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Retro-cooler than William Shatner? Robert Goulet gave it his best shot

Singer Robert Goulet, a staple of vintage prime-time variety series, has died of lung cancer. Toward the end, he did a many splendored spot for ESPN's college basketball coverage. Take just a minute to see what a fun-lovin', self-deprecating guy he could be.
Ed Bark

Finding another vain: Nip/Tuck's docs leave Miami for L.A.

Julian McMahon and Dylan Walsh go coast to coast in new Nip/Tuck

Entertaining but no longer enthralling, FX's reliably risque Nip/Tuck returns for its fifth season with an eye towards threading a new needle.

Can disparate plastic surgeons Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McNamara) cut it in L.A. after forsaking Miami? Tuesday's re-opener (9 p.m. central) fast-forwards them into the pincers of a haughty toity Hollywood publicist (Lauren Hutton as Fiona McNeil) and a very overwrought TV medical series called Hearts 'n Scalpels. And the boys will take what they can get after their new clinic sits patient-less in its first two months.

Creator Ryan Murphy wanted to change things up and does so without enough dexterity in the first two hours sent for preview. Nip/Tuck has never been inhibited in its approach to anything, but a little basic believability wouldn't hurt the overall cause. Then again, the series already may have gone way too far afield to return any of its KY jelly to the tube. That's like asking Tommy Lee to start wearing Brooks Brothers suits. Ain't gonna happen.

Other pivotal characters are left behind in the early going. McNamara's ex-wife, Julia (Joely Richardson), returns in Episode 2 with a new relationship that's supposed to be a jolt but is pretty much telegraphed. A shock on Nip/Tuck these days might have to be a love affair with a well-endowed pack mule.

Sean and Julia's troubled oldest son, Matt (John Hensley), now is married to Dr. Troy's ever-nubile ex-girlfriend, Kimber (Kelly Carlson). You won't see either of them in Season 5's first two episodes.

Curt Dr. Liz Cruz (Roma Maffia) makes the trek to Hollywoodland, though. As before, she mostly grouses and snaps at her two bossmen while trying to rebound from various failed relationships with other women.

This leaves ample room for new recurring characters, most notably Hutton's swim-with-the-sharks PR piranha. She plans to generate publicity for the "cute as clams" docs by hooking them up with Hearts 'n Scalpels. It's an unbelievably bad melodrama starring high strung actor Aidan Stone (Bradley Cooper) as an even higher strung plastic surgeon.

The series' executive producer is ineffectual Freddy Prune (Oliver Platt), who supposedly is desperate for new storylines and at least a small dose of realism. The newcomers immediately win him over with the saga of a female patient who winds up with "pussy lips" and a deep sense of shame.

Somehow all of this is a big, hanky-wringing hit with today's audiences, even though the acting on this show within the show makes one long for those comparatively delicate performances from William Shatner on T.J. Hooker. Alas, some of the "real-life" exchanges between Troy and McNamara have an uncommonly mechanical feel, too.

The first two episodes also accommodate an aging actress enduring a facelift against her better judgment; a younger Hearts 'n Scalpels thespian who's ashamed of her gastric bypass scar; two dueling Marilyn Monroe impersonators demanding boob jobs and a studio executive who's badly pockmarked with wounds inflicted by his dominatrix.

Through it all, cocksman Troy is made to feel like a peanut farmer while McNamara suddenly is getting all the girls. It's enough to make him display his hardware in an adult magazine after Hutton's character gets him in the proper mood by flashing her still apparently spectacular twins in next week's episode.

"No matter how old I get," she boasts, "these champagne cups seem to be frozen in time."

Nip/Tuck has lost some of its muscle tone over time, although it remains FX's most popular series among advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds. Its new surroundings hold some promise, but the opening episodes are more than a bit too labored and tricked up. What a great, jaw-dropping series this used to be before the sag inevitably set in. Let's hope it's not inoperable.

Grade: B

What About Brian? Is hosting Saturday Night Live a gravitas offense?

Brian Williams knows how to be a good talk show guest, but is hosting Saturday Night Live going more than a little too far?

Blurring the line between news and entertainment hasn't been much of a story for a while.

Just about everybody seems to be doing it. So what's it to us that NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has agreed to host Saturday Night Live? Pish-tush.

It seems quaint to note that pundits once argued over the propriety of CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite playing himself on a February 1974 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We now live in times when TV newsies regularly cross over and back with with both impunity and apparent immunity.

CNN's Anderson Cooper is a periodic guest host on Live with Regis and Kelly. MSNBC's Tucker Carlson competed on Dancing with the Stars. Dan Rather, who still anchors a weekly news magazine program on HDNet, played himself on the first episode of ABC's new Dirty Sexy Money. And just about everyone of any import has hit the couches of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Show with David Letterman, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, etc. etc.

Williams does seem to be pushing it, though. He'll be guest-hosting the Nov. 3rd edition of SNL, a gig that takes him where no one of his stature has gone before. Maybe this is finally what Katie Couric needs. Because seriously folks, how can anyone question her gravitas or hard news acumen after Williams submits to SNL and becomes the first incumbent news anchor to host it?

"I've watched SNL for 32 years, and first wrote to NBC for tickets after seeing the very first show on the air as a student in high school," Williams says in an NBC publicity release. "While I didn't quite believe it when Lorne (creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels) first asked, I'm beyond thrilled to accept the invitation. It will be a chance to have some fun on my night off, and risk making a complete fool of myself. In the meantime I'm going to concentrate on my day job."

Actually this isn't the first time he's been asked. Nearly a decade ago, during an interview with this reporter, Williams said he had declined previous invitations to host SNL because that would be "crossing a line" as he put it. Then at MSNBC and still the "heir apparent" to Tom Brokaw on Nightly News, Williams said he otherwise was comfortable dropping in on late night talk shows.

He'd already proved to be a glib and nimble guest, notably on the night when Cher observed during a 1996 Tonight Show that Williams was undeniably handsome but looked "too Republican" in his usual suit and tie.

He immediately nailed her to the floor, telling Cher that she should try being a little nicer to one of the few people who'd bought her Half Breed album.

"I use the same set of skills I use every night on the news," Williams said at the time. "You think on your feet whether you're interviewing a head of state or Cher is serving up some line. It's like a high slider and you may have an eighth-of-a-second turnaround time on that stuff. And you try to kill it."

Williams, formerly NBC's chief White House correspondent, described himself as a "comedy dilettante" whose late mother was an actress. So the ham in him has finally yielded, with SNL no longer deemed out of bounds for the latter day standardbearer of NBC News.

It seems beside the point to also concede that Williams is likely to be very good in both his opening monologue and whatever SNL sketches the show devises for him. He knows how to throw a punch line. Or as NBC colleague Matt Lauer once put it to yours truly, "Brian's hysterical. The guy could be a standup comic."

Instead he's the anchor of the NBC Nightly News during these very serious times. Continuing to resist SNL would have been a wiser choice in this view. Some lines should remain uncrossed, but Williams' network no doubt sees this as a great chance for him to reach a wider, younger audience.

Meanwhile, imagine the reaction if Couric instead were taking the SNL plunge. Funny how that works.

Cuban's out, but so is Kym. No fair

To have and to hold: No more lush Kym Johnson for Mavs man.

As you've likely read here or elsewhere, Mark Cuban's finally a goner on ABC's Dancing with the Stars after bouts with the fox trot, mambo, jive, Viennese waltz and samba.

This means he must leave partner Kym Johnson, too. No more hands-y for the rollicking Dallas Mavericks owner. That's gotta hurt.

"I had a blast, and I'm glad I did it," Cuban said in a kiss-off email to unclebarky.com. "I'm also fired up to get back to the Mavs and my kids!"

Well, there's that, too. But Kym's the show's sim sala bim, and Cuban couldn't have had a nicer, suppler woman to baby-step him through Dancing's first four rounds.

Tuesday night's knockout punch unfortunately took her out with him. But maybe she'll be back in some of those goofy weekly production numbers. Or perhaps she'd agree to be a Mavs dancer for a night, with Cuban hitting the AAC hardwoods with her during the team's home opener.

Go for it, Cubes. She's got game.

No longer a shoe-in: Cuban's Dancing daze is over

Last handshakes, last dance: A game Cuban's over and out. ABC photos

Even a previous night's fainting spell by Marie Osmond couldn't keep Mark Cuban's faint hopes alive.

The "bouncing billionaire" found himself dribbling out the clock Tuesday night on ABC's Dancing with the Stars. He and picturesque pro partner Kym Johnson became the fifth couple evicted, leaving seven to vie for the show's oddly prized mirror ball trophy.

The Dallas Mavericks owner now can devote more time to pro basketball's hardwoods. His nationally televised costumed drama ended eight nights before the team's Halloween opener.

Cuban always talked a good game and danced gamely as well. But he seemed relieved to be going home after a previous night's intendedly comical samba tied Osmond for the lowest score from Dancing's three judges.

"Thank God it's over. Thank God," Cuban appeared to be telling Johnson after they Bottom Two'd it with actress Jane Seymour. The latter was surprisingly in jeopardy, as was high-scoring Melanie "Mel B" Brown the previous week. Now only two men remain to battle the five surviving women celebs.

Cuban sequentially gutted it through the fox trot, mambo, jive, Viennese waltz and samba despite recent hip replacement surgery. By his count he lost about 30 pounds in the process.

"I've gained so many new friends," he dutifully told host Tom Bergeron. "It's just been such an amazing, amazing experience. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

He cast himself as a nerd for his final dance, wearing taped-at-the-bridge glasses and a standard issue white shirt while Johnson made Barbara Eden look like Roseanne Barr in her fetching I Dream of Jeannie outfit. They also danced to the evergreen sitcom's theme song, drawing an enthusiastic response from the live studio audience but more clammy reviews from the judges.

Co-host Samantha Harris pronounced them "fantastically entertaining" shortly before Tuesday's vote-off. But fan support couldn't save Cuban this time.

"I feel the pressure I put on myself . . . If I can't out-talent them, I'm going to out-work them," Cuban said in a pre-taped segment. That's pretty much what he said every week en route to outlasting models Josie Maran and Albert Reed, a barely mobile Wayne Newton and frantic dancing boxer Floyd Mayweather.

All in all, that's more than most people expected from Cuban. But in the end he looked a little too much like Erick Dampier in the paint.

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Viva Laughlin (CBS)

Alas, Hugh Jackman (left) will just be guesting on Viva Laughlin.

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 18, at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS. Then moves to Sundays at 7 p.m.
Starring: Lloyd Owen, Madchen Amick, Eric Winter, DB Woodside, Carter Jenkins, Ellen Woglom, P.J. Byrne
Produced by: Bob Lowry, Hugh Jackman, John Palermo

It's an unwritten law, but best abided by. Any review of CBS' new "mystery drama with music" must invoke ABC's long ago, far away Cop Rock.

Duly invoked. Cop Rock, whose lawmen and thugs periodically broke into song, turned out to be a grand, failed experiment by Hill Street Blues creator Steven Bochco. It hit ABC's 1990 fall schedule with a bang, but had its last telecast on Christmas night of that year. Oh come all ye faithful. They didn't.

CBS gingerly tries somewhat the same tack with Viva Laughlin, inspired by the acclaimed 2006 BBC miniseries Viva Blackpool. It's not a very good copy, except when Hugh Jackman lights things up with a guest shot as ruthless casino owner Nicky Fontana. His energetic performance of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" is the premiere episode's only extended musical production. It's too bad he couldn't have done the whole album.

Jackman also is a co-executive producer of the series, but only a "recurring" character on camera. The central figure otherwise is would-be casino magnate Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen). He's a swarthy, not very likable guy who's thrown for a loss after one of his biggest backers, Buddy Baxter (Wings Hauser), belatedly welshes on a deal to help him build his palace. It would be conveniently located just 129 miles south of Vegas.

Buddy later is found dead in Ripley's still under-construction showplace. Cops are called, and the lead investigator is handsome Peter Carlyle (Eric Winter), who hopes to get to the bottom of this by making a play for Ripley's frustrated wife, Natalie (Madchen Amick). Their two kids, Cheyenne and Jack (Ellen Woglom, Carter Jenkins), feel a bit neglected by daddio, who can be brutish, too. All in all, Ripley's -- believe it or not -- a louse.

Melanie Griffith, increasingly a sad spectacle, also is in the mix as Buddy's soon-to-be widowed Bunny. Her collagen-stuffed lips are a match for Lisa Rinna's. Otherwise her character's been hitting the sack with Ripley -- among others. They also briefly share a song -- Blondie's "One Way Or Another" -- before Buddy's found bloodied.

The overall drama is weak here, and the musical interludes keep getting shorter as the hour goes on. It's as if CBS already is wondering what the hell it's gotten itself into -- and whether there's still time to throw the songs off a cliff.

Viva Laughlin moves to Sundays at 7 p.m. (central) after Thursday's showcase premiere following CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. This is likely to accomplish little, other than making Without A Trace fans really upset. What CBS has here is something a bit different, but nothing to excite the senses. Long-term success for Viva Laughlin is more improbable than a new string of Whitney Houston hits.

Grade: C-minus

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Samantha Who? (ABC)

Premiering: Monday, Oct. 15, at 8:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Christina Applegate, Jean Smart, Jennifer Esposito, Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Dunn, Barry Watson, Tim Russ
Created by: Cecelia Ahern, Donald Todd

That's a pretty ABC picture above, isn't it? Innovative, alluring and . . . no, the next words aren't going to be "better than the show itself."

It's tempting, though. Samantha Who? is unquestionably Christina Applegate's finest work. She comes to full bloom as a lead comedic actress after breaking in as the bratty teen tease of Fox's Married . . . with Children before slogging through NBC's very forgettable Jesse. Her new vehicle otherwise doesn't deserve her just yet, although next Monday's second episode makes some progress. Both half-hours are occupying prime real estate following Dancing with the Stars performance shows.

Applegate plays a previously insufferable, cutthroat businesswoman who gets hit by a car, bangs her head and has "retrograde amnesia" after awakening from an eight-day coma. This means that Samantha Newly can't remember what a crummy person she's been. Or that her best friend, Andrea (Jennifer Esposito), is more self-absorbed than an off-brand paper towel tackling a drink spill. Or that she hasn't spoken to her domineering mother, Regina (Jean Smart), in two years.

Mom is at her bedside, though, videotaping a woe-is-me sob story in hopes of landing on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Also visiting daily is chubby Dena (Melissa McCarthy), who became decreasingly popular after last seeing and befriending Samantha when they were seventh-graders.

ABC is taking the same well-worn road here. Can't a heavyset woman character ever be happy, well-liked and fulfilled? No, that's seldom in the prime-time TV cards, although tubby, loutish men of the According to Jim variety never seem to have any trouble thinking the world of themselves.

Samantha tolerates Dena's determined clinging while Andrea keeps insulting the poor thing. The post-coma revelations keep coming, though. Samantha gradually learns that she's an alcoholic, has $30,000 in credit card debt and broke up with her boyfriend, Todd (Barry Watson), who's now trying to re-extricate himself. She resolves to be a do-gooder after deducing in Episode 2, "Old me really screwed new me over, didn't she?"

Applegate has enough shining moments to make this all tolerable. In Monday's premiere, she's terrific during an extended riff at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Next week she nails a scene with an imperious boss.

Smart also makes the best of her latest neurotic character, giving spark and substance to the show's mother and child reunions. Samantha Who? just might have the wherewithal to last for many seasons to come. It already has the perfect star.

Grade: B for now

Price check: Drew Carey's on the money

As you can see, the contestants still go nuts. Very nuts.

Carey on.

Absent Bob Barker for the first time in 35 years, The Price Is Right begins putting its money on a chunky, bespectacled newcomer Monday (10 a.m. central time on CBS).

It looks like a wise investment. Drew Carey may lack Barker's matinee idol looks, but otherwise has the old master's common touch. He's already shown as much during summertime's Power of 10, which will return to CBS later this season. Now he's amid the even gaudier surroundings of a landmark game show whose contestants run down aisles, jump up and down, and play Plinko among other tests of dollars and sense.

"Welcome to The Price Is Right, the happiest place on earth," Carey says for openers after some in the audience chant "Drew, Drew!"

He seems a bit nervous and abrupt at first, immediately getting down to the business of bidding on a scuba diving kit enroute to a chance to win a new Jeep. For the record, those are the first two items of many more to come under the new regime.

Not to give away too much, but you'll see an awful lot of winning on Carey's inauguration day. One woman contestant does a cartwheel after taking the stage. Another wears a "Cleveland Rocks" t-shirt in honor of both his old sitcom and hometown.

"I love you, Drew. Thank you," the host is told.

"I like you as a friend," he replies.

Carey doesn't say anything about Barker's legacy, but his closing words are thanks enough.

"Don't forget to keep the pet population down. Spay and neuter your pet," the new host says before signing off.

He's going to be just fine.

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Wizards of Waverly Place (Disney Channel)

Dallas-born Selena Gomez stars as a kid who sometimes spells trouble on Disney Channel's new Wizards of Waverly Place.

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 12 at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Disney Channel
Starring: Selena Gomez, David Henrie, Jake T. Austin, Maria Canals Barrera, David DeLuise, Jennifer Stone
Created by: Todd J. Greenwald

Launch another Disney Channel kid comedy into the tweeny pop firmament.

Its new Wizards of Waverly Place, premiering Friday, already seems effortlessly cute, reasonably funny and certain to join the network's fave rave hit parade of Hannah Montana, the High School Musical movies, That's So Raven, The Cheetah Girls movies, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, Lizzie McGuire, etc.

Wizards' principal attraction, 15-year-old, Dallas-born Selena Gomez, already is a battle-tested survivor of the Barney & Friends series. She later prepped for her first starmaking role by guesting on both Hannah Montana and Suite Life. You don't first have to be a Mouseketeer anymore to rise through the Disney ranks. Or, urp, follow the self-destructive path of ex-'teer Britney Spears.

Gomez plays naughty but nice Alex Russo, whose oft-exasperated dad, Jerry (David DeLuise), forsook his built-in wizard powers after marrying commoner Theresa (Maria Canals Barrera). But Alex and her two reliably mischievous brothers, Justin (David Henrie) and Max (Jake T. Austin), have genetically inherited the old man's knack for waving wands and making odd things happened. Oh yeah, the family also runs a Manhattan sandwich shop.

This premise, outlined in Disney press materials, isn't really explained in Friday's premiere, subtitled "Crazy Ten Minute Sale." But kids will quickly get the picture after Dad shows the brood how to duplicate themselves during one of his mandatory "wizard classes."

Alex also has a best friend named Harper (Jennifer Stone of Arlington), who functions as a plainer-faced, slightly chunky Ethel to her Lucy. They quickly conspire to get even with a nose-in-the-air high school classmate named Gigi, whose acolytes have just gotten nose jobs to look more like her. That seems a bit extreme for a Disney comedy, but the days of Spin and Marty are long gone. (Hey kids, that was a vintage Mickey Mouse Club serial that featured Annette Funicello, the Hillary Duff of her day.)

Anyway, Gigi and Alex are both vying for a cool jacket harbored at Suburban Outfitters during its annual "Crazy Ten Minute Sale." But Alex has mandatory wizard training on that night. So she creates a stay-at-home twin before sneaking off. This doesn't go well, of course, and there are ample sight gags to prove it.

Future episodes will introduce "pocket elves," magic carpet riding and a boy named Riley, on whom Alex has a crush. It's all pretty easy to swallow. Disney Channel definitely knows how to do these things. There's a certain magic in that, too. Otherwise it wouldn't be TV's hottest kids network -- and only getting hotter.

Grade: B

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Women's Murder Club (ABC)

Angie Harmon (center) fronts the cast of Women's Murder Club.

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 12, at 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Angie Harmon, Paula Newsome, Aubrey Dollar, Laura Harris, Tyrees Allen, Rob Estes, Linda Park
Produced by: James Patterson, Scott Gimmel, Liz Craft

Here's a night and a timeslot where ABC not so long ago accommodated the likes of Step By Step and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Now we're talkin' Women's Murder Club, a latter day Charlie's Angels without Charlie or "jiggle." Or much entertainment value.

Dallas-born Angie Harmon heads the cast as San Francisco homicide inspector Lindsay Boxer in a series drawn from novelist James Patterson's same-named batch of bestselling novels. The tone -- and the music -- are alternately gruesome and whimsical, with ABC seemingly undecided on whether WMC should be more like Desperate Housewives than CSI -- or vice-versa.

Friday's premiere begins with a bang. Not from a pistol, but from a female novelist who arrives from on high and then crash-lands on Boxer's car roof.

Her badly damaged dead body prompts assistant D.A. Jill Bernhardt (Laura Harris) to heave into a bag upon arrival. Still, she's an incumbent member of the Club. So is hardened medical examiner Claire Washburn (Paula Newsome).

Meanwhile, chipper newspaper reporter Cindy Thomas (Aubrey Dollar) is dying to make it a foursome. In a second episode sent for review, she even bugs Boxer in a restroom stall. The kid's got moxie.

Harmon is solid as ABC's Club leader, but the show never really gets rolling this week or next. Poor Kyle Secor, once a central character on NBC's former Friday night mainstay, Homicide: Life on the Street, has two fleeting appearances as a guest star. In the opener his public defender character, Hanson North, bags ex-girlfriend Bernhardt on her office desk top even though she's otherwise seriously involved with someone else.

Boxer has man problems, too. Tom Hogan (Rob Estes), her ex-husband of two years standing, suddenly becomes her cop shop's boss. Then he tells her he'll be marrying a kindergarten teacher. This has Boxer feeling a little blue. Her veteran partner and mentor, Warren Jacobi (good work by Tyrees Allen), shares that mood. He's just been passed over for the job that Hogan now has.

WMC has an additional ongoing plot thread. A sadist who stitches his women victims' mouths shut after killing them remains at large despite Boxer's all-consuming efforts to apprehend him. The so-called "Kiss Me Not Killer" strikes again at the end of Friday's premiere and then is fleetingly referenced at the start of Episode 2 before other murders take precedence.

None of this resonates or grips. But WMC stands to make a killing anyway in a soft Friday night slot also occupied by CBS' sub-lame new Moonlight and NBC's criminally under-watched Friday Night Lights. Sometimes there's just no justice.

Grade: C

Still on his feet: Cuban cleared for a fourth round on Dancing

"Saved" at last. Not so Mr. LV and two-time champ Cheryl Burke.

He's now outlasted two models and a Model T.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban climbed another rung on Dancing with the Stars Tuesday night while Wayne Newton debarked along with two-time champ Cheryl Burke.

At first he did a double take after host Tom Bergeron pronounced him "safe."

"Us?" Cuban asked. "Us?" It then dawned on him to accept the spoils of another victory by lofting sublimely cute pro partner Kym Johnson in a bear hug. As blondes go it beats embracing Dirk Nowitzki.

In a wee hours email, Cuban said he wasn't shocked, just preoccupied.

"I was clapping for Helio (Castroneves) and did not hear them call my name," he said. "Nothing more than that."

All five remaining women and two male contestants were cleared for takeoff next Monday before Cuban got the word. That left a red-lighted Bottom Two of Newton and boxing champ Floyd Mayweather. Big Wayne offered a tree trunk carve-able quote.

"I think it's important to live life, not exist in it," he said before he and Burke went through the motions of their last dance. She previously helped Emmitt Smith and Drew Lachey to win the show's gaudy mirror ball trophy, symbolic of bad design but now a treasured keepsake.

Despite receiving generally low scores from Dancing's three judges, Cuban now has successfully navigated the fox trot, mambo and jive in outlasting one-quarter of the show's original 12-celebrity field. Previously axed were models Josie Maran and Albert Reed. Viewer support is crucial in surviving from week to week, and Cuban clearly has rallied his share of it via his blog and overall appeal. He's yet to yell at a judge and notably is tackling each dance with full-out energy and enthusiasm.

"I don't see the cameras, I don't see the audience," Cuban said in a taped segment Tuesday on the pressures competitors face. "Because if I really thought about it, knowing there were 20-some million people watching me dance of all things, I'd probably freak out."

He'll next do either the Viennese Waltz (which might help rest his surgically repaired left hip) or the paso doble (which wouldn't).

Those sinking feelings: Big Four networks' new season numbers are down, down, down, down

ABC's Private Practice and Pushing Daisies were the only new shows to hit prime-time's top 25 in Week 2 of the new fall season.

Maybe you're watching on your phone? On the Internet? Or while jogging with the new Fly-a-Kite projection screen companion?

That last invention hasn't been invented yet, but please be patient. Also be apprised that fewer people than ever are watching the broadcast networks' new fall seasons unfold on what used to be the only games in town -- their TV sets.

Nielsen Media Research numbers for the first two weeks of the 2007-08 season are another kick to the midsections of CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox. Even with delayed DVR viewing figured in, the Big Four are down a collective 31 percent in total viewers from the same time last year. And it's even worse among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds, where the combined year-to-year shortfall is 42 percent.

We're not even bothering to include the incredibly shrinking CW network, which offered a much-improved lineup of new shows this season. Still, it continues to run a distant sixth -- behind Univision. And two of its Sunday night newcomers -- CW Now and Online Nation -- are drawing well under one million viewers nationally.

In the latest ratings week (Oct. 1-7), Online Nation had a smaller crowd (702,000 viewers) than Monday and Tuesday night repeats of Mama's Family on the Ion network. No, I didn't know what that was either. But its Web site calls Ion "Your Home For Popular TV Favorites." The Gambler V: Playing for Keeps is running this Saturday night.

Only two series, ABC's Pushing Daisies and Private Practice, made the week's Top 25 in both total viewers and with 18-to-49-year-olds. But even though it's perceived as the "hot" network right now, ABC's year-to-year numbers respectively are down 5 percent and 12 percent.

Fox is the only network to show just single digit decreases in both of those measurements. Look out, though. The Cubs and Yankees already are out of post-season play, leaving Fox facing the ratings-deflating prospect of an Arizona-Cleveland World Series. The best it can hope for is Boston-Colorado, not exactly a spine-tingling matchup on paper.

NBC is hanging in there with its new Bionic Woman series, but the audience drop-off from its first to second episode already is cause for concern. In the key 18-to-49 demo, BW ranked eighth in premiere week with 7.4 million viewers. Last week's episode dipped to 19th with 5.4 million 18-to-49-year-olds.

NBC's only ratings blockbuster is Sunday Night Football, easily its No. 1 attraction across the board. But that only lasts until January.

CBS still has eight crime dramas in the top 25 among total viewers. Even so, its year-to-year performance is down 11 percent in that measurement. It also has a league-leading 18 percent downturn in its 18-to-49-year-old numbers.

None of this is encouraging. But at the same time everything is changing. There are myriad ways to watch a TV show these days, none of which have anything to do with appointed days and hours of the week. But will the new delivery systems and viewing patterns make cash registers go ring a ding ding? Or is all of this an ongoing death knell for the networks as we not so long ago knew them?

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Cavemen

What, him worry? Joel's got the hot Homo Sapien on ABC's Cavemen.

Airing: Tuesdays at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Bill English, Sam Huntington, Nick Kroll, Kaitlin Doubleday
Produced by: Josh Gordon, Will Speck, Daniel Rappaport, Guymon Casady

All three of them walk upright and one's pretty uptight. So was ABC when it withheld its revamped Cavemen series from review last Tuesday.

Spun from Geico's car insurance commercials, the new comedy seemed like a sub-stupid idea on paper. In execution, though, it rises to the level of dumb fun. Or at least the first episode pretty much did. The opening night Nielsen ratings were decent enough, too.

One of Cavemen's central characters, sardonic Nick (Nick Kroll), may end up being among the new season's bigger breakout scene-stealers. His 'tude sparked the premiere episode, which mixed smidgens of social commentary with an overall Three Stooges ambience.

Nick's the one who still distrusts the majority-ruling Homo Sapiens of San Diego.

"Remember the rule," he reminded roommates Joel (Bill English) and Andy (Sam Huntington), who also are brothers. "Stick to your kind. Crave the cave."

Joel, the uptight one, works at an Ikea-like furniture and accessory store. He's also dating a knockout blonde HS named Kate (Kaitlin Doubleday) while younger bro Andy still pines for a woman of unknown species.

Nick, terminally working on his dissertation, finds putdowns easier to come by.

"It's so fun to play with you when you're impotent with rage," he told Joel during a squash match. He'd already scored points for his side by nearly persuading Joel that Kate was ashamed to be seen in public with him.

The Joel-Kate pairing will continue, though, since the actress playing her is listed as a series regular. Cavemen might hang in there a while, too. Paired with the not so bad Carpoolers as part of ABC's "Man Date" night, it's visually hairy without being demonstrably harebrained. So you might want to consider joining their club, which by the way none of them carries.

Grade: C+

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Life is Wild (The CW)

The blended Clarke brood hits the road in South Africa.

Premiering Sunday, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Leah Pipes, Andrew St. John, D. W. Moffett, Stephanie Niznick, K' Sun Ray, Mary Matilyn Mouser, David Butler, Calvin Goldspink, Atandwa Kani, Tiffany Mulheron, Precious Kofi
Produced by: Michael Rauch, Charlie Pattinson, George Faber

Filmed entirely in South Africa, The CW's Life is Wild should look a lot more picturesque than it does.

Maybe the review copy sent to critics will be brightened up by the time it hits the air Sunday night. Otherwise you're going to see a pair of faded jeans instead of a show that should be flaunting some flying colors. ABC's new Pushing Daisies is sometimes almost blindingly bright. Life is Wild looks as though it's used too much bleach.

The premise is similar to Everwood, which didn't make the cut when The WB and UPN morphed into CW last fall. A doctor Dad, this time a veterinarian instead of a surgeon, transplants a blended family from Manhattan to the wilds. A stepson with a manhole-sized chip on his shoulder spews invective. But they're gonna make it after all. This brood has spunk.

D.W. Moffett, a belated replacement, plays the very congenial Danny Clarke, whose wife died three years ago. He's since married Jo (Stephanie Niznick), a divorce lawyer who spawned Jesse (Andrew St. John), only to see him later expelled again -- from school. She also has a cute little daughter named Mia (Mary Matilyn Mouser).

Danny's blood kids are good-natured Katie (Leah Pipes), who's also the show's narrator, and her little brother, Chase (K 'Sun Ray). Life is Wild also throws in a cranky, oft-drunk grandpop named Art (David Butler). He more or less runs the dilapidated Blue Antelope Lodge in South Africa, where Katie's now deceased mom lived until she couldn't live with Art anymore.

Pipes invests Katie with a good deal of natural appeal. So much so that it's a wonder she isn't fronting a Disney Channel sitcom. The rest of the show pretty much sags around her. Even the various animals look a little pooped.

Life is Wild also mixes in a friendly would-be veterinarian named Tumelo (Atandwa Kani) and the imported British Banks twins -- rascally Oliver (Calvin Goldspink) and snooty Emily (Tiffany Mulheron).

At best the show looks looks both harmless and unexceptional. But it will get no lead-in help at all from CW ratings bomb Online Nation, which couldn't even be called comatose with 690,000 viewers nationally for last Sunday's premiere.

Life is Wild could triple that audience and still not crack Nielsen's weekly top 100 programs. Suggested retitle: Life is Short.

Grade: C

FALL TV PREVIEW: NBC promos take the football out of Friday Night Lights, but the series is better than ever

Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler keep Friday Night Lights glowing.

"Finally on Friday" say NBC's rebooted promotions for its ratings-challenged Friday Night Lights.

Whatever the night or approach, what we have here is broadcast TV's very best drama series. Its second season kickoff, at 8 p.m. (central) on Oct. 5, comes on a night filled with real-life high school football games. But NBC's sales pitches make no mention or depiction of helmets, cleats or any other pigskin paraphernalia.

Austin-made FNL indeed still answers to the beat of the fictional Dillon Panthers and their carnival atmosphere game nights. It's just that NBC would much rather have you ready for anything but the series' football motif. Network research and lowly Nielsen numbers have shown that most women viewers are repelled by any talk of first downs, goals to go. So let's put that out of mind as much as possible.

FNL's opening scene Friday is emblematic. An airborne football ends up on an entirely different field of play -- the community swimming pool. That's where the defending state champs and their girlfriends are lazing their way through the last days of summer. Better to show a little tanning oil applied to a bikinied beauty than liniment to a banged-up shoulder. The practice field can wait a while.

Childbirth helps, too, and this is where FNL's most valuable player comes in. She's Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), wife of former Panthers coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). He's mostly been away in Austin for the past eight months, commuting on weekends from his new job as an assistant college coach. Now Tami's ready to deliver while Eric scrambles to catch a flight back to Dillon.

Britton's performances remain a wonderment. She's simply stupendous as Tami Taylor, a blunt-spoken but hurtin' inside football widow who achingly misses her husband. What woman wouldn't relate to her? What man couldn't learn from her?

Chandler is less effusive but likewise rock-solid as a do-the-right-thing coach/spouse/father. Together they illuminate FNL with prime-time's most appealing and interesting married couple. Tami and Eric Chandler set the show's table, whether together or apart. And their blossoming, newly rebellious teen daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), isn't handling her father's long absences very well.

Lots more goes on in the sophomore season's first three episodes.

The Panthers' new coach, dubbed "The Tennessee Tyrant," is a stone cold disciplinarian who quickly puts the team's fate in the hands of brash running back "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) rather than still introverted quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford).

Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), whose parents are newly separated, is baptized in the name of Christ's Teen Messengers. This doesn't impress hard-drinking, chip-on-the-shoulder fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who sneers, "Enjoy your Jesus."

"Yeah, enjoy your depraved hedonism," she retorts.

Former star QB Jason Street (Scott Porter) is still wheelchair-bound, but intent on working a medical miracle. Nubile Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) and awkward Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) are drawn much closer together by a shared criminal act.

The first actual football game isn't played until near the end of this fall's third episode. But you won't be missing a thing, regardless of gender. FNL is filled with terrifically played off-the-field scenes by all of its principal characters. So far it scrimps only on "Smash's" personal life, which needs to be fleshed out more in future episodes.

FNL already has succeeded -- and continues to do so -- in portraying Texas as anything but a long, tall bumpkin patch. There's really not a stereotype in sight, a remarkable feat given the networks' collective track records.

All that's needed now is you. Spread the word if you're already a fan. Get on board if you haven't been. This series already is almost too good to be true -- and it's only getting better. A few first downs are needed in the ratings, though. Otherwise NBC will be punting FNL out of its lineup, and there'll be no chance for further review.

Grade: A

FALL TV PREVIEW: Seinfeld revisits Thursday on 30 Rock

Seinfeld had thrice the ratings of 30 Rock. Now he's helping out.

It's the newly reigning Emmy-holder for best comedy series, but perhaps the least seen of any winner.

A 30 Rock guest shot by onetime NBC potentate Jerry Seinfeld presumably can't hurt when the Peacock's most under-appreciated show returns for its second season Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (central). Star Tina Fey, always happy to joke about 30 Rock's dirt-poor first season ratings (No. 137 with just 5.4 million viewers per episode), is at it again in a form letter sent with a review DVD.

"Our goal is that this episode would play as a continuation for fans of last season," she says, "but also welcomes new viewers who are tuning in just to see Jerry."

You'll see a fair amount of him, with Seinfeld playing himself. His entry point is a pissed-off response to the latest ratings ploy by NBC programming executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). He's hoping to pump up the network's new fall schedule with "SeinfeldVision." NBC owns a wealth of old clips from Seinfeld, and Donaghy is just the guy to digitally use Jerry as a pitchman in clips for Heroes, Deal Or No Deal and a sendup of CBS' Kid Nation.

Seinfeld, newly returned from a European vacation "in a country only rich people know about," confronts a desperate Donaghy before reducing him to a blubbering baby. Isn't there any NBC show he wouldn't mind being computerized into?

"I like Lost," Seinfeld deadpans. "Is that you guys?" No, it's not.

30 Rock is "inside" without being beyond anyone's grasp. Still, its razor sharp satire so far hasn't cut it with anything resembling a mass audience. That's a shame, particularly when Fey, as put-upon variety show producer Liz Lemon, so willingly puts herself out there.

On the second season return, she's just broken up with boyfriend Floyd. This prompts Donaghy to turn on his usual charm.

"Lemon," he says, "women your age are more likely to be mauled at the zoo than get married."

Also returning is show-within-a-show star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), whose "ministry" to transvestite prostitutes has prompted his wife to toss him. Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), having spent summer break starring in a Broadway version of Mystic Pizza, returns with ample extra poundage from too many slices.

"She needs to lose 30 pounds or gain 60," Donaghy informs Lemon. "Anything in between, there's no place in television."

Seinfeld may be the drawing card Thursday, but Baldwin's Donaghy is still 30 Rock's week-to-week scene-stealer. Simply put, this show must go on. But it won't unless America heeds the call and gets with the program.

Grade: A

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Pushing Daisies (ABC)

Premiering: Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Kristin Chenoweth, Swoosie Kurtz, Ellen Greene
Produced by: Barry Sonnenfeld, Bryan Fuller

Fall's brightest new series is just that -- very bright.

The bold primary colors of Pushing Daisies jump off the screen and into viewers' laps. But can ABC's "forensic fairytale" otherwise be a masterstroke? Or is it too cutesy poo, narration-heavy and pretentious at times? Lots of fellow critics have been going goo-gah with the ooh-ah. Dunno, though. Will Pushing Daisies have long-term pulling power?

On Wednesday's premiere, narrator Jim Dale (voice of the Harry Potter audio books) spends nearly six and a half minutes setting up the story, which originates in the peaceable earthly kingdom of Couer d' Couers. It's all glorious to behold, but it does get rather tiresome listening to Dale. Especially when the show's writers seem to think it adds to the story by giving the main characters' ages not only in years, but in weeks, hours and minutes.

The series' central figure, Ned with no last name, is first seen as a young boy (Field Cate). He's happily with his dog, which gets run over by a semi-truck. But a touch from Ned brings the dog back to life while a nearby squirrel soon drops dead from a tree. Hmm.

The kid quickly learns this: He can bring anything back to life. But if that second life lasts a minute, something or someone else dies. And if Ned touches one of the resurrected, he, she or it will be dead again -- forever. Got all that?

The narration keeps coming as Ned brings his mother back to life only to see the father of his next door little girlfriend drop dead. Then when mom kisses him goodnight, she's a goner, too.

No wonder adult Ned (Lee Pace) ends up being an ace piemaker and proprietor of The Pie Hole. His saucy waitress, Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth), would like to do a little a la mode with him. But Ned has intimacy issues and Olive is a bit short on brain power. "I used to think masturbation meant chewing your food," she says.

By this time Ned's also solving crimes on the side with grumpy copper Emerson Cod (Chi McBride). Ya see, Ned can revive a victim for at least a full minute, ask some pertinent questions and then end that same life a second time.

This basic code of conduct is sorely tested when Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel) is murdered on a cruise ship. It's the same Chuck that Ned had a crush on as a kid. Bringing her back to life proves irresistible, even if he can never touch her again. But who killed her? And what about those wacky aunts who raised her -- former synchronized swimming champs Lily and Vivian (Swoosie Kurtz, Ellen Greene)?

There's lots to digest here, not including Ned's pies. Pushing Daisies has more crust than any series since ABC's Twin Peaks, which gorged on Agent Cooper's cherry pie addiction. Peaks badly crumbled in its crazed second season, and you wonder if Pushing Daisies might be tempting a similar fate.

Is it too inherently silly to make viewers buy into the procedural crime of the week? Will the "You can't touch this" motif grow wearisome when constantly applied to Ned and Chuck? Is it too labored in its quirkiness? Might Dale's narration get really grating?

We'll have to see. Pushing Daisies definitely is worth a tune-in. It's fall's most imaginative newcomer in a new season already filled with fantasy/sci-fi. Raising the dead has never looked prettier.

Grade: B+

Cuban avoids a knockout and can still come out swingin'

Cuban's mambo co-starred lush Kym Johnson in Sheena garb.

Mark Cuban got a little shock therapy on Tuesday's Dancing with the Stars, surviving to hoof and puff another night without even having to break a sweat.

The Dallas Mavericks owner and pro partner Kym Johnson learned midway through the show that they'd been "saved" instead of again relegated to Dancing's Bottom Two scorers. Jubilant fist pumps ensued.

"Look of happy surprise there," said host Tom Bergeron.

The Cuban-Johnson mambo rated just an 18 score the previous night from Dancing's three judges, leaving only lumbering Wayne Newton further down the ladder with 15 points. Cwazy wabbit arbiter Bruno Tonioli equated Cuban to a "bulldog chasing a squirrel," but said he was fun to watch.

"I have no idea what that means," Cuban said in a taped segment Tuesday. "It is what it is."

A blue-looking Johnson thought she knew the score all too well.

"It's going to put us in a bad, bad position for the elimination night," she said.

But cocksure model Albert Reed instead surprisingly took the gas after bottoming out with Newton in the show's red-lit final seconds. The live studio audience couldn't even muster the wherewithal to gasp.

A few minutes before getting his reprieve, Cuban treated the judges a bit as though they were NBA refs. Right now he doesn't much care what they think of him. He'll play to the show's 20-some million viewers.

"If they pull us through this week, then next week we're not dancing for the judges, we're dancing for the fans," Cuban pronounced. "Because that's who matters."

Youthified (he's canned the facial hair) and rejuvenated (the surgically repaired hip is hangin' in there), Cuban's prospects suddenly are appreciably brighter, at least among his gender. He's shown he can rally a fan base. And among the four remaining male celebrities, Cuban currently is outclassed only by smooth-moving Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves, who had Monday's top score of 27 from the judges.

"I'm not a quitter. I don't take losing lightly," Cuban said. "I don't like being shown up when I'm trying to do something."

It seemed as though he'd instead have a very trying night Tuesday. But Cuban dodged a mega-bullet and now has a chance to really hit his stride.

Damn, guess this means more blogging and wardrobe changes to keep the girlyman beating within. Wore a pallbearer's suit tonight, though. Now it's gonna have to be more red, red wine velour from the Robert Goulet rack.

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Carpoolers (ABC)

ABC's Cavemen wasn't available for review; its Carpoolers will do.

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Fred Goss, Faith Ford, Jerry O'Connell, Jerry Minor, Tim Peper, T.J. Miller, Allison Munn
Created by: Bruce McCulloch

ABC's trio of hairy Neanderthals leads off Tuesday nights in Cavemen. The network is hiding them from critics after drastically reworking the pilot episode. So we're left with the four highly vexed men of Carpoolers, one of whom at least sports a thin mustache.

You wonder how they can build a sitcom around HOV lane-ing by four office building mates. Carpoolers does have a little something under the hood, though, even if its main men collectively are more than a little weak downstairs -- and up top.

Beaten down Aubrey (Jerry Minor) has a nest full of kids and a faceless, do-nothing wife who's seen only in repose. For him, sex is seeing his wife naked. The rest of the process can only lead to another kid.

Weak-kneed Gracen (Fred Goss) feels emasculated after deducing that both his wife, Leila (Faith Ford), and tighty whitey wearing grown son, Marmaduke (T.J. Miller), are making more coin than him.

Newly divorced Laird (Jerry O'Connell) has been stripped of virtually all earthly possessions by his ex-.

And newlywed Dougie (Tim Peper), also a neophyte at the carpooling game, keeps getting hit by moving vehicles.

Any of the millionaire men in ABC's new Big Shots could mash these poor saps with their money clips. Still, their pathetic misadventures and conversations can be at least moderately amusing. Add some hoot-worthy in-car singalongs and stir with a decent sight gag or two. Goofier than Goofy, Carpoolers won't be measuring up to any classic comedies but at least can play in the same league with How I Met Your Mother. In fact it might be a little better than that.

Tuesday's opener -- "Gentlemen, let's carpool! " -- finds Gracen threatened by his wife's purchase of a $200 toaster with "her money." So just how much does she make as a house flipper? Laird drops that dime, and misunderstandings ensue.

A more amusing second episode is subtitled "Laird of the Ring." Said Laird coaxes Gracen into letting him borrow his wedding ring because he's after a woman who craves having affairs with married men. He impulsively invents a quartet of kids, two of them named Colgate and Dasher. This eventually leads to the episode's prize line from laconic Marmaduke.

Meanwhile, Aubrey is sneaking off to a motel room during work hours, with Dougie trailing him. What's that all about?

Carpoolers won't be zooming to the top of the ratings charts. In fact, it might well disappear before Christmas. Whatever its fate, it's no out-and-out lemon. At worst it's stupid fun.

Grade: B-minus

FALL TV PREVIEW: New series -- Aliens In America (The CW)

New pals Justin Tolchuck and Raja Musharaff give The CW a lift.

Premiering: Monday, Oct 1 at 7:30 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Dan Byrd, Adhir Kalyan, Amy Pietz, Scott Patterson, Lindsey Shaw
Produced by: Tim Doyle, Moses Port, David Guarascio

Here's a sweet yet sharp comedy that should be welcomed with open arms to Monday night's burgeoning nerd gaggle.

The CW's Aliens In America goes younger and deeper than NBC's Chuck or CBS' The Big Bang Theory. Its principal geek in residence is still a 16-year-old high school boy who finds himself listed as No. 8 on a top 10 list of "Most Bangable Chicks." This sends fictional Medora, Wisconsin's Justin Tolchuck (Dan Byrd) running home in horror and humiliation while his protective mom Franny (Amy Pietz) schemes to somehow make him cool in the eyes of teen sadists like the Palladino twins.

Her solution is taking in a foreign exchange student whom she pictures as a blonde Nordic Adonis who will give her put-upon son some gilt by association. Instead here comes Pakistani teen Raja Musharaff (Adhir Kalyan), who dresses in robes and invites crude school corridor taunts such as, "Apu, where's my Slushee?"

Mom immediately re-schemes to send him back from whence he came. But hubby Gary (Scott Patterson) likes both the $500 monthly check sent for Raja's upkeep and his willingness to further earn his keep by cleaning up around the Tolchuck house. That's shocking behavior on the part of any teen.

The show has another dynamic in Justin's younger sister, Claire (Lindsey Shaw), whose breasts have grown to the size of cantaloupes during summer vacation. Her on- and off-boyfriend, in the first two episodes at least, is a well-spoken, non hip-hop black schoolmate named Jeffrey (guest star Haran Jackson). Any preconceived racial stereotypes are quickly dashed here. Raja decidedly is not an America-hating terrorist. Nor is Jeffrey a playa.

Monday night's opener finds mom Franny's heart melting too quickly and predictably. And the closing Norman Rockwell-ian scene of an idyllic family dinner seems cookie-cut from a Leave It to Beaver episode. Maybe that should be amended to read "lamentably cookie-cut." It's a shame that such sights now seem so patently unbelievable.

Episode 2 improves on the first. Raja's classroom declaration of friendship for Justin has fellow students spewing gay jokes. Meanwhile, Claire decides to abruptly break up with Jeffrey in light of her newfound popularity at school.

"I just want to make sure whoever I'm with drives that popularity," Claire tells her mom, who's sympathetic. Dad then spends the rest of the episode in inconsolable Jeffrey's corner while Justin learns that distancing himself from true-blue Raja is hurting him more than he'd thought.

Both Byrd and Kalyan are well-suited to their lead roles as shotgun pals. And the parents are suitably off-center without being too broadly wacky in the Malcolm In the Middle mode.

Aliens In America makes them all balance out in a likable comedy with a core message of tolerance. It teaches without preachments, which is always a nice trick.

Grade: B+