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New season: ABC laughs last with fall's final pairing of new sitcoms -- Hank and The Middle

Simon Cowell inks new deal while Fox exec. Peter Rice looks on.

Lots happened during my week-long sojourn in Pasadena covering the semi-annual Television Critics Association "press tour."

My employer for the week was locatetv.com, for which numerous dispatches were filed. Here's a list of highlights, with links to the complete stories.

***Simon Cowell announced that this will be his last season as a judge on American Idol. Beginning in fall 2011, he'll produce and be a judge on Fox's American version of The X Factor, the hit British talent competition that last year launched the career of Susan Boyle.

***NBC exec Jeff Gaspin confirmed that affiliate station pressure led the network to end its prime-time version of The Jay Leno Show. Gaspin also detailed his proposal to give Leno a new half-hour late night show that would precede Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show. But O'Brien pointedly refused to go along, saying a half-hour delay of Tonight would irreparably damage NBC's long-running late night franchise. The two sides are still working out an official exit strategy, with O'Brien likely to be signing off after this week.

***Fox executives indicated their keen interest in O'Brien to host a late night show for their network.

***NBC announced its five 9 p.m. (central) replacement shows after the Winter Olympics end on Feb. 28th. Leno's last prime-time show will be on Feb. 11th, the night before NBC's telecast of the Olympic opening ceremonies from Vancouver, Canada.

***ABC announced second-season renewals for freshman comedies Modern Family, The Middle and Cougar Town. Fox said that Glee likewise will return for a second season and CBS later said in a press release that both NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife will have sophomore seasons.

***And oh yeah, there was a big Lost panel, too, preceding the Feb. 2nd launch of the ABC series' sixth and final season.

New season: NBC's Trauma strives to survive with Tyrannosaurus Wrecks

Cliff Curtis co-stars in NBC's explosive Trauma. NBC photos

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Cliff Curtis, Derek Luke, Anastasia Griffith, Aimee Garcia, Kevin Rankin, Taylor Kinney, Jamey Sheridan
Produced by: Peter Berg, Sarah Aubrey, Jeffrey Reiner, Peter Noah, Dario Scardapane

NBC's The Jay Leno Show takes money off the screen with its comparatively skimpy budget.

The same network's Trauma puts some of it back on with its comparatively expensive pyrotechnics in Monday's premiere episode.

"We can do three shows for what it costs to blow up a helicopter," Leno said half in jest during a recent teleconference with TV critics.

Produced by Peter Berg and some of the key players from his Friday Night Lights crew, Trauma heats up in its early minutes with a spectacular chopper collision by series TV standards. It kills seven people in the air and on the ground, serving as a very sobering backdrop for an action-drama that then fast-forwards to the one-year anniversary of "the worst rescue disaster in San Francisco history."

Heavily scarred -- emotionally at least -- are paramedics Nancy Carnahan (Anastasia Griffith) and Cameron Boone (Derek Luke). Her paramedic par amour was one of the seven victims. And she'd been bangin' him in uniform just minutes before the mayhem.

Meanwhile, the haunted Boone still can't "bring this home to my family." Instead he keeps returning home in the wee hours, when everyone's asleep. It doesn't help that he's also developed a wandering eye.

Some of this is over-done, and then burned to a crisp when the crash's sole survivor, daredevil flight medic Reuben "Rabbit" Palchuk (Cliff Curtis), returns to the team after a year's absence. He's still kinda crazed and dazed, driving his car recklessly through San Fran during off-duty hours because he considers himself immortal after emerging from a coma.

Along for Rabbit's far-fetched tire-squealing ride is rookie chopper pilot Marisa Benez (Aimee Garcia). She protests to no avail until his survivor's guilt claims the finger of an inebriated motorist whose car he sideswipes. Friday Night Lights fans will recognize the actor as the same guy -- Brad Leland -- who plays car dealer/intrusive alumnus Buddy Garrity on the Austin-made series.

Trauma's premiere also includes a chain-collision pileup caused by a text messaging dolt. It's not known yet whether Leno's overall cost-savings will keep rebounding to this show's advantage in future episodes. NBC press materials describe Trauma as an "adrenaline shot to the heart" -- and for that you probably need at least one big boom per week.

Most of the principal characters are decently drawn, even if the opener tends to hyper-extend some of them. This includes an all-too-typical scene in which the still traumatized Carnahan -- "I need a save today" -- demands that further life-saving measures be taken on an already thoroughly dead victim.

Trauma follows NBC's Heroes, which currently is on a ratings respirator. So that won't help its chances on a Monday night when it then must face off at 8 p.m. (central) against CBS' hit comedies and ABC's expanded editions of Dancing with the Stars.

In that context, Rescue Us might be a more apt title. The drama in Trauma has scant chance to survive both its lead-in show and the fearsome competition.

GRADE: B-minus

New season: Fox's The Cleveland Show is black and white -- and blue

Stepdaughter Roberta, Cleveland Jr. and family guy Cleveland.

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 27th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring the voices of: Mike Henry, Kevin Michael Richardson, Sanaa Lathan, Reagan Gomez, Seth MacFarlane
Produced by: Seth MacFarlane, Richard Appel, Mike Henry

With King of the Hill newly evicted, only The Simpsons now stands in the way of total Sunday night animation domination by the reliably scatological Seth MacFarlane.

His latest sensibility-bruiser, The Cleveland Show, is a spinoff of MacFarlane's Family Guy. He also has American Dad in play, giving Fox a trio of cartoons that Fred and Wilma would never let Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm watch. Millions of teen and twentysomething males can't get enough, though. And that's the toughest TV audience to attract.

Cleveland Show, premiering at 7:30 p.m. (central) after the 21st season launch of The Simpsons, has already drawn some fire as a cartoon form of blackface. That's because the series' creators are white, and its black central character, the pudgy and often pathetic Cleveland Brown, is voiced by middle-aged pale face Mike Henry.

Attention is called to this color bind when Cleveland's soon-to-be stepdaughter, Roberta (Reagan Gomez), tells him, "You get on my nerves, like when white people make a show they think black people will watch."

Cleveland's hopelessly inept son, 14-year-old Cleveland Jr., is voiced by a black actor, Kevin Michael Richardson. A white hillbilly neighbor named Lester also is portrayed by Richardson, so maybe all of this tends to even out.

Cleveland Show otherwise is pretty much interchangeable with MacFarlane's Family Guy and American Dad. The humor is rife with shock value, whether it's Lester and his wife dining on a dead dog named Meadowlark Lemon in Episode 2 or Family Guy patriarch Peter Griffin opening Sunday's premiere episode by chortling, "And that is how I got Liza Minnelli's poop on my shoe."

Griffin and his Quahog pals are saying goodbye to the newly divorced Cleveland, who's intent on relocating to California with his son in hopes of becoming a minor league baseball scout working for his friend, Joe Torre.

The two Clevelands first stop off in dad's hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia, where his old high school flame, Donna Tubbs (Sanaa Lathan), still resides. She's divorced, too, and the mother of both snippy Roberta and pint-sized Rallo (Henry), a lippy terror in league with Family Guy's diabolical Stewie Griffin.

Cleveland Sr. of course is re-smitten with Donna. And by the end of Sunday's premiere episode, they're married and harried.

MacFarlane and his fellow writers as always are willing to throw just about anything off the wall, including Cleveland's observation that "gays are smart. Just look at how many lines Gene Hackman's been able to memorize over the years."

Next Sunday's Episode 2 finds the bulky Cleveland Jr. eventually setting up shop as an attendant in the high school restroom. This greatly vexes his Dad, who yells, "You're not workin' in a crapper. You look like a racist cliche in a Ron Howard movie!"

There's also an exceedingly crude reference to a certain actress smelling like a chicken gizzard factory. She won't be named here, because she doesn't deserve that.

The problem with all of this is that Cleveland Show can be funny as hell, too. It's both effortlessly offensive and sometimes hilariously insane. Who but MacFarlane would populate his latest enterprise with a Russian-accented, overtly religious bear named Tim? MacFarlane supplies the voice, with Arianna Huffington occasionally guesting as Tim's wife, Arianna.

Cleveland Show arguably is every so slightly gentler than either Family Guy or American Dad. But it's mostly more of the same, which will please MacFarlane's fan base immensely. Remember when The Simpsons actually was considered subversive by some? Man, that was a long time ago.



Filmmaker Ken Burns' latest opus, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, begins a six-night, 12-hour run Sunday on PBS (7 p.m. on KERA/Ch. 13 locally).

On the face of it, this lacks the pulling power of Burns' previous marathon runs, including The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball and most recently, The War. But in a recent session with TV critics, he told unclebarky.com, "You know, it's the tortoise. The sleek hares can come in and do their stuff. But something like The National Parks, I hope, will surprise.

"It's got every bit the amount of emotion as anything we've done. It isn't just beauty shot after beauty shot, but complicated narrative stories about very interesting and diverse people. I think it fits in utterly with everything else we've done."

Sunday's opener highlights Yosemite National Park and John Muir's early explorations. Celebrity voices deployed throughout the 12 hours include Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, George Takei, Adam Arkin and John Lithgow.

Lithgow also can be seen in the flesh on Showtime's Dexter, which returns for a fourth season Sunday at 8 p.m. (central). He's playing the not-so-mild mannered Walter Simmons, dubbed "The Trinity Killer."

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), now a new father, as usual will be battling his demons while also on the scent of Simmons.

New season: Fox's Brothers is mama's family

Brothers is buoyed by CCH Pounder as Mama Adele. Fox photo

Premiering: Friday, Sept. 25th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Michael Strahan, CCH Pounder, Daryl Chill Mitchell and Carl Weathers
Produced by: Don Reo, Eric Tannenbaum, Kim Tannenbaum, Mitch Hurwitz

Fox's lone new comedy series of the fall season stars an ex-pro and an old-pro.

Former New York Giants mainstay Michael Strahan gets top billing in his first full-time acting job. And surprisingly, he's not too bad.

But CCH Pounder is the playmaker in this loud, earthy and some might say all-too-prototypical "urban" sitcom. Brothers manages to be fairly amusing, too, with Pounder showing off her range by shifting from the very serious business of The Shield to playing a sharp-tongued but nurturing matriarch in a house full of childish squabblers.

"He's an ass, but he's my son, and I love him," she tells both of her sons separately. The same goes for her husband, whose high school football players now are all "shavin' their wiggly-dos," he declares. So he later decides to shave his, too. Oh mercy, give me CPR, which in Brothers is CCH.

Pounder plays Adele Trainor. She lures her son, Mike (Strahan), back home to Houston under the pretense that his father, "Coach" Trainor (Carl Weathers), is newly impaired by a stroke.

The other member of the brood, resentful Chill (Daryl Chill Mitchell), has been in a wheelchair ever since a car accident. He's running a sports-themed restaurant, but business isn't so good. Mama knows this. She also knows that Mike, a recently retired football star, is living under false pretenses after his manager ran off with his money. So let's all get back together and pull on the same oar.

The brothers, of course, don't get along.

"Hey, don't roll up on me like that," Mike carps. "Put some baseball cards in those spokes so I can hear you comin', man!"

Chill later drives a punchline through the gap between Mike's choppers: "You know what you should do with your two front teeth? Introduce 'em!"

Adele remains in denial about Chill, occasionally jabbing at his numb legs with a fork because "I dream one day he's gonna say, 'Ouch.' " Coming from her, just about every line works, even the transparently telegraphed ones.

In next Friday's Episode 2, Pounder weighs in after a family bowling night at The Gutter, from where Mike brings a young woman home. Spotting her in the kitchen the next morning, she barks, "Who are you?"

"Oh, I'm Monica from The Gutter."

"That's what I woulda guessed."

That's a groaner, but Pounder still somehow sells it.

You might buy Strahan, too. In the annals of pro athletes turned actors, he's already 20 yards ahead of Dick Butkus.

Weathers, the old Rocky movie puncher, is adequate and very animated as the increasingly forgetful but ever-boastful Coach. And Mitchell brings fire to Chill, who spars with Strahan as though he's Flozell Adams in the trenches. But with fewer false starts.

Brothers, being paired with the return of 'Til Death, isn't likely to rack up any big ratings scores on a night that's long been ice cold for Fox. But it's not nearly as bad as anticipated, and close to being a full-blown pleasant surprise.

That's what can happen when you've got someone blocking, tackling and carrying the ball. We're not talking about Strahan, of course. All he has to do is be coachable again while Pounder takes this one to the house.

GRADE: B-minus

New season: ABC's FlashForward bets heavily on its future

Joseph Fiennes surveys the damage after worldwide blackout.

Premiering; Thursday, Sept. 24th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Sonya Walger, John Cho, Br'an F. O'Byrne, Zachary Knighton, Courtney B. Vance, Peyton List, Christine Woods, Dominic Monaghan
Produced by: David S. Goyer, Brannon Braga, Marc Guggenheim, Jessika Borsiczky

ABC continues to embrace complex or soapy serial dramas, be they Lost or Desperate Housewives.

There are perils and plusses in this. Unlike close-ended "procedurals" (the CSI or Law & Order franchises), they repeat very poorly during the cash 'n' carry summer months. Also, many viewers are unwilling to be strung along at such lengths or be left hanging by an early cancellation, as happened three seasons ago with ABC's unresolved The Nine.

Upsides are critical buzz, Internet wowsa and the satisfaction of doing something daringly different rather than numbingly safe. So here's FlashForward, an ambitious and hyper-promoted puzzler that's spent several months positioning itself as THE television event of the season.

It begins unfolding Thursday at the uncommonly early hour of 7 p.m. (central), when FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) emerges dazed and confused from his upturned auto. Hook inserted, FlashForward briefly rewinds to four hours earlier, initially to the strains of all-is-well Muzak.

Mark awakens to a playful "You're a crappy husband. I hate you" post-it from his doctor wife, Olivia (Sonya Walger). He smiles and is soon at the breakfast table with "my princess," -- kid daughter Charlie (Lennon Wynn).

Things aren't so great later in the day. Young Dr. Bryce Varley (Zachary Knighton) stands on a bridge, a gun cocked under his chin. And Mark's friend Aaron Stark (Br'an F. O'Byrne) joins him at an AA meeting. He's still grappling with the death of his daughter in Afghanistan -- and her return home in pieces.

A bit down the road, Mark and his FBI partner, Demetri Noh (John Cho), are in hot pursuit of suspected terrorists when -- blammo -- it happens. The world suddenly is in the throes of a two minute, 17 second "blackout" in which just about everyone has their own "flash forward" to April 29, 2010 (or a day later depending on where one is in the world).

Mark's taste of the near future is frightening, ominous. So is his wife's -- and his daughter's. But Bryce sees better times ahead. And Aaron has a vision in which daughter is still alive. This later prompts his in-a-nutshell description of why viewers should stay tuned. "You're worried your future's gonna come true," he tells Mark. "I'm worried mine won't."

That's quite a lure -- and for now I'm hooked. That said, FlashForward has its share of clunky, hell-in-a-handbasket pronouncements, most of them from Mark's tightly coiled boss, Stanford Wedeck (Courtney B. Vance).

"We need to wrap our heads around the scope of this thing, people," he barks. And later, "The whole world's on pins and needles, people."

People had best get ready for a rollercoaster ride as the world posts its collective "flashforwards" on a Website dubbed The Mosaic Collective in reference to some of what Sam saw. At least that's what ABC says in publicity materials.

Dominic Monaghan (who played the presumably dead Charlie Pace on Lost) also will be appearing in future episodes as a mysterious character named Simon. And yes, in Thursday's premiere, that in fact is Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane in a brief, unbilled role as an FBI agent.

FlashForward has the potential to be a riveting yarn that its producers insist will be unraveled at the end of Season 1 before a new storyline takes over. Unfortunately, that sounds a little bit too much like NBC's Heroes, whose season-to-season reboots have all but buried it in Boot Hill.

For now, though, it's all quite enthralling -- and good news for newspapers, too. FBI boss Wedeck's glimpse into the future finds him on the john reading a print product whose headlines include a knee ligament tear for Kobe Bryant. Sorry about that, Lakers, your playoff hopes are shot. But newspapers have survived at least all the way until April 29th of next year. And that, my friends, is a bulletin.

GRADE: A-minus

New season: it's a threesome on ABC, with still more to come after Modern Family, Cougar Town and Eastwick

ABC unveils two-thirds of its all-new Wednesday this week after the season's first Dancing with the Stars eviction hour. We'll take them one at a time, in order of appearance, from Modern Family to Cougar Town to Eastwick.

Remember him? That's Ed O'Neill on the upper far left.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 23rd at 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Ed O'Neill, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Sof'a Vergara, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Sarah Hyland, Nolan Gould, Ariel Winter, Rico Rodriguez
Produced by: Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd

Think Arrested Development, but hope for much better ratings.

ABC's Modern Family, the season's funniest new comedy, also draws on the "mockumentary" style of NBC's The Office and Parks and Recreation.

But something borrowed doesn't mean something that feels used. There's a fresh thrill of discovery here, with old pro Ed O'Neill (Married...with Children) leading the pack as cranky family patriarch Jay Pritchett.

If this is the season of cougars -- see subsequent reviews -- then Jay is a more conventional lion in winter. He's not quite declawed yet, but does have a tough time arising from lawn chairs at soccer games. His new wife, Gloria Delgado-Pritchett (Sof'a Vergara), is appreciably younger and Latina. Her chubby, 11-year-old son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), is a little slow on the draw but yearns for the love of a 16-year-old girl on whom he's fixated. None of this goes smoothly.

Jay's daughter, Claire (Julie Bowen), is married to hopelessly uncool Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), who very much thinks he's otherwise. He mortifyingly knows all the songs from High School Musical and greets his oldest daughter's boyfriend with "Lemme meet this playa."

Jay also has a grown son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who has just adopted a Vietnamese baby girl with his life partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet). A surprise awaits Mitchell upon their return home. Cameron has commissioned a finished mural of the two of them beatifically taking wing. Or to put it another way, "Your fathers are floating fairies," says the aghast Cameron.

The mockumentary part finds the three couples intermittently sitting separately on their living room couches, where they talk to the camera. American Gothic it's not.

O'Neill is the marquee player in Modern Family, but Burrell as Phil is the first episode's MVP. He bungles an attempt to teach son Luke (Nolan Gould) a lesson by shooting him with a BB gun he's used on one of his siblings. And he's equally ridiculous dunking over one of the Dunphy kids on their mini-sized, backyard basketball hoop.

They all get together just once in Wednesday's opener, when Mitchell and Cameron have everyone over to introduce their adopted daughter. There's no Archie Bunker-esque bluster from Jay. On the contrary, he's trying to be accepting, which makes for a surprisingly charming scene.

Modern Family has potential to burn and two very savvy guys behind the camera as co-executive producers.

Steven Levitan's credits include Just Shoot Me and last season's under-appreciated Back to You, whose stars -- Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton -- will unveil their separate new comedies next Wednesday on ABC. Christopher Lloyd's resume includes Back to You and Frasier.

This is the duo's first major effort together without a laugh track. That connotes "smart" comedy, but still mitigates against "mainstream" audience acceptance. So be it. Modern Family likely will need the same support from ABC that NBC has given its ratings-challenged 30 Rock. We'll just have to see if that's asking too much.


Courteney Cox in Cougar Town: Gimme some sugar, little booger.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 23rd at 8:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Courteney Cox, Busy Philipps, Christa Miller, Brian Van Holt, Josh Hopkins, Ian Gomez, Dan Byrd
Produced by: Bill Lawrence, Kevin Biegel, Courteney Cox, David Arquette

Courteney Cox still doesn't mind showing off. And frankly, she's entitled, thank you very much.

Cougar Town's signature scene, already well-showcased in promos, finds a bathrobe-clad Cox shouting, "Hey kid! Pow!" as she gives a bicycle-riding paperboy a generous glimpse of her stripped-down physique.

She wouldn't be wearing a bra and panties in the European version. In either case, the kid careens into a car hood, and it's still laugh-out-loud funny.

The impetus for this is a smug, divorced neighborhood womanizer who tells her, "Maybe what really drives you nuts is that you couldn't bag a young stud if you tried." Oh yeah? Pow!

Cox, 45, plays 40-year-old Jules in this energetic laugher from the creator of Scrubs and Spin City. A Florida realtor on the rebound, she dropped out of college to support ex-husband Bobby's (Brian Van Holt) PGA golf tour travails. Instead he spent 20 years "drilling everything" in sight, she reflects.

In this year of the TV cougar, a woman scorned is a woman on the prowl. Jules' busy pal, Laurie (Busy Philipps), is full steam ahead when it comes to baggin' the boy toys. Her other friend, Ellie (Christa Miller), is more of a cheerleader. She's married to a shlepper named Andy (Ian Gomez), who looks and sounds less appetizing than an untoasted, unfrosted Pop Tart. Still, he tries.

Jules also has a teenage son named Travis (Dan Byrd). So it gets a little gamey shortly after she beds a stud-lette, does the deed thrice and then serves him peanut butter crackers poolside while otherwise bending to her further needs.

This particular bit of business is interrupted by the surprise arrival of her son and her ex-. On the following morning, the kid sees mom with a breakfast banana. "You're not allowed to eat these anymore!" he protests.

And so it goes. Cougar Town is more amusing than it might sound here, with Cox's comedic timing a considerable plus. She'll never have a hit like Friends again. But she still has the knack, along with a bod that won't quit -- and shouldn't.


The bewitched ladies of Eastwick with the town's devilish newcomer.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 23rd at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Rebecca Romijn, Jamie Ray Newman, Lindsay Price, Paul Gross, Veronica Cartwright, Jon Bernthal, Johann Urb
Produced by: Maggie Friedman, David S. Rosenthal

The sex talk keeps on comin' in Eastwick, which fittingly introduces cougar Rebecca Romijn's character at a town festival by showing her cleavage before her face.

She reprimands an old man for staring before quickly encouraging teen daughter Mia (Ashley Benson) to "sneak out of the house, chase boys, rebel." Then her boy toy Chad (Matt Dallas, who's actually from Phoenix) pops in to drool, "You look good enough to eat."

The late novelist John Updike, on whose books this purportedly is based, might prefer being safely six feet under. Eastwick makes the preceding Cougar Town seem almost like a nunnery. In Wednesday's premiere, it's not so much the actions taken but the words spoken -- from the opening minutes until near the end. That's when a newspaper editor is admonished, "It is not a tight squeeze in here. You're just a creepy boob-brusher."

Eastwick isn't artful or entertaining enough to get away with any of this stuff. It's ostensibly about three suddenly bewitched women who begin bonding over giant martinis before a mysterious millionaire named Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross) blows into town and begins buying up much of it.

Romijn's character, "extrovert artist" Roxie Torcoletti, pre-ordains his arrival by saying she'd like to meet someone dark and dangerous who's "got a really huge" -- pause, one, two -- "appreciation for art." She also hopes to "have amazing animal sex on Egyptian cotton sheets."

Van Horne is more than van horny enough for that. He invites Roxie to his mansion and says he'll pay her big money to sculpt him in the nude. He then emerges naked from his indoor swimming pool to suggest they shower together. After all, "you're the one that wanted me to come, Roxanne,"

She's sort of aghast, but still doesn't mind detailing Van Horne's member -- "a full-size SUV" -- to new pals Joanna Frankel (Lindsay Price) and Kat Gardener (Jamie Ray Newman).

Joanna is a heretofore semi-prim reporter for the local Eastwick Gazette, where she pines after a photographer named Will (Johann Urb) but can never seem to say the right thing.

"He's like a saint," Joanna laments. "And I'm just the freak at work who talks about sex toys and puke and discharge (the latter a reference to her yeast infection)."

Kat is saddled with a laid-off lunkhead named Raymond (Jon Bernthal), who has a really mean side, too.

The manipulative Van Horne looks to exploit their weaknesses and and newfound powers while also piling up the double entendres.

Taking another pass at Roxie, he says slyly, "I have a rather large lump" -- pause, one, two -- "of clay." Kyle MacLachlan would have killed for this over-cooked role. Too bad he's still otherwise occupied on Desperate Housewives).

Eastwick, which decidedly lacks the charm of Charmed, doesn't seem worth all the hubble bubble toil and trouble. Which is a shame, because the fantasy elements are all there on paper. But the execution is paper-thin, potty-mouthed and altogether puerile.


New season: NBC's Mercy will have to be nursed in a too-early time slot

Taylor Schilling stars as tough-minded head nurse in Mercy.

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 23rd at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Jaime Lee Kirchner, Michelle Trachtenberg, James Tupper, Diego Klattenhoff, Guillermo Diaz, James Le Gros, Delroy Lindo
Produced by: Liz Heldens, Gretchen Berg, Aaron Harberts, Lloyd Braun, Gail Berman

Nurses are plentiful as vampires this year, not there's any further comparison.

The latest take-charge practitioner, Veronica Callahan, is the central character of NBC's new Mercy. Earlier shifts were taken by TNT's HawthoRNe and Showtime's Nurse Jackie, both renewed for second seasons.

Mercy, with heavy doses of adult content, likely would have been a 9 p.m. (central) show in NBC's old days. But Jay Leno now has that real estate locked up, leaving Mercy at the mercy of a less than ideal 7 p.m. slot. It's stepping in for the originally scheduled Parenthood, delayed until later by a real-life medical situation. Cast member Maura Tierney was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently opted to leave the show.

Nurse Callahan, newly returned from duty in Iraq, has not yet adjusted to life back at New Jersey's Mercy Hospital. She's first seen awakening with a start after dreaming of being machine-gunned to death. Her marriage has been shattered, too, although a rapprochement is in the works. And she's still dismissed as "some stupid nurse" by a much stupider woman whose husband owes his life to her.

Callahan in turn hits the bottle and lashes out at doctors, calling one a "scrotum head" and another an "unbelievable moron." And after the trauma she's witnessed in Iraq, everyday terminal illnesses don't move her all that much anymore.

"A 75-year-old man with cancer. That's a trip to Club Med," she says. Especially compared to a soldier who had both of his arms amputated before being outfitted with a colostomy bag.

Some of this is heavy-handed. But Mercy can be affecting and involving, too. Schilling is a presence in the lead role. And one of her colleagues, Sonia Jiminez (Jaime Lee Kirchner), likewise makes a solid impression.

The show also is populated by rookie nurse Chloe Payne (Michelle Trachtenberg) and incoming Dr. Chris Sands (James Tupper from Men In Trees), with whom Callahan served in Iraq. They spent some time together out of uniform, too, and his surprise return complicates the budding reconciliation with estranged husband Mike Callahan (Diego Klattenhoff), who comes off as a well-meaning semi-dolt.

Former Star Trek: Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew is on board, too. She has a few scenes as Callahan's hectoring, apparently alcoholic mother.

Wednesday's premiere unfortunately ends with an old stereotype -- the three featured nurses all cooing over a hunky neighborhood bartender who has cut his hand breaking up a fight. Mercy is better than that for the most part. But it's also a heavy dose of adult drama at an uncommonly early hour. And that could be a prescription for an undeserved early cancellation.


New season: CBS' The Good Wife is far superior to its title

Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi of The Good Wife. CBS photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth, Christine Baranski, Josh Charles, Archie Panjabi, Matt Czuchry, Makenzie Vega, Graham Phillips
Produced by: Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, Robert King, Michelle King, Dee Johnson, David Zucker

The spurned woman is played by Julianna Margulies. The spurned man could be Jay Leno.

CBS' best bet for a new breakout hit -- without CSI or CIS in the title -- is a new Julianna Margulies drama that probably could use a snappier moniker.

But The Good Wife will have to do, and after a few episodes it probably won't matter. Going against The Jay Leno Show on Tuesdays this fall, here's a crackling good legal drama with a side dish of what it's like to be married to the likes of Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer or John Edwards.

In fact, the most satisfying scene in Tuesday's premiere comes early in the action, when Margulies' character, Alicia Florrick, delivers a crisp slap to the chops of her husband, Peter (Chris Noth).

He's just resigned as state's attorney of Cook County after making a public statement to the media with Alicia standing beside him. Admitting to "a failure of judgment" regarding his private assignations with various women, he otherwise plans to fight the "scurrilous charges" leveled against him. Sound a little familiar?

"Hey, you all right?" Peter asks after they've retreated backstage. That's when the slap comes, and you'll like both the sound of it and the message behind it.

Peter is then jailed, leaving Alicia to resume the career she sacrificed on his behalf to both aid his career and tend to their two now teenage children. It's been 13 years since she's practiced law after graduating at the top of her class from Georgetown. Now Alicia is a junior partner on a trial basis as a defense attorney at a Chicago law firm where one of her ex-classmates, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), has tossed her a lifeline.

He's on her side, but the firm's icy top litigator, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), is intent on throwing Alicia to the sharks. She also faces in-house competition from young Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), who has both a sense of entitlement and the inside track.

Margulies is terrific as an embattled justice-seeker on two fronts. But her resiliency and resolve aren't entirely at the expense of a sense of humor or a mother's warm touch. One of the resonant scenes in Tuesday's opener is a very small one. It's simply mom telling 14-year-old son, Zach (Graham Phillips), "You're adorable," while he helps her out on the computer.

The cast also includes Archie Panjabi (Kalinda Sharma) as Alicia's resourceful legal investigator and Mary Beth Peil in the role of Peter's judgmental mother, Jackie, who's helping out at home. Veteran character actor David Paymer likewise makes an impression with a guest star stint as a firm but fair judge.

The featured case, by the way, involves a retrial of a young woman charged with murdering her ex-husband and pinning it on a masked car-jacker. Evidence on her behalf is ingeniously and believably compiled. And for once, there's no gruesome corpse in the mix.

Future episodes will juggle Alicia's reborn career with Peter's efforts (in a recurring role by Noth) to both beat his rap and reconcile with her.

This is CBS' sturdiest, savviest new drama series in years, with all of its parts in excellent working order. Tepid title or not, Leno had better watch out.


New season: The Forgotten is best left . . .

Christian Slater strives to be unforgettable in The Forgotten.

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Christian Slater, Michelle Borth, Heat her Stephens, Bob Stephenson, Anthony Carrigan, Rochelle Aytes
Produced by: Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman

ABC at last has its first series from hitmaker Jerry Bruckheimer, architect of the three CSI whodunits, Cold Case, The Amazing Race and until recently, the undeservedly canceled Without A Trace.

All of those were made for CBS, which must have passed on The Forgotten. Painfully earnest and pedestrian, it returns an on-the-rebound Christian Slater (from last fall's My Own Worst Enemy) to the prime-time rat race as a tightly wound semi-vigilante who heads a team of volunteer gumshoes.

Slater, who affects a breathy delivery as dogged Alex Donovan, is ever-ready with a battery of cliches.

"So what do we do now?" inquires one of the dedicated amateurs of The Forgotten Network.

"We get to work," he barks.

And later: "We are going to cover every angle until we find something."

We begin, as Bruckheimer invariably does, with a corpse. The police have quickly given up on identifying her, which brings Alex and his team into play. For now she's labeled "Highway Jane." And they have just five days to pin a name on her before the case is closed and she's buried anonymously in an unmarked potter's field while her murderer goes free.

Apparently no one on this show has heard of Bruckheimer's Cold Case, where years and often decades pass between crimes committed and solved.

On The Forgotten, identifying the victim invariably leads to nabbing the killer. So the Forgotten Network fans out, encountering a number of uncooperative if not downright surly citizens who may or may not have known Highway Jane.

Alex's helpmates include Candace Butler (Michelle Borth), who's bored with her mundane day job; portly telephone repairman Walter Bailey (Bob Stephenson); "street smart," aspiring artist Tyler Davies, who's been court-ordered to join the team; and homicide detective Grace Russell (Rochelle Aytes), who serves as a liaison to the Chicago cop shop.

But what drives Alex? Well, he's a father haunted by a back story that's revealed in the premiere episode's closing minutes.

Bruckheimer invests The Forgotten with the usually solid production values. So it looks good while feeling vacant. One of its competitors on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (central) is CBS' far superior newcomer, The Good Wife, which also is set in Chicago and premieres on the same date.

Were Bruckheimer under oath, he'd admit to wanting to trade shows in a New York minute. Unfortunately for him, the trading deadline has passed.

GRADE: C-minus

New season: NCIS: Los Angeles spins off winningly

LL Cool J gets quizzed on the set of NCIS: Los Angeles. Photo: Ed Bark

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 22nd at 8 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: LL Cool J, Chris O'Donnell, Linda Hunt, Peter Cambor, Adam Jamal Craig, Daniela Rush
Produced by: Shane Brennan, R. Scott Gemmill

Where would a certain No. 1-rated network be without two consonants -- C and S -- plus a vowel -- I?

Not necessarily in that order, of course.

CBS already has three still prosperous CSI series. Now it has a pair of NCIS hours, one right after the other.

The incredibly resilient NCIS, stronger than ever as it enters its seventh season, has spawned a spinoff that also might well have long-term staying power.

NCIS: Los Angeles, a little more now, a little more wow, launches Tuesday night after the original lays the groundwork. Its principal men of action, played by Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J, are special agents of OSP (Office of Special Projects), which CBS publicity materials say is a division of NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service in case you've forgotten).

Whatever. In the annals of hit TV franchises, you make this stuff up as you go along.

NCIS: Los Angeles, sneak-previewed last season within an NCIS episode, is also buoyed by diminutive Oscar-winner Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) as Henrietta "Hetty" Lange. She keeps the boys and girls in line while also providing them with the very latest in high-tech equipment.

Hunt hijacks every scene she's in, insisting on proper bookkeeping in return for all the new toys. She doesn't much like the civilian garb preferred by Special Agent G. Callen (O'Donnell), who's just returned to work after surviving a hail of bullets, some of which perforated him.

"Just because you're an orphan doesn't mean you have to dress like Oliver Twist," she says as a witty means of dressing him down. G, you see, doesn't know who his parents are, or even what his particular consonant stands for. This is supposed to make him a more poignant character, and in fact it kinda does. The poor guy also notes that he's never gotten a birthday card.

LL Cool J, his rapping days on the down low, plays Special Agent Sam Hanna, a former Navy SEAL who always has G's back -- and vice versa. They operate out of a new HQ outfitted with touch-screen technology, micro-surveillance cameras, a wardrobe department, etc.

In Tuesday's premiere, the unsolved murder of a seemingly kidnapped Navy officer springs G and Sam into overdrive while a support team of Nate Getz (Peter Cambor), Dominic Vail (Adam Jamal Craig) and Kensi Blye (Daniela Ruah) pitches in on a moment's notice. Director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll) bridges both NCIS series by issuing orders via satellite.

A pair of short but effective action scenes -- gun battle/fistfight -- invigorate this first stand-alone outing. And the banter between G and Sam is OK for starters. Thankfully, though, a scene involving Hunt is invariably around the corner. Fists and bullets fly, but her presence arms NCIS: Los Angeles with a texture you can count on. So warm up that supporting actress Emmy. It already looks as though it's coming her way.


New season: Elfman again in overdrive as star of CBS' Accidentally On Purpose

Jenna Elfman busily emotes with co-star Jon Foster. CBS photo

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 21st at 7:30 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Jenna Elfman, Jon Foster, Grant Show, Ashley Jensen, Lennon Parham
Produced by:Claudia Lonow, Lloyd Braun, Gail Berman, Gene Stein

CBS' newest addition to its Monday night comedy lineup clearly has a fictional premise.

Its central character, Billie, is a movie critic for an outwardly prosperous San Francisco newspaper that seemingly has no imminent plans to downsize her. Guess it helps a bit when you've been sleeping with the boss for the past three years.

Accidentally On Purpose returns lengthy Jenna Elfman to the sitcom grind after her coming out party on ABC's longrunning Dharma & Greg. In between time, she left virtually no impression in CBS' 2006 Courting Alex, where her single attorney character both looked for love and sparred with a sourpuss dad played by Dabney Coleman.

Elfman, who plays Billie this time out, can't be accused of walking through the part. On the prowl at a bar, she's instructed by her best friend, Olivia (Ashley Jensen from Ugly Betty and Extras), to "perk up your nipples." So she tweaks them with her fingertips before launching into an animated conversation with three dudes in their 20s, one of them her near-future lover. Everything Elfman does is taken up a notch or two from normal human behavior. That hasn't changed, but it's been known to work for her.

Billie, 37, wants a ring, but her boss/lover James (Grant Show) has pledged to never remarry. So she settles for "young candy" in the person of apprentice chef Zack (Jon Foster).

"I'm just not a one night stand kind of person," she informs him before he's soon having at her in his apartment. And whaddya know, "he smells like a Skittle," Billie later raves.

A home pregnancy test ensues, with Billie's ditzy sister, Abby (Lennon Parham), squealing "Yay!" while the "baby baby daddy's" newly expectant mom lets loose with a "N-o-o-o-o-o!" Wack a do, wack a do.

Zack, who had been baby-sitting an apartment for a friend, otherwise sleeps in his van. So Billie invites him to live with her, but platonically for now. His three sub-idiotic friends, one just freed from prison, join in the fun as frequent visitors.

Elfman isn't without appeal in her latest high-strung endeavor. And the show has a strong supporting player in Jensen, who apparently has a cleavage-bearing clause in her contract. In Monday's opener, she's on display in every scene while Elfman mostly covers up in stark contrast to ABC's upcoming cougar-in-residence, Courteney Cox.

Accidentally On Purpose doesn't advance the sitcom ball, though. In future episodes, the show no doubt will wrestle with commitment issues, the pregnant Billie's body image, her relationship with the boss who wants her back and other predictable travails. And if everything comes up roses in a comfy slot between How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men, look for a "very special" season-ending episode in which Billie at last delivers the goods.

Can hardly wait. That's a joke, folks.


Monday night is loaded with season premieres of returning favorites as the 2009-10 TV season officially begins.

ABC's two-hour Dancing with the Stars (7 p.m.) finds the eight male celebrities hoofing and puffing. They include ex-Cowboys star Michael Irvin and former House Majority leader Tom DeLay.

CBS counters with the re-launches of its entire sitcom lineup, including Two and a Half Men, followed by a new episode of CSI: Miami.

NBC has the two-hour season premiere of its flagging Heroes, followed by the first true test of The Jay Leno Show.

And Fox devotes Monday to a two-hour House in which the not-so-good doctor is not-so-happily inhabiting the Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital after last May's season-ending breakdown.

Best bet? House, with star Hugh Laurie doing a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest turn with help from a guest shot by the always excellent Andre Braugher as a no-nonsense but benevolent administrator.

You'll also get a nice array of new House-isms, including, "Are you ignoring me, or are you just letting my charm wash over you?"

All in all, it's both an affecting and amusing episode with a satisfying payoff.

Primetime Emmys come and go (yawn) during pulsating Cowboys-Giants game

Host Neil Patrick Harris opened the show with a song. Photos: Ed Bark

Toiling in relative obscurity and at times acutely aware of it, the 61st annual Primetime Emmy Awards tried not to look too pathetic Sunday night.

Host Neil Patrick Harris opened the show, carried by CBS this year, by virtually begging viewers to stay tuned via a song that ended with "Put down that remote."

All concerned knew what they were up against -- a marquee Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game and the concurrent unveiling of Jerry's Palace on NBC's Sunday Night Football.

The Emmys got a half-hour head start on the game, which kicked off a bit later than scheduled at 7:31 p.m. (central). This meant that Kristin Chenoweth's super-weepy acceptance speech during the show's opening segment may have been seen by more viewers than the climactic awards for best comedy and drama series.

Chenoweth won a best supporting actress statue for ABC's canceled Pushing Daisies, prompting her to note, "I'm unemployed now, so I'd like to be on Mad Men. I also like The Office and 24."

The respective big wins for NBC's 30 Rock and AMC's Mad Men, both of which repeated last year's triumphs, came during the fourth quarter of a wildly unpredictable, seesaw Cowboys-Giants game attended by the largest crowd in NFL history. So Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner may have been talking into a vacuum when he said shortly after 10 p.m., "We worked very hard to not have it stink in the second year."

Host Harris made a game effort to keep things rolling, getting off his best line in the early going by telling attendees and viewers, "Here's hoping Kanye West likes 30 Rock."

First-time winner Ken Howard, who got a supporting actor Emmy for HBO's Grey Gardens, later picked up on that motif. "I'll make my speech as brief as possible in the hope it won't be interrupted by a congressman or a rapper," he said.

Nominee Drew Barrymore looks on and acts up a storm while her Grey Gardens co-star, Jessica Lange, takes home the big prize.

The show periodically had the feeling of a death rattle. Harris for his part briefly "hijacked" the proceedings in the person of his Dr. Horrible character, an Internet sensation in short webisodes created by Joss Whedon of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer fame.

"I think it's safe to say that the era of TV is over," he said before another Whedon favorite, Nathan Fillion from his short-lived Firefly series, interceded to more or less make the case for the old-school tube over the over-flowing Internet.

Later in the show, presenter Ricky Gervais cracked wise about the princely residuals he's receiving from the NBC version of The Office, which he created in its original British form.

"That joke was just for the 5,000 people in this room, not for the 5,000 watching at home," he added.

Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, who won yet another Emmy Sunday night, said he appreciated the award and also the opportunity to retreat backstage to "watch a football game."

Harris closed the show with what in reality is close to being a hopeful plea.

"May we see you again on broadcast television next year," he said.

That's definitely not a given. The Academy of Television Arts & Science's deal with the Big 4 broadcast networks, who rotate Emmy telecasts, is up for re-negotiation. Diminishing ratings and cable's latter day dominance of the ceremony make it possible that television's annual showcase of its best and brightest could wind up on a pay network the next time around.

Big nights for Cherry Jones of 24 and Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston

For the record, Grey Gardens, 30 Rock and the PBS miniseries Little Dorrit won the most Emmys Sunday night, with each taking home three. Mad Men and Comedy Central had two each.

Cable productions won seven of the 12 acting awards, including repeats by Bryan Cranston in AMC's Breaking Bad and Glenn Close in FX's Damages. Toni Collette was a surprise winner as best actress in a comedy series for her multiple personality turns in Showtime's The United States of Tara

And in a streak that's unlikely to ever be broken, CBS' The Amazing Race won for the seventh straight time in the best reality competition series category. It's been the only victor since the category was created.

For a complete list of Sunday's winners, go here. For many out there in television land, they're probably still a pretty well-kept secret.

New season: HBO's Bored to Death chronicles misadventures of a limp dick

One and a Half Men: Jason, George and Ray of Bored to Death.

Premiering: Sunday, Sept 20th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis, Olivia Thirlby
Created by: Jonathan Ames

The title begs for a snappy, disdainful retort, but HBO's Bored to Death probably is preferable to Really Stinko, How Bad Can It Be? or I Hate Good Reviews.

So to be fair -- and to resist being Gene Shalit -- Bored to Death is not a surefire cure for insomnia. Nor is it much of an upper. Created by Jonathan Ames (whose previous works include the graphic novel The Alcoholic), it's the at times amusing tale of two super-nebbishes and an aging, Viagra-dependent Lothario. All together they have less luck with women than a sturdy cucumber.

Jason Schwartzman takes the lead as a supposedly fictional sendup of Jonathan Ames. He's an acknowledged "self-hating Jew" whose live-in girlfriend, Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), is leaving him in the first scene of Sunday's premiere.

Unable to finish his second novel, Jason spends most of his time smoking pot, drinking white wine and commiserating with best pal Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis from The Hangover), a hapless comic book illustrator kept on a short leash by his needy girlfriend, Leah (Heather Burns).

The third wheel is Jonathan's nominal boss, magazine editor George Christopher (Ted Danson). He can't maintain an erection or keep a woman anymore, at least not under his own power. And Jonathan is his pimp when it comes to pot.

So where's the action? Well, Jonathan has read so many crime novels, lately Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely, that he impulsively fancies himself a private detective. A young woman looking for her missing sister answers his ad in Craig's List, putting him on the scent and prompting a comedy of errors.

There are moments when Bored to Death works. And even if there weren't, you'd be roused from any slumber by possibly the loudest and most realistic cell phone rings in TV history.

It is funny, though, watching Jonathan choke down a shot of whiskey in a seedy bar while pursuing a lead. And in Episode 2, a previously unscaled height of absurdity is conquered when Danson's character, George, suddenly develops a big herpes blister on his lip. He demands that Jonathan punch him in the mouth to camouflage it. But Jonathan worries about contracting herpes on his hand, leading George to outfit him with a pair of yellow rubber cleaning gloves. You don't get that kind of comedy in just any old thing.

In that episode, Jonathan also accompanies Ray after his girlfriend orders him to get a colonic. A seemingly gay doctor promises a safe passage in a segment that's never more than sophomoric.

In the annals of super-pathetic, sub-inept TV characters, Jonathan Ames comes pretty close to topping the field. Add his best friend and his boss and you have perhaps a sum total of one-and-a-half men. Part of the problem with Bored to Death is the urge to slap these guys silly rather than laugh at or with them.

On the other hand, Inspector Clouseau and any of Woody Allen's characters would find this very empowering. Compared to these guys, they're all Superman.

GRADE: B-minus

Also of note this Sunday: Curb Your Enthusiasm returns at 8 p.m. (central) for its seventh season. But the action won't really pick up until Episode 3 (Oct. 4), when the show's Seinfeld reunion storyline begins taking shape. Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards are all in the mix from that episode on. So we'll get back to you with more details when that date draws near.

Emmys vs. Cowboys: we'll make our picks anyhoo

Nominee Jim Parson's at TV Critics Association awards. Photo: Ed Bark

Oh yeah, almost forgot. The 61st Prime Time Emmy Awards are coming this Sunday on CBS.

It's easy to let them slide by because next to no one will be watching in these parts. That's what happens when the competition is the first regular season game at Jerry's Palace, with the New York Giants visiting the Dallas Cowboys on NBC's Sunday Night Football.

New York and Dallas are the nation's No. 1 and No. 5 television markets, which further hurts Emmy's chances of improving on last year's 12.34 million viewers, the second lowest audience ever.

Duty calls, though. So we'll make our annual picks after noting that host Neil Patrick Harris looks like a good choice after wowing 'em at the Tonys earlier this year. Also, in case you want to activate your recording device, the show starts at 7 p.m. (central) on CBS11 in D-FW.

OK, here we go.

Big Love (HBO)
Breaking Bad (AMC)
Damages (FX)
Dexter (Showtime)
House (Fox)
Lost (ABC)
Mad Men (AMC)
And the winner is . . . Mad Men won last year, and should do so again. But maybe Dexter can finally break through.

Entourage (HBO)
Family Guy (Fox)
Flight of the Conchords (HBO)
How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
The Office (NBC)
30 Rock (NBC)
Weeds (Showtime)
And the winner is . . . I really don't see anything keeping 30 Rock from another Emmy. Its principal competition again is The Office.

Coco Chanel (Lifetime)
Grey Gardens (HBO)
Into the Storm (HBO)
Prayers for Bobby (Lifetime)
Taking Chance (HBO)
And the winner is . . . The others are cannon fodder for Grey Gardens, which is the easiest pick of the night.

Generation Kill (HBO)
Little Dorrit (PBS)
And the winner is . . . Hmm, I've got a 50-50 shot, so let's not screw this one up. I'll go with Little Dorrit.

The Amazing Race (CBS)
American Idol (Fox)
Dancing with the Stars (ABC)
Project Runway (Bravo)
Top Chef (Bravo)
And the winner is . . . Amazing Race has never lost since this category was created, and there might be audible groans if it wins for a seventh straight time. I'm picking Project Runway to snap the string.

Glenn Close, Damages
Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters (ABC)
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)
Holly Hunter, Saving Grace (TNT)
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer (TNT)
And the winner is . . . I really hope Moss wins. She did great work last season. A good fallback choice would be Sedgwick, who so far is winless in three tries.

Simon Baker, The Mentalist (CBS)
Gabriel Byrne, In Treatment (HBO)
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House
And the winner is . . . Cranston came out of nowhere to win last year. Hamm looks like the best bet this time, although Hall and the still winless Laurie also would be solid choices.

Christina Applegate, Samantha Who? (ABC)
Toni Collette, United States of Tara (Showtime)
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS)
Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds)
Sarah Silverman, The Sarah Silverman Program (Comedy Central)
And the winner is . . . I don't see anyone stopping Fey from repeating.

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Tony Shalhoub, Monk (USA)
Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men (CBS)
And the winner is . . . First-time nominee Parsons, who really makes his show go.

Drew Barrymore, Grey Gardens
Jessica Lange, Grey Gardens
Shirley MacLaine, Coco Chanel
Sigourney Weaver, Prayers for Bobby
Chandra Wilson, Accidental Friendship (Hallmark Channel)
And the winner is . . . Barrymore really came of age as an actress in this challenging role, and deserves to be recognized.

Kevin Bacon, Taking Chance
Kenneth Branagh, Wallender: One Step Behind (PBS)
Brendan Gleeson, Into the Storm
Kevin Kline, Cyrano de Bergerac (PBS)
Sir Ian McKellen, King Lear (PBS)
Kiefer Sutherland, 24: Redemption (Fox)
And the winner is . . . Well, I dunno. But it'll be someone from PBS, so I'll go with McKellen.

Rose Byrne, Damages
Hope Davis, In Treatment
Cherry Jones, 24 (Fox)
Sandra Oh, Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
Dianne Wiest, In Treatment
Chandra Wilson, Grey's Anatomy
And the winner is . . . A rather lackluster grouping, with Wiest the defending champ. She'll probably win again, but I'd like to see Jones break through. She had some really solid moments as bedeviled President Allison Taylor.

Christian Clemenson, Boston Legal (ABC)
Michael Emerson, Lost
William Hurt, Damages
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
John Slattery, Mad Men
William Shatner, Boston Legal
And the winner is . . . If Lost takes home just one Emmy Sunday night, then Emerson should get it as spooky, canny, good guy/bad guy Ben Linus.

Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies (ABC)
Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock
Elizabeth Perkins, Weeds
Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Vanessa Williams, Ugly Betty (ABC)
Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live
And the winner is . . . Poehler looks like the best bet, although Wiig could surprise.

Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
Kevin Dillon, Entourage
Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock
Tracy Morgan, 30 Rock
Rainn Wilson, The Office
And the winner is . . . I think they're going to give Harris a host gift. Not that he doesn't deserve it.

Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Saddam (HBO)
Marcia Gay Harden, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (CBS)
Janet McTeer, Into the Storm
Jeanne Tripplehorn, Grey Gardens
Cicely Tyson, Relative Stranger (Hallmark Channel)
And the winner is . . . Boy, you tell me. I've flipped a bunch of coins and they've landed Harden. Gotta give a broadcast network a little somethin' now and then.

Len Cariou, Into the Storm
Tom Courtenay, Little Dorrit
Ken Howard, Grey Gardens
Bob Newhart, The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice (TNT)
Andy Serkis, Little Dorrit
And the winner is . . . I'll go with Courtenay, although Newhart would make for a fun acceptance speech. Besides that, he's never won an acting Emmy, which is hard to believe. So I hope he somehow makes it to the podium for a make-good statue.

New season: NBC's Community tries to sell a used Chevy

Joel McHale and Chevy Chase top Community's cast. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 17th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, Danny Pudi, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Ken Jeong
Produced by: Russ Krasnoff, Dan Harmon, Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Garrett Donovan, Neil Goldman, Gary Foster

Let's cut straight to the Chase -- namely Chevy.

The onetime Saturday Night Live star player -- ask him, he'll tell you -- returns to his old network as a member of Joel McHale's support group.

It's a pretty steep drop for Chase in a series that clicks in fits and spurts. NBC's Community premieres Thursday as part of a comedy bloc leading to the network's nightly comedy bulwark -- Jay Leno. Like its companion half-hours -- The Office, Parks and Recreation and in mid-October, 30 Rock -- it's without a laff track and with an ensemble of mostly infantile adults.

"I like you. You remind me of myself at your age," Chase's character, former moist towelette maker Pierce Hawthorne, tells McHale's smarmy Jeff Winger.

Yes, in a previous life, Chase indeed could have played McHale's part -- and probably better. He would have looked good on the receiving end of lines such as, "You are a shallow douche bag." Or in next week's Episode 2: "You're harmless enough to me because a life full of ups and downs has given me douche ray vision."

Those lines are from hard-bitten Britta (Gillian Jacobs), whom Winger yearns to bed. And in case you haven't deduced this yet, this is a series about higher education at a low-end community college. Most of its retread students are looking for B.A.s, but Winger is full of B.S. as a defrocked lawyer who feigns being a "board-certified tutor." His Greendale Community college study group in turn is pretty much certifiable.

It's a thin premise on which to build a foundation. But Community is mostly about comedic bits and pieces. It just as easily could be set in a shipyard, a Wal-Mart or Joe's Crab Shack.

Besides Britta and Pierce, the study group includes pop culture addict Abed (Danny Pudi), perfectionist Annie (Alison Brie), "sassy" divorcee Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and fallen high school football star Troy (Donald Glover). Episode 2 introduces another series regular, an Asian Spanish teacher who calls himself Senor Chang (Ken Jeong).

Chase has little to do in Thursday's premiere, but has lots of activity next week. That's when he gets drunk, accidentally sets his arm on fire, joins McHale in a completely nonsensical Spanish class skit and is spoken ill of by his classmates. Says Troy: "That dude is crazy. He told me girls have two pee holes."

That's a line that wouldn't have made the cut on Growing Pains. But standards have relaxed -- or if you prefer, collapsed -- in the years since. So much so that Episode 2 can stage a wacky protest in support of slain Guatemalan journalists, complete with a pinata that's supposed to symbolize the beatings they've taken.

McHale, who previously earned an M.A. in snark as host of The Soup, swaggers through this enterprise as though he owns it. But his performance could use some finishing touches. He's no Steve Carell yet -- or Chevy in his prime. As for Chevy in his dotage, well, it's a fine line between inspired lunacy and full-blown embarrassment. At best he's still managing to straddle it.

Community might mature, although that's probably not the right word. For now it's easily the weakest link in NBC's Thursday night comedy arsenal. And yes, that includes Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation, which begins its first full season (at 7:30 p.m. central) in considerably improved form. Storyline: Poehler's Leslie Knope marries two penguins in a Pawnee Zoo promotional stunt, only to learn they're both male. Offshoots include a protest and a visit to The Bulge, where Poehler's performance of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" is a comedic Royal Flush.

GRADES: Community -- C; Parks and Recreation -- B+

The Burning Plain: latest HDNet Movies freebie deftly mixes pain and sexual heat

Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger front The Burning Plain.

Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger are the headliners, but young Jennifer Lawrence is the scene-stealer in Dallas-based HDNet Movies' latest "Sneak Preview" film.

The Burning Plain, opening in theaters Friday, will be free of charge to the network's subscribers on Wednesday, Sept. 16th at 7, 9 and 11 p.m. (central). The one hour, 40 minute film, from Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's Magnolia Pictures, is an absorbing puzzler that juggles times, locales and ever-popular "forbidden loves" while also keeping viewers guessing about the specifics of a trailer park explosion.

It's quickly known that the blowup took the lives of lovers Gina and Nick (Basinger, Joaquim De Almeida), both married to others. There are ripple effects, of course, with promiscuous, self-destructive restaurant manager Sylvia (Theron) involved in ways that aren't meant to be readily apparent and for the most part aren't.

Theron is first seen in the nude, a regular and still impressive occurrence for her on the big screen. She's spent the night with one of her upscale restaurant's chefs (played by John Corbett). But detachment is her game, for reasons that slowly come into focus.

Basinger's character, seen in flashbacks, is a survivor of recent breast cancer surgery and the mother of several children, principally oldest daughter Mariana (Lawrence). Her husband, Robert (Brett Cullum), outwardly seems attentive. For starters, though, he's grief-stricken and angry about his wife's death and the games she played on him.

Burning Plain principally is set in Oregon and the New Mexico border town of Las Cruces, with side trips to Mexico that introduce a crop duster and his pre-teen daughter, Maria (Tessa la). This all eventually fits together, with Mariana in many ways the film's pivotal character.

Lawrence, so far best known for her regular role in the TBS' sitcom The Bill Engvall Show, displays some very serious talent in the role of Mariana. Her budding relationship with the son of her late mother's lover shares screen time with the sleuthing that led Mariana to discover the affair. It's a performance that in the end outshines those of Theron and Basinger, each of whom has an Oscar. Look for Lawrence to go far -- very far.

Burning Plain also marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams), who deftly orchestrates the film's time traveling entanglements. It all meshes into another "small" but worthy offering from Magnolia, which to its credit continues to invest in interesting, off-beat films that deserve to have more bang at the box office.

GRADE: A-minus

New season: CW's The Beautiful Life: TBL hits the runway strutting

Ready for takeoff: Raina on a runway in CW's The Beautiful Life: TBL

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 16th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Sara Paxton, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Mischa Barton, Elle Macpherson, Ashley Madekwe, Corbin Bleu, Nico Tortorella, Dusan Dukic
Produced by: Ashton Kutcher, Jason Goldberg

A hard Raina's gonna fall.

Sorry, couldn't resist the pun, although it doesn't quite fit yet. Twig-thin model Raina Marinelli (Sara Paxton), an up-and-coming star with a secret past, is still a decent, caring, although highly ambitious human being in Wednesday's premiere of CW's The Beautiful Life: TBL. But the fading, drug-addicted Sonja Stone (Mischa Barton from The O.C.) thinks she knows where Raina's headed.

"Don't you dare feel sorry for me," she tells the kid. "This'll be you in a few years. Just wait."

TBL, compatibly paired with America's Next Top Model, gives CW a full night of strutting, posing and conniving in pursuit of magazine covers and unchecked self-adulation. It has the look and feel of the industry -- or at least what we imagine it to be. Petty jealousies and insecurities abound in a world with nary an ounce of body fat.

"Get used to it," Raina is told by model pal Marissa Delfina (Ashley Madekwe).

"Used to what?"

"Every model in New York hating you. You're having your moment."

It's all enough to put visiting Iowa farm kid Chris Andrews (Benjamin Hollingsworth) off his feed. Impossibly handsome and suitably naive, he's scooped up by toxic agent Simon Lockridge (Dusan Dukic) while dining with his family at an over-priced Manhattan eatery. Chris then magically bumps into Raina, who takes him under her emaciated wing and later gets him through a photo shoot by instructing, "Just relax. Listen to the music. Imagine you're in the shower."

Otherwise there's a lot of snootiness, snottiness and self-entitlement, particularly among the male models. They resent hayseed Chris from the moment they lay eyes on him. He can't even get a bunkmate in the models' co-ed walkup, which Raina warns is "not exactly The W."

"What's The W?" asks Chris, still a Wrangler jeans guy in a Josef Six Pacque world.

TBL is from producers Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg, who previously have dabbled mostly in reality fare ranging from Punk'd to Beauty and the Geek. Lately they've hit a wall, though, flopping with the likes of Opportunity Knocks, Game Show In My Head and The Real Wedding Crashers. So it's time for a change of pace, and TBL indeed may have legs on a network where just a few million viewers makes you a blockbuster.

There's also the added attraction of the aforementioned Barton, who's reportedly had some serious issues in real life. In TBL, her supermodel character just so happens to be a mess, arriving late to a big Fashion Week event after mysteriously disappearing for six months. She steels herself by popping pills and putting on airs, but later cops to gaining two pounds. In this world that's a capital crime.

Barton won't be carrying this show, though. Those responsibilities go to Paxton and Hollingsworth as TBL's still blossoming Raina and Chris.

"I'm not cut out for this," he tells her.

"Is anyone?" she asks.


GRADE: B-minus

Premiere of The Jay Leno Show mixes Kanye, comedy

How fortuitous: Kanye West and Jay Leno Monday. Photos: Ed Bark

Touted incessantly by NBC as "America's favorite TV personality," Jay Leno at last had his first chance to stand and deliver Monday night.

"This is not another annoying promo," he said at the outset of his opening monologue. "This is the actual show."

It's supposed to be largely a chucklefest, a Monday through Friday respite from cares, woes and all those gruesome but still popular crime series that CBS will be sending against The Jay Leno Show.

But as luck would have it, an already booked Kanye West was fresh from making an ass of himself at Sunday night's MTV Music Video Awards. The entire free world likely knows by now that West took the mike away from "Best Female Video" winner Taylor Swift to tell everyone that Beyonce should have won instead.

Before he performed as scheduled with Jay Z and Rihanna, the foot-in-mouth rapper "wanted to talk," Leno said with all due solemnity. "So please welcome Kanye West."

He got an ovation, of course. And Leno has been this route before, with Hugh Grant on the storied night of July 10, 1995.

That's when the British actor honored a commitment to do Leno's Tonight Show after being arrested for soliciting a prostitute on Sunset Blvd. Mega-ratings for Grant's appearance helped Tonight build momentum and eventually overtake David Letterman's Late Show for the top spot in the late night talk wars.

Leno similarly thanked West for "honoring this commitment," which is ridiculous on the face of it. Seldom does a celebrity get such a quick and easy chance to dig himself out of a hole -- with help from "America's favorite TV personality," no less.

"Have you had a tough day today?" Leno asked.

"It's been extremely difficult," West said before eventually acknowledging that his conduct at the MTV awards "was rude, period."

Leno noted that he had been "fortunate enough" to meet West's late mother a number of years ago.

"What do you think she would say about this?" he asked.

West suddenly was speechless, prompting Leno to touch his knee in sympathy before inquiring more directly, "Would she be disappointed in this? Would she give you a lecture?"

It was all more than a little cringe-worthy, with West finally saying none too convincingly, "I'm just ashamed that my hurt caused someone else's hurt." He then promised to take some time off in an effort to improve himself before Leno thanked him anew and asked, "Are you ready to sing?"

West shrugged in assent before joining Jay Z and Rihanna to perform "Run This Town." Leno of course pronounced it "great."

Monday's exhaustively promoted premiere began, as The Tonight Show always does, with a comedy monologue that filled the first eight minutes. Leno is still doing high fives beforehand with demographically desirous younger studio audience members who are herded to the front of his standup perch.

The jokes were mostly OK, and told in Leno's typical machine-gun style. But after a commercial break, the show may have ventured into tune-out territory with an overlong musical comedy segment taped at a car wash. It starred Dan Finnerty of The Hangover and Dan Band fame. He's one of the show's many new correspondents, and hasn't yet learned the art of brevity.

Featured guest Jerry Seinfeld showed up in a tux but left any spontaneity in the closet. His very pre-programmed appearance included a drop-down screen visit by Oprah Winfrey, who as planned paid attention only to Jerry while Jay sat mute.

"I could get Oprah" for a first guest, Seinfeld chastized Leno beforehand. But the whole thing kind of laid there, even though the opening night audience was very easy to please. Jerry and Jay even got separate ovations after noting their respective marriages of 10 and 29 years.

The night's funniest bit was another staple of Leno's old Tonight Show -- fake edited interviews with newsmakers. In this instance, he grilled President Obama, at one point asking him how he thought The Jay Leno Show would fare.

"I guarantee you this will be pronounced dead," Obama said, eventually prompting Leno to shout, "You lie!"

All in all it was a halfway passable first night, with West as second-half bait and Leno's climactic "Headlines" segment as further impetus to keep watching all the way up to late night local newscasts, which begin immediately after the host urges viewers to stay tuned.

On Monday night in D-FW, the newscast and its teases were a whole other story, which you can read here.

What, him worry? Jay Leno prepares to shoulder the biggest burden in prime-time history

Time marches on: covers from 1992 and the current issue.

Sea changes don't compute with Jay Leno.

He's just not a deep sea thinker, preferring to do his job, tinker with his cars, work weekends wherever a plane will take him and let others tell him that what he'll be doing in prime-time could change network television forevermore.

"All you can do is what you do," says Leno, a self-described "big tent" guy whose success or failure at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC's The Jay Leno Show could make or break his struggling network. It all starts on Monday, Sept. 14th, with Leno commandeering the last hours of NBC's weekday prime-time schedule after being evicted from his No. 1-rated Tonight Show.

NBC stations and their late night local newscasts are bathed in flop sweat, even if Leno isn't. Their ratings fates still depend in no small part on audience lead-ins. Ergo, the overall cost-efficiency of The Jay Leno Show is no comfort to them. The lantern-jawed everyman -- "I'm old school and I'm old!" -- won't be worth anything to stations like Fort Worth-based NBC5 unless he can deliver decent-sized audiences night after night after night.

"It's more of an economic turning point," Leno, 59, tells TV critics during a teleconference. "We can do three shows for what it costs to blow up a helicopter in the promo" for NBC's new Trauma series.

His new show "will ramp it up a little bit" by deploying a troop of comedy correspondents and coaxing various celebrity guests to get behind the wheels of electric Ford Focus cars on the show's brand new oval race track.

"We will have in-car cameras as well," he says. "So you can hear the celebrities swearing if they hit the wall."

Leno doesn't expect first-night guest Jerry Seinfeld to participate, but says that Drew Barrymore likely will be the first guest to take a spin. He hopes to have races at least a couple of times a week.

The Jay Leno Show also will be programmed in inverse order on several fronts. Musical guests, who typically closed The Tonight Show, will be "somewhere in the middle," Leno says. For openers he has Jay Z, Kanye West and Rihanna performing together, but it'll be one song and out.

"Music gives you a great studio audience, but it doesn't necessarily give you a great TV audience," Leno reasons.

On the other hand, Tonight Show features such as "Headlines" and "Jay Walking" will be saved until last rather than immediately following the nightly monologue.

"We'll do them as a lead-in to the late night news," he says.

Another late night staple, the host's desk, has been sent packing. He never liked it much because it was "too limiting," Leno says. Instead, "we've got two chairs. It'll just be a conversation area."

CBS in particular is loading up, and salivating, at the prospect of torpedoing Leno with the likes of CSI: Miami, The Mentalist and a new Julianna Margulies series, The Good Wife, that many TV critics, including this one, see as a can't-miss commercial hit. All three will be in the 9 p.m. hour when CBS begins going after Leno in earnest on Monday, Sept. 21st.

Leslie Moonves, the longtime CBS head man and former actor, predicts that his network will beat Leno by "a lot" with most of its competing crime series. Leno retorts, "Les Moonves was the bartender at The Improv when I worked there."

Leno also brings up his favorite Moonves quote, which he says dates to 1993. Moonves didn't join CBS until 1995, but Leno otherwise is accurate in quoting him as saying that Leno beating rival David Letterman in the late night ratings was an "aberration" that wouldn't happen again. In fact it kept happening, all the way until the end of Leno's reign.

That's not the case now, though. Letterman has outdrawn Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show in total viewers for nine consecutive weeks, most recently 3.42 million to 2.89 million. O'Brien is still winning among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds, but the gap has narrowed.

"It's not my problem," Leno says, the same line he used on critics earlier this summer during NBC's portion of the annual network summer "press tour."

"I think Conan has handled it great," he adds. "He doesn't complain, he does what he has to do, and now it's up to people to either pick up on it, or they don't."

Leno, who hosted Tonight from May 25, 1992 until May 29th of this year, says that doing an unprecedented five-nights-a-week prime-time show "isn't as nerve-wracking as taking over from Johnny." In the interim he's lost 12 pounds running four miles a day on a treadmill while also upgrading his diet.

"I haven't become bulimic, but you just try to cut out the french fries and the sodas," he says.

Being billed as "the Future of Television" in a current Time cover story is "hilarious," Leno says. "It shows you the trouble we're in."

NBC will be in far bigger trouble if its stated two-year commitment to The Jay Leno Show ends up being a disaster in league with the Peacock's infamous Supertrain series, which remains the gold standard.

But Leno professes no outward worries and insists he doesn't feel the pressure.

"If it doesn't work out, I could be 'grisily' murdered by some NBC executives," he says, referring to CBS' wealth of crime dramas.

If that happens, it would be in character for NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker to then say, "The butler did it."

Fall season: Next to no juice in CW's The Vampire Diaries

A spooked Elena Gilbert visits her parents' grave in Vampire Diaries.

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 10th at 7 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, Ian Sommerhalder, Katerina Graham, Candice Accola, Steven R. McQueen, Sara Canning, Zach Roerig, Kayla Ewell, Michael Trevino
Produced by: Kevin Williamson, Julie Plec, Leslie Morgenstein, Bob Levy

The ponderous, pretentious opening narration pretty much tells you that this at best will be a pint-sized, junior league version of HBO's True Blood.

"For over a century I've lived in secret, hiding in the shadows, alone in the world," intones Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley). "Until now. I am a vampire. And this is my story."

Alas, he feels compelled to elaborate in The CW's The Vampire Diaries, being paired with the appreciably superior Supernatural on Thursdays this fall.

The auteur is Kevin Williamson, who used to write far more compellingly for his lone masterwork, the defunct WB's Dawson's Creek. But here he is putting words in teen's mouths again. Williamson is 44 now, but he won't grow up. No, he'll never grow up. His touch has withered, though, leaving Vampire Diaries with little lifeblood and less bite.

Stone-chiseled Stefan, ridiculously soulful, arrives in smallish Mystic Falls just in time for the school year. He's stopped feeding on humans and is striving to stay on the wagon. Willowy Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), still coping with the recent death of her parents in a car crash, looks mmm mmm good to him. But he's not that kinda guy anymore.

Elena's hangin' in there, but her younger brother, Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of the legendary Steve), has both copped a 'tude and resorted to selling drugs in pill form.

"I'm going to be there to ruin your buzz every time. Got it?" Sis warns him.

Vampire Diaries does a good job of that throughout. It comes up lame at almost every turn, including when Stefan informs a smitten Elena, "I've never really been very good at, uh, chit-chat."

Groan. A little bounce is added late in Thursday's premiere when Stefan's super-sinister vampire brother, Damon (Ian Sommerhalder), drops in to sneer and crack wise. He's already killed a couple of townies and sunk his teeth into the neck of the high school tart. It's all part of his master plan to bedevil his brother at every turn. "I promised you an eternity of misery," he says. "I'm just keepin' my word."

The principal vampires of True Blood, Bill Compton and his "maker," Eric Northman, could eat these guys for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as a snack. But Vampire Diaries is less filling than a lite beer after a marathon run. From start to stop, there's just no sizzle.


PROGRAMMING NOTE: True Blood has its Season 2 finale Sunday night, Sept. 13th, as does HBO's first-year series Hung. I'm eager to see what happens on both fronts. Respective show times are 8 and 9 p.m. (central). Both series have been renewed.

Idol tabs Ellen, officially ending Paula era

Ellen DeGeneres, a savvy, congenial performer best known as a joker/dancer/talker, has signed to replace Paula Abdul as American Idol's fourth judge of singing talent.

Fox made the surprise announcement Wednesday night, with Idol executive producer Simon Fuller praising DeGeneres as a longtime fan of the show whose "love of music and understanding of the American public will bring a unique human touch to our judging panel."

DeGeneres, in the seventh season of her successful daytime talk show, will join Idol's ninth season after the audition rounds, Fox said. Holding her chair until then will be a variety of guest judges, ranging from Neil Patrick Harris to Victoria Beckham.

"I've watched since the beginning, and I've always been a huge fan," DeGeneres says. "So getting this job is a dream come true, and think of all the money I'll save from not having to text in my vote."

Abdul recently quit Idol over a salary dispute after being a judge since the show's 2002 premiere. The door seemed slightly ajar had she reconsidered. But she's now unequivocally a part of the show's history.

DeGeneres, who will remain with her talk show, joins judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi, who was added last season.

A three-page Fox publicity release omits any mention of Abdul, but makes it clear that DeGeneres, 51, will be taking on something of a humanitarian role in her absence.

"Beyond her incredible sense of humor and love of music, she brings with her an immense warmth and compassion that is almost palpable," gushed co-executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz.

It does seem like an inspired choice. The openly gay DeGeneres has evolved from a controversial figure to one of America's sweethearts. Her August 2008 marriage to actress Portia de Rossi caused nary a ripple. And her latter day career has brought her multiple Emmy Awards, high-profile product endorsements and accolades as host of both the Oscars and the Emmys.

Abdul suddenly seems to represent the very distant past. It didn't take long, did it? Only one open question remains. Is four judges still too much? If so, DioGuardi remains thoroughly expendable.

Fox's Glee yearns for you to join its club

Glee: Gotta sing, gotta dance, gotta get off to a good start.

Sing it loud. Fox has done just about all it can for Glee, beginning with a saturation promotional campaign for May's sneak preview episode after the final performance edition of American Idol.

There's since been a national "Gleek Tour" of shopping malls, multiple gimmicky reprises -- including this month's "tweet-peat" -- and an abundance of sweepstakes and give-aways.

Now the network is hoping for a little extra icing -- an overrun of President Obama's Wednesday night speech to Congress and its Republican response. Fox again is the only major broadcast network opting out, instead sticking to its schedule of So You Think You Can Dance's first fall season premiere and Glee's re-launch at 8 p.m. (central).

The speech and its trimmings have been allotted an hour, from 7 to 8 p.m. But any bleed-over past 8 p.m. would give Glee a jump-start against NBC's very potent America's Got Talent results edition. The competition otherwise is either junk -- ABC's Crash Course -- or a bloody old Criminal Minds rerun on CBS.

Still, Glee's a tough sell, even if Disney Channel's High School Musical movies say otherwise. But it's also the most vibrant series on Fox's schedule, a crime-free, over-the-top romp through the not-so-hallowed halls of William McKinley High School.

Again at odds are idealistic Glee Club maestro Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) and carnivorous cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch). She vows to put a stop to "your island of misfit toys," which so far numbers just five singin', dancin' outcasts plus popular football jock Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith).

Will also is beset by his high maintenance, pregnancy-feigning wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), and sweetcakes teacher Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), who's never relinquished her crush on him. His Glee Club sextet plots against him, too, substituting a sexed-up version of Chic's "Le Freak" rather than do it his way at a high school assembly where six new recruits are sought.

Glee's standout kid character is Rachel Berry, played in fine woe-is-me form by Lea Michele. She longs to be accepted, lusts after Finn and sings the stuffing out of her big closing solo. She's talented, funny and worthy of a rooting section. But head cheerleader Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) is intent on torpedoing Rachel while at the same time sinking her claws deeper into the somewhat lunk-ish Finn.

Two young North Texans also are Glee regulars, although neither figures very prominently in the season opener. Kevin McHale is Glee club member Artie Abrams, who gets around in a wheelchair. Mark Salling plays sinister footballer Puck, who's ever-willing to accompany Finn back to the dark side.

In Wednesday's "Showmance" episode, Will preps his charges for a make-or-break regional competition while also taking on an extra job as the school's nighttime janitor. This is so his wife can have her dream home after making "my very own Sophie's Choice" between two extra-charge add-ons, a sun nook or a grand foyer.

The episode also includes an "Immaculate Affection" test involving balloons and opposite sexes, and continued plotting by the nefarious Sue Sylvester, whose strong-armed put-downs are a major selling point in the show's promotional push.

All of this and more make Glee a standout, take-notice series with an uphill climb toward audience acceptance. Last spring's audience drop-off from Idol was rather chilling. But word of mouth and widespread Facebook alerts can work wonders, it's hoped.

Wednesday's fall season launch vibrantly re-sets the stage. Tickets anyone?

GRADE: A-minus

CW's Melrose Place kicks off fall season with nicely done do-over

Pool your resources: Stephanie Jacobson as med studt. Lauren Yung.

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 8th at 8 p.m. (central) on The CW
Starring: Katie Cassidy, Michael Rady, Colin Egglesfield, Stephanie Jacobsen, Jessica Lucas, Shaun Sipos, Thomas Calabro, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, Laura Leighton
Produced by: Todd Slavkin, Darren Swimmer, Davis Guggenheim

It's been a decade -- only that long? -- since Fox dropped Melrose Place from its prime-time address book.

The CW didn't exist back then. And the younger elements of its 12-to-34-year-old target audience weren't yet old enough to appreciate the assets Heather Locklear brought to the ongoing party.

Locklear so far isn't a part of The CW's do-over. But original cast member Laura Leighton is back in the fold, although mostly posthumously, as conniving Sydney Andrews. This time she's the 40-year-old landlord, but it doesn't take long for tenants to find her floating face-down in a pool of blood after someone took a stab at her. She'll live on in flashbacks, though, threatening, cajoling and giving just about everybody a motive to murder her.

Melrose Place was never more than a guilty pleasure, and this second coming also fills that bill. It's nicely shot and paced, adequately acted and amply stocked with nice bods and bod-ettes.

Principal among them is blonde bitch Ella Simms (Katie Cassidy), a hard-charging publicist who has the signature line in Tuesday's premiere (preceded by the Season 2 launch of The CW's 90210).

"Hey, I love love," she informs budding filmmaker Jonah Miller (Michael Rady). "I just hate monogamy."

Jonah, still something of a geek, has a five-year, live-in relationship with Riley Richmond (Jessica Lucas), to whom he proposes in the early minutes. Her hesitation initially bums him out.

Meanwhile, hunky but rebellious David Breck (Shaun Sipos) is the initial suspect in Sydney's death. He'd been sleeping with the still frisky old huntress, as had his father, Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro of the original MP), from whom David is estranged.

Also in this mix are recovering alcoholic Auggie Kirkpatrick (Colin Egglesfield), now a successful sous chef; medical student Lauren Yung (Stephanie Jacobsen); and sweetie two shoes Violet Foster (Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, who's also Jessica Simpson's sister).

Lauren's plans to be a doctor are threatened by her father's layoff and his sudden inability to pay her now overdue tuition bills. She's tempted into iniquity by a blackmailing suitor with a pay-for-play offer. As is Jonah by a millionaire producer caught in a compromising position at his daughter's 18th birthday party. Whoops, Jonah caught him in the frame while dutifully filming the kid's gift spread.

The goings-on at 4616 Melrose Place will get ever more complicated, of course, as this second generation frolic bubbles to repeated boils. Tuesday's opener is a suitably tasty appetizer as well as a toast to the departed Sydney, whose past misdeeds will keep rerunning.

She "was never boring" is the best her tenants can muster. CW's Melrose Place so far can also say as much.


From Woodstock to Manson: another 40th anniversary comes calling on History Channel

Shadowy figure: former Manson girl Linda Kasabian is back in view.

Reliving the Manson Family's gory killing spree is something we all probably could do without.

This is the 40th anniversary summer, though. So after the peace, love and happiness of Woodstock, here's the inevitable blood, guts and horror of the Tate-LaBianca murders.

CNN's Larry King Live last week had a crack at former Manson girl Linda Kasabian and Sharon Tate's surviving sister, Debra. Now comes History Channel's Manson, a two-hour re-dissection complete with Kasabian, Debra Tate, "Family" member Catherine "Gypsy" Share, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and a big batch of no-name actors playing Charles Manson and various Manson-ites. It premieres on Labor Day Monday at 8 p.m. (central).

Kasabian, as with King, appears at her insistence as a darkly lit, semi-disguised key player in the August 1969 murders. Granted immunity in return for her testimony against the defendants, she's been "in hiding" for many years, but periodically breaks her silence. The last time was on the 20th anniversary of the killings, when she talked to A Current Affair. Kasabian wasn't in shadows then, telling an interviewer, "He (Manson) was kind of magnetic. There was just something about him that intrigued me."

On History Channel's Manson, she says, "There was a magnetism about him. Charisma, charm, power."

But as played by Adam Wilson (the upcoming Suck), Manson is never more than flat-out creepy, whether beating "Gypsy" into submission or lopping the ear off of a victim whose killing preceded the Tate-LaBianc slayings.

Kasabian, who had a toddler daughter at the time, is portrayed as a willowy innocent by Tamara Hope (Sand Serpents). Everyone is amazingly well-scrubbed, although by all accounts the accommodations and hygiene were decidedly grimy at their Spahn Ranch lair in remote Southern California.

Kasabian accompanied Manson Family members on both of the latter killing missions, but by her account never directly participated.

"I felt like an empty shell," she recollects. "My body was there, but I wasn't."

At the Tate home, she witnessed the outdoor stabbings and shootings of both Voityck Frokowsky and his girlfriend, heiress Abigail Folger.

"I saw a man, and he had blood all over his face. And he looked right into my eyes. And he was dying," Kasabian remembers.

At this point she's sobbing. In prosecutor Bugiosi's view, the long-repentant Kasabian "was not cut out of the same cloth as the Mansion family." But Debra Tate says she never should have been exonerated in return for the testimony that helped convict Manson and followers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Charles "Tex" Watson.

The History Channel presentation manages to hold interest without delving into how Manson recruited his flock and why they pledged such blind allegiance to him.

The never publicity-shy Bugliosi's famous Helter Skelter book gets into many of these mind-manipulating particulars. But the first book on the Manson family, Five To Die, was written well before his successful prosecution of the murders. Reissued on the 40th anniversary, it's a briskly written evocation of those times by Ivor Davis and Jerry LeBlanc.

Davis, a regular presence on the networks' semi-annual "press tours" for TV critics, is credited with laying out "the blueprint for the prosecution" by Aaron Stovitz, whose violation of a gag order resulted in his being replaced as chief prosecutor on the Manson case. Five To Die is a case study in old-school shoe leather reporting, with Davis quickly on the scent as the then West Coast correspondent of The London Daily Express.

Before his Manson family excavation, Davis spent five weeks covering The Beatles on their first North American tour. Their "connection" to the murders, at least in Manson's mind, is via the "Helter Skelter" track on the White Album. Manson interpreted the lyrics as a call for racial revolution. Paul McCartney, in a 1973 interview with Davis, termed this "a lot of old shite."

More information on Five To Die is available here. On Monday night's Manson, it's Kasabian who gets the last words as the camera frames her in a final dark-side-of-the-moon closeup.

"It was a waste of life that had no reason, no rhyme," she says. "It was wrong and it hurt a lot of people. Still now today and always forever."

GRADE -- B-minus

Bombshell: Charles Gibson leaving ABC's World News, with Diane Sawyer succeeding him in January

Charles Gibson, who has helmed ABC's World News since May 29, 2006, will be stepping down and retiring from full-time employment with the news division, the network announced Wednesday.

Succeeding him is ABC veteran and Good Morning America co-anchor Diane Sawyer, leaving two of the three longstanding network dinner hour newscasts in the hands of women anchors when she takes charge of World News in January. Katie Couric has presided over the CBS Evening News since September 5, 2006, when she made history by becoming the first woman to solo in "The Chair."

In an email to ABC News staffers, Gibson, 66, said, "It has not been an easy decision to make. This has been my professional home for almost 35 years. And I love this news department, and all who work in it, to the depths of my soul."

During a March 2008 stop in Dallas, Gibson hinted at a possibly early retirement during an interview with unclebarky.com.

"I don't know how long I'll do this, but I'm still having a great time," he said. "It's not as hard as I expected it to be, and this is all like an added chapter that I thought I'd never have . . . But I think I'll know when the time comes. You don't want to stay as long as (David) Brinkley did. David stayed too long. He had a great career, and you've got to know when it's time to leave."

ABC News president David Westin said that he and Gibson had discussed the matter for several weeks, and that Gibson "has persuaded me that this is both what he wants and what is best for him."

Gibson had been co-hosting GMA with Sawyer before agreeing to helm World News "during a difficult and turbulent time," Westin noted in an email to staffers. The program's co-anchors, Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, had been expected to head World News for years to come. But Woodruff was seriously injured while covering the war in Iraq and Vargas stepped down after an unplanned pregnancy.

Gibson's World News and NBC's Nightly News, anchored by Brian Williams, for a while waged a seesaw battle for ratings supremacy. But Nightly News lately has re-taken the stop spot and widened the gap over second-place World News. Last week, Nightly News averaged 7.9 millon viewers while World News had 7.1 million.

Sawyer, 63, has been co-anchoring GMA for the past 10 years. On Wednesday's program, she could be seen cooing over a concert appearance by Whitney Houston, whose comeback CD is new in stores. Couric also rose from the softer early morning ranks, becoming famous on NBC's No. 1-rated Today show before moving to CBS News.

"Diane Sawyer is the right person to succeed Charlie and build on what he has accomplished," Westin said in the ABC email before lauding her hard news accomplishments. "We are fortunate to have a journalist of Diane's proven ability and passion to step into the important position of anchor of World News. She will continue with her documentaries in her new role."

Westin said the network will make further announcements "well before any changes are made" on GMA.

"We are fortunate that both Charlie and Diane will remain with their current broadcasts for the next four months," he said.