TV column for Thursday, Dec. 17

“The Big Bang Theory,” 8 p.m., CBS.

TV's best comedy
offers perhaps its best episode ... one that many viewers never
thought would happen: Sheldon – perplexed about all people and
(especially) women – ponders intimacy with Amy.

“Big Bang” has
always treated its characters with love and amusement. It spotlights
their flaws –big, gaping ones – while making them thoroughly
likable. Jim Parsons (who already has four Emmys for this role) and
Mayim Bialik (who deserves one now) bring warmth and humor. And
there's fun around them, including the “Star Wars” opening and
Bob Newhart as the ghost of Professor Proton.

“Running Wild With Bear Grylls,” 10 p.m., NBC.

This summer, viewers
saw Grylls plunge into the wilderness with intereting people, from
Drew Brees to Kate Hudson. Now we see a different sort of celebrity –
President Obama.

They're in Alaska
(with Secret Service people nearby, off-camera) walking a dense
forest and a glacial outwash. Along the way, they discuss global
warming and munch on salmon that Grylls found (after a bear had
chomped on it) and cooked. It's not exactly a White House dinner.

ALTERNATIVE: “How Murray Saved Christmas,” 8-9 p.m., NBC.

Mike Reiss writes
and produces “The Simpsons,” but he also wrote a book stuffed
with Seuss-quality wit and rhymes. Now he's turned it into the best
Christmas special since the Grinch and Charlie Brown.

The town of Stinky
Cigar (named to discourage tourism) is home to holiday figures, from
Santa to Cupid. Then disaster strikes; only Murray (Jerry Stiller),
the crabby deli guy, can save the day.

Other choices

“Disney Prep &
Landing” and its sequel, 8 and 8:30 p.m., ABC. Christmas cartoons
collide, when NBC's “Murray” faces these two. Quick, slick and
fairly amusing, they show us Santa's high-tech team.

“iHeart Radio
Jingle Ball,” 8-9:30 p.m., CW. Christmas music gets a youthful feel
here, with Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas, 5 Seconds of
Summer, Calvin Harris, The Weeknd and more.

“American Country
Countdown's Top 10 Stories of 2015,” 8-9 p.m., Fox. While pop music
bounces around CW, Fox counters with country. Darius Rucker hosts and
includes concert performances by Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean ad
Little Big Town.

“Blake Shelton's
Not So Family Christmas,” 9 p.m, NBC. This was sort of a family
Christmas in 2012, with music from Shelton and then-wife Miranda
Lambert; they divorced this year. Also in this rerun are Kelly
Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Reba McEntire and comedians Jay Leno
and Larry the Cable Guy.

“Mom,” 9 p.m.,
CBS. Octavia Spencer (an Oscar-winner for “The Help”) is back as
Regina. When she insists she's not an alcoholic, Christy and Bonnie
try to be supportive.

season-opener, 9-11:45 p.m., BBC America. Seething with intensity,
this series has already brought Idris Elba a Golden Globe plus three
more Globe nominations and three Emmy nominations. Now it returns,
with Luther on leave from his police job ... until a cannibalistic
killer emerges.

“The 10 Most
Fascinating People of 2015,” 9:30-11 p.m., ABC. Barbara Walters
includes some movie/TV people (Amy Schumer, Bradley Cooper, Tracy
Morgan), but also has ballerina Misty Copeland, fighter Ronda Rousey,
designer Dona Karan, politician Bernie Sanders and surprises.

TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 16

“Survivor” finale, 8 p.m., CBS, with reunion at 10.

This “second
chance” edition has been dominated by people with recent “Survivor”
experience. Nine contestants were from editions 28 through 30; five
of them -- Spencer Bledsoe, Jeremy Collins, Tasha Fox, Keith Nale and
Kelley Wentworth – are in the running for the million-dollar prize.

And the 11
contestants who were in earlier editions? Only Kimmi Kappenberg has
survived; she's 43, a Long Island bartender who finished 12th
in the second one, some 14 years ago.

“Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas,” 8-9 p.m., NBC.

In a burst of
holiday ambition, NBC launched two animated musicals last year. One
-- “How Murray Saved Christmas,” rerunning Thursday – was
brilliant; this one is merely OK.

It starts with the
songs from the “Broadway” version of the “Elf” movie; the
opener is zesty, but the others are easy to ignore. It adds a new
script that's lame, but there's a good cast, led by Jim Parsons.

ALTERNATIVE: “Childhood's End” finale and “The Magicians,” 8
and 10 p.m., Syfy.

If you've seen the
first two chapters (rerunning at 4 and 6 p.m.), you're probably
hooked. Now this 1953 Arthur C. Clarke tale concludes, as we learn
what the alien overlords have planned.

Then comes an
advance hour of a series set for January. Based on the Lev Grossman
novels, “Magicians” is like Harry Potter meets “Catcher in the
Rye” ... but not always in a good way. The setting – a university
for people who do real magic – is fascinating, but the characters
(especially the central one) often seem to share the same weary soul,
making the story quite monotone.

Other choices

“Star Trek Into
Darkness” (2013), 7-10 p.m., FX. Two days before his “Star Wars”
movie opens to mega-crowds, we can see J.J. Abrams' previous epic.
Film fans can also try HBO at 8 p.m.; “Gone Girl” (2014) has a
brilliant plot, plus superb, Oscar-nominated work by Rosamund Pike.

“Empire,” 8
p.m., Fox. This rerun of the season-opener finds Lucious in prison,
while his ex-wife plans a mega-concert in support. Despite a few
flaws (including an absurd prosecutor), it's a strong hour.

“The Middle,” 8
p.m., ABC. A string of comedy reruns starts with Frankie taking a
drastic step to simplify Christmas: She'll have a minimalist tree.

“Modern Family,”
9 p.m., ABC. Phil may have misjudged his father-in-law. He figures an
ultra-modern outdoor grill would be the perfect birthday present.

“Law & Order:
Special Victims Unit,” 9 p.m., NBC. Things are rarely easy for
Rollins. In this rerun, her mother (Virginia Madsen) throws her a
bridal shower, but that soon becomes entwined in a rape case and in
the return of Rollins' sister, who's a fugitive.

9:31 p.m., ABC. In addition to being chubby and cheery, Santa Claus
tends to be white. Now Dre hopes to change that, taking over the
Santa spot usually held by the head of human resources.

“Nashville on the
Road,” 10 p.m., ABC. A previous “Nashville” special had great
concert performances and bland interviews. Now a new one includes
glimpses and interviews about life on concert tours.

TV column for Tuesday, Dec. 15

“The Voice” recap, 8 p.m., and finale, 9-11 p.m., NBC.

By the end of the
night, we'll have a winner whose life will take a sudden detour.
Emily Ann Roberts is a high school junior, 17, who spent recent years
singing at a Knoxville church and at small spots. Barrett Baber, 35,
is a preacher's kid who this year quit his teaching job to focus on

Then there's Jeffery
Austin, who had a public-relations job and hadn't sung onstage for
six-years; he came out as gay eight years ago at 16. And Jordan
Smith, 22; with the choir of little Lee University, he sang at the
Vatican and White House, but this is bigger: He bumped Adele from No
1 on iTunes.

II: “Childhood's End,” 8-10 p.m., Syfy, repeating at 11:03.

In Monday's
compelling opener (rerunning at 6), alien overlords -- represented
only by a disembodied voice – took control of Earth. War and
poverty faded; people were joyous ... and skeptical.

Now suspicions grow,
in the mid-section of a three-night miniseries. We see the aliens'
true (and unsettling) form. His sole contact among Earthlings (Mike
Vogel) tries keep things steady, while others fret about changes in
their children and their lives.

ALTERNATIVE: Republican presidential debate, 8:30 p.m. ET, CNN.

In a more-logical
world, the Iowa GOP caucus might be ignored; its last two winners
(Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee) went nowhere. But now the debates
have become a drawing point, expecially for people who like or hate
Donald Trump; seven weeks from the Iowa vote, interest is high.

This time, Santorum and Huckabee will be confined to the "undercard" at 6 p.m., with Lindsey Graham and George Pataki. Anderson Coooper will then host an interim show before a debate with the nine people who qualified for the main event – Trump,
Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John
Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul.

Other choices

“Man vs. Wild,”
2 p.m. to 8 a.m., BBC America. On Thursday, NBC will show Bear Grylls
on an Alaskan wilderness adventure with President Obama. Here are 18
hours of Grylls' previous efforts.

Christmas cartoons,
cable and ABC. ABC Family starts and ends the stretch with some
oldies – the 1970 “Santa Claus is Comin' to Town” from 5-6 p.m.
and the 1968 “Little Drummer Boy” at 10:30. In between, ABC
reruns “Toy Story That Time Forgot” at 8 p.m., “Shrek the
Halls” at 8:30 and “I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown”
from 9-10.

“NCIS,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. David McCallum has been a TV star for a half-century, ever since
“Man From UNCLE” began. At 82, he's Ducky on this top-rated
series. When a man claims to have information about his late brother,
we see flashbacks with Adam Campbell as the young Ducky.

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 9 p.m., CBS. Here's another classy veteran getting the
focus: CCH Pounder plays the medical examiner; now her adopted son
Danny is the prime suspect in robberies.

season-finale, 9 p.m., WGN America. It's time for the first
atomic-bomb test. As the weather turns awful, Liza advises a delay;
she's overruled, but workers are told to evacuate the site ... with
one exception. Then a battle over the spy's identity leads to a
countdown confrontation.

“Limitless,” 10
p.m., CBS. The pills that give Brian his temporary power could be
dangerous in the wrong hands. Now some have been stolen and we see
the investigation from different viewpoints.

“The Expanse,”
10 p.m., Syfy. In Monday's opener, a cargo ship sent a small crew to
investigate a distress call; then the main ship was attacked and
destroyed. Now a rag-tag, five-person team tries to survive in a
shaky ship. It's a fairly good episode – also viewing the United
Nations chief on Earth and a cynical detective on the asteroid belt –
leading to better ones as this becomes a Tuesday series.


TV column for Monday, Dec. 14

“Childhood's End” and “The Expanse” debuts, 8 and 10 p.m.,

While others stay in
holiday mode, Syfy launches an ambitious burst – a mini-series
(“End,” through Wednesday) and series-openers (“Expanse,”
today and Tuesday and “The Magicians,” Wednesday).

“End,” from
Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel, has a compelling start as aliens
assume control of Earth; using a farmer (Mike Vogel) as go-between,
they eradicate poverty and pollution ... while people worry about
what's next. By comparison, “Expanse” sseems, at first, to be
cold, distant and military, locked into space ships and asteroid-belt
despair; stick around, because a richly layered story emerges.

II: “Adele Live in New York City,” 10 p.m., NBC.

Let's sympathize
with the “Voice” finalists. For two hours, four talented people
will have their last chances to impress us; but just as we start to
vote, we'll hear THE voice.

That's Adele, doing
songs from her new album – already setting records – and her past
hits. Not a live special (despite the title), this focuses on last
month's concert, her first in four years, at the Radio City Music
Hall. It also includes backstage footage.

ALTERNATIVE: “Fargo” finale, 10 p.m., FX.

The best new show of
2015 concludes strongly ... we'll assume. This is the only episode
that wasn't available to reviewers; the previous nine, however, have
been simply brilliant.

Last week brought a
shoot-out between police, the Gerhardt gang from Minnesota and a
Kansas City gang. Most people were killed; a key cop survived only
via the distraction of an apparent spaceship. (We'll have to forgive
such quirks in an otherwise-great show.) But the focal points –
good-hearted Ed and Peggy Blomquist – fled, as did Hanzee Dent, who
had turned on and killed his Gerhardt bosses.

ALTERNATIVE II: “The Trials of Jimmy Rose,” any time,

Jimmy (superbly
played by Ray Winstone) is fresh from prison, ready to savor life.
But while he was behind bat – two stints, totaling 24 years – the
world changed. His wife has secrets. His daughter loves him, but his
son resents him. A grandson is happy; a granddaughter faces drugs and

This starts a
strong, British mini-series that will be released over the next three
Monday. Like New Zealand's “Brokenwood Mysteries” (which has a
new movie available today), this has accents that are tough to
pierce. Get past that, however, and you have a sharp character drama
with a slick finish.

Other choices:

“The Voice,”
8-10 p.m., NBC. The final four singers have their last chance to
gather votes, with Blake Shelton and Adam Levine on top, as usual.
Shelton has Barrett Baber and Emily Ann Roberts, Levin has Jordan
Smith. Gwen Stefani has Jefferey Austin; Pharrell Williams has no

“Victoria's Secret
Fashion Show,” 8 p.m., CW. Here's a quick rerun of CBS' special, in
case you missed some of the nuance the first time.

“Supergirl,” 8
p.m., CBS. Kara and her Aunt Astra (Laura Benanti) have very
different views of Kara's mother. Also, Cat (Calista Flockhart) could
be ousted from her own company.

“Just in Time for
Christmas” (2015), 8-10 p.m., Hallmark. This starts with a
way-too-familiar tale of alternate paths. It then added a likable
star (Eloise Mumford) and the usual “Hall of Fame” quality.

“Jane the Virgin,”
9 p.m., CW. It's the baby's first Christmas and his parents have
different views of the holiday. Also, Jane has trouble with her
scholarship; her dad, the telenovela star, distrusts his intern.

“Scorpion,” 9
p.m., CBS. On Christmas Eve, a fierce rain could break a dam and
destroy a town.

“NCIS: Los
Angeles,” 9:59 p.m., CBS. Dark deeds and bright decor combine,
after a suspected spy is killed by a truck carrying Christmas trees.

TV column for Sunday, Dec. 13

“Madam Secretary” mid-season finale, 8 p.m. CBS.

The entire season,
so far, has pointed toward this powerful hour. To incite American
attacks on Russia, the Ukraines hacked Air Force One ... making it
look like a Russian deed. The president retaliated with a
cyber-attack, plunging Moscow into darkness ... then learned who the
real hackers were.

Now Russia's
cold-eyed leader – the widow of a popular president – prepares to
attack the Ukraine. Key forces are at play ... including the young
Russian spy handled by Elizabeth's husband. This is a strong hour
with no easy answers, wrapping up with some disturbing moments.

“Quantico” mid-season finale, 10 p.m., ABC.

Here's another major
storyline being wrapped up. From the opening episode, flashforwards
have shown Alex (the terrific Priyanka Chopra) as the prime suspect
in the Grand Central Station bombing; now we learn who actually did
it ... with new questions for the second half of the season.

And in the training
sessions, these young FBI agents finally get vacation time for
Christmas. After fresh secrets are spilled, some aren't in a holiday

ALTERNATIVE: “Breakthrough,” 9 p.m., National Geographic,
repeating at midnight.

On a planet filled
with water, there are brutal shortages. In California, we see a woman
drive around her town, giving bottled water to people whose wells
went dry; in Ethiopia, problems are rougher.

Some women make
three treks – an hour each way – daily for clean water; others
settle for bacteria-filled pools, bringing rampant disease. This
compelling film – directed and narrated by Angela Bassett --
concludes a terrific, six-week series that is filled with people
trying innovative solutions.

Other choices

“Mickey's Once
Upon a Christmas,” 7 a.m., ABC Family. Holiday funs starts early,
with this 1999 compilation of three stories. A second compilation is
at 8:45, followed by two Jim Hensons classics, viewing Christmas
through the Fraggles (10:25) and Emmet Otter (11:05).

11 a.m., National Geographic. Last week's episode reruns. Directed by
Akiva Goldsman (the “Beautiful Mind” writer), it looks at
intriguing energy solutions.

“Toy Story”
(1995), 4:35 p.m., ABC Family. Here's the dandy trilogy, with other
films at 6:45 (1999) and 9:30 p.m. (2010). In between is TV's “Toy
Story That Time Forgot” at 9.

“Behind the
Magic,” 8 p.m., ABC. In the depth of the Depression, resisting the
advice of his wive and brother, Walt Disney mortgaged his home and
obsessed on making the first feature-length cartoon. Three years
later, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (1937) opened to raves;
it became a cornerstone of an empire that includes ABC ... which airs
this documentary about the film.

“Blood & Oil,”
9 p.m., ABC. Triumphs like “Snow White” are rare, even for Disney
companies; this overheated soap opera concludes its first season,
with no signs there will be a second. Hap (Don Johnson) feels
Christmastime pressure; he battles with his son and considers
aligning with his ex-wife.

“The Good Wife,”
9 p.m., CBS. Three characters who were added this season take key
roles tonight. Ruth (Margo Martindale) frets about the political
repercussions of Alicia's relationship with her firm's detective
(Jeffrey Dean Morgan); now she wants a supporter (Vanessa Williams)
to hire him away.

“CSI Cyber,” 10
p.m., CBS. A hacker was hired to erase the comments of an assault
victim ... and then was killed. The team investigates.