dramatically. And now I'm paid to do it exactly like that. I've observed some of the most flamboyant and confident news anchors in the business, having worked at Fox . . . People love The Onion and people love Brooke. And it's so funny because she's not lovable. I don't think any of us anticipated it would be this positive a response."

IFC hasn't yet ordered a second season of Onion News Network, which has a 10-episode order for its first. But the network would be crazy not to take a second bite of this "24-Hour, Non-Stop News Assault."

"Sometimes I watch what we've done, and I think 'Wow,' " Sena says. "I knew that some of it was going to cause cringes, but you have to be able to look at the humor of it all. It's not for everybody, but people like their Onion. And they like it strong."

Here's a closing clip of Alvarez in action:

Current TV's Bar Karma staggers into view as network's first scripted series

William Sanderson heads the cast of Bar Karma. Current photo

Premiering: Friday, Feb. 11th at 9 p.m. (central) on Current TV
Starring: William Sanderson, Cassie Howarth, Matthew Humphreys
Produced by: Will Wright, Albie Hecht

Well, at least they're trying.

On the heels of signing Keith Olbermann as its Walter Cronkite, the still largely invisible Current TV network has announced a small fleet of new programs and will premiere its previously announced first scripted series, Bar Karma, this Friday.

The 12-episode blend of Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, My Name Is Earl and whatever else comes to mind is highly unlikely to take the country by storm. But it is something of a breakthrough for the so-called "global online community," which is being asked to submit storylines for future episodes set in a "time-traveling bar" run by James Anon (familiar-faced William Sanderson from Deadwood and Newhart).

Episode 3, subtitled "An Open Mind," is from Austin, TX-based consultant Moses Silbiger, according to publicity materials. The premise: "A famous actress in her 60s enters the bar in her hospital gown and is forced to examine her relationship with her son."

That one's not yet ready for review, but Friday's scene-setting first half-hour arrived in the mail the other day. Overall it may be more muddled than the 2000 Florida recount, which perhaps befits a network co-founded by Al Gore.

The episode begins with a global-warming sex scene involving a guy named Doug Jones (Matthew Humphreys) and an unidentified tattooed blonde. Exiting from a bedroom and clad only in his undies, Doug finds himself in a bar populated by Anon and comely waitress Dayna Rollins (Cassie Howarth).

Doug, destined to become a series regular, thinks he must be dreaming. And maybe he is. Or, just maybe, he might be an Internet kingpin accused of murdering the woman he bedded after she came on to him at a deep-into-the-night poker game.

"I didn't kill that girl," Doug insists.

"Doesn't matter," says Dayna. "Your karma has found you. If you run from it, you're only running in a circle."

Or as Anon imparts, "The universe is inherently meant to be balanced. It always finds a way to restore itself."

Yeah, then how on earth do you explain Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi?

A few more details about the bar's inhabitants are spilled. Sanderson's Anon character is more than 20,000 years old and recently split off from a "much larger conglomerate." Still, just about anyone can drop in at any time, including a medieval William Wallace for a quick drink.

Filmed at the new Ironbound sound stage in Newark, Bar Karma is a creation of Will Wright (brain behind The Sims and SimCity) and Worldwide Biggies CEO Albie Hecht. Perhaps both should have their heads examined. Or maybe the "mythology" they intend to unravel will somehow, some way make a modicum of sense in tandem with the amateur storylines they'll be adapting, shooting, producing and editing.

Stranger things have happened, including the hiring of Olbermann for a spring debut as Current TV's first official man o' the people. The network also has announced several other new programs for this year, including the five-episode 50 Greatest Documentaries, the five-episode Headlines That Shocked America and the six-episode Smoke Jumpers, starring real-life forest fighters.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and Current TV is still only in its sixth year. But there's a long, long way to go before the network can be even a mini-playuh amid hundreds of other cable competitors. In that context, Bar Karma is the equivalent of toilet-training. Which is something we all go through.

GRADE: C-minus

ABC's Mr. Sunshine a luster buster for Matthew Perry

Matthew Perry and Allison Janney headline Mr. Sunshine. ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Feb. 9th at 8:31 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Matthew Perry, Allison Janney, Andrea Anders, James Lesure, Nate Torrence
Produced by: Matthew Perry, Alex Barnow, Marc Firek, Matthew Carlson, Jamie Tarses, Thomas Schlamme

Matthew Perry just doesn't look well. Which will be even more evident in high-definition than on those relatively dinky screens provided by ABC's media site, the only place where TV critics can dial up review episodes of Mr. Sunshine.

This isn't said to be mean. It's just that Perry's physical wear and tear are both apparent and disconcerting throughout the pilot episode, even though his lined, sagging mug is topped by an almost comical stack of thick reddish hair. Perry's acknowledged drug dependency during the Friends years seems to be taking its toll. So hey kids, you don't want to go there.

Perry's Mr. Sunshine, premiering Wednesday, is temporarily replacing Cougar Town, which stars his old Friends running mate, Courteney Cox. She still looks luminous at age 46 in real life. He's starting to look like hell at age 41. Again, it's noticeable enough to remark on.

OK, on with the show, which is disappointingly flat. Perry plays Ben Donovan, manager of a San Diego arena called the Sunshine Center. He's turning 40 when we first meet him. At the same time, his recurring bedmate Alice (Andrea Anders), who's also the marketing director, decides to break it off and instead commit to Ben's assistant, Alonzo (James Lesure), a former basketball star. Gee, and Ben was just starting to feel a bit more lonely and a bit less self-absorbed. Problem is, it's hard to care a whit when Alice tells him, "No one is the answer for you, because you only think of yourself."

Viewers might feel even less for Ben's boss, Crystal (multi-Emmy winner Allison Janney), who owns the arena and is both egocentric and neurotic. Plus, she has little use for her plus-sized but cheery son, Roman (Nate Torrence), whom Crystal has all but discarded. Still, she wants Ben to find something for him to do at the arena.

Manchild Roman so far is the show's most appealing character, but not to the point where you'd watch Mr. Sunshine just to see him. There's also a two-bit drop-in by Jorge Garcia (Hugh "Hurley" Reyes from Lost), who has a throwaway cameo role as a maintenance guy.

Other less than riveting subplots in the opening episode are an escaped elephant, a rush to rid the arena of hockey ice in time for the circus and Crystal's big showy presentation of a check to the San Diego Kids Club.

"Where's the Asian kid? I specifically requested an Asian kid," she demands before singing a song on behalf of racial harmony that's cringe-worthy while also being completely stupid and unfunny. Then it's time to send in the ax-wielding clowns -- literally.

Cougar Town already suffers a considerable audience fall-off from ABC's preceding Modern Family. Nonetheless it's been renewed for next season, and continues to improve its content if not its ratings.

Decidedly dreary for openers, Mr. Sunshine succeeds in making Cougar Town look like a lion of the prime-time jungle. That's obviously not the intent. But Perry, Janney and company will have to brighten matters in a hurry to avoid a very quick sunset.

GRADE: C-minus

Larry the Cable Guy's Only in America further exemplifies History in the remaking

Larry the Cable Guy criss-crosses in new series. History photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 8th at 8 p.m. (central) on History
Starring: Larry the Cable Guy
Produced by: Craig Piligian, Eddie Rohwedder, Larry the Cable Guy, J.P. Williams

It's now History instead of History Channel. And History's old programming regimen is pretty much history, too.

The latest Exhibit A is Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, which begins a 13-episode run Tuesday night. Publicity materials describe it as an "informative and quirky approach to history." So what can you learn?

"If you go to a fancy restaurant, always try to hold your farts in for the whole meal," Larry (real name Daniel Lawrence Whitney) counsels before meeting Peter Post, director of Burlington, Vermont's etiquette-spouting Emily Post Institute. He then asks, "You got a crapper?"

Larry hasn't gone broke estimating the audience for his basic outhouse approach. Clad in his trademark camouflaged shorts, matching ball cap and plaid, sleeveless shirts, he made Forbes magazine's "Top 100 Celebrity Money-Makers" list back in 2007. So the people have spoken, and History accordingly is taking another step beyond its former battleships 'n' brigadier generals motif with a series starring a pathfinder who's perfectly willing to both don a "Bootlegger Bonnet" and jump around with a bullfrog. Among other things.

Tuesday's premiere episode begins with Larry in Dawsonville, Georgia for a history lesson on how moonshiners racing through the backwoods during the Prohibition Era led to the birth of NASCAR. After more or less cleaning up for dinner with descendants of Emily Post, he caps the first hour with a visit to Calaveras County, CA for its annual frog-jumping competition.

Given the general direction things are headed, Only in America might soon qualify as college level material in a History 101 course. In future lessons, students also could watch Larry participate in other slices of Americana, including a soap box derby, a Civil War reenactment and corny dog-eating at the Texas State Fair. Those particular adventures are still coming, according to History.

The moonshine segment fits Larry like a tool belt. Dawsonville has both a Hillbilly Drive, a greeter with a ZZ Top-length beard ("Naw, it don't itch") and NASCAR driver Bill Elliott, a k a "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville." He does a few donuts with Larry in tow. "I don't even know what I'm sayin', I'm so damned dizzy," the host says before having a swig of moonshine to sedate himself.

The Posts and their friends likely see Larry as positively prehistoric. But they play along, giving him a bit of a fashion makeover after he tells an image consultant, "I should have shaved my back before I come in here."

At dinner, Larry learns how to set a proper table but is none too pleased with parts of the menu. "The Hollandaise looks good. Too bad they had to waste it on that green stuff," he says. And the cold pea soup "doesn't count as a soup" in his view.

He does remove his hat for dinner. And his toast to guests is certainly instructive: "Remember, it's OK to crack your knuckles. Please don't knuckle your crack."

Amusing? Kinda. And Larry's visit to Calaveras County is a crackup at times, particularly when he yells "Jump!" to a frog before it pivots to directly face him instead. Later his pants fall down during a county fair competition.

None of this will cure cancer -- or even hemorrhoids. Only in America might qualify as a guilty pleasure, though, with the star of the show agreeably and likably throwing himself into a wide range of activities. History's programming menu now includes Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, Swamp People and its biggest hit to date -- Ice Road Truckers. So they're not interested in making you eat your spinach anymore.

Larry the Cable Guy's new show further underscores the ongoing makeover. And the guess here is that he'll break ratings records for History by just being himself.


Stop and take a look at Fox's Traffic Light

Kris Marshall, Nelson Franklin and David Denman of Traffic Light. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 8th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Nelson Franklin, David Denman, Kris Marshall, Liza Lapira, Aya Cash
Produced by: Bob Fisher, David Hemingson

Three guys, two girls, a baby and a bulldog are all well-served by the somewhat cryptically titled Traffic Light.

Premiering Tuesday in tandem with Raising Hope, this new Fox comedy has nothing to do with crossing guards or toll booth operators. But it's everything that NBC's similarly-minded Perfect Couples isn't -- amusing, appealing and relatable. Even better, its principal relationship-challenged characters are neither cloying or imbecilic. It's actually possible to imagine hanging out with these people and enjoying their company.

The previous title, Mixed Signals, is more to the point than Traffic Light. But the latter is touched on at the end of the first episode during the dedication of a baseball field to a deceased friend. So an explanation is forthcoming if it really matters in the grand scheme of things. After all, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation at first didn't seem like such a hot title either.

Traffic Light's three principal males, all in their 30s and best friends since college, seem all too typical on paper. All specialize, of course, in saying the wrong things to the women in their lives. And then trying to make up for it.

Married Mike (David Denman) and his wife, Lisa (Liza Lapira), are new parents of a baby boy. A lawyer by trade, he sometimes steals a little "me time" by watching movies in the back seat of his car before re-braving the family domain.

Adam (Nelson Franklin) is bespectacled, a bit chubby and newly moved in with his girlfriend, Callie (Aya Cash). "Every night is date night," she tells him, which crimps the time he used to spend freely with his buds.

Ethan (Kris Marshall) is the resident Lothario, a British paramedic and serial dater with an aversion to long-term commitments. Instead he bonds with his willful bulldog, Carl.

Their guy-centric byplay flows nicely, whether they're gang-talking on cell phones or discussing in Episode 2 whether a "burn notice" pact still holds in the case of Mike's wife re-establishing a friendship with a woman whom Ethan dated three years ago. This best of the first three episodes also features Adam's desperate attempt to win back a small stuffed carnival dog that he's used as a ploy to charm various girlfriends, including Callie.

Traffic Light is winning and amusing without being loud and loutish. Boys will be boys, but they're not par for the coarse. And the series' two regular women characters are intelligent and sometimes needy without being harpies. Even horn dog Ethan is no king leer.

Both Traffic Light and Raising Hope are without laugh tracks, leaving CBS as the last major broadcast network still embracing TV's old-time religion. And very successfully so, it should be emphasized.

Comedies without artificial additives still have a harder time busting out as major hits. ABC's Modern Family and NBC's The Office are very gainful properties but continue to fall well short of the ratings for CBS' Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.

Traffic Light isn't likely to crash prime-time's top 40 anytime soon. But it's a pleasant, agreeable surprise with an understated sense of itself. All males aren't cavemen, even if the species still needs a lot of work.

GRADE: A-minus

Super Bowl XLV sets new national ratings high

Christina Aguilera mis-sings National Anthem lyrics. Photo: Ed Bark

Super Bowl XLV from Cowboys Stadium fell just short of surpassing a 31-year-old attendance record but easily broke a one-year-old national ratings mark.

Final Nielsen data says the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers averaged 111 million viewers in easily topping last year's record of 106, 476,000 viewers for the game between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.

Before last February, the final episode of CBS' M*A*S*H had reigned since Feb. 18, 1983 as TV's all-time champ, with 105,970,000 viewers.

National Anthem singer Christina Aguilera might have been just as happy had no one watched. Her bungling of the National Anthem lyrics has made her a post-Super Bowl punching bag. In a subsequent statement, Aguilera said she "got so caught up in the moment that I lost my place. I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through."

The Super Bowl attendance record is still 103,985 for 1980's game in the Rose Bowl between the Steelers and the Los Angeles Rams. The crowd for Sunday's XLV was 103,219 despite Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' getting extra credit for the thousands of fans who paid $200 apiece to watch the game on a big screen in the Cowboys Stadium parking lot.

Fox's Chicago Code again stirs the city's corruption pot

Jason Clarke, Jennifer Beals co-star in The Chicago Code. Fox photo

Premiering: Monday, Feb. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Jason Clarke, Jennifer Beals, Delroy Lindo, Matt Lauria, Devin Kelley, Todd Williams, Billy Lush
Produced by: Shawn Ryan, Tim Minear

Chicago and corruption still suit one another, at least within the parameters of a new cop series set in the Windy City.

Fox's The Chicago Code, created by Shawn (The Shield) Ryan, premieres Monday after what's certain to be a steady promotional drumbeat during Sunday's Super Bowl XLV telecast. Following House won't hurt either.

Ryan, a native of nearby Rockford, Ill., knows how to make a TV series pop and percolate, even if Chicago Code sometimes looks better than the sum of its parts.

He's also adept at making adjustments. In its first go-around, the then titled Ride-Along intended to "make the viewer feel as if they were in the police car with the cops," Ryan said in a recent interview with TV critics. Now it's morphed into what he sees as an affectionate portrait colored in considerable part by Chicago's ties to two famous sons, gangster Al Capone and strong-armed Mayor Richard J. Daley.

"I think the thrust is that there are pockets of corruption that are firmly entrenched within the city that are historically based and continue on," Ryan said. "You only need to look at the front pages of the various Chicago newspapers to know that that does continue. And yet I consider it one of the greatest cities in the world . . . Maybe if we are lucky enough to get a Season 2, we change direction just slightly and do something a little bit different. But I don't think you can really do a show about Chicago politics and how the police interact with them without acknowledging that this is an element that has existed and still does exist."

Chicago Code's Joan of Arc is scrappy police superintendent Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), whose opening narration touches on both the city's long history of shakedowns and her shop owner father's gradual victimization at the hands of various thugs demanding protection payments.

Striding purposefully in low-hung police pants, she's now intent on investigating city government wrongdoing via a newly formed task force. But all-powerful alderman Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo) will have none of this. He also reminds Teresa that she wouldn't have risen to the top of the cop shop without his backing.

The series' third pivotal character, veteran detective Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke), is first seen participating in an over-the-top police chase of a fugitive with whom he's had previous dealings. A fleet of other squad cars also is in pursuit, but Jarek talks the guy into giving himself up in return for getting to see his pregnant girlfriend before being jailed. He proposes marriage, she accepts and onlookers applaud before Jarek cuffs him while fellow officers watch. The entire sequence isn't even remotely believable, but it does get Chicago Code rolling before viewers get a chance to be bored by too much exposition.

Jarek and Teresa used to be street partners, which makes him just the guy to head a clandestine investigative task force. He first must play hard to get, of course. And Jarek also has a traumatic back story. His brother was killed in the line of duty, with the shooter still at large.

The first three episodes of Chicago Code meld everyday crime-solving with the cat-and-mouse game being played by Alderman Gibbons and those out to finger him. Lindo is letter-perfect in this role, whether giving orders or taking his turn at narrating. "They say Chicago is the city that works," he explains in one of the voice-overs. "What some people never understand is it works in a lot of different ways."

Chicago Code doesn't always work. Beals, now 27 years removed from her big breakthrough in Flashdance, can be a bit wooden in some of her scenes. And the dialogue occasionally seems as though it's written on a sandwich board. As when an aide tells Beals' character in Episode 2, "You're one of the youngest superintendents ever in Chicago, the first female one, controversial to say the least. There are a lot of unhappy coppers that would love to see you fail."

Jarek's allegiance to the White Sox -- and complete disdain for anyone daring to be a Cubs fan -- is also more than a bit overdone.

Supporting characters include Jarek's new whiz kid partner, Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria from Friday Night Lights), and his niece, Vonda Wysocki (Devin Kelley), of whom he's very protective. Add undercover cop Liam Hennessey (Billy Lush), who's infiltrated the Irish mob but is in constant danger of being exposed. Chicago itself also plays an estimable role. The series is shot entirely on location, giving many of the city's atmospheric neighborhoods a chance to take their bows.

Chicago Code has a snappy, snappish leading man in Clarke's Jarek, although the real star of the show may turn out to be Lindo. His kingpin alderman keeps turning the screws with savoir faire, particularly in the third hour available for review. He also likes a stiff drink at the ready and his ears smooched by a comely girl Friday.

It all works well enough to put Chicago Code among the better new dramas of the season. But does it make one want to shout its praises from rooftops? Not at this point. What we have so far is a sturdy cops/crooks/corruption series that falls short of The Shield but is certainly capable of someday earning its own stripes.


Grace under fire: Two CNN reporters matter-of-factly recount being attacked in Cairo's Tahrir Square by pro-Mubarak gangs

Trying to report the tumultuous news from Cairo is getting to be an increasingly dangerous task.

CNN correspondents Anderson Cooper and Hala Gorani both were pummeled Wednesday while covering the pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Tahrir Square. They survived and got to safe ground before filing matter-of-fact reports on what happened.

The videos below show how it should be done. No breathless hysterics or chest-thumping. Just clear and concise information on being in a very perilous situation and living to tell about it.
Ed Bark

The Kennedys finds a TV home after History Channel and others nix it

The Kennedys, an 8-part miniseries originally commissioned as History Channel's first scripted drama, has finally found a television home.

It will premiere Sunday, April 3rd on the still fledgling ReelzChannel, the network announced Tuesday.

History Channel made a surprise decision in January to reject The Kennedys after its executives viewed the finished product. In a statement, the network said, "While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand."

Several other cable networks, including Showtime and Starz, also passed on The Kennedys when it was offered to them. ReelzChannel CEO Stan E. Hubbard, whose network could use a big burst of publicity, said in a publicity release, "We believe in the business we are committed to -- movies, the celebrities making them and how and why they influence our cultural universe. If that means defending the right for well told and important stories to be seen -- then so be it -- we can do that . . . As an independent, we have the freedom few networks enjoy."

The Kennedys has a prominent cast, including Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy, Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy, Barry Pepper as Bobby Kennedy and Tom Wilkerson as Joseph Kennedy Sr.

While the miniseries was still in development, detractors branded it a right-wing hit job based on readings of leaked scripts. The Kennedys' executive producer, Joel Surnow, is an outspoken conservative who formerly helmed Fox's 24. But History Channel executives said the miniseries had been revised and vetted for accuracy before filming began.

Below is a trailer for The Kennedys, in which Wilkerson's family patriarch says at one point, "This country is ours for the taking."