TV column for Friday, Dec. 23


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “Chuck,” 8
p.m., NBC.

On its best days – which are frequent
– “Chuck” is a zesty brew of action, humor and humanity. This
terrific episode is a prime example, catching all the pieces of
Chuck's world.

At the core, he's a nerd from the Buy
More store. He and his friends fight a fierce computer virus.

Still, he's also married to a sleek and
sexy spy; she's held captive and has trouble fighting her way out.
And he's a good brother, determined to give his sister's family a
serene Christmas.

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: “Shrek the
Halls” etc., 8 p.m., ABC.

The “Shrek” special is so-so, but
it starts a string of four animated shows, most of them quite good.

At 8:30 is “Phineas and Ferb
Christmas Vacation,” a shortened version of an excellent Disney
Channel special; with Dr. Doofenshmirtz wielding his naughty-inator.
At 9 is “Prop & Landing 2: Naughty vs. Nice,” a fun tale of a
hacker getting Santa's list. And at 9:30 is “Kung Fu Panda Holiday
Special.”

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “The Take”
finale, 9 p.m., Encore.

We hated the first half of this
four-week series, filled with brutal and random violence by Freddie,
an ex-con. Still, that set up this fierce finale, which is well-made.

Ruling a crime operation from prison,
Ozzy put Jimmy (Freddie's cousin) in charge. Freddie fumed and raped
Jimmy's wife Maggie; she hasn't told anyone that young Jimmy was
sired by Freddie.

Last week ended with Freddie's jealous
son suffocating young Jimmy. Tonight starts there and builds. Its
plot may be too close to “The Godfather,” but there are brilliant
performances – especially from Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley (who
became engaged in real life) as Freddie and Maggie.

Other choices include:

– “The “Bee Movie” (2007), 7
and 9 p.m., Bravo. Jerry Seinfeld co-wrote this fairly entertaining,
animated film. He stars as a bee whose ambitions go beyond the hive.

– “Olive, the Other Reindeer” and
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” 8 and 9 p.m., CW. Yes, it's
a crowded animation night. It's lucky that kids know how to run VCR's
and such.

– “A Gifted Man,” 8 p.m., CBS.
This rerun introduced Rachelle Lefevre as the new clinic director.
Michael hires her; he also does emergency surgery, without having
time for an exact diagnosis.

– “Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me!”
8 p.m., BBC America. This National Public Radio series is ostensibly
a quiz show, but mostly a launching point for clever people. Now BBC
America has financed a year-end special for TV (also running this
weekend on radio). Host Peter Sagal has Alonzo Bodden (the witty
“Last Comic Standing” champ) and Paula Poundstone; as a nod to
the BBC, he also has Nick Hancock and several questions about British
news. The result is sometimes hilarious

– “Fringe,” 9 p.m., Fox. In a
rerun, two bullies are dead and decomposing quickly.

– “CSI: NY,” 9 p.m., CBS. Some
shows try for sweet holiday episodes; this one has a department-store
manager killed and put in his own window display. It's a rerun of the
150th episode, last December.

– “A Christmas Carol” (1999),
9-11 p.m., TNT. A superb Scrooge (Patrick Stewart) leads a strong
film.

– “Blue Bloods,” 10 p.m., CBS. In
a rerun, an undercover agent was shot after infiltrating a terrorist
cell. Frank (Tom Selleck) feels the only cop he can trust in the
situation is his son (Donnie Wahlberg).

TV column for Thursday, Dec. 22


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “The X Factor,”
8-10 p.m., Fox.

Blessed with a big build-up and Simon
Cowell, this show was expected to bring world-shaking ratings. It's
settled for world-nudging, resting at the edge of the Nielsen top 20.

Now comes it finale, which should score
big on a rerun-strewn night. After lots of performances and guest
stars, someone – Melanie Amaro, Josh Krajcik or Chris Rene – will
win a $5 million record deal.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “Disney Prep &
Landing” and sequel, 8 and 8:30 p.m., ABC.

Santa gets plenty of attention, but
it's time to notice the technicians who propel his work. Here are two
animated specials – each quick and clever – that do that.

The first one links opposite elves.
Magee is fresh and enthusiastic; Wayne is bitter because – after
227 years in preparation-and-landing work – he was passed over for
Director of Naughty List Intelligence.

The second brings an identity-theft
crisis: Someone has stolen the naughty list.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Independent
Lens,” 10 p.m., PBS (check local listings).

Francesca Woodman's short life was
filled with passion.

At 17, she had a rock-star confidence;
she ignored other classes and focused on her specialty – stylish
photos, often nudes of herself. At 22, she killed herself.

The three decades since then would
bring fame to her and high prices to her photos. Now this richly
detailed documentary views her life; much of it follows her parents –
successful artists and gently soft-spoken people, still trying to
understand her compelling story.

Other choices include:

– “The Big Bang Theory,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. In a rerun from last January, Leonard has an idea for a phone
application. The trouble starts when Sheldon tries to take control.

– “Moby Dick” (2011), 8-11 p.m.,
Encore. Great actors – John Barrymore, Gregory Peck, Patrick
Stewart – keep being drawn to the rich complexities of Captain
Ahab. Now William Hurt has mastered the role, giving us a captain who
is simultaneously wise, talented and deeply, tragically obsessed.

– “I Want a Dog For Christmas,
Charlie Brown,” 9 p.m., ABC. This 2003 cartoon, using ideas from
the “Peanuts” comic, has Lucy's brother seeking a dog. One
prospect is Snoopy's eccentric brother Spike.

– “The Office” and “Whitney,”
9 and 9:30 p.m., NBC. A game show (“Who's Still Standing?”) trims
NBC's comedy block to these two reruns. In the first, Andy takes some
of the people to Gettysburg; in the second, things go wrong when
Whitney and Chris try to bond over a basketball game.

– “Braxton Family Values,” 9
p.m., WE. When Toni Braxton needs surgery, the family gathers around
her. Andre – Towanda's husband, ready for his first book-signing –
finds himself upstaged again. That reruns at 10 p.m., surrounded at 8
and 11 p.m. by last week's hour, in which Toni fired her manager.

– “Prime Suspect,” 10 p.m., NBC.
This has been a fairly good cop show – albeit with little
relationship to the British classic it adapted. Despite strong
promotion and a great lead character (played by Maria Bello) it died
in the ratings and only has three episodes left; this one eyes a
Chinatown murder.

– “The Mentalist,” 10 p.m., CBS.
After a store Santa is killed, other Santas join the probe. Pruitt
Taylor Vince – the gifted actor who won an Emmy on “Murder One”
– plays the lead investigator.

TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 21


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “The X Factor,”
8-9:30 p.m., Fox.

Marcus Canty was eliminated last week,
just a half-step from the finals. Now the three survivors perform and
viewers vote; on Thursday, someone gets a $5 million recording deal.

L.A. Reid, who was Canty's mentor, still
has Chris Rene, 28, from Santa Cruz, Cal. Nicole Scherzinger has Josh
Krajcik, 30, from Columbus, Ohio. Simon Cowell has Melanie Amaro –
whom he once dropped, then gave a reprieve; she's 19, from the British
Virgin Islands and now lives in Florida.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “A Home For
the Holidays,” 8 p.m., CBS.

This annual special tends to be filled
with soaring music. Performers this year include Martina McBride,
Justin Bieber, Mary J. Blige, Gavin DeGraw, Christina Perri and
OneRepublic.

Alongside that, we hear true stories of
adoption. In one, Joseph Kerin, now 18, struggled to keep his younger
brothers with him. Eventually, all three were adopted by a Colorado
chiropractor.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “State of
Play,” 10 p.m., BBC America.

Sleek and smart, this mini-series has
terrific actors; many found fame after “State” aired in 2003.

There's Kelly Macdonald, now Margaret
in “Boardwalk Empire.” She plays Della, a young newspaper
reporter; in this third of six hours, her life may be in danger.

And there's Polly Walker, who went on
to star in “Rome,” “Cane” and “Caprica.” She plays Anne,
whose husband's lover has been killed. Now she's fallen in love and
in lust with his friend (and Della's colleague) Cal – who has
trouble from police, a gunman and more.

Other choices include:

– “The Middle,” 8 p.m., ABC. A
night of four comedy reruns starts with Frankie and Mike at an
impasse: Their house is falling apart so quickly that they consider
getting an apartment.

– “Suburgatory,” 8:30 p.m., ABC.
Thanksgivings crumble in three households. In one, Tessa's mad at her
dad for having a big-city romance. In another, Lisa's parents (Ana
Gasteyer, Chris Parnell) lose control. The funniest moments come with
a chaotic confrontation at the home of Dallas (Cheryl Hines).

– “Modern Family,” 9 p.m., ABC.
Mitchell and Cameron plan a family gathering, to announce they plan
to to adopt another baby. Then they worry about how Lily will take
this.

– “Work of Art” finale, 9 p.m.,
Bravo. Last week, both sculptors – Dusty Mitchell and Lola Thompson
– were ousted, leaving three people. Young Sun Han, 28, is a
Chicago photographer and performance artist who has lived in England,
Germany and New Zealand ; the others live in New York City. Sara
Jiminez, 26, is a painter; Kymia Nawabi, 30, is a painter, printmaker
and – for now – waitress.

– “Happy Endings,” 9:31 p.m.,
ABC. Alex's boutique has become a hit with teens. Now, in some funny
moments, she and Penny can hang with the cool kids – something they
never did in high school.

– “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,”
10 p.m., CBS. In a rerun from last February, two bodies, presumed
dead, come back to life. This zombie-like-situation is greeted
negatively.

– “American Horror Story,” 10
p.m., FX. The nasty first season ends with Tate realizing he's the
spirit of a teen serial killer. Constance (Jessica Lange) wants to
raise his baby as her own.

TV column for Tuesday, Dec. 20


TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: “SNL Presents: A
Very Gilly Christmas,” 9-11 p.m., NBC.

Back in 2009, this special was created
with a few new elements. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin added some;
Kristen Wiig brought her ditzy Gilly character.

Mostly, however, this simply re-shows
“Saturday Night Live” holiday specials. Some are fairly new –
including Justin Timberlake's “(Bleep) in a Box” song – and
some are vintage.

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE II: “Kathy
Griffin: Tired Hooker,” 10 p.m., Bravo.

This is a good comedy night, with old
sketches on NBC and four sitcom reruns on ABC. Also, Comedy Central
has a marathon of the witty “Tosh.0” from 8-11 p.m., plus 4:22
p.m. and 12:02 a.m.

Then there's Griffin, who knows how to
turn her life into stand-up specials. She has a new one at 10 p.m.,
preceded by a rerun (“Kathy Griffin: 50 & Not Pregnant”) from
earlier this year at 9.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Deck the
Halls,” 9-11 p.m., TNT.

There are two movies with this title
tonight. One (8 p.m. on FX) is a slight comedy from 2006; this one is
adapted from a novel that merged women created by two writers.

Regan Reilly (from Carol Higgins Clark)
was born rich, then became a glamorous young police detective.
Alvirah Meegan (by Mary Higgins Clark, Carol's mom) was a cleaning
woman who won the lottery and became a private eye.

As played by Scottie Thompson and Kathy
Najimy, they're likable opposites. Despte some heightened,
unrealistic dialog, this film – skillfully directed by Ron
Underwood – is worth catching.

Other choices include:

– “Last Man Standing,” 8 and 8:30
p.m., ABC. The rerun night starts with a double sampling of Tim Allen
misbehaving – first at his grandson's day-care center, then during
neighborhood watch.

– “NCIS,” 8 p.m., CBS. Probing
the deatj of a Navy commander in this rerun, the team is shadowed by
someone doing psychological evaluations.

– Christmas films, 8 p.m., cable. The
best of the bunch is “Comfort and Joy” (2003, Lifetime Movie
Network), with Nancy McKeon as a hard-driving businesswoman who wakes
up in an alternate existence. Still, “Annie Claus is Coming to
Town” (2011, Hallmark) is pleasant enough and “A Christmas Carol”
(1984, AMC) has great work from George C. Scott, Edward Woodward and
more.

– “Jerry Lewis: Method to the
Madness,” 8-10:05 p.m., Encore. If you missed Saturday's debut of
this well-crafted documentary, catch the rerun now.

– “NCIS: Los Angeles,” 9 p.m.,
CBS. In a rerun, a world-class thief broke into a secure Marine
facility. Now Kensi (Daniela Ruah) goes undercover, to learn what the
thief was trying to get.

– “The Middle,” 9 p.m., ABC.
There should be a breathalyser on computers to stop drunken E-mails,
Frankie decides. In a giddy mood, she invited people to a Christmas
party; now she has to have one.

– “Suburgatory,” 9:30, ABC. As a
newcomer and a single guy, George is a big hit at the PTA. That
bothers Sheila Shay (Ana Gasteyer), who likes to be in charge.

– “Unforgettable,” 10 p.m., CBS.
In a rerun, an explosion has destroyed the entire crime scene. Now
the only clues must come from Carrie's memory.

TV column for Monday, Dec. 19


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “The Closer,” 9
p.m., TNT.

Changing its style, a good series
offers one of its best episodes.

Usually, viewers don't know who the
criminal is; this time, they see the crime in the first, jolting
moments. They also see the canny efforts to cover it up.

That's propelled by great performances
from Elizabeth Perkins and others, plus sharp writing and more. At
least two “Closer” characters are recovering alcoholics; that
helps fuel this powerful episode.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “American
Masters,” 10 p.m., PBS (check local listings).

It all started with a chair. Charles
Eames and his wife Ray designed a curvy, plywood one, then had to
wait until World War II ended to make it. They sparked the
“modernist” designs of post-war suburbia.

But they were about much more. They
worked in art, architecture and animation; they made quirky movies
and lived quirky lives.

Charles had his flaws, this superb
documentary says. He was clumsy with words and colors; he was bad at
sharing credit. Ray, a great colorist, seemed happy to be in the
background; others had misgivings. Together, however, they brought a
sleek look to mid-century America.

TONIGHT'S ODDITY: “Who's Still
Standing?” debut, 8 p.m., NBC.

There is much to like and dislike about
this game show, which will air for four straight nights.

It has questions viewers can play along
with. It's quick and slick, with losers zipping down a chute.

The bad part? Instead of covering a
broad range, questions are absurdly easy (a three-letter word for a
type of bird, starting with “o”), then nearly impossible.
Contestants are hyper enough for a WWE wrestling bout. And an odd bit
– an off-camera Santa – has been clumsily tacked on for the
holiday.

Other choices include:

– “Terra Nova” season-finale,
8-10 p.m., Fox. This began, just three months ago, with a two-hour
epic that took people from a crumbling world in 2149 to one 85
million years ago. Now the season ends the same way. We see that
future world, where people plot against the colony. We see the
arrival of the latest colonists; war erupts, changing the colony and
killing a key person.

– “The Mortified Sessions,” 8
p.m., Sundance. This interviews Megan Mullaly, 53, a double
Emmy-winner for “Will & Grace,” and her husband Nick
Offerman, 41, of “Parks and Recreation.”

– “Rollin' With Zach,” 8 and 8:30
p.m., Oprah Winfrey Network. Zach Anner continues an adventurous
life, despite cerebral palsy. Tonight, visiting San Francisco and New
York, he ranges from sailing to speed-dating, from comedy to
crab-fishing.

– “You Deserve It” (ABC) and
“Fear Factor” (NBC), 9 p.m. Here are opposite games –
good-hearted and cruel. Tonight, “Fear” covers one person with
snakes; another must move them via mouth.

– “Two and a Half Men,” 9 p.m.,
CBS. In a rerun, Walden (Ashton Kutcher) searches for a new love
while Alan tries to get back with his recent love, Lyndsey (Courtney
Thorne-Smith).

– “Rock Center,” 10 p.m., NBC. An
organized ring in Spain has been stealing and selling babies for more
than 40 years, Kate Snow says here. Also scheduled : Harry Smith on a
tour of American Muslim comedians … Dr. Nancy Snyderman on the
Giants fan who remains disabled after a brutal beating from two
Dodger fans … and Brian Williams' live chat with Steve Martin.