TV column for Wednesday, Jan. 7

“American Idol” opener, 8 p.m., Fox.

The dark days are
gone now. “Idol” no longer needs to mock deluded youths; mostly,
it offers a feel-good look at young singers, many of them with real

This opener, from
Nashville, starts with a vibrant 19-year-old who brings most of her
nine siblings from small-town Mississippi. It ends with a talented
15-year-old from Florida, trying for the show that began when she was
1. In between are bad singers (dismissed quickly) and ones worth

II: “The Middle,” 8 p.m., ABC.

Two Emmy-winners
frolic, in a broad and funny episode. Pam Heaton is Frankie, who
never left her home town; Kirstie Alley is the classmate who won $1
million and moved to the city.

Each has two Emmys;
tonight they help brush away our rerun blues. There are also new
episodes of “The Goldbergs,” “Modern Family” (after a close
call, the Dunphys vow life changes) and “Black-ish.”

ALTERNATIVE: “Empire” debut, 9 p.m., Fox.

Lucious (Terrence
Howard) is a music mogul who's had lots of hits and lots of troubles.
His health is bad; so is the health of the music industry. None of
his three mismatched sons seem ready to take over the company. And
his past has returned, in the fierce form of their ex-con mother
(Taraji Henson). “Empire” is what we'd expect from cable or
movies. It's produced and directed by Lee Daniels (“The Butler”)
and written by Danny Strong, who did that film plus HBO's “Game
Change” and “Recount.” Leaping between present and past,
between joy and fear, it's complex and difficult, but worth trying.

Other choices

“The Mentalist,”
8 p.m., CBS. Sliding to a new night (where “Survivor” is between
seasons), this show has an episode focusing on an excellent character
– Abbott (Rockmond Dunbar), the quiet FBI boss.

“Nature,” 8
p.m., PBS (check local listings). Here's France, far from the crowds.
On the once-regal Fontainebleu estate, 10-point stags are friends for
life – except when battling for a female. On cliff sides, amazing
creatures (two of them human) live vertically. There's much more, in
a gorgeous hour.

“Episodes,” 8
p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Showtime. With short seasons and sharp writing,
this is an annual delight. Matt LeBlanc plays a lunk-headed version
of himself; in the show, he's in a bad series written by Brits who
know better. Here's the entire third season; the fourth has a clever
start Sunday.

“People's Choice
Awards,” 9-11 p.m., CBS. The awards are wildly insignificant, so
let's hope the show is entertaining. It could be, with music (Lady
Antebellum, Iggy Azelea, Fall Out Boy) and a respect for mainstream
comedy. Anna Faris and Alison Janney of “Mom” host; last year's
host, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, will be there with her “Big Bang
Theory” castmates. Both shows are up for best network comedy,
facing “New Girl,” “Modern Family” and “2 Broke Girls”;
clever comedies get respect.

return, 9 p.m., UP. This well-made Canadian series ended the first
half of its season with a jolt when Amy (who loves horses) was kicked
by one during a storm. Now she's in grave condition. Beautifully
filmed and solidly acted, this has (except for her overwrought dad)
well-drawn characters.

“Chicago P.D.,”
10 p.m., NBC. A routine stop leaves Burgess (Marina Squerciati) in
the hospital with gunshot wounds, while forces combine to find the

TV column for Tuesday, Jan. 6

“American Experience,” 9 p.m., PBS (check local listings).

Robert Ripley was
good at many things, actually; he was a champion handball player, a
good artist, a smart guy. But he was an awful media star, with a bad
voice, buck teeth and a clumsy, stilted manner.

That made him
perfect for his life: He was the ordinary guy who kept showing us
extraordinaryt events. He was fascinated by everything – from
religious customs to physical quirks, from firewalkers and a
piano-playing dog to a guy walking down stairs on his head. His
“Believe It or Not” went from newspapers to Broadway, radio, TV,
movie shorts and more. It's a great story, skillfully told.

“Agent Carter” debut, 8 and 9 p.m., ABC.

Even before entering
the Marvel universe, Hayley Atwell was a star-to-be. Growing up in
England and the U.S., she showed the best of both worlds. She took
dead-serious TV roles -- “Any Human Heart,” “Pillars of the
Earth,” “The Prisoner” -- before becoming Peggy Carter in
Captain American films.

Now it's 1946; women
are marginalized in post-war life and Carter is doing administrative
work for the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Howard Stark (Dominic
Cooper) has been framed; he asks her to go undercover and provides
his butler Jarvis (James D'Arcy of cable's “Those Who Kill”) to

ALTERNATIVE: Movies, cable.

Here's a
Hollywood-history cruise – three best-picture Oscar-winners in one
night. At 8 p.m., IFC has “Crash” (2004), the ingenious film
with racial biases colliding in modern Los Angeles; Encore has
“Unforgiven” (1992), Clint Eastwood's brooding film about a
gunman revisiting his past. At 8 p.m. ET, Turner Classic Movies has
“The Sting,” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in rich scams.

Another film didn't
win best-picture, but may be tonight's best. “The Graduate”
(1967), 7:45 p.m. on Sundance, brought an Oscar for director Mike
Nicholas and fame for the superb Dustin Hoffman.

Other choices

“Pretty Little
Liars,” noon to 9 p.m., ABC Family. A rerun marathon is followed at
8 p.m. by the mid-season return. The friends are determined to prove
that Alison killed Mona, but her alibi seems solid. Also, there's a
turning point for Emily and Paige; and Aria tries some creative

Junior” opener, 8 p.m., Fox. Let's savor this Gordon Ramsay and
wish that the other one – the rude, crude guy who yells at
grown-ups on “Hell's Kitchen” -- vanishes. With 19 kids (ages
8-13) in the room, he's patient, encouraging and ... well, human; he
even rushes to help a boy who burned part of the entree. There are a
few other bumps – one girl cuts two fingers – in a mostly fun

“NCIS,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. Viewers have frequently seen one of Gibbs' ex-wives, Diane
Sterling (Melinda McGraw); now another (Jeri Ryan) arrives and
Sterling is back ... while Gibbs is busy with two cases that seem to
be copies of previous murders.

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 9 p.m., CBS. After a deadly explosion, the team learns
that Pride was the target.

“Switched at
Birth,” 9 p.m., ABC Family. Daphne should be happy now, as she and
Emmett start in an intimate college led by his mother (Marlee
Matlin). Still, she's weighed by guilt because Bay took the blame for
her lawbreaking; soon, the rest of the family is aware of this.

“Ground Floor,”
10 p.m., TBS. Brody has a new job, a new boss and an assignment that
puts him against his old boss.

“Cougar Town”
season-opener, 10:30, TBS. Things got sticky last year, when Jules'
son Travis hooked up with her friend Laurie. Now Laurie's pregnant
and Jules (Courteney Cox playing a grandmother-to-be) plans to make
the ultimate sacrifice in support – forgoing wine until the baby is


TV column for Monday, Jan. 5

“The Bachelor” or “Celebrity Apprentice,” 8 p.m., ABC and

It's a reality-show
face-off, with opposite people in charge. Chris Soules lives in
Arlington, Iowa (population 427), growing food; Donald Trump lives in
Manhattan, growing money.

Still, they do have
things in common. Both made family businesses flourish; both have had
their romantic misadventures. Soules had just ended a long
relationship when he reached “The Bachelorette”; he got to the
final three, before being rejected. Now he starts with 30 women.
Trump started his season Sunday with 16 people; tonight, the
celebrities try an ad campaign.

“Gotham,” 8 p.m., Fox.

After a five-week
break, this stylish show is back to continue its first season.

Assigned to Arkham
Asylym, Det. Gordon (the future police commissiomer) confronts a
murder; that brings him to Dr. Thompkins, played by Morena Baccarin,
the “Homeland” and “V” beauty. Meanwhile, Cobblepot (the
future Penguin) continues to gather his evil army.

ALTERNATIVE: “Independent Lens: Rich Hill,” 10 p.m., PBS (check
local listings).

Returning to their
childhood home town, two cousins made an involving documentary,
winner of the Sundance Festival's top prize. On the western edge of
Missouri, Rich Hill has 1,400 people and some riches – as evidenced
by $3,000 bids in pie auctions; this film visits three teen boys on
the flip side.

Each has troubled
parents and little money. Two are deeply troubled themselves, but the
third is a handsome and likable football player, somehow surviving a
life of constant change.

Other choices

“2 Broke Girls,”
8 p.m., CBS. Max and Caroline have doubts about the factory they
chose to make their cupcake T-shirts.

Movies, 8 p.m.,
cable. While some people are watching the third and final “Hobbit”
film in theaters, others can see the middle one (2013) – well-made,
but with no real beginning or ending – on HBO. There's also “The
Matrix” (1999) on IFC and some families -- “Judy Moody and the
Not Bummer Summer” (2011) on Disney or the fairly good “Muppets
Most Wanted” (2014) at 9 p.m. on Starz.

“Mike &
Molly,” 8:30 p.m., CBS. As Molly rewrites her book, people wonder
if she'll ever finish.

“Scorpion,” 9
p.m., CBS. Here's a case of technology fun going bad: While playing
an Internet game, Ralph accidentally reveals the location of a CIA
safe house, causing several deaths.

“Jane the Virgin,”
9 p.m., CW. In a terrific rerun, Jane feels bad about her feelings
for Rafael (her handsome boss); she mentions this to her fiance,
who's not pleased. Things are sometimes fun and sometimes sticky ...
but there's also a sweetly gorgeous scene in a bridal salon.

“Sleepy Hollow,”
9 p.m., Fox. After their tough standoff with Moloch, Abby and Ichabod
meet an angel who may help.

“NCIS: Los
Angeles,” 9:59 p.m., CBS. Working undercover, Callen is held
hostage in a building that's wired with explosives.


TV column for Sunday, Jan. 4

“Downton Abbey” season-opener, 9-10:15 p.m. PBS (check local listings).

In the first four
seasons, the Crawleys – and British life – have changed
profoundly. Now it's 1924, the Labor Party rules and Robert Crawley
(the Downton patriarch) disapproves. Tom -- former chauffeur, former
Socialist -- feels torn between the Crawleys and Sarah, an outspoken

There's wry humor,
plus a possible romance for Lady Mary (as usual) and Isobel (not so
usual). Visitors arrive, looking for art and/or lust. Lady Edith
agonizes about her missing beau and her secret daughter ... then
ignites a fresh crisis, wrapping up a terrific opener.

II: “The Good Wife,” 9 p.m., CBS.

After a five-week
break, one of TV's top shows – with new Golden Globe nominations
for best drama and for Julianna Margulies and Alan Cummings – is
back, along with CBS' other Sunday shows.

Now people realize
Cary might not be able to avoid prison for his advice to drug-dealing
clients; he hires a prison consultant. Alicia (Margulies) also has a
consultant (Chris Elliott) to prep her for debates.

ALTERNATIVE: “Life Itself,” 9 and 11 p.m. ET, CNN.

TV's master film
critics, it turns out, were opposites. Gene Siskel was at ease
socially (partying with Hugh Hefner and Playmates) and on camera;
Roger Ebert was awkward on camera and, at times, in life. For a long
stretch, friends say, he drank heavily and had the world's worst
taste in women.

But Ebert
transformed. He became a world-traveler who championed small films,
while keeping his populist appreciation of big ones. He also wrote
beautifully and married well. Director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”)
spends too much time on Ebert's cancer ordeal, but has crafted a
great documentary.

ALTERNATIVE II: “Ultimate Survival Alaska” opener, 9 p.m.,
National Geographic.

Kids, DON'T try this
at home: To save time, two teams cross a lake on thawing ice; another
makes a novice climb a sleek glacier. That's in the first of 13
rounds for four three-person teams.

Dallas Seavey, last
year's winner (and the Iditarod record-holder) is back. His team
(including tiny newcomer Lel Tone) faces the tough military guys they
barely beat last year. An Alaskan team is back; new is a “Lower 48”
team ... including a North Carolina kayaker who says he's never seen
snow. Beautifully filmed, this is the good side of reality TV.

Other choices

“Galavant,” 8
and 8:30 p.m., ABC. Now for something completely different – an
eight-part, four Sunday comedy musical mini-series. The “Tangled”
writer and composer offer the tale of a knight trying to lure his
loved one from her husband, the king. First, John Stamos plays a
tough jousting foe.

American Princesses” opener, 8 p.m., Smithsonian. Just before
“Downton” returns, this looks at the real-life versions of Cora
Crawley – American heiresses who married into British nobility.

“The Celebrity
Apprentice” opener, 9-11 p.m., NBC. Donald Trump again has a dandy
line-up, with athletes (Johnny Damon, Terrell Owens and
gold-medalists Shawn Johnson and Jamie Anderson), reality stars (Kate
Gosselin, Kenya Moore, Brandi Glanville) and more, including a
fisherman (Sig Hansen) and a Jonas (Kevin). The opener, at pie shops,
is slickly produced, but has the show's persistent flaw: Everything
else is negated, if a team simply brings in some big-money donors.

“Thicker than
Water” season-opener, 9 p.m., Bravo. This is a mostly amiable look
at gospel star Ben Tankard and his extended family from three
marriages. Then it offers the sort of screaming match (very loud,
very absurd) that Bravo seems fond of.

“The Manners of
Downton Abbey,” 10:15-11 p.m., PBS (check local listings). Alastair
Bruce, the “Downey” historical advisor, offers a beautifully
crafted look at the era the show re-creates.

TV column for Saturday, Jan. 3

“Hairspray” (2007), 8-10 p.m., ABC.

It's been quite a
journey for this tale – from low-budget 1988 movie to 2002 Broadway
hit (winner of eight Tonys, including best musical) and then back to
a movie again.

At each step were
gifted people. John Waters wrote and directed the original, recalling
the early rock scene of his Baltimore boyhood. Marc Shaiman and Scott
Wittman (the “Smash” composers) wrote the zesty Broadway music.
Director Adam Shankman gave the second movie a vibrant feel. The
casting of John Travolta didn't work, but others – Zac Efron, Queen
Latifah, newcomer Nikki Blonsky – are great.

Football, 4:20 p.m. ET, ESPN, and 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC.

First is more proof
that life is not fair: While one team with a 10-6 record (the Eagles)
failed to reach the play-offs, the Carolina Panthers won their
division with a losing mark (7-8-1). That even gives them home-field
advantage against the Arizona Cardinals (11-5).

The second game has
division rivals colliding for the third time, with the Baltimore
Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh (11-5). The other first-round games are

ALTERNATIVE: Movies, 7 and 9 p.m., Hallmark.

Now that the
Christmas deluge is done, Hallmark has its pre-Valentine burst of
romance. That starts with a rerun of “My Boyfriends' Dogs”
(2014), an amiable oddity about a young woman (Erika Christensen) who
has trouble with guys, but not with their dogs.

Then is the new
“Surprised By Love.” Hilarie Burton plays someone with second
thoughts – about life and romance – during her parents' 40th
anniversary. Tim Conway plays her grandfather.

Other choices

“The Queen of
Versailles” (2012), 7-9 p.m., CNBC. This excellent documentary
provides a vivid portrait of a boom-and-bust economy. In Florida, a
family is building a 90,000-square-foot mansion, patterned after
Versailles. Then money problems begin.

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 8 p.m., CBS. New Orleans' cemeteries generally look
creepy in movies, but in this rerun, there's more: On Halloween, the
body of a JAG officer is found there; she's in a Victorian costume,
with fang punctures on her neck.

“Bones,” 8 p.m.,
Fox. In a rerun, the team finds bad things about the murder victim
and his boss (Gil Bellows), the heads a big-time hedge fund.

“Sleepy Hollow,”
9 p.m., Fox. This rerun has Abbie and Ichabod seeking the ultimate
weapon – the Sword of Methuselah – to kill Moloch.

“Criminal Minds,”
9 p.m., CBS. There really aren't many drownings in the Las Vegas
desert. In a rerun, the team investigates some of those suspicious

“The Missing,” 9
p.m., Starz, reruns at 10:05 and 11:10. This compelling story is now
a week from its finale. In current time, the divorced Tony and Emily
get a small clue about their son. And flashing back to 2009, their
marriage wobbling three years after his disappearance, a new case
stirs their interest.

“Saturday Night
Live,” late, NBC. Woody Harrelson hosts this rerun, with music from
Kendrick Lamar. Officially, this is listed at 11:29 p.m. PT and
midnight ET; the latter could be much later, however, depending on