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Davy Jones: Dec. 30, 1945 to Feb. 29, 2012

Davy Jones in late July 2011 during the PBS portion of the summer Television Critics Association "press tour." Photo: Ed Bark
Wednesday's sudden death of Davy Jones, at age 66 of a heart attack, is not in the same league with losing a Beatle.

But The Monkees for a time were a wildly popular knockoff of the Fab Four, even though their NBC television series lasted just two years beyond its Sept. 12, 1966 premiere.

Jones, the group's heartthrob lead singer and principal torch carrier, is the first Monkee to breathe his last. Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith remain, although the latter wanted no part of The Monkees in later years.

Jones made this emphatically clear during an interview with me after a July 30, 2011 session tied to a PBS pledge drive special titled Pop Rock: My Music. Jones co-hosted with former Herman and the Hermits star Peter Noone. Both re-crooned some of their respective group's hits while also welcoming Chad and Jeremy, Percy Sledge, Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Kingsmen among others.

"It'll never happen," Jones said of any future reunion of all four Monkees. "Mike Nesmith does not belong in the group anymore. He doesn't sing in the group. He doesn't perform like Micky, Peter or I do. There's no place onstage for Mike Nesmith anymore. He stands there. We are animated. We move, we dance, we talk. He doesn't want to be in the group, so why push the point?"

It wasn't as though they were enemies. Nesmith simply had made a clean break from the group while Jones, Dolenz and Tork continued to turn back the clock to the tune of some still very listenable Monkees hits. Among them were "I'm a Believer, Daydream Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Last Train to Clarksville." Pretty good stuff.

"My voice is better, I sing better, I'm feeling better about my life," Jones said. Even though he also joked about singing "Denture Queen" at this point in his career while one of Herman's Hermits' biggest hits has been retitled "Mr. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Walker."

Oldies groups aren't living in the past, he said. "They are just taking advantage of the things that made them successful. You know, Tony Bennett probably gets pissed off every time he sings 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco.' But maybe he doesn't, you know. Maybe he wishes he had 10 more of those."

Jones was 65 when he said that. I also interviewed him roughly 35 years earlier as a student reporter for the University of Wisconsin-Madison newspaper, The Daily Cardinal. He was part of the "Great Golden Hits of The Monkees Show," which also included Dolenz and songwriter-singers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.

During a lunch appointment at a Holiday Inn, Jones let Dolenz do most of the talking. Not that he had much choice. The "cuddly" Monkee, who received the lion's share of the group's fan mail, seemed distant and a bit weary of it all.

"We didn't walk down the streets," he said of the days when The Monkees TV show juiced NBC's Monday night schedule. "We stayed home. We missed out on a lot of stuff."

Only about 150 diehard fans attended their early show at Madison's long defunct Spectrum Club that night. And the second show drew an even smaller but still enthusiastic crowd.

"Mickey's a little crazier and I'm not any taller," Jones joked after Dolenz wore a rubber cobra and sequined sunglasses for his version of "I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone." He then segued into the ballad "I Want To Be Free" while walking down one of the Spectrum's candy-striped, illuminated runways.

Jones was discovered by NBC after playing The Artful Dodger in a Broadway production of Oliver. He received a Tony Award nomination before becoming a Monkee. Much later in his eventful life, Jones returned to Oliver as the villainous Fagin.

"My Fagin was as good as any Fagin," he said last summer. "As good as Alec Guinness, Ron Moody, Clive Revill -- any of these people. But you'd have to see it to believe what I'm sayin'. "

Jones said he still yearned to play the Joel Grey role in Cabaret or take a spin in Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off.

"As a 65-year-old man, I can't be doing Barnum," he reasoned. "You know, bouncin' on a friggin' high wire."

He could still bounce around as a Monkee, though. And so he did -- in five different decades after the show's cancellation.

"The hardest part is going back to the hotel room" after being "somebody's Elvis" for a few hours, Jones said. "Then I'm just a 65-year-old man sitting there."

Such was life for a kid who rode the wave and never really stopped. Too much Monkee business? Perhaps. But from the Spectrum Club in Madison to a national PBS pledge drive, a lot of people stayed in sync.

"They used to throw knickers, and now they are throwing Depends," Jones said. "What can I say?"

NBC's Awake has vital signs amid a veering premise

Cop in a quandary: Jason Isaacs stars in Awake. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, March 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Jason Isaacs, Laura Allen, Dylan Minnette, Steve Harris, Wilmer Valderrama, Cherry Jones, BD Wong
Produced by: Kyle Killen, Howard Gordon, Jeffrey Reiner

At some point the bleeding has to stop on a night and time that once housed NBC long distance runners such as L.A. Law and ER

But in yet another of the Peacock's seasons to forget, Awake will be the third new drama series to get a Thursday 9 p.m. (central) launch.

Prime Suspect already has been canceled while The Firm got a quick yank and now is wasting away on witness protection program Saturdays.

NBC also used Grimm for a few Thursdays as putty before making way for a new series from Austin-based writer Kyle Killen. He previously wrote The Beaver (Mel Gibson communicates via a hand puppet in a little-seen feature film directed by Jodie Foster) and the almost instantly canceled Fox series Lone Star (handsome Texan becomes a clandestine bigamist).

Awake likewise charts a dual life. Premiering March 1st, it stars Jeremy Isaacs (Showtime's The Brotherhood) as a traumatized, haunted detective named Michael Britten. He emerges from a car accident with his mind set on keeping both his wife, Hanna (Laura Allen), and their teenage son, Rex (Dylan Minnette), among the living.

But which, if any, of his worlds is real? Therapists pull him in opposite directions. Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones of 24) encourages him to keep dreaming while also accepting her reality that Rex has survived and Hanna is dead.

Dr. Lee (BD Wong from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) tells Britten that "this situation eventually will become unsustainable." In Lee's take it or leave it real world, Rex is dead and Hannah's alive.

In case you're not thoroughly confused yet, there's more. Britten remains with his old veteran partner, Isaiah "Bird Freeman (Steve Harris/The Practice), in one of his worlds. In the other, he has a new up-and-coming sidekick named Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama segueing from That '70s Show to a straight dramatic role). Each existence has a separate crime of the week, but Britten uses clues from both worlds to help solve them.

Got it? Good. Let's add another layer. Laura Innes, whose character was pivotal in NBC's far-flung The Event, plays the recurring character of Britten's cop shop boss. She first shows up in Episode 2. And by the end of it, it's clear that she knows a lot that Britten doesn't about the hows and whys of his mysterious car crash.

Prospective viewers can be completely forgiven for hurriedly backing away. Number one, this sounds way too complicated. Number two, it'll get canceled in short order anyway by a network that has more moving parts than a bicycle built for two.

You should know, though, that Isaacs is very good in the lead role. And that by the end of Thursday's premiere, there's a galvanizing oomph to Britten's declaration -- to therapist Lee -- that going nuts "is a price I will happily pay. When it comes letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress."

In other words, both wife Hannah and son Rex are wanted dead and alive by a shaken but stirred detective who decides he can't handle the truth. His visions may not be 20/20 but his resolve is relatable. Awake might well end up as yet another NBC series passing in the night. It packs some punch, though. And Isaacs certainly doesn't sleepwalker through a decidedly distinctive role.


Dancing's latest cast has fewer big toes, lotsa little feet

Ten of the 12 new stars attended Tuesday's GMA unveiling. ABC photo

Dancing with the Stars still has legs. This will be the show's 14th edition, after all.

Still, the cast announced Tuesday on ABC's Good Morning America looks like the weakest-kneed ever. You know they're not knocking your door down anymore when Jack Wagner makes the cut.

And when Dancing re-launches on Monday, March 19th, it will be in the cross-hairs of NBC's The Voice, which lately has surpassed Fox's American Idol as prime-time's most popular singing competition.

ABC describes the latest grouping as "stunning," which is its prerogative. But can anyone in America identify all of the following? Namely, Gavin DeGraw, Roshon Fegan, Katherine Jenkins and William Levy.

At least four of Dancing's returning pros -- Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Cheryl Burke, Derek Hough and Kym Johnson -- are appreciably better known. And that's in large part what the show is still banking on these days.

There are some known quantities. Gladys Knight, Martina Navratilova, Melissa Gilbert and Jaleel "Urkel" White are among the 12 new celebrity hoofers. The other entrants are Maria Menounos, Sherri Shepherd and Donald Driver.

Donald of course is a personal favorite of your friendly content provider and longtime Wisconsin-bred Green Bay Packer fan. But objectively speaking, he's probably the show's least known pro football player ever. And he's paired with Peta Murgatroyd, who's got to be the least known pro dancer in the field. Don't discount his bubbly personality, though. And his potentially smooth moves.

Despite all the cooing from GMA co-host Robin Roberts, Dancing has achieved the seeming impossible by making even the cast of NBC's latest Celebrity Apprentice look good. Oh for the days of even Donny Osmond, Bristol Palin, Tom DeLay and Cloris Leachman. Once more, here's the field, with pro partners attached:

Gavin DeGraw (singer) and Karina Smirnoff
Donald Driver (athlete) and Peta Murgatroyd
Roshon Fegan (singer/actor) and Chelsia Hightower
Melissa Gilbert (actress) and Maksim Chmerkovskiy
Katherine Jenkins (singer) and Mark Ballas
Gladys Knight (singer) and Tristan McManus
William Levy (actor) and Cheryl Burke
Maria Menounos (host) and Derek Hough
Martina Navratilova (athlete) and Tony Dovolani
Sherri Shepherd (host) and Val Chmerkovskiy
Jack Wagner (actor) and Anna Trebunskaya
Jaleel White (actor) and Kym Johnson

Oscars fall shy of Grammys but beat last year's total

Presenting the cast of Bridesmaids as presenters. ABC photo

ABC's Sunday night Oscar-cast emerged as a qualified success nationally, "surging" past last year's ceremony, in the words of a cleverly subjective network publicity release.

The Billy Crystal-hosted affair averaged 39.3 million viewers, up from the 2011 total of 37.9 million.

"The 2012 Oscars stand as ABC's most-watched telecast in 2 years -- since March 3/7/10," ABC said, neglecting to mention that this was the date of the Steve Martin-Alec Baldwin Oscars, which had an appreciably higher 41.7 million viewers.

ABC also left it unsaid that its latest Oscar telecast fell short of the audience for the Feb. 12th Grammy Awards, which averaged 39.9 million viewers. It's only the second time that the Academy Awards have been outdrawn by the Grammys in the same calendar year.

In 1984, the Grammys surged past the Oscars in large part due to Michael Jackson's dominant showing, in which his Thriller album won eight trophies. There were unusual circumstances this time as well -- the death of Whitney Houston on Grammy eve.

This month's Grammys prevailed by a wider margin among advertiser-courted 18-to-49-year-olds, drawing 18.080 million viewers in this age range compared to the Sunday Oscar haul of 15.003 million.

Oscars come, go with a Crystal chandelier again in place

Billy Crystal at first sight and in full throat at end of opening song. Photos: Ed Bark

Billy this, Billy that -- Billy flat?

Not terrible, mind you. Just pretty much same-old, same-old in a reversal of last year's rather disastrous "Young Hollywood" Oscar-cast hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco.

Billy Crystal, who eagerly stepped up for the ninth time after Eddie Murphy dropped out, brought a sense of entitlement and his standard opening bits to Sunday night's 84th Academy Awards shebang on ABC.

In the Crystal-centric opening film montage, he positioned himself as a man in great demand, even though he no doubt was begging to be asked again.

He was first seen in an electrified chair, mouthing the words "I won't host! I won't do it, I tell ya!" in an homage to the night's silent but golden eventual big winner, The Artist.

George Clooney then woke him with a kiss on the lips. "You have to do it, Billy," he implored.

It proved to be another clever package, even if Crystal's ego shone all the way through it. Then he grandly took the stage, telling the gathered swells, "This is my ninth time hosting the Oscars" before getting the applause he obviously expected.

After a little more banter -- "We're here at the beautiful Chapter 11 Theater" -- Crystal began the familiar refrains of his awards show anthem. "It's a wonderful night for Oscar. Oscar, Oscar."

Pause, one-two. "You didn't think I wasn't going to do this, did ya?"

And so he did -- and it was OK. The ceremony then got seriously bogged down with clip montages and awards in some of those dreaded technical categories. It took until 8:12 p.m. -- 42 minutes into the telecast -- before they finally bestowed the night's first major Oscar to Octavia Spencer for "Best Supporting Actress" in The Help.

Her acceptance speech was winningly emotional, but what took so long? In previous years, one of the supporting performance Oscars was awarded right up top after the obligatory host shtick.

Your friendly content provider live-tweeted during the entire three-hour, 13 minute ceremony and for much of the reliably excruciating red carpet pre-show coverage as well. So all that blow-by-blow stuff won't be replicated here.

Overall, though, Crystal had a few amusing moments after his elongated opener, including a prepared bit on what nominees were really thinking while being held captive in their theater seats. He also again resorted to a familiar fall back line -- "The band loved that" -- when a joke didn't quite fly.

As these things go, though, Sunday's Oscars likely will be more remembered for Jennifer Lopez's display of cleavage and Angelina Jolie's showcasing of her right leg. Both events occurred while they were presenting, but who can recall what winners they announced?

The Feb. 12th Grammy Awards, which had their biggest audience in a generation, actually ran longer than the Oscars before getting off exactly as planned after an allotted three-and-a-half-hour slot. But they again minimized the award-giving and maximized the performance spectacles on a night that also was marked by memorials to the just-deceased Whitney Houston.

The Grammys tend to reward artists who actually hit resonant notes with the public via estimable CD or download sales. The Oscars shouldn't be expected to only acknowledge box office blockbusters, because that would further cheapen the proceedings and lead to big hauls for movies like The Hangover. But they really need to minimize the clip segments while somehow finding a way to maximize the performance value.

Still, how do you accomplish that? Grammy nominees can perform their hits in showy circumstances while the show's producers also can stage reunions, tributes and uncommon duets such as Rihanna and Coldplay. But what are the Oscars to do -- stage an eclectic reenactment of a scene from The Descendants with George Clooney in a period costume opposite Dame Judi Dench?

Brevity may be the only answer. Or perhaps restore the honorary Oscar tributes while cutting out a lot of the other filler. There's a certain majesty to bringing back old-timers for curtain calls. But now that's gone, too.

Whatever direction the Oscars go, they seem to be slowly fighting a losing battle against the music awards shows in terms of showmanship and the ability to draw younger audiences.

The Academy Awards will remain an important yearly milestone. And there's always the preceding "Super Bowl of Fashion," as one of ABC's -- or was it E!'s -- sycophants kept putting it. Sunday night's 84th edition didn't exactly raise the roof, though. Nor did Billy Crystal, who seemed thrilled with himself to be there once he had pretended playing hard to get.

"Not Even Nominated" still a classic Oscar sing-along

The 1979 Oscar ceremony had highlights ranging from John Wayne's last public appearance to Laurence Olivier eloquently speaking gibberish upon receiving an honorary statue.

But the 10-minute "Not Even Nominated" medley by Steve Lawrence and the late Sammy Davis Jr. remains a classic of its kind. They swung and crooned their way through an astonishing array of standards, including "Singin' In The Rain" and "When I Fall In Love," that somehow were ignored by the austere but often clueless Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Warm up for Sunday's 84th annual Oscars on ABC with one of the ceremony's all-time greatest production numbers. Even though it's just two old school dudes in nothing more than their tuxes.

84th Oscars banking on Crystal after platinum ratings for Grammys

Billy Crystal will be hosting for the 9th time. ABC photos

Can Billy Crystal revive the Oscars in his ninth go-around as host?

Can Sunday night's ceremony on ABC even beat the Grammys?

The second question unexpectedly came into play when Whitney Houston's death on the eve of the Feb. 12th Grammy Awards served as jet fuel for the show's ratings. The 39.9 million viewers were the most since 1984, when an all-time record 51.7 million viewers (according to Nielsen Media Research's official chart) watched a height-of-his-powers Michael Jackson collect eight Grammys for Thriller.

The 1984 Academy Awards ceremony, the last hosted by Johnny Carson, drew 42 million viewers, marking the only time the Oscars have fallen short of the Grammys in a calendar year. A generation later, there are many more televised awards shows, almost infinitely more viewer choices and another shortage of blockbusters among this year's nine Oscar nominees for Best Picture.

Despite Crystal's presence, for the first time since 2004, the Oscars also are increasingly vulnerable on another front. In recent years, the Grammys and other music awards shows have reduced the actual trophy handouts to a bare minimum. These instead have become performance spectaculars, with the Grammys dominated not by Adele really, but by various Houston tributes, a Beach Boys reunion, two Paul McCartney appearances, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, etc., etc.

The Oscars, comparatively top-heavy in awards-giving, have no answer for that. Few if any viewers really want to see performances of the increasingly lame batch of nominated songs. Clips from nominated films get old in a hurry. And the hosts pretty much make their big splashes in the opening half-hour before basically becoming traffic cops for the remainder of the marathon show.

Presenter pairings can be fun. And at least a few of the acceptance speeches reverberate beyond the telecast. But the scripted banter can be woefully forced as well. And the majority of winners are more inclined to leave viewers on the receiving ends of less than scintillating "thank you" litanies.

Crystal undoubtedly will bring more to the annual party than preceding hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco, who were hired to "youthify" the telecast. Hathaway tried hard, but Franco seemed increasingly indifferent. Crystal, no longer a Billy the kid at age 63, will throw himself into the proceedings while trying to keep them humming with banter and ad libs. This was standard operating procedure when Carson and Bob Hope hosted. Crystal, who first presided in 1990, is now as "Old Hollywood" as they ever were.

Last year's Oscar telecast drew 37.9 million viewers, down from the previous year's 41.7 million with hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. Oscar's smallest audience ever came in 2008, when just 32 million viewers watched host Jon Stewart try to navigate his way through a No Country For Old Men win as Best Picture. Worthy or not, it was hardly a smash at the box office.

This stuff matters. Oscar's all-time largest viewing audience -- 55.2 million in 1998 -- came in the year when Titanic dominated the ceremony. The 2010 Academy Awards, which were the most-watched since 2005, featured a marquee battle for Best Picture between Avatar and The Hurt Locker.

Among this year's nine nominees, only The Help has made more than the magic $100 million at the box office. The Artist, which seems to be the favorite to win both Best Picture and Best Actor, has earned $28 million to date. It's in black-and-white, and for the most part isn't even a talkie. But Crystal at least should have fun with that.

This year's Oscar producers, Don Mischer and Brian Grazer, have lined up another glittering list of presenters. The tux and ball gown brigade includes Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Douglas, Halle Berry, Will Ferrell and Angelina Jolie. But none of them will be performing beyond the parameters of their prepared remarks. And that's where the Grammys and just about any country music awards concoction have a decided edge.

My prediction: Sunday night's Oscars will exceed last February's total of 37.9 million viewers but fall short of 2010's total of 41.7 million. That would put them smack in the vicinity of the Grammys' 39.9 million haul. For appearances sake, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences very much wants to at least hit the 40 million mark.

But I'm thinking they won't unless -- heaven forbid -- a really big Hollywood star unexpectedly calls it "The End" between now and then.

Big Rich Texas and Jerseylicious accentuate the same old/same old

Ready or not, they again stand ready to make their states look bad. Style Network photos

So which of these two is the bigger offender when it comes to casting their state in a ludicrous light?

Well, Big Rich Texas pretty much bitch slaps Jerseylicious, judging from their respective second and fourth season premieres on The Style Network. It's a guilty pleasure traipse through yet another prime North Texas collection of glitzy, ditzy, ritzy moneybags. And its featured villainess, Pamela Martin, has no equal on Jerseylicious, where a couple of the real-life characters are actually pretty likable.

Big Rich's Southfork is the Woodhaven Country Club. The principals regularly gather there for the purposes of drinking, dressing up and dressing down.

"I'm sorry, but that bitch can't open a paper bag," Pamela says of the hapless Leslie Birkland, whose capital crime is apparently not being as rich as she says she is. Otherwise why would she belatedly back out as an investor in the club?

"The trash goes to the garbage. Go to the garbage," Pamela's husband, Ignacio, chips in during a dust-up at Woodhaven. It's trash TV gold.

Leslie has a friend -- throughout most of the season premiere at least -- in collagen-pumped Bonnie Blossman. Her sardonic, spoiled daughter, Whitney, is newly returned from Seattle after a break-up with Leslie's unseen son, Tyler. But Whitney has Leslie all figured out. "Get your head out of your ass," she helpfully tells mom. "She's a scam artist."

This particular mother-daughter dynamic also gives Whitney license to playfully call Bonnie a bitch after being told that she can't have a boob job just yet. Leslie's goddaughter, Kalyn, has no such problem. She's built like Charlene Tilton in her vintage Dallas years, with the camera loving every second of it.

Leslie envisions Kalyn as the next Miss America. But first she'll have to take off a few pounds before being fit to win the Miss Dallas and Miss Texas pageants en route to the big tiara. God mom thinks this will be great for her business, whatever that is. After some reluctance, Kalyn finally says, "OK, I guess."

More catfighting kicks in during a pheasant-hunting outing at the Mesquite Ridge Lodge, where a new Big Rich arrival, party planner DeAynni Hatley, is hoping to impress one and all. DeAynni has jumbo teeth and a big ol' horse laugh, which Pamela mimics derisively.

There are more words for Leslie, too, after she shows up in a partly pink camouflage outfit. "Leave it to Leslie to make 'camo' look like a hooker outfit," Pamela hisses. Delightful.

Big Rich arguably has more substance, though, than Bravo's recent Most Eligible Dallas and its deeply vacuous denizens. Overall, though, no one in the nation at large will see anything more than the usual paint-by-numbers portrait of a city that actually stands for a lot more than wretched excess in the name of naked greed.

OK, a few words about Jerseylicious, where the hair stylist wars are heating up. The show's newest hard-edged broad is Cathy Giove, who is accused of "poaching" on the Gatsby Salon.

Giove has grand plans to open her own hair emporium in partnership with high-strung Anthony Lombardi, a former Gatsby employee. She plans to get the word out via a "gala affair" she throws on behalf of something called the Cricket Professional Stylists Association.

"Elegance is a word that is not spoken enough in today's backward society," Giove proclaims while Gatsby owner Gayle Giacomo and her manager daughter Christy look on unimpressed. Insults are later traded while party-goers look on appreciatively.

Christy seems level-headed and former banished Gatsby stylist Gigi Liscio also seems like a pretty good egg, although needy of course. The Season 4 opener goes relatively light on the heavy-duty Jersey stereotypes, save for the stacked-up hairstyles on display.

English is still mangled a little, too, with Gatsy stylist Olivia Blois Sharpe newly determined to "prove my 'invalubility' while Giove says, "We need a little break from all the stress and 'neuroticness.' "

Neither Texas or New Jersey are in any imminent danger of becoming a refined Massachusetts or anything. Big Rich Texas and Jerseylicious are two more gaudy baubles at the expense of states that no self-respecting "reality" TV producer ever wants to take seriously.

Life's Too Short gives HBO another bracing jolt of Gervais

Johnny Depp, Warwick Davis and, once again, Ricky Gervais. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 19th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Warwick Davis, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant
Produced by: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant

HBO lately is never too far from a series or special headlined by Ricky Gervais in league with his writing and producing partner, Stephen Merchant. And that's still pretty much a very good thing.

Extras got the ball rolling in 2005 and ended with a truly grand finale on Dec. 16, 2007. The Ricky Gervais Show, an animated version of his UK podcast featuring off-center punching bag pal Karl Pilkington, made its HBO debut in 2010 and will return for a third season on April 20th.

That will dovetail with the Season 1 expiration date of Life's Too Short, a seven-episode Gervais-Merchant concoction premiering on Sunday, Feb. 19th at 9:30 p.m. (central). Long and short of it: it's very funny much more often than it's cringe-worthy. Although Episode 3 does test one's tolerance. The remaining four were unavailable for review.

The series' centerpiece is Warwick Davis, who bills himself as "the UK's go-to dwarf" by virtue of smallish parts in several Harry Potter movies and two Star Wars films. Once upon a time, he also had a featured role in 1988's Willow, playing none other than Willow Ufgood himself in the Ron Howard/George Lucas collaboration.

"I want people to see a sophisticated dwarf-about-town who carries himself with dignity," Davis tells the camera early in Episode 1.

But Davis otherwise is deeply in debt, courtesy of his inept accountant, Eric (Steve Brody). He's also been booted out by his regular-sized wife, Sue (Jo Enright) and has hired a lippy dim bulb named Cheryl (brilliant work by Rosamund Hanson) to help him run a failing talent agency called Dwarves For Hire.

Gervais and Merchant, playing "versions of themselves" as HBO describes it, appear periodically as Davis' basically bored listening boards. They preside from an upstairs business office in which they're always sitting behind a glass table to receive Davis and guest stars Liam Neeson and Johnny Depp in the first two episodes.

This all sounds desperately humiliating for Davis. But he's non-stop brilliant as a deluded, self-important has-been who explains away every indignity while desperately breathing in the bare fumes of his fame.

Davis also is a willing participant in his many and varied comedowns. They include falling out of his oversized car; getting stuck in a dog door while trying to sneak into his former residence; and being put in a trash can because Helena Bonham Carter is creeped out by the sight of him as a stand-in for a small boy in a period piece film she's making.

The latter scene is in Episode 3, which takes a dark, cruel turn when a cyber bully on Davis' pathetic website turns out to be a wheelchair-bound student who later is taunted by his classmates. It's just not funny, but Gervais and Merchant didn't get where they are by being decorous.

There are, however, a wealth of comedic peaks. As when Neeson drops into the Gervais-Merchant offices (with Davis also hanging out) to inform them he wants to try his hand at "live comedy of some kind." Neeson's dead-pan improv falls a little flat, though, when he tries to build a routine around a man with "full-blown AIDS." And he just can't be talked out of this in a sequence that's far funnier than it obviously seems on paper.

Episode 2 brings an extended drop-in by Depp, who's not afraid to depict himself as a creepy method actor who hires Davis to show him first-hand what it's like to be a dwarf. At one point Depp plays the flute while Davis struggles to imitate Michael Flatley in Lord of the Dance. They then visit Gervais, whose 2011 Golden Globes barbs at Depp's and Hollywood's expense apparently haven't set too well with the actor.

"No one makes fun of Tim Allen on my watch -- and gets away with it," Depp tells Gervais with a steely glare. "Don't say anything. Just keep that in you."

Depp next reels off a collection of jokes that he says were written at Gervais' expense after the Globes telecast. Davis then goes off to his scheduled paid appearance as an Ewok at a Star Wars-themed wedding. But his ego again gets the best of him and turns it all into a disaster. This episode also includes a "brainstorming session" in which assistant Cheryl tells Davis that he should consider trying his hand at being a chimney sweep.

Life's Too Short is an acquired taste worth acquiring. It may miss by a mile once in a while. But Gervais and Merchant again have managed to marry a low brow premise to high-end humor. Most of the time at least.


AMC niftily turns over a new leaf with Kevin Smith's Comic Book Men

Kevin Smith (center) and his Brand X band of merry men. AMC photo

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 12th at 9 p.m. (central) on AMC
Starring: Kevin Smith, Walt Flanagan, Bryan Johnson, Michael Zapcic, Ming Chen
Produced by: Kevin Smith, Charlie Corwin, Jay Peterson, Elyse Seiden

Rough-hewn Kevin Smith is still belligerently big as a house, can afford to live in a mansion and has an upcoming book titled Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good.

All of which make him likable as hell, both in the flesh at a recent network TV "press tour" appearance and on-screen in AMC's new Comic Book Men.

It's an unscripted departure from the likes of AMC's Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, with Smith presiding over his Smodcast Internet Radio podcasts in the company of four chums who run his New Jersey-based comic book shop, Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash.

The action shifts back and forth from banter on the podcast to the shop itself, where bearded, sardonic hanger-on Bryan Johnson asks at one point, "Do people ever come in here to buy anything?"

"It feels like no," replies Walt Flanagan, the store's chief buyer of collectibles ranging from a mint condition Six Million Dollar Man doll to a poster of the action hero Thor.

There are elements of Auction Hunters, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars. But these guys are more fun than any of those guys. And Comic Book Men is also handsomely produced.

Talkative, drug-addled Jay, played by Jason Mewes in a series of Smith-directed movies (Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma, etc), is nowhere to be seen or heard in Comic Book Men. But Smith, who was Silent Bob, is a talkative presence in what's now become his standard uniform -- an oversized "S.I.R.! hockey jersey.

Smith's lifelong addiction to comic books is both genuine and entertaining. But he's a little too busy to run his New Jersey shop, instead leaving it in the reasonably capable hands of Walt, Bryan, Michael Zapcic and Ming Chen.

AMC has ordered a half-dozen one-hour episodes of Comic Book Men, which should get a big boost Sunday night from the preceding return of The Walking Dead. Zombies, comics and pop culture paraphernalia pretty much go together. And that's underscored by a guy who strides into the Secret Stash shop with a Dawn of the Dead movie poster and a companion set of movie cards, for which he wants a princely sum.

As in other basic cable treasure hunts, Walt and his crew call in an expert to assess the value. And professional collector Rob Bruce is a no-nonsense stripper-down who quickly downgrades the items.

"It's like watching a wolf hunt. It's like watching a lion devour an elf," Walt later marvels on the podcast.

The boys also feast their eyes on a vintage Detective Comics issue and companion Batman drawing autographed by the Caped Crusader's deceased creator, Bob Kane. Their awe is genuine. "I wouldn't take less than $10 grand for it," Walt tells the prospective seller, who intends to auction it off.

A trip to the nearby Collingwood Flea Market, which Smith considers the ultimate mesh of mankind and cheap merchandise, pits Bryan, Michael and Ming against each other in a selling match. The grand prize is a couple of weekends off. Ever the dour dude, Bryan trash-talks Ming before getting off the show's best line: "The whole place reeks of desperation, yet somehow you stand out."

Bryan's act -- which probably is no act -- gets a wee bit old over the course of this first hour. And it's a little too easy to make Ming the butt of most jokes. Still, there's a reasonable facsimile of a happy ending to their flea market warfare. And Rob Bruce, "The Fifth Beatle" as Smith calls him, has something to do with it.

Comic Book Men is a pleasant surprise and an overall splash of fragrant cologne on the smell test-flunking reality genre. The inhabitants of Secret Stash, and its enthusiastic owner, are knights of the round table compared to most of the front men for cable's out-of-control collection of unscripted eyesores.

It's amazing, though, what some people think a Chucky doll is worth.


No more House calls for Fox's classically irascible doc

The cast of House and its centerpiece namesake. Fox photo

Fox and the producers of House announced its long-expected discharge early Wednesday evening.

One of the network's signature dramas will end its eight-season run this spring after 177 episodes.

A joint announcement, from executive producers David Shore, Katie Jacobs and Hugh Laurie (who also stars as temperamental Dr. Gregory House) said that "the decision to end the show now, or ever, is a painful one, as it risks putting asunder hundreds of close friendships that have developed over the past eight years."

But the stories have run their course, they said. And the producers "have always imagined House as an enigmatic creature. He should never be the last one to leave the party. How much better to disappear before the music stops, while there is still some promise and mystique in the air."

Heavier production costs and declining ratings also became part of the prescription that led to Wednesday's announcement. Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly praised the series in a companion statement as a "true original" with some of the "most compelling characters and affecting stories ever seen on television."

"While it's with much regret, and a lump in our throats," he said, "we respect the decision Hugh, David and Katie have made."

House is made for Fox by NBC Studios. But NBC entertainment president Bob Greenblatt told TV writers at January's semi-annual network TV "press tour" that both the expense and the age of the show made it unlikely that NBC would pick it up.

That faint possibility was extinguished with Wednesday's announcement.

"House has aspired to offer a coherent and satisfying world in which everlasting human questions of ethics and emotions, logic and truth, could be played out, and occasionally answered," the producers said. "This sounds like fancy talk, but it really isn't. House . . . has shown that there is a strong appetite for television drama that relies on more than prettiness or gun play."

A date for the series finale will be announced later.

Olbermann goes off on Komen while new report says he remains off his rocker

Current's two alleged truth-tellers -- Keith Olbermann & Cenk Uygur

PASADENA, Calif. -- The elephant in the room -- or perhaps the donkey given his temperament and politics -- was Keith Olbermann's belated pull-out from Current TV's mid-January session during the semi-annual network TV "press tour."

He had been notably absent from his network's prime-time coverage of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire presidential primary. The usual Olbermann-esque controversy ensued. And now his at-odds relationship with his latest set of bosses is being revisited in a lengthy new Daily Beast piece headlined "Al Gore's desperate bid to keep Keith Olbermann -- and save Current TV."

A telling quote from Current president David Bohrman indicates that this particular inmate in effect is running the asylum. "The one thing that I know instinctively is that Keith should be Keith," he told reporter Rebecca Dana. "There's no one at Current that's ever gonna tell him what to say or what to do."

Or, apparently, when to show up for work.

Olbermann is back at the throttle of his weeknightly Countdown program, lately pulling his "Special Comment" trigger on the easily targeted Susan G. Komen For the Cure/Planned Parenthood funding fiasco. He ended with the words "Komen's corruption remains" on Tuesday night.

At the Current "press tour" session, where Olbermann had been scheduled to appear until two days beforehand, Bohrman said the network "had approached Keith about doing election coverage a couple of months ago for the early primaries. He declined. We have now been told by Keith that he will be leading our coverage going forward, and that is what we want to do."

It must be nice to be accepting a multi-million dollar salary from a ratings-starved network while at the same time telling the presumable powers that be -- including the former vice president of the United States -- when and where you'll work.

One usually has to leave the corporate climate all together to do that, as your friendly content provider has done. Not so with Olbermann -- at least not so far. But the indefatigable bridge-burner almost assuredly will push his bosses too far at some point. He always has.

Gore was at the press tour session, along with another MSNBC expatriate, Cenk Uygur (pronounced "Jenk"), and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. They respectively host The Young Turks and The War Room as part of Current's "Politically Direct" nighttime bloc of what Gore termed "news and information from a progressive point of view" that's aimed squarely at a "younger demographic."

Uygur presented himself as an Olbermann with training wheels via his pledge to "punch the establishment in the mouth." And in his presumptuous view, CNN is the water-carrying toady among fellow 24-hour news networks MSNBC and Fox News Channel.

"I would like to declare war on the establishment media like CNN because they have their plastic fake robot anchors on there that do not deliver the news," Uygur pronounced in his opening manifesto before questions were taken. "What they do is standard 'he said, she said' drivel."

Uygur later roasted CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer for writing "an article on cnn.com called a 'Salute to the Politicians.' That's the kind of drivel you have in the establishment media."

(It in fact was a little yucky, with Blitzer saying in a January 10th commentary that the mostly very wealthy Republican presidential candidates "could easily coast at this point in their lives and sit back and relax." Instead, he said, they work long, hard hours on the campaign trail, "knowing full well that all their warts will be exposed big time."

Blitzer concluded by noting that "cynics say they have huge egos and are simply seeking power and glory. This is certainly true of some politicians. But having covered many of them over the years, I also know some are trying to do the right thing, and I salute them.")

Here's something that's certainly true of Uygur. He's a blowhard to whom truth is easily ascertained because he cuts through all the boring point/counterpoint debate to tell you exactly what's up. Why present the other side when you're so certain of your own possession of the facts? All that's necessary is to invite others who share your opinions to be guests on your show. What's so hard about that?

Still, unclebarky.com wondered why Uygur was "ragging so much on CNN." Aren't they at least trying to be "reasonably objective?" Isn't that supposed to be the core foundation of journalism? Would we really be better served by letting all TV reporters run hog wild in the interests of reinforcing their networks' or local stations' political missions?

Uygur wasn't buying it. CNN is little more than a lot of "neutral crap," he contended. He gave a far-fetched example, contending that if CNN were covering the Denver Broncos-Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game, "They would have said, 'Well, the Broncos say they scored the game-winning touchdown, but the Steelers say they scored it.' Who scored it? Tell me who won. And they (CNN anchors and reporters) don't do that. They're scared to death of telling you what's happening in this country."

Seriously? Does he really believe that?

Gore ended the Current session by saying independence is "not just a word. It's not just a slogan. It's not just an identity. It is a reality that empowers us to ignore what corporate conglomerates might want. We don't answer to any powers that be. We do our very best to present the truth without fear or favor and connect the dots in a politically direct way from a progressive point of view."

And there's the rub. Current is "progressive," whatever that means. MSNBC tilts squarely to the left while Fox News Channel tilts squarely to the right and CNN is dismissed as a milquetoast for digging into the center ground and trying to hold it while daring to present opposing viewpoints.

Back to Current's all-powerful Olbermann, whose finger you wouldn't want anywhere near a button. Current is his current enabler, and perhaps his last one. The Daily Beast story, for which Olbermann refused to be interviewed, says that he "balked at the cheap sets and lo-fi production values at the scrappy Current. Ensconced in his New York office, the star ignored emails from the network's West Coast executives. He wanted them to invest more on the technical side, and he wanted more authority in other areas of the network, including personnel decisions. He was also upset about his car service. Gore and his partners had shelled out for a star; now, it seemed, the star owned them."

And when Olbermann inevitably wears out his welcome, Cenk Uygur stands ready to go nuts in words and deeds. He's already off to a fine start on a network where the "talent" seems to be more than capable of eventually dancing on Current's grave.

Nice while it lasted: Jerry's Palace Super Bowl nipped nationally by XLVI, which now ranks as most-watched TV program ever

Hey, look what I won again. And big brother's only got one. NBC photo

Super Bowl XLVI has inched past last year's big game from Jerry's Palace to become the new "Most-Watched Show In U.S. Television History."

Its host network, NBC, put out the word mid-Monday afternoon, using Nielsen Media Research data to give the game an average of 111.3 million viewers. Super Bowl XLV drew 111 million.

The New York Giants' 21-17 win over the New England Patriots, which wasn't decided until a climactic "Hail Mary" pass fell incomplete in the end zone, built steadily throughout the early evening and night to average 117.7 million viewers in its final half-hour. The game began with 99.2 million viewers.

This marked the seventh straight year of Super Bowl audience increases, NBC says. But the country is more populated than it used to be, making the overall 47.0 household rating for XLVI still only the sixth best on the list. Super Bowl XLV ranks just 10th with a 46.0 household rating. The all-time champ in that respect is still 1973's Super Bowl XVI on CBS between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. It was played in the Pontiac Silverdome and had a 49.1 rating.

NBC also noted that the less than favorably received Madonna halftime show actually averaged more viewers than the game itself -- 114 million according to Nielsen. Last year's Cowboys Stadium performance by the Black Eyed Peas had 110.3 million viewers.

NBC's post-Super Bowl attraction, the Season 2 launch of The Voice, held on to 37.6 million viewers.

More stealth promoting for Cougar Town from its renegade producer

Courteney Cox at Bill Lawrence's Cougar Town party. Photo: Ed Bark

Guerilla TV producers are always welcome on this independent-minded TV site. And Bill Lawrence lately is the guerilla my dreams. So sorry.

Lawrence used to make Scrubs for NBC. It bounced around a lot, constantly disappearing and reappearing. Now he's the creator/producer of ABC's Cougar Town, which is slated to return on Valentine's night after a long absence.

He wasn't at all happy about this extended hiatus. So during January's Television Critics Association "press tour" in Pasadena, Lawrence threw his own party on the eve of ABC's formal day of presentations. At the time ABC still hadn't committed to a date for Cougar Town's return, but soon capitulated after its men-in-drag Work It opened to dreadful reviews and ratings.

Now Lawrence has taken another step on his behalf by emailing writers an embeddable link to "our Season 3 highlight reel, spoilers and all."

"Trying everything. We just all like our job too much," he says. "Getting in trouble with ABC legal left and right. But whatever. See you Feb. 14th (at 7:30 p.m. central following Tim Allen's Last Man Standing). Someone thank Fox for taking Glee off the air for 7 weeks. Might help us."

I've gradually become a fan of Cougar Town, which has gotten much better after a so-so start. And you can get more updates on Cougar Town by going to Bill Lawrence on WhoSay.

For the record, ABC entertainment president Paul Lee jovially said he liked Lawrence's style on the morning after the producer and his team threw their unauthorized Cougar Town party.

"I mean, I love Bill," Lee said whether he completely meant it or not. "I used to be a pirate when I was a show-runner. And now I'm kind of the Navy and he does such a great sort of pirate job of getting his audiences excited. And that helps us, too. So I always say to my show-runners, 'Take a leap out of Bill Lawrence's book because he does such a great job of getting a passionate audience around a show.' "

Here's the highlight reel, which runs just over 10 minutes but can be watched in smaller doses if you'd like:

Bill Lawrence on WhoSay

Eastwood floors it for Motor City and America's "Second Half" while Madonna runs on empty

Do ya feel plucky, America? Well, do ya? Photos: Ed Bark

Flinty Clint cleansed the palate of prima donna Madonna's halftime show Sunday during a Super Bowl XLVI that also happened to house a helluva good game.

It all ended with New England Patriots QB Tom Brady throwing a Hail Mary pass that almost was answered after Madonna climaxed her grossly grandiose performance with "Like A Prayer" before fake-immolating herself on behalf of "WORLD PEACE."

So where was Clint Eastwood when you needed him? Well, he appeared in fine g-r-r-r-ravely Gran Torino form just before the second half kickoff between the Pats and ultimately victorious New York Giants.

Eastwood talked up the resurgent Detroit auto industry and America's "second half" in an extended spot that built to his in-your-face declaration that "This country can't be knocked out with one punch." Crowd pleaser? Damn straight. The authenticity of Eastwood vs. the counterfeit display by the Material Girl, whose clearly lip-synced, over-produced, out-of-touch halftime show takes its place as the worst of the modern era. You're finally reprieved, Janet Jackson.

Hey, look me over. Madonna on parade in pitiful display.

Madonna's 13-minute halftime eyesore, presented with a film/video technique that made it seem even more distant, included a gesture malfunction on the part of guest star M.I.A. She offered a fleeting middle finger to America at large. The NFL later officially apologized for "a spontaneous gesture that our delay system caught late."

Meanwhile, Madonna briefly lost her balance during one sequence while losing her compass throughout. Isn't it about time for the Super Bowl to present actual live music in an intimate bar located somewhere within the confines of the host city? The ticket-buying audience can't really see the damn thing anyway. It's presented for the millions upon millions of TV watchers. So why not a stripped-down set from a kick-ass band? C'mon, man! -- as they like to say on ESPN. These artificially induced halftime pyrotechnics are getting as outmoded as college football's bowl system.

Bangs for the memories: A fine National Anthem by Kelly Clarkson.

There was one saving grace. Inaugural American Idol champ and Burleson native Kelly Clarkson offered a stirring, few frills National Anthem that she actually performed live. Its immediacy contrasted with the disengaging experience of watching Madonna cavort in celebration of her faded glory. That is, if you ever bought into her in the first place.

NBC's marathon pre-game festivities included frequent trips to the so-called "Super Suite," where a gushing Nick Cannon (host of the Peacock's America's Got Talent) presided over an assembly line of celebrities promoting their wares.

Not a one of 'em showed up without something to sell. They came and went in this chronological order:

Katharine McPhee (on behalf of NBC's Smash)
Jessica Simpson (NBC's Fashion Star)
Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg and Will Forte (the feature film That's My Boy)
Jimmy Fallon (NBC's post-Super Bowl edition of his Late Night show)
Danny DeVito (the feature film Dr. Seuss' The Loraz)
Chris Evans (the feature film The Avengers)
Blake Shelton, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, Carson Daly (NBC's The Voice).

The Voice's other celebrity judge, Christina Aguilera, was notably missing. Perhaps she deemed it too soon to re-attend a Super Bowl after gumming up the lyrics to the National Anthem during last year's game at Cowboys Stadium.

Happy feat: Tina Fey, Brian Williams, Matt Lauer, Alec Baldwin, etc.

NBC also promoted a gaggle of its ongoing shows via an inventive musical number adapted from "The Brotherhood of Man" song from Broadway's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Everyone seemed to try hard in this case, beginning with the cast of 30 Rock and ending with a group-sing outside of NBC's Manhattan headquarters.

After the game, the post-game and the Season 2 launch of The Voice, NBC5 presented a "super-sized edition" of its late night newscast, which started later than usual at 10:22 p.m.

Its centerpiece was a nice coup by co-anchor Meredith Land, who coaxed the wives of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Texas Rangers principal owner Nolan Ryan to sit down en masse for an interview about what it's like to be married to these guys. Gene Jones, Ruth Ryan and Tiffany Cuban were all fairly forthcoming. Both NBC5 and Land should be credited with a nice enterprise effort.

Your friendly content provider also live-tweeted before and during the Giants' 21-17 Super Bowl win over the Patriots. So if you'd like to re-play along, you can find them all at unclebarkycom. And then follow, if you'd like, for future blips.

We leave you with the Eastwood spot and NBC's "Brotherhood of Man" sing-along.

Don't get fooled again?: ABC's The River makes one feel Lost anew

The cast of The River hopes to not fade away. ABC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) with back-to-back episodes
Starring: Leslie Hope, Joe Anderson, Bruce Greenwood, Eloise Mumford, Paul Blackthorne, Thomas Kretschmann, Daniel Zacapa, Paulina Gaitan, Shaun Parkes
Produced by: Oren Peli, Michael Green, Jason Blum, Steven Schneider, Justin Falvey, Daryl Frank, Zack Estrin, Steven Spielberg

Whatever the lessons of Lost, they seem lost on ABC.

Because here comes another otherworldly, string-along drama series whose humans are at the mercy of mysterious unseen forces that include a demon spirit reminiscent of "The Smoke Monster."

It's also filmed in Hawaii, as was Lost. CBS goes to the island for lushly appointed, but otherwise straight-ahead cop shows on the order of Magnum, P.I. and the network's past and current Hawaii Five-0. ABC goes for the murk.

The River, launching on Tuesday, Feb. 7th with back-to-back hours, is replete with the jittery, grainy hand-held camera visions you'd expect from its principal executive producer, Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli. His playground is the Amazon, where explorer/TV host Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) has gone missing and been declared dead.

Cole's TV series, The Undiscovered Country, ran for 22 years. His tagline, "There's magic out there," apparently became as popular as "Is that your final answer?" The guy loved snakes and reptiles, but wasn't much of a people person. His son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), now a medical student, became estranged from dad after he missed too many birthdays and other milestone events. And his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), had a stateside affair while hubby jaunted about on his good ship Magus.

Six months after he goes missing, though, Emmet's location "beacon" begins relaying signals. Tess instantly becomes intent on finding him alive. And his old network and producer, the uniquely named Clark Quietly) (Paul Blackthorne), are happy to pay all expenses as long as the cameras keep rolling and Lincoln comes along, too, in the interests of heightening the drama.

Oh no he won't.

Oh yes he will.

Let's meet the rest of the crew. Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford) is a comely young blonde who was Lincoln's best friend when they were kids. She then became Emmet's principal assistant while her likewise missing dad served as top cameraman.

Lena know things. Such as this: "He knew what he was doing out there, that he'd be inviting in darkness."

The Captain on this new excursion is a guy named Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann), who apparently has some ulterior motives. There's also key crew member Emilio Valnzuela (Daniel Zacapa), whose teenage daughter, Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), used to have a "ghost friend." She now somehow knows that evil apparitions are on the prowl and very bloodthirsty.

Snippy Lincoln Cole may have a bug up his ass at times, but Jahel swallows a big bug whole while asleep in Tuesday's Hour 2. This enables her to talk like Emmet and tell his wife in his voice, "You need to let me go. They have me, Tess."

All the while, the cameras keep going crazy, whether on the decayed ship Magus or in the bush during a very weird search for Emmet that mostly consumes Hour 2. Look for lots of hanging dolls on some sort of "spirit tree."

The producers of The River (among them the now ubiquitous Steven Spielberg) hope to make your flesh crawl on a weekly basis while also peeling away layers of Emmet's disappearance. Co-executive producer Michael Green told TV writers in January that the series will have "longer term horizontal arcs" while at the same time making each episode "its own horror movie."

Yeah, they all say that, particularly where ABC is concerned. The River, also reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, throws a lot of bodies around in its opening hours. And Joe Anderson's interesting portrayal of Lincoln Cole makes one hope he emerges reasonably intact at the end of however long The River lasts.

The guess here is that it won't be very long at all. Lost had a transfixing pilot episode, with the thrill of discovery palpable. But many fans -- not so much this one -- were let down by its magical, mystical, heaven-in-a handbasket finale. And it took six seasons to get there.

The River in comparison seems like stale tap water, unworthy of any prolonged big drink of time or effort. Somehow we just know it's not all going to hold together, despite its best-intended clarion call at the end of Hour 1. "Dad was onto something," says son Lincoln. "And you know what? There is magic out there. Let's go see it."

Or, as many will prefer -- let's not.


Can NBC's Smash make a splash, or just a splish?

Once a rarity, double grand slams are getting commonplace for Belo8's local newscasts, which rang up another one Monday.

The ABC station won at 6 a.m., and 5, 6 and 10 p.m. in both total homes and among 25-to-54-year-olds, the main advertiser target audience for news programming. It's the third time this month that Belo8 has rounded all the bases, with the February "sweeps" ratings period just two days away.

Monday's prime-time schedule yielded in large part to President Bush's last State of the Union message, which with the Democratic response ran from 8 to 9:30 p.m. The audience for Bush on the four broadcast networks totaled 467,635 D-FW homes.

At the 7 p.m. hour, Ch. 27 perked up with a MyNetworkTV special on the Harlem Globetrotters. It drew 73,056 homes, an uncommonly large audience for the upstart network. And among advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds, the Globetrotters ran third in the time period, beating both ABC's new episode of Dance War and Fox's repeat of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Also on the basketball front, the Dallas Mavericks' road win over Memphis had 56,019 homes on Fox Sports Southwest.

And cable's 2011 ratings winners are . . .

Reigning champs: AMC's The Walking Dead and BET's The Game.

Basic and premium cable networks continue to hum along creatively while also increasing in popularity. But what scripted series are tops in their fields ratings-wise in total viewers, and women/men in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic?

Thanks to the usual highly informative charts issued by FX at January's Television Critics Association "press tour," we're going to break it down for you in both the drama and comedy categories.

All ratings are for the 2011 calendar year and compiled from national Nielsen Media Research data. And some of these rankings are eye-openers.


Total Viewers (Top 10)

1. The Walking Dead (AMC) -- 8.868 million per episode
2. Rizzoli & Isles (TNT) -- 8.440
3. The Closer (TNT) -- 8.295
4. Falling Skies (TNT) -- 6.906
5. Royal Pains (USA) -- 6.558
6. True Blood (HBO) -- 6.458
7. Suits (USA) -- 6.314
8. Burn Notice (USA) -- 6.119
9. Covert Affairs (USA) -- 6.045
10. Necessary Roughness (USA) -- 5.759

18-to-49-Year-Old Women

1. True Blood (HBO) -- 2.516 million
2. The Walking Dead (AMC) -- 2.497
3. American Horror Story (FX) -- 1.813
4. Rizzoli & Isles (TNT) -- 1.657
5. Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family) -- 1.576
6. Army Wives (Lifetime) -- 1.558
7. Sons of Anarchy (FX) -- 1.543
8. Switched At Birth (ABC Family) -- 1.538
9. The Closer (TNT) -- 1.518
10. Covert Affairs (USA) -- 1.501

18-to-49-Year-Old Men

1. The Walking Dead (AMC) -- 3.582 million
2. True Blood (HBO) -- 2.285
3. Sons of Anarchy (FX) -- 2.224
4. Falling Skies (TNT) -- 1.956
5. American Horror Story (FX) -- 1.451
6. Burn Notice (USA) -- 1.444
7. Suits (USA) -- 1.344
8. Hell On Wheels (AMC) -- 1.314
9. Boardwalk Empire (HBO) -- 1.292
10. Justified (FX) -- 1.287


Total Viewers

1. The Game (BET) -- 5.282 million
2. South Park (Comedy Central) -- 3.639
3. Entourage (HBO) -- 3.211
4. Hot In Cleveland (TV Land) -- 2.978
5. For Better or Worse (TBS) -- 2.893
6. Let's Stay Together (BET) -- 2.737
7. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) -- 2.592
8. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX) -- 2.588
9. Beavis & Butt-head (MTV) -- 2.500
10. Awkward (MTV) -- 2.357

18-to-49-Year-Old Women

1. The Game (BET) -- 2.312 million
2. Awkward (MTV) -- 1.186
3. Let's Stay Together (BET) -- 1.164
4. For Better or Worse (TBS) -- 1.136
5. Entourage (HBO) -- 951,000
6. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX) -- 779,000
7. House of Payne (TBS) -- 759,000
8. South Park (Comedy Central) -- 756,000
9. Hot In Cleveland (TV Land) -- 687,000
10. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) -- 657,000

18-to-49-Year-Old Men

1. South Park (Comedy Central) -- 1.981 million
2. Entourage (HBO) -- 1.518
3. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX) -- 1.379
4. Workaholics (Comedy Central) -- 1.173
5. Beavis & Butt-head (MTV) -- 1.138
6. The Game (BET) -- 1.121
7. The League (FX) -- 1.064
8. Futurama (Comedy Central) -- 1.018
9. Wilfred (FX) -- 981,000
10. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) -- 904,000