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Second coming of Cupid lacks that certain some-zing

Bobby Cannavale, Sarah Paulson front ABC's Cupid redo.

Premiering: Tuesday, March 31st at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring:Bobby Cannavale, Sarah Paulson, Rick Gomez, Camille Guaty
Created by: Rob Thomas

Does Cupid wear Arrow shirts? And if so, wouldn't that make for some nice product placement?

Just trying to help out in these sub-desultory economic times, where virtually everyone's budget is stretched far tighter than when ABC's original Cupid series failed to make enough viewers quiver. The new Cupid premieres Tuesday (9 p.m. central), following another episode of ABC's best available launch pad, Dancing with the Stars.

ABC's first try, in fall 1998, starred a pre-Entourage Jeremy Piven as matchmaker Trevor/Cupid, who claimed to be from Mount Olympus. His skeptical psychologist, Claire, was played by Paula Marshall, who since has burned through a number of prime-time series, including the current Gary Unmarried on CBS.

Despite being amusing and sometimes quite touching, the original Cupid lasted less than five months in a Saturday night slot opposite CBS' Walker, Texas Ranger and NBC's Profiler. Back then, the longstanding Big 3 broadcast networks actually used to program Saturday nights with new scripted series. Fox, of course, had and still has COPS and America's Most Wanted.

The new Cupid/Trevor is played by Bobby Cannavale, best known for his recurring role as Vince D'Angelo on Will & Grace. Sarah Paulson (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), who's almost as well traveled as her predecessor, succeeds Marshall as Claire.

The old Cupid was set in Chicago; this one's yet another Manhattan-based entry. Otherwise the mission is the same. Cupid/Trevor says he must bring 100 "romantically challenged" couples together before he can return in good standing to Mount Olympus. One hundred also happens to be the magic number of episodes for syndicated rerun profitability, but forget about that happening.

In Tuesday's opener, Trevor strives to hook up an Irish musician named Dave with a woman he met in the old country but hasn't been able to locate in NYC. But a New York Post reporter named Madeline has bigger eyes for Dave. We're supposed to root for her, but really, who can feel much of anything for an employee of the city's reliably sleaziest tabby?

Anyway, it's all pretty gooey -- or karaoke as Simon Cowell would say. In fact, much of the romantic action takes place at the Tres Equis karaoke bar, run by Trevor's friend, Felix (Rick Gomez). We also get an early scene in which Trevor leads a group sing-along of "All You Need Is Love" while housed in a mental institution. Arrrgh. Please stop.

The relationship between patient Trevor and Dr. Claire is also supposed to bloom and grow. But it's pretty ho-hum for starters. Piven and Marshall were instantly more appealing in that respect.

So chalk up this second coming of Cupid as being pretty corny but basically harmless. It needs more heart, but probably won't get that far before the lethal ABC cancellation arrow takes aim.


Looks like a stinker: Osbournes: Reloaded isn't giving TV critics much of a chance to unload

Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne bring their four-ring circus to Fox.

This is only a hunch, mind you. But it very much seems as though Fox will be foisting an abomination on the American public Tuesday night.

Unavailable for review, save for a few unappetizing clips, Osbournes: Reloaded is premiering at the odd hour of 8:20 p.m. (central) following the latest American Idol performance show.

"You tune in to see us pissing around, basically," says matron Sharon Osbourne in interview snippets sent to TV critics.

She probably doesn't mean that literally, although there's always a chance. Hubby Ozzy already has an incontinent mouth, after all. And the Osbourne kids, Jack and Kelly, have never been terribly refined.

Fox has only committed to a handful of periodic Reloaded specials, not a weekly series. That's not a great sign. Nor is the Osbournes' sense of what passes for riotous entertainment. So far that includes a silhouetted stripping granny (her "boobs were so saggy," Kelly notes); a blindfolded younger guy being duped into kissing an elderly woman; Ozzy spraying the audience with foam; and pint-sized "Littlest Osbournes" dropping bleeped f-bombs while insulting a young woman at a theater box office who tells them they can't see an adult-rated movie.

"It's family entertainment," Sharon contends. "It's something that you don't have to think about."

Obviously. But I think this is really going to stink. And I liked The Osbournes on MTV.

Oh well. Ozzy won't remember anything anyway.

HBO couldn't be less explicit with first-rate No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

A plus-size star is born: Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe.

Premiering: Sunday, March 29th at 7 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Jill Scott, Anika Noni Rose, Lucian Msamati, Desmond Dube, Winston Ntshona, Mosaka Mogara
Produced by: Richard Curtis, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein and the late Sydney Pollack

Imagine an HBO series that could air untouched on any advertiser-supported broadcast network.

Well, this is it. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, premiering Sunday (7 p.m. central), divorces itself from all HBO basics. And this particular marriage dates all the way back to 1984's 1st & Ten, in which the newfound freedoms of pay cable TV dictated ample profanity, nudity and, urp, the presence of O.J. Simpson in seven of the episodes.

Ladies' Detective Agency, shot entirely in Botswana, Africa and drawn from the nine same-named novels, stars a plus-sized heroine who lives to honor her late, loving father. Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) doesn't curse or get naked. Nor does she pack a pistol, throw punches or deploy anyone who does. Instead, Precious charms and disarms with declarations like, "I don't like telephones. People think they can just speak to you willy-nilly."

HBO has ordered seven episodes of this sweetheart of a series, which is original without being prototypically edgy. Viewers are only required to sit back and slowly warm to it. There's no rush at all.

Sunday's two-hour premiere moves at a leisurely pace, first setting up the relationship between little girl Precious and her doting, wizened "Daddy" (Winston Ntshona).

"From my father, I got a sense of justice, and the pleasure of solving a mystery," a grown Precious narrates. On his deathbed, he urges his only daughter to marry a kind man the next time. It's spoken, not depicted. But earlier in her adult life, a pregnant Precious lost a child after her husband beat her.

Precious ends up inheriting 180 cows from her revered father. She sells them, and with the proceeds heads to the compact city of Gabarone, which is Botswana's capital. Her sole intent is to open a detective agency, which she does in a former post office building. Benevolent neighbors include a hairdresser named BK (Desmond Dube) and a mechanic (Lucian Msamati) she met after her daddy's "ATSUN" pickup truck broke down.

Scott exudes appeal as Precious. But things don't really get rolling until prim, proper, opinionated Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose) shows up to take the job as secretary of an agency that initially has no clients.

Grace must make do with two antiquated typewriters, both of them missing letters but not the same ones. Her 'tude is instantly elementary to the series, dear Watsons. She supplies the necessary juice to Ladies' Detective Agency, stealing scenes in ways that make you want to cheer each and every theft.

Sunday's opener, directed by the late Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), premiered last year on the BBC. The subsequent six episodes were commissioned by HBO, which might well make more if audiences respond.

In April 5th's Episode 2, Grace pretty much states the case for the series' basic approach. "Detective work is not all bang, bang, bang, like in the movies," she asserts.

Ladies' Detective Agency instead goes about the business of determining whether a long-lost father is a fake. Or if a husband is a philanderer. And what about that dentist and his mysterious mood swings?

Some of the guest male roles are played more than a bit broadly, particularly that of the Lothario who comes on to Precious during her clandestine visit to The Go-Go Handsome Man's Bar.

It's no big deal, though. This is a series that marches to its own beat -- and distinctive music -- without clubbing viewers over the head with graphic violence or mangled corpses. Basically it's a self-contained weekly police "procedural," but with a heroine whose joys of discovery are effervescent.

"Do not worry about me. I am made of strong stuff," Precious says to those who fear for her safety. All well and good. But above all, here's a detective who also has a great deal of fun opening and shutting her various cases. That's what gives Ladies' Detective Agency its bounce. If she's not having a good time, then neither are we.

GRADE: A-minus

Stay in the womb! ABC's In the Motherhood is coming

Cheryl Hines, Megan Mullally, Jessica St. Clair of In the Motherhood

Premiering: Thursday, March 26th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Cheryl Hines, Megan Mullally, Jessica St. Clair, Horatio Sanz, RonReaco Lee
Produced by: Jennifer Konner, Alexandra Rushfield, Stuart Bloomberg, David Lang

Shrill harpies unite. Here's the show for you.

Unrelentingly loud and leaden, ABC's In the Motherhood is a wail of a tale that fails as both a sitcom and a mommy tract. Network press materials say the show represents "mothers we all know." Perish the thought, but maybe they really meant to say "loathe." Whatever the case, this thing manages to make NBC's much reviled Kath & Kim seem like a pastoral Monet painting.

Two familiar TV faces tote much of the load in a show drawn from webisodes of the same name.

Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) shouts her way through the role of Rosemary, a multi-divorced, self-absorbed mother of a son who goes entirely unseen in the first two episodes available for review.

Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) is only marginally more bearable as high-strung Jane, recently divorced mom of pre-teen and baby girls.

Jessica St. Clair, who played a recurring character in CBS' apparently doomed Worst Week, makes it a threesome as the easily manipulated Emily. Her ongoing interracial marriage to milquetoast Jason (RonReaco Lee) has produced a boy and a girl so far.

Also caught in the pincers of Motherhood is Saturday Night Live alum Horatio Sanz, who's notably trimmer and in a beard (perhaps he didn't want to be recognized?) as Jane's dedicated nanny, Horatio.

In Thursday's basically awful opener (7 p.m. central), Rosemary fakes being pregnant in order to cut in line and otherwise be treated like a "goddess." Instead you'd like to strangle her.

Meanwhile, Emily impulsively tells her kids there's no Santa Claus in the belief she should never lie to them. This prompts a day care center riot when son Bill tells the whole class. "It was the death of innocence, and your son was the lone gunman," the teacher delicately informs mommie dreariest.

Also, Jane is determined to have sex with her latest date because, well, "Nobody has seen this in a very long time," she says, hand-circling her nether land.

It all ends -- wah, wah, wah -- with the hapless Horatio impersonating Santa but falling off the roof. Emily's kids accuse mommy of killing the Jolly Old Soul, but Rosemary knows better. "That's not blood. It's Christmas juice," she says before the closing credits mercifully kick in. Yes, she actually says that.

Next week's outing -- "Spring break has begun, bitches!" proclaims Jane -- is equally ill-plotted and executed. The dialogue remains at a decibel level approaching an air raid siren, particularly when grating Rosemary organizes a nanny strike after ridiculing a Latina follower with bad teeth.

Utterly without style or any relatability, In the Motherhood is about as funny as bleeding gums. Worse yet, it's a braying insult to the real-life moms it supposedly depicts. Cripes, even Norman Bates had it better than this.

GRADE: D-minus

George Lopez to take a swing at late night in new TBS talker

George Lopez will be a TV talker, too, on new TBS late nighter.

TBS and George Lopez will enter the late night talk arena for the first time this fall in a show set to air opposite local newscasts and the first half-hours of Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show and Late Show with David Letterman.

"If change can come to the White House, then change can come to late night. Yes I can!" Lopez says in a TBS publicity release.

Still untitled, the one-hour show will air from 10 to 11 p.m. (central) on Mondays through Thursdays, beginning in November. The host also is a co-executive producer with Hollywood veteran Jim Paratore, whose credits include The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Bonnie Hunt Show.

"George and TBS are going to change the late-night television landscape and bring a brand new energy to the talk show genre by giving it a street-party atmosphere," says TBS programming head Michael Wright.

Lopez will be the first person of color to host a late night network show since Arsenio Hall, whose syndicated hour ran from 1989 to 1994 in syndication.

O'Brien is scheduled to take over the Tonight Show on June 1st, with incumbent Jay Leno moving to a weeknight 9 p.m. hour sometime in the fall.

Warhorse redux: Rather hits the century mark -- in episodes -- on HDNet

Dan Rather and Mark Cuban at July 2006 session with TV critics.

Milestones come and go, but the odds against this one occurring were perhaps 100 to 1.

Here's Dan Rather, though, on the occasion of his 100th episode of HDNet's Dan Rather Reports.

In partnership with the network's owner, Mark Cuban, Rather has endured as television's oldest living practitioner of weekly boots-on-the-ground journalism. His odometer reads 77, but with a bullet not a sedative.

"I'm incredibly proud of what Dan has done with DRR," Cuban says via email. "It is by far the best news hour on TV. Dan hasn't lost a step. His passion for reporting comes through every week."

Rather, in a telephone interview with unclebarky.com, counts himself fortunate to be bankrolled by a billionaire who doesn't necessarily expect to turn a profit with this particular investment.

"About the only time I hear from him is when we've done some investigative report for which we've caught some flak," Rather says. "And what he does is come forward and stand tall and back us up. I'm at an age and stage where I don't have to kiss up to anyone anymore, thank heaven. I was looking for the new Bill Paley (founder of CBS) or Ted Turner (founder of CNN) -- or as close as I could come. And I found him in Mark. . . This has been a total, complete joy for me. I can't remember having this much sustained satisfaction and just sheer happiness since maybe the very early years when I first came to CBS News."

Cuban hired Rather in July 2006, and initially wanted him on the air by September. Even Rather balked at that hurry-up schedule, buying time until the program's Nov. 14, 2006 debut. It's been a weekly grind ever since.

"When we started this, there was a good deal of snickering," Rather says. "But if you listen to that stuff, then you never get anything accomplished. I heard from any number of people, some who were friends, some who were not and some I wasn't sure which. They said, 'You're going to be like Wile E. Coyote. You're going to go of a cliff. Nobody can keep that pace up.' But we just kept on keeping on."

Rather's 100th hour of DRR (Tuesday, March 24th at 7 p.m. central) will find him in Afghanistan for a one-hour piece subtitled "A Border Runs Through It." He returned from this latest self-imposed assignment on Christmas Eve. By his count, it's "at least the fourth full hour we've done on Afghanistan or Pakistan."

"In the past two and a half years I believe we've spent more time on the ground over there than anybody in American electronic journalism," Rather says. "We've done that because I believe it's such an important story. And for Mark to finance that, and to leave us on our own, well, that shouldn't go unnoticed."

His highest-profile trip to Afghanistan, in 1980 for CBS' 60 Minutes, became both famous and infamous for Rather's undercover reporting in Afghan peasant garb. A headline in The Washington Post dubbed him "Gunga Dan" in an unflattering piece written by TV critic Tom Shales. During his 24 years as anchor of the CBS Evening New, he kept the outfit hanging in his office. Old habits die hard.

"It's still hanging in my office," Rather says, laughing, referring to his downscaled HDNet digs on 42nd St. in Manhattan, where he heads a full-time staff of 20.

Rather knows full well that much of his HDNet reporting remains unseen. The high-definition network has increased its reach from 3.75 million to 11 million homes since DRR premiered with a piece on life back in the States for veterans of the Iraq war. The program also is available on itunes, but overall distribution "is still a problem for us," Rather says. "We're at the mercy of the cable and satellite giants, and we have to fight to be carried just about everywhere. You do what you can."

Ted Koppel, for one, had a more visible platform on cable's Discovery Channel. But that relationship ended six months earlier than planned last year after new management balked at the cost of continuing it.

Rather's three-year contract with Cuban, best known as the oft-outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, will expire in July of this year.

"But I had a conversation with Mark near the end of last year in which he said, 'Listen, I want to keep doing it. I hope you want to keep doing it.' That was music to my ears, and more important music to the ears of these good people we work with. I work with a very large percentage of young people. And they just fan out like a bunch of banshees and throw everything they've got into it.

"We run lean because one of the things I promised Mark is I would be as prudent with his money as I am with my own. We ask a lot of our people, and they don't have deep resources of the sort that people have at most other networks. They all just work like a farmer's wife in a clearing. And each and every one of them is told from the beginning that Mark is prepared to spend whatever we need to get the story, but not one dollar more . . . We've learned to take some quiet pride in learning how to do more for less."

Rather in waning days as CBS Evening News anchor and with HDNet.

Rather otherwise is prepared to spend whatever it takes -- from his personal funds -- -- to bring his highly publicized lawsuit against CBS and parent company Viacom to judgment day. He filed it in September 2007, charging that CBS had bowed to right-wing pressure and made him a "scapegoat" after he served as point man for an unsubstantiated "Memo-gate" report questioning George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard service during the Vietnam War era.

Rather left CBS News after 44 years, including 24 as anchor of the network's flagship Evening News. He contended that the network violated his contract by intentionally minimizing his time on the air after re-assigning him to 60 Minutes. CBS says the suit is "without merit," but Rather is nothing if not persistent.

"I knew when I went into it that it would be a long, hard and expensive effort," he says. "I'm in this alone, in it by myself. Every dollar I spend comes out of my pocket. Every dollar Viacom and CBS spends comes out of the stockholders' pockets. And they have deep pockets.

"It goes in bursts," he adds, "but I've been pleasantly surprised that it's taken less of my time and less of a psychological toll than I thought it might. I spend overwhelmingly most of my time working on this (HDNet) program . . . I remain absolutely determined to find out what really happened, and to bring into the sunshine what the public needs to know about how these ever larger corporations are connected to Washington power for the benefit of making money at the expense of truly independent and free journalism.

"So I'm going to take it as far as I can take it. And however it turns out, I'm going to be OK."

He's also writing another book, but only sporadically because of the demands of Dan Rather Reports. It won't be a continuation of his autobiography, Rather says. Instead he wants to dissect "what's happened to radio and television journalism in the last 15 to 20 years, and why people should care deeply about that."

Rather once said that he figuratively had CBS News tattooed on his anatomy. That still seems true despite all the latter day bad blood and new-found independence at HDNet.

"I still have a lot of friends at CBS News, and I'm pulling for each and every one of them," Rather insists. "I ache as I always have for CBS News and for the people there to do well. Like everyone else in American journalism, they have their concerns, worries and challenges. But many of them are struggling mightily to uphold the traditions of CBS News. Which I still care about -- and care about a lot."

Dummying it down

Dallas-born ventriloquist Jeff Dunham (above) has just signed a big deal with Comedy Central, further establishing North Texas as a great place to throw your voice for fun and eventual profit.

The network had its largest audience ever -- 6.6 million viewers -- for last November's Very Special Christmas Special starring Dunham and his dummies. So he now has what Comedy Central describes as a "wide-ranging, fully-integrated, multi-platform initiative which includes a series order, stand-up special, major-market stand-up tour, DVDs and a consumer products partnership."

In other words, Dunham stands to make a lotta money in return for voicing characters ranging from Achmed the Dead Terrorist to Jose Jalapeno on a Stick.

Mesquite's Terry Fator also has made ventriloquism pay off after winning the $1 million first prize in 2007 on NBC's second edition of America's Got Talent. Fator now has his own theater and show at The Mirage in Vegas.

Better Off Ted has Office politics, but also a few sparks of its own

Jay Harrington and Portia de Rossi meet head-on in Better Off Ted.

Premiering: Wednesday, March 18th, at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett, Isabella Acres
Created and produced by: Victor Fresco

ABC's answer to The Office is probably worse off for having gotten there a distant second.

The inevitable comparisons can't help but make Better Off Ted a somewhat lesser workplace commodity. But its gleeful subversiveness and talk-to-the-camera shorthand are still in relative short supply across the broadcast prime-time lineup. Besides, Ted is from one of the inventive minds behind both My Name Is Earl and Andy Richter Controls the Universe. So let's give it a sporting chance.

The Ted in the title is Veridian Dynamics' suit-and-tied head of research and development. Played niftily by Jay Harrington (Desperate Housewives), he regularly riffs on what life at an amoral, global corporation is all about.

"Is it wrong to invent a deadly pumpkin or an irritating chair that makes people work harder?" Ted asks rhetorically in Wednesday's premiere episode (7:30 p.m. central following a new Scrubs). "The thing is work's not about right and wrong. It's about success or failure."

He's not really the bad guy, though. Or at least that's the way the show wants you to see it. Ted's basically a toady, although a handsome one, for boss lady Veronica (Portia de Rossi).

She's an iron maiden devoted to making Veridian employees click their heels; he executes her game plans with only token resistance. But go-along Ted is also a single dad whose curly-haired daughter, Rose (Isabella Acres), looks like Shirley Temple and sometimes makes pop wonder whether he shouldn't be working for the Good Ship Lollipop instead of the Bismarck.

Comical underlings Phil and Lem (Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett) are also in the mix. They're first seen sitting on johns and grasping for hard-to-reach toilet paper. One of Veridian's cost-effective measures is making necessities a little harder to come by. That way you'll use less of them.

Ted also has a budding office romance going with product tester Linda (Andrea Anders), who's a bit rebellious when it comes to following Veridian's various dictates. But Ted would violate the company's one-office-affair-per-person rule if he seriously hooked up with her.

In next week's episode, though, they kiss each other through plexiglass in a sequence reminiscent of ABC's canceled Pushing Daisies. This also is the Ted where dad brings little Rose to work and let's her sit in with him at a brainstorming session. "Right now we're talking about a deadly new weapons system -- but in a kid-friendly way," he tells viewers.

Better Off Ted begs the question of whether you'd be better off dead than working for Veridian, even in our real-life economic recession/depression.

But most TV sitcom workplaces seem to be soul-suckers these days. And this latest effort has some wryly amusing moments, including a botched but concerted attempt to cryogenically freeze Phil for a year's time in Wednesday's reasonably engaging opener.

"It's not a punishment. It's an honor," says the poor sap. Frozen smiles ensue. But the show hopes to get a little bit more out of you.


Stephanopoulos/McCain: THE TWITTERVIEW

It was only last year that presidential candidate John McCain copped to being a computer "illiterate" who used neither a MAC or a PC.

Now he's twittering with ABC News This Week anchor George Stephanopoulos, who's embraced this new form as if he were a one-year-old in a high chair with his first birthday cake set before him.

Twitter is the "micro-blogging" web site that allows its users a max of 140 characters to say something. At the network news level, few if any have used it more visibly than Stephanopoulos, who on Tuesday made much ado of his "Twitterview" with McCain.

"Happy St. Patrick's Day!" Stephanopoulos began. "First things first: How do u tweet -- dictate or type? Blackberry or pc?"

To which McCain tweeted, "george I'm a little slow. both, usually pc sometimes bb. Happy St. Patrick's Day."

Yes, it's come to this.

Stephanopoulos also asked McCain about the AIG bailout, bonus contracts and Iran/Pakistan. To which the Republican senator from Arizona offered little in response because much less is expected or allowed when you're tweeting.

Sample exchange:

GS: What worries you more: Pakistan or Iran?

JMcC: both. the challenges are different but both significant.

Stephanopoulos ended by tweeting, "Lots of twitterers want to know: what do you think of Meghan's feud with Coulter and Ingraham?"

Tweeted McCain: "I'm proud of my daughter and she has a right to her opinions. like any family we agree on some things and disagree on others."

(Note: here are more particulars on that raging "controversy.")

Stephanopoulos tweeted off by thanking McCain for being a "good sport."

McCain offered to "do it again soon. Now I look forward to reading our followers comments and insults." (Note: McCain omitted the apostrophe after followers. Gotta conserve space.)

None of this was terribly reminiscent of the dialogues of Socrates and Plato. But it did manage to almost replicate the depth of a Beavis and Butt-head exchange.

Never mind, though. Twitter remains the dot.com flavor of the month, and perhaps of the year. And George Stephanopoulos is eating it up as though he were his old boss, Bill Clinton, at a McDonald's counter.

Sopranos creator going Hollywood for HBO

HBO and David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, will be re-teaming for a miniseries about Hollywood's vintage big shots.

Titled A Ribbon of Dreams, the multi-part saga begins in 1913 and follows the cinematic adventures of a college-educated engineer and a "cowboy with a violent past," says HBO. Their unlikely partnership makes them both pioneers and powers in the formative film industry. Real-life Hollywood biggies, including D.W. Griffith, John Wayne, John Ford, Bette Davis, Raoul Walsh and Billy Wilder, also will be portrayed.

There's no length yet, and the cast is yet to be announced. But a lot of time will be covered, from 1913 through the "golden era of talkies and the studio system, to the auteur movement to television, and finally to the present day," according to HBO publicity materials.

Says HBO programming group president Michael Lombardo, "The epic scope of this miniseries will provide the perfect setting for his (Chase's) remarkable creative gifts."

The title is from Orson Welles' description of filim as "a ribbon of dreams."

NBC's Kings a biblical, bounteous feast

Ian McShane and Chris Egan are Silas and David in NBC's Kings.

Premiering: Sunday, March 15th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Ian McShane, Chris Egan, Susanna Thompson, Allison Miller, Dylan Baker, Sebastian Stan, Eamonn Walker, Wes Studi
Produced by: Michael Green

Whatever becomes of it, NBC's crowning achievement this season is Kings.

Ambitious, biblical and stirring when the occasion demands, this modernized fable of ruthless King Silas and an idealistic, heroic David succeeds as both double-dealing soap opera and nourishing morality play. In a thin soup season of low aspirations, Kings delivers an oft-stunning punch, beginning with Sunday night's two-hour "event" premiere (7 p.m. central).

Ian McShane of Deadwood fame reboots as the grand poobah of Gilboa, a kingdom whose capitol is the shiny, newly built city of Shiloh. King Silas Benjamin, whose church-defying bent makes him part Henry VIII, looms very large over mostly contented subjects.

Kings begins with his Pope-like address to an admiring and vast throng. Citing God and feeling "blessed," King Silas proves to be roughly equal parts despot and visionary. You don't want to cross him. But he has some good ideas.

After its grand entrance, Kings fast-forwards to two years later, where "The War with Gath Continues," we're told in print. On its front lines is young David Shepherd (Chris Egan), whose father died in battle and whose mother opposed his enlistment.

David, anointed in a brief earlier scene by the near-mystical Rev. Ephram Samuels (Eamonn Walker), is fated to take on Gath tanks known as Goliaths. In the process, he also rescues the king's son, Jack (Sebastian Stan), an officer who had been taken hostage. "David Slays Goliath," the newspaper headlines inevitably trumpet. King Silas reciprocates by inviting David to a big banquet in his honor before making him the Gilboa military's press liason.

All of this occurs in suitably epic fashion. Kings has impressive scope, particularly during its battleground scenes. It's made to order for a big-screen high-definition set, not a computer. You might want to drop a few grapes in your mouth while watching from a comfy couch.

Sunday's first two hours also introduce the king's feisty daughter, Michelle (Allison Miller), whose social activism makes her a nice match for David. But Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson) doesn't much like the commoner. Nor does General Linus Abner (Wes Studi), a military adviser who favors quick exterminations of troublesome types.

There's also the queen's brother, William Cross (Dylan Baker), who wants the war with the Gaths to continue and threatens to drain the king's treasury if it doesn't.

Other palace intrigues abound, but they're best left discovered on your own. Symbolism also has its role, never more so than when a flight of monarch butterflies form a crown on David's head. That sounds more than a little over the top, but Kings makes it fly.

McShane ably flexes his Al Swearengen glower when needed, but of course isn't allowed to curse up any storms on an advertiser-supported broadcast network. He's grandiloquent instead, proclaiming at one point, "Evolution is just one of God's many tools. Like me."

Egan, who bears a fairly strong resemblance to Matt Damon, is suitably torn between returning to his home of Port Prosperity or serving his king for what he hopes will be the greater good. His war-weary mother desperately wants him home alone with her. Because as she puts it in the following Sunday's third hour, "People with destinies, things don't go well for them. They die old and unhappy or young and unfulfilled."

NBC has ordered 13 episodes of Kings, which will face the usual uphill ratings climb on a network that's become virtually bereft of hit shows. It would be good to be Kings on a rival network with more visibility at the moment.

But following Dancing with the Stars, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or American Idol isn't an option on NBC. That doesn't mean the Peacock isn't trying, though. And with Kings, it's both tried and succeeded -- ratings be damned.

GRADE: A-minus

By George, he did it

Clooney & Margulies, larger than life, on March 12th ER. Photo: Ed Bark

Word leaked out via several online and on-air outlets, but NBC never officially confirmed or specifically promoted the appearance of George Clooney on Thursday's ER.

That's an odd approach to a hallmark series that will sign off on April 2nd after 15 seasons on the same night and at the same time. ER, a top 10 series for much of its run, has been struggling this season on a network whose overall ratings are on life support. So it would have helped to prime the pump with a big PR push, but maybe Clooney didn't want that. And he's big enough to make the rules.

Clooney's return to ER -- he left the show a decade ago -- was more than just a walk-through. His character, Dr. Doug Ross, is now operating out of the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, whose staff also includes Carol Hathway (Julianna Margulies), his ER wife.

"How are the girls this morning?" Clooney asked her at one point. So they're parents now.

Susan Sarandon also guest-starred as the grandmother of a young boy who had been run over while riding his bike. He was on life support, with Ross and Hathaway trying to compassionately coax her into letting the hospital use his organs to save other lives.

Unbeknownst to them, one of those hanging in the balance was Dr. John Carter (charter cast member Noah Wyle), who needed a kidney transplant. While hospitalized and waiting for word at Chicago's Northwestern Medical Center, Carter received a visit from an old County General colleague, Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle).

ER handled both storylines extremely well in an episode written and directed by series creator John Wells. Clooney as usual exuded screen presence, but never seemed as though he was big-footing anyone. This was a star turn that didn't play like one. And that's to Clooney's credit.

The episode closed with Hathaway getting a dead-of-night phone call while she and Ross were asleep in bed. She was told that the boy's heart went to a Chicago mother of a young girl while "some doctor" got one of his kidneys. They were both pleased to hear that. Then it was lights out and back to sleep. Well done.

NBC's new summer schedule kicks off early in hopes of helping Conan's Tonight

So it's come to this: Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) and James Van Der Beek (Dawson's Creek) are in disaster-themed miniseries this summer on NBC. The Peacock also is resurrecting I'm A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, which fouled ABC's schedule in 2003.

NBC has scheduled three season finales during Conan O'Brien's first week of hosting The Tonight Show as part of what it calls a "sizzling summer of new and returning series."

O'Brien, who takes over Tonight on June 1st, supposedly will get "the best launch possible" on Monday through Wednesday of that week with 9 p.m. season-enders of Medium, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order. On Thursday, June 4th, a new drama series, The Listener, premieres, with someone named Craig Olejnik (The Timekeeper) playing a telepathic paramedic.

In order of appearance, here are NBC's other summer series and miniseries:

Monday, June 1 -- I'm A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, which bombed on ABC in early 2003, gets a surprise reprieve in what the Peacock touts as a "bold scheduling move." Former J Lo hubby Cris Judd won the ABC version, which also included the likes of Robin Leach, Bruce Jenner, Downtown Julie Brown and Melissa Rivers. The new cast hasn't been announced yet, so stay near your phone, Erik Estrada.

Sunday, June 7 and 14 -- Earth is imperiled anew in Meteor, a four-hour miniseries featuring poor Jason Alexander as a skeptical doctor and Christopher Lloyd as a mad scientist. Stacy Keach, Marla Sokoloff and Billy Campbell also chip in. NBC promises "eye-popping effects, explosive human drama and hair-raising action." Yeah, like that's gonna happen.

Monday, June 8 -- Law & Order: Criminal Intent returns.

Sunday, June 21 -- Originally scheduled for a mid-seaon Sunday berth, Merlin instead gets the summer shaft. The 13-part series "updates the story of the infamous sorcerer of Arthurian legend for a new audience," says NBC. Newcomer Colin Morgan plays the title role.

Tuesday, June 23 -- America's Got Talent, a legit summertime hit, returns for a fourth season.

Wednesday, June 24 -- A new scripted series, The Philanthropist, stars James Purefoy (Rome) as billionaire playboy Teddy Rist. He forever changes his ways after rescuing a young boy during a hurricane. Exorcising his "inner demons" is also part of the game plan.

Wednesday, July 1 -- Seven families are chosen to take the "journey of a lifetime" in Great American Road Trip. One of 'em is evicted each week.

Sunday, July 19 and 26 -- Treat Williams plays a billionaire and James Van Der Beek of onetime Dawson's Creek fame is a naysaying scientist in The Storm. Basically, Earth again is in a world of hurt after Williams' character screws everything up via his Atmospheric Research Institute. John Larroquette, Luke Perry and Teri Polo share in the fun.

Chop-chop: Throw another cooking competition on the fire

Premiering: Wednesday, March 11th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Chef Marco Pierre White
Produced by: David Barbour, Julian Cress

Chef Marco Pierre White, the British bloke who hosts NBC's new The Chopping Block, used to have Gordon Ramsay under his wing.

But the bombastic star of Fox's Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares got to these shores first, leaving his old boss to serve leftovers on yet another weekly cooking competition devised by an umpteenth U.S. network.

White, who hosted the UK's version of HK, has a look and a hairstyle that suggest Deadwood despot Al Swearingen. But unlike Ramsay, he doesn't curse or even yell in Wednesday's opening hour. Instead, White quietly notes that a supplicant chef "made me a dog's dinner." He's also bracingly even-tempered when informing an underling that "you've got to put your balls on the table."

The one-hour series is set in New York City, already home to 25,000 eateries. Two teams of four couples each must open a pair of restaurants from scratch. The last couple standing will get $250,000 and some cooking equipment.

White occasionally makes pronouncements such as "To reach great heights, you've got to find great depth in yourself." He also considers it "a moral duty to make the right decision" in terms of which couples to cut.

Mostly, though, he's a casual observer of the whole process, leaving some of the more cutting comments to a guest food critic who drops in to sample the various repasts. On Wednesday's premiere, the designated food taster is snooty Corby Kummer of Atlantic Monthly. He doesn't yell either, but his overall 'tude makes one wish he'd suddenly be eligible for the Heimlich Maneuver.

Chopping Block ends its first hour with a bit of a twist. None of this is must-see TV, but I prefer White's underwhelming, cool-as-a-cucumber approach to Ramsay's constant hot sauce. He'd rather sip some wine and puff on a cigar than get all worked up about a poached egg or something. Bravo for that at least.


Dancing with the Stars welcomes Bachelor jilt-ee, angers North Texas couple for other reasons

Melissa Rycroft fell out with The Bachelor's Jason Mesnick before falling in with Dancing with the Stars partner Tony Dovolani.

Jilted reality show contestants don't fade away. They instead segue into another competition on the same network.

Former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Melissa Rycroft, famously two-timed on ABC's The Bachelor, resurfaced Monday night as a two-stepper on the network's eighth edition of Dancing with the Stars.

After just two days of practice together, Rycroft and waltzing pro partner Tony Dovolani racked up a score of 23 to rank second-best for the night. So how hard can it be, even if she's previously had ballet training?

Rycroft replaced sycophantic Access Hollywood co-host Nancy O'Dell, who suffered a leg injury during her prep time with Dovolani. Another announced contestant, Jewel, also went down before the judges could begin counting. Holly Madison, a Playboy poser and former three-way girlfriend of Hugh Hefner, stepped in for Jewel and managed a score of 18 for her cha cha cha with Dmitry Chaplin.

An ABC press release praised Rycroft for "mustering up the courage to move on" and Madison for "the courage she personified by answering the call to action at a moment's notice." No, you can't make these things up.

Meanwhile, at least two viewers, Elon and Jennifer Werner of Cedar Hill, TX, say they've sworn off Dancing because it's gotten too blue for their nine-year-old daughter to watch. They sent a protesting letter to ABC Entertainment Group president Stephen McPherson Monday night while also emailing a copy to unclebarky.com.

The Werners particularly were offended by the references to Madison and Jackass movie star Steve-O. In part, here's what they wrote to ABC:

"For the past seven seasons, my family has enjoyed watching Dancing with the Stars. That streak ended tonight. It was too hard to explain what Jackass was, what Playboy was, and what a number of the other off-hand and off-color remarks were to our nine-year-old daughter, who has been a passionate DWTS fan for the past three seasons. Abby is in her sixth year of dance lessons herself and she really looked forward to each new season. She watched her last installment of Dancing with the Stars tonight.

"I understand the TV business is extremely competitive, but one way to crush your competition is to offer TV viewers an alternative to most of the other junk that is on TV . . . I also understand the TV rating system and saw the TV-PG rating; my question for you to ponder is, 'Why did it have to be TV-PG?' Does it have to have that edge? DWTS has held its own for years without all the off-color remarks and the suggestive content. Seriously, we get that Steve-O was on a TV show called Jackass. You don't have to tell us every two seconds.

"We are not prudes by any stretch of the imagination. Unfortunately we were hoping Dancing with the Stars would be a nice show for the family to enjoy together. Sadly, we were wrong. This may be the only letter like this you receive, but I hope that you take its message to heart."

The Elons make some good points, particularly regarding Steve-O. DWTS didn't particularly dwell on Madison's Playboy portfolio, but did manage to make a Jackass of itself on several occasions.

Judge Len Goodman first riffed, "You didn't come out and jackass about" after Steve-O completed his waltz with Lacey Schwimmer.

Co-host Samantha Harris then asked him, "Some people who are watching might be surprised to see a jackass on Dancing with the Stars. Why did you want to take part?"

"Well," said Steve-O, "I just wanted to put my foot in the waltz's butt. Yeah!"

This apparently amused co-host Tom Bergeron, who later repeated Steve-O's "waltz's butt" line before deducing, "It's not just entertainment. It's poetry."

The Elons' letter likely won't get much of a response from ABC. Why should the network care after DTWS racked up its usual big Nielsen ratings in D-FW and nationally Monday night? And in truth, the show's scantily clad women have been a staple of the show from its start, which might prompt uncomfortable anatomical questions from pre-pubescent males and females alike.

Still, the Elons make some valid points on behalf of their pre-teen daughter. You'd like to think that kids would be able to watch a dancing competition without being subjected to the likes of Steve-O or, for that matter, contestant Lil' Kim. On Monday night, she nearly spilled out of her costume while dedicating her first dance to the inmates with whom she recently shared a cell after being convicted of lying to a grand jury about a nightclub shooting incident.

That pretty much makes her a role model.

Let's make a deal: AMC's Breaking Bad is boldly back in play

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are volatile buddies in Breaking Bad.

Truly fearless actors are hardly a dime a dozen. In fact, they're one in a million. And Bryan Cranston is one of them.

He returns to the scene of his character's grimy existence Sunday night in the Season 2 premiere of AMC's Breaking Bad (9 p.m. central).

The network of Mad Men has a polar opposite in this dark, unkempt tale of a chemistry teacher turned drug dealer after he's diagnosed with lung cancer. It's his way of providing a long-term nest egg for his pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and their teenage son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), who has cerebral palsy.

Cranston, who gleefully absorbed any and all indignities as the doofus dad on Fox's Malcolm In the Middle, has shaved his head and removed every trace of that show's hapless Hal Wilkerson. This is Weeds on steroids -- or crystal meth in this case -- with Walt White (Cranston) and former student turned accomplice Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) wheeling and dealing with the most unsavory thugs New Mexico has to offer.

Season 1 of Breaking Bad, which premiered in January 2008, had just seven episodes and was seen by perhaps fewer people than Pluto Nash. Still, Cranston took home a surprise best actor Emmy, his first, after being nominated three times but never winning for Malcolm.

Breaking Bad is a bit better known this time, although there's no danger of it sweeping the country by storm. AMC also has ordered almost twice as many new episodes -- 13 -- giving the show more room to maneuver within a still relatively small universe that also includes Walt's brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, and his wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), a chronic shoplifter.

There's also the amoral drug dealer, Tuco (Raymond Cruz), last seen beating an underling to death in the presence of Walt and Jesse, who had just made a dropoff. All Walt wants is an eventual $737,000 in proceeds, which he figures will ensure his family's long-term future after cancer claims him. He may have a chemical imbalance, but he sure knows his way around a lab.

There's scant morality at work here, which Walt well knows. Still, his intentions are off-kilter honorable and his desperation palpable. Dying men aren't absolved of all guilt. But their sins perhaps merit an asterisk.

Cranston pours every ounce of himself into this role. Most actors wouldn't -- or can't. Creating an image is for others. This is a guy who will take chances and embrace whatever a role demands. The Cohen brothers someday need to build a movie around him. He'd deliver the soiled goods.

Pinkman also is terrific as the high-strung Jesse. And Gunn makes Skyler much more than a dreary, stay-at-home housewife. In Episode 2, she has a splendid, niceties-be-damned scene opposite Norris, whose DEA agent has his own macabre sense of humor.

Sunday's Season 2 opener ends with an irresistible cliffhanger that plays out in full on the March 15th episode. Where the series will go from there is anyone's guess. That's the beauty of Breaking Bad, which deals in just about everything but cliches.


ABC's banter-laced Castle solves crimes without going medieval

Castle stars Nathan Fillion, Stana Katic, Molly Quinn, Susan Sullivan

Premiering: Monday, March 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Stana Katic, Susan Sullivan, Molly Quinn, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tamala Jones, Jon Huertas, Seamus Dever
Produced by: Andrew Marlowe, Armyan Bernstein, Barry Schindel, Rob Bowman, Laurie Zaks

Murder, He Wrote is the easiest shorthand description, and pardon me if it's already been used a zillion or so times.

Viewers who began their TV-watching before the Internet hit also might recognize a little/lot of Moonlighting in Castle, which ABC hopes will be catapulted by Monday's preceding two-hour launch of Dancing with the Stars' eighth edition.

The snippy and sometimes snappy banter flows freely between carefree mystery novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) and tightly wound NYPD detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). They're thrown together after some of his bestselling murder yarns are copycatted by a real-life killer.

"Oh my gosh, in my world, that's the red badge of honor," he tells her. "That's the criminal Cooperstown."

Judging from the first two episodes, Castle is no threat to become a Hall of Fame whodunit. But next Monday's hour, subtitled "Nanny McDead," is better rendered than Monday's paint-by-the-numbers premiere. And that beats the alternative.

Rival networks, but not ABC, already have had some luck this season with new guy/gal pairings in which he's always the flip or quirky Sherlock and she's always the no-nonsense taskmaster. CBS has The Mentalist and Eleventh Hour while Fox has Lie to Me and Fringe. NBC is still trying hard with Life, but few viewers have bought in.

ABC also is without an open-and-shut "procedural" police drama that doesn't require weekly viewing in order to keep from getting hopelessly lost/Lost. And in a dismal season for both bottom lines and breakout hits, the success or failure of Castle could go a long way in determining whether actors and their roles have a long-term future at any of the Big Four broadcast networks. "Reality," after all, is so much cheaper. And damned if The Bachelor didn't deliver again for ABC just when it seemed to finally be all used up.

Castle has an appealing male protagonist in Fillion, the jaunty space captain of 2002's Firely and its spinoff feature film, Serenity. Fillion knows how to play with a line and a situation. And in his latest new try, he also gets to play off of two other female characters besides the hard-bitten Beckett.

Ring-wise Susan Sullivan, who pretty much steals all of her scenes, co-stars as Castle's mother, Martha Rodgers. He also has a teen daughter, Alexis (Molly Quinn), from one of his two previous marriages. She's opinionated but sweet and self-controlled. Dad is mostly only opinionated.

Castle and Beckett are thrown together -- and stay together -- because he's killed off his crime novel franchise, Derek Storm, and since has come up empty. So he'll be tagging along with her with an eye toward creating a new gumshoe, whom he dubs Nikki Heat. We didn't say he was an award-winning writer, just a popular one.

The opening night crime's perpetrator is known too early on to generate much heat. But next Monday's episode is more in the CSI mold, with one suspect being discarded in favor of another until -- ding! -- it all becomes clear.

Beckett also apparently has a tragic back story that drove her into detective work. Castle reads her like a book and deduces this in totally unconvincing fashion while she momentarily showcases a little vulnerability.

Mostly, though, she's on his case, barking rather typically, "This is a homicide investigation, not a day at Disneyland." That's not exactly product placement, but Disney-owned ABC would greatly appreciate any business that might result.

Monday's premiere includes a brief appearance by Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson's voice) as a judge. You also can catch Kier Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) as a corporate executive whose daughter is the principal murder victim. And writers James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell (who once created Hardcastle & McCormick for ABC) chip in as themselves during a contrived poker game respite.

None of this is terrible, nor is it terribly invigorating. But Castle has a better go of it next week, even if there are no TV or movie icons in guest roles. Instead the second episode drops the names of Alec Baldwin, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi. It's a lot cheaper that way.

GRADE: B-minus

Working without the net? Fallon's Web-footed Late Night wouldn't think of it

Always on the menu: Rachael Ray, Jimmy Fallon in cooking segment on Late Night test show. It all starts for real on Monday, March 2nd.

Jimmy Fallon fully intends to blog, tweet and video-cast his ass off.

And in case you're interested, he'll also be doing a little television show on the side, beginning Monday at 11:35 p.m. (central) on NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

"We're younger, we're into like text stuff, gadget phones, video games," Fallon, 34, says of his generation during a recent teleconference with media types. "We're not going to hide from the fact that people are on the Internet all day. We're going to try to be as interactive as possible with our fans."

Fallon, who came to prominence on Saturday Night Live, will be just the third host of Late Night, which started with David Letterman on Feb. 2, 1982 and continued with Conan O'Brien from Sept. 13, 1993 until Feb. 20th.

Letterman barely even had to combat cable when he signed on. And O'Brien succeeded him in times when the Web still mostly belonged to Charlotte. Fallon's walkup to Late Night began on Dec. 8th with muscle-toning video-casts on NBC's dime.

At the end of the first one, Fallon introduced the show's house band, The Roots. He also put out the word: "Send me a video, send me an email. Send me a question, complaint, concern, anything."

He'll find out how many people are paying attention after Monday's first actual television outing finds Fallon in the company of Robert De Niro, Justin Timberlake and musical guest Van Morrison, of whom he says, "I can almost guarantee you he has no idea of who I am."

Few knew anything about O'Brien when he assumed the Late Night position en route to at last getting The Tonight Show gig on June 1 of this year.

"I mean, that poor guy went through the ringer. There wasn't anybody that liked him at first," Fallon says.

For better or worse, Fallon instantly will have a better grasp of what people think of him, courtesy of his show's own cradle-to-grave Web site.

He plans to be "more interactive than anyone has before . . . The goal is to just give my fans (and detractors) other ways in which to enjoy Late Night." To that end, the show has hired three permanent bloggers in addition to himself, Fallon says.

Conventional Nielsen ratings will still matter to NBC when Fallon goes head-to-head with Craig Ferguson on CBS and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. But the network also will be monitoring Web traffic in hopes of turning the Late Night site into perhaps at least a modest profit center. In today's media world, that's not inconceivable. Or inconsequential.

Fallon's Late Night will originate out of the same NBC Studio 6B that housed Jack Paar's and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show before the latter went West in May 1972. Now as O'Brien heads to California, Fallon re-roots in Manhattan under the guidance of his old SNL mentor, Lorne Michaels, who's executive producer of Late Night.

"I gave it my shot in the movies. That really wasn't happening that well for me," Fallon says. Then Michaels called and eventually cajoled him into taking the Late Night reins.

"Hopefully it all just hits good, but you never know," Fallon says. "I'm not nervous anymore. I'm anxious and excited and I'm ready to have fun."

24 cranks itself to the breaking point with full-blown assault on White House

Jack Bauer's torturous logic vexes Pres. Allison Taylor. Fox photos

A death-spiraling economy can't be tortured or strong-armed into submission. Which means that Jack Bauer would be of little if any help to President Obama. That is unless the administration covertly commissioned him to put a choke-hold on CNBC ranter Rick Santelli.

Fox's 24 thinks it has a better idea, though. Monday's two-hour "event" -- covering the 6 to 8 p.m. hours of Season 7 -- finds terrorists breaking into the White House with what seems to be the greatest of ease. They're aided, for still mysterious reasons, by a wealth of conspirators infesting the FBI, hospitals, Congress, security forces and of course the administration of newly sworn in President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones).

It's enough to make her yearn for a nice, relaxing 20 percent unemployment rate. Instead, in a scene that's jolting even by 24's standards, President Taylor sustains a hard slap to the chops, leaving her with a bloody lip.

We won't divulge any more specifics, save to say that Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) just can't seem to torture anyone in peace anymore. In Monday night's never-dull two-parter (7 to 9 p.m. central), he again runs afoul of noxious Senator Blaine Mayer (Kurtwood Smith), who wants to lock him up for crimes against humanity.

"You're reprehensible, Bauer," Mayer informs him.

"And you, sir, are weak!" Jack barks back after again coming within seconds of saving the world before another government monkey wrench fouls him up.

24 may be hard-pressed to top Monday night's theatrics, fireworks and bombast. A full-blown invasion of the White House, including a heavy body count and hostage-taking, seems like a bar too high to jump in any subsequent seasons. What's left -- a game of Russian Roulette starring the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices?

Monday's second hour -- marking the halfway point of a season that started at 8 a.m. -- also re-introduces Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight) as the "malevolent mastermind" behind all this far-flung terrorism. He was last seen in November's place-setting 24: Redemption.

"Stress is the fertilizer of creativity," Hodges says rather ridiculously after advising brutal warlord General Juma (Tony Todd) on how best to achieve his dastardly White House mission.

Suffice it to say that Jack, President Taylor and her daughter, Olivia (Sprague Grayden), are among those in very deep fertilizer at the end of Monday's two hours. So much so that President Obama might want to kick back and enjoy the show. 24 is still the one place where a president's problems break the bank -- so to speak.