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.

TV column for Sunday, Dec. 18


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “Survivor”
finale, 8-10 p.m. (or later, with football overrun), CBS.

Brandon Hantz had an automatic route to
tonight's finals – until he gave away his immunity necklace. He was
voted out – the same thing that happened to Erik Reichenbach when
he gave his away in 2008.

Now Hantz must battle Ozzy Lusth on
Redemption Island, for the final spot. Already in the running for $1
million are Sophie Clarke, “Coach” Wade, Rick Nelson and –
saved by the necklace – Albert Destrade. At 10 p.m. (or later),
there's a reunion of the 18 contestants in this South Pacific
edition.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “Toy Story”
(1995) and “Toy Story 2” (1999), 6 and 8 p.m., ABC Family.

Here's a wonderful double-feature,
offering the early days of the Pixar films.

Some of the fun comes from turning
classic toys into characters; some comes from giving them the
familiar voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles and more.

Still, that's just the surface. Unlike
most animated films at the time, the original “Toy Story” got
talented writers to deliver wit and warmth; the result drew an
Academy Award nomination for best original script, propelling the
Pixar future.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Dexter” and
“Homeland” season-finales, 9 and 10 p.m., Showtime.

Last week (rerunning at 7 p.m.), Dexter
launched his plan to stop the Doomsday Killers. Now that concludes
and his sister faces an emotional crisis.

And in last week's “Homeland” (8
p.m.), Carrie (Claire Danes) was hospitalized. Now she remains
bed-ridden and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) is starting to feel her wild
theories may be correct.

Other choices include:

– “Masterpiece Classic,” 8 and
9:30 p.m., PBS (check local listings). Here's the first half of the
“Downton Abbey” miniseries, which continues on Christmas and New
Year's Day, leading neatly into the start of the sequel Jan. 8. That
sequel is needed; the original was beautifully done (despite some
melodramatic extremes), but left many of its stories hanging.

– “Once Upon a Time,” 8 p.m.,
ABC. This reruns the terrific hour that showed how Snow White (a
quick-witted thief) met Prince Charming (a charming prince). We also
see their modern equivalents. He's comatose, simply called John Doe;
she's a teacher, asked to read to him.

– “The Simpsons,” 8 p.m., Fox. In
a rerun, Lisa finds the key to a hidden classroom that disappears.

– “Christmas Magic,” 8 and 10
p.m., Hallmark. An intense event-planner (Lindy Booth), suddenly must
become an angel. First, she must help a single dad whose restaurant
and catering business is failing.

– “The Santa Clause 3” (2006),
9-11 p.m., ABC. Scott (Tim Allen) has grown used to being Santa.
Still, his wife's parents (Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret) must not find out
during their visit. Also, a scheming Jack Frost (Martin Short) tries
to take over. The least of the “Clause” films, it's still
modestly entertaining.

– “Family Guy,” 9 p.m., Fox. In
an hour-long rerun, Stewie is brushed off by a mall Santa. Upset by
this, he heads to the North Pole with his dog Brian, to confront the
real Claus.

– “Hell on Wheels,” 10 p.m., AMC.
Part of “Celebrate” – the new video by rapper/singer Common –
will be shown during this hour, with the full video on amc.com
afterward. Meanwhile, Elam (played by Common) teeters near death and
Cullen faces a tough choice.

TV column for Saturday, Dec. 17


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “Saturday Night
Live,” 11:29 p.m., NBC.

Jimmy Fallon might have been happy
staying with “SNL” for a lifetime. He had grown up on it and on
talk shows; he savored doing sketches, co-anchoring “Weekend
Update” and meeting music guests.

Fallon left the show (after six years)
in 2004, for a so-so movie career and then a thriving late-night show
that's in its third season. He's popped back on “SNL” for some
sketches, but this will be his first hosting gig; Michael Buble is
the musical guest.

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: “Christmas Comes
Home to Canaan,” 8 and 10 p.m., Hallmark.

Amid all the holiday fluff, the 2009
“Christmas in Canaan” was a fairly solid movie. Billy Ray Cyrus
was quietly convincing as a widowed farmer, resisting racism in 1960s
Texas.

Now two of the boys – one white, one
black – he raised are grown and a younger son nears surgery. That
means the city, an attractive doctor (Gina Holden) and more.

There are times when the problems seem
contrived, simply to stretch the story. Still, the basic decency of
the characters is both believable and refreshing.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Method to the
Madness of Jerry Lewis,” 8 p.m. and midnight, Encore.

For people who grew up on an older
Jerry Lewis – a little overwrought in movies, a lot overwrought in
person – this is a revelation. It focuses on his early days as an
innovator with boyish charm.

We see why the Europeans like Lewis –
a true “auteur” who wrote, directed, starred and even invented a
video playback system. Encore will show examples in a marathon, from
his directing debut (the 1960 “Bellboy”) at 1:50 p.m. to his best
film (the 1963 “Nutty Professor”) at 10:05.

Other choices include:

– Football, 2:30 p.m. to midnight ET,
ESPN. The bowl-game season starts with a triple-header. It's the New
Mexico Bowl (Wyoming and Temple) at 2:30, the un-famous Famous Idaho
Potato Bowl (Utah State and Ohio) at 5:30 and the New Orleans Bowl
(Louisiana-Lafayette and San Diego State) at 9.

– “Pride & Prejudice” (2005)
and “The Notebook” (2004), 6 and 9 p.m., Oxygen. Here's an
exceptional double-feature of richly emotional stories.

– “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), 7
and 9:15 p.m., TNT. Families can again savor this classic.

– “Frosty the Snowman,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. A cartoon string starts with this pleasant trifle. It's followed
by the weak “Frosty Returns” at 8:30 and the pretty good “The
Story of Santa Claus” at 9.

– “Wipeout,” 8 p.m., ABC. In a
rerun, challenges include “jingle balls,” “nutcracker sweet”
and such.

– “CMA Country Christmas,” 9-11
p.m., ABC. Here's a rerun of a concert that catches a wide range. Amy
Grant, the contemporary Christian star, is there; so is her husband
Vince Gill, but he's singing with Miss Piggy. Brian Setzer, the
former Stray Cats swinger, is there; so are “American Idol”
alumni ScottyMcCreery, Lauren Alaina and Kellie Pickler. Others
include Keith Urban, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Darius Rucker,
plus Sugarland, Rascal Flatts and Little Big Town.

– “Soul Surfer,” 9-11 p.m.,
Starz. After losing her arm to a shark at 13, Bethany Hamilton
returned to surfing competitions. That story is competently told
here, with AnnaSophia Robb starring.

TV column for Friday, Dec. 16


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “Ice Age: A
Mammoth Christmas,” 9 p.m., Fox.

Like the “Ice Age” movies, this
starts with Scrat seeking a yummy nut. He keeps failing in funny
ways.

Then it's on to main story: Sid the
sloth (John Leguizamo) has broken the Christmas rock that's savored
by the family of Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano). Fearing he's on the
naughty list, he rushes to find Santa. It's a fun special, part of a
two-hour block rerunning recent animated shows.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “The Last
Lions,” 8-10 p.m., Nat Geo Wild.

For 30 years, Dereck and Beverly
Joubert have been consummate filmmakers in Africa. Their
documentaries offer beautiful filming, intelligent narration and a
point of view.

In their lifetime, say the Jouberts (55
and 54), the lion population has gone from 450,000 to 20,000. This
lovely film – part of “Big Cat Week” through Saturday –
symbolizes that, as a widowed lioness fights for survival with her
cubs. There are moments of deep tragedy, alongside stirring triumph.

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

The first half of this four-week
mini-series was repulsive, as Freddie (Tom Hardy) careened drunkenly
and brutally through London crime life. Last week concluded with him
raping Maggie (Charlotte Riley), who is his wife's sister and the
wife of his cousin Jimmy.

They were repugnant episodes, but they
set up some powerful drama. Riley and Hardy – who became engaged
after starring in the 2009 “Wuthering Heights” – do brilliant
work.

Tonight, we jump ahead five years.
Maggie hasn't told anyone that Freddie is her son's father. The
cousins' drug business nears a crisis. Then a horrific event propels
us to next week's fierce finale.

Other choices include:

– “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,”
8-10 p.m., ABC. For James and Jackie Rhodes, everything changed when
their daughter had a debilitating brain tumor. They brought her into
their Columbus, Ohio, home with her children; seven people shared a
941-square-foot home. Now the team rebuilds it.

– “Chuck,” 8 p.m., NBC. Chuck
faces a gorgeous foe (Rebecca Romijn), while trying to stop a
computer virus. Meanwhile, a date night turns into an adventure for
his sister and brother-in-law.

– “Happiness Is a Warm Blanket,
Charlie Brown,” 8 p.m., Fox. Here's a rerun of a cartoon that
reached video stores this spring and Fox on Thanksgiving. Linus
considers getting rid of his security blanket.

– “Christmas in Washington,” 8
p.m., TNT. For 30 years, these concerts have offered gorgeous music
in a lush setting. This time, there's lots of youth power – Justin
Bieber, Victoria Justice, The Band Perry – plus Jennifer Hudson,
Cee Lo Green and host Conan O'Brien.

– “Great Performances,” 9 p.m.,
PBS (check local listings). The San Francisco Ballet performs “Little
Mermaid,” but don't expect a cheery “Nutcracker.” Choreographer
John Neumeier created an aching version in which Hans Christian
Andersen – mourning an unspoken love for a man – writes a story
of a mermaid's unrequited love. Beautifully produced, this goes from
melancholy to sharply dramatic.

– “The Simpsons,” 9:30 p.m., Fox.
Here's a quick rerun of this year's Christmas episode. It flashes
forward 30 years, with Bart and Lisa as parents in a high-tech
Springfield.

– Blue Bloods, 10 p.m., CBS. Danny is
investigated, after shooting an undercover policeman.

TV column for Thursday, Dec. 15


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “A Charlie Brown
Christmas,” 8 p.m. ABC.

One of TV's greatest moments sprang
from inattention. The cartoon was being being rushed on a tight
deadline, to be ready for Christmas of 1965; there was no time for
the network to nit-pick.

So producers broke all the rules: They
had primitive animation … and children doing the voices … and a
spare, jazzy score … and even some scripture. The result, funny and
moving and more, is a masterpiece. Wrapping up the hour is the
seven-minute “Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa.”

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

For the second straight week,
“Community” has a Christmas episode that's fresh, fun and
imaginative. Last week was the musical “Glee” take-off; tonight
is a rerun of last year's show.

Abed (Danny Pudi) is a fan of Christmas
and its TV specials. Now he finds himself in a stop-motion animated
special. Back in the real world, his friends fret about his mental
state. It's another clever episode, proof that “Community” –
not on next-month's mid-season schedule – deserves to survive.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Burn Notice”
season finale, 10 p.m., USA.

After years of being “burned” and
ignored by the CIA, Michael is finally trusted by the agency. He's
running a task force, with key people (Dean Cain, Kristanna Loken)
working for him.

The timing, however, is tricky: This is
when he should be helping Fiona escape Anson's blackmail grip. The
episode bring nobility and big explosions. It has an action-movie
feel, which makes sense: It was directed by Renny Harlin, who was big
in '90s action films, including “Die Hard 2” and “Cliffhanger.”

Other choices include:

– “Finding Nemo” (2003), 6:30
p.m., and “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), 9 p.m., ABC Family. Two
animated classics air back-to-back. “Nemo” is from Pixar;
“Beauty” proved that in the years before Pixar, Disney could
occasionally (not too often) make a great film.

– “The X Factor,” 8 p.m., Fox. We
find which of the final four contestants will be in the finale.

– “The Year With Katie Couric,”
9-11 p.m., ABC. Katie Couric's new contract ranges from a daily talk
show (syndicated to individual stations next fall) to prime-time
specials like this one. Tonight ranges from serious topics – “Arab
Spring” uprisings, the death of Osama bin Laden – to Kardashians.

– “The Office,” 9 p.m., NBC. In a
rerun, Pam is convinced that Jim finds her replacement attractive.

– “Whitney,” 9:30 p.m., NBC. This
rerun has Whitney and Chris compete to see who's more romantic.

– “The Mentalist,” 10 p.m., CBS.
In a rerun, Patrick Jane loses his memory and reverts to his old
life, conning people into thinking he has mental magic.

– “Impractical Jokers” debut, 10
and 10:30 p.m., TruTV. Four young guys give each other challenges,
then give the loser a punishment. Some moments are clever, others are
just crude … including the punishment of having someone pick up a
dog-dropping with his bare hands.

– “It's Always Sunny in
Philadelphia,” 10 p.m., FX. This sometimes-excellent show ends its
season with a bleak episode. The second half of a
high-school-reunion tale, it makes the characters so cruel and
pathetic that there's no fun in watching them.