TV column for Saturday, Dec. 5

“Just in Time for Christmas,” 8-10 p.m., Hallmark.

Back in 1951,
“Hallmark Hall of Fame” began with an original operetta. Then
came classic plays – Shakespeare, Shaw, Sherwood, Ibsen – and
musicals. “Hall” then switched to movies and made them
beautifully. Oddly, the networks bailed out; “Hall of Fame” films
are now rare and confined to cable.

We could fault this
one for being un-original; its story – we won't spoil any surprises
-- simply flips the plots of Nicolas Cage's “The Family Man”
(2000) and Nancy McKeon's “Comfort and Joy” (2003). Still, “Just
in Time” has a radiant star (Eloise Mumford) and, in the “Hall”
habit, rich craftsmanship.

“Saturday Night Live,” 11:29 p.m., NBC,

After drawing
attention with offbeat hosts, “SNL” is now taking the safe route:
Have a hunk host.

Next Saturday will
be Chris Hemsworth, who was last year's choice as People Magazine's
“sexiest man alive.” Tonight is Ryan Gosling, who could qualify
for that and once made People's “50 hottest bachelors” list. His
music guest is Leon Bridges, whose album reached No. 6 on the
Billboard chart.

ALTERNATIVE: College football, all day.

With some
channel-switching, viewers can watch the four-team championship round
take form. Alabama could clinch one spot if it beats Florida in the
SEC title game at 4 p.m. ET on CBS; Clemson could get another if it
beats North Carolina for the ACC title, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

Oklahoma, which has
already finished its regular season, is likely to be in. That leaves
a spot that's likely to go to the winner of the Big Ten title game --
Iowa and Michigan State, at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

Other choices

“The Year Without
a Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus is Comin' to Town,” 3 and 4
p.m., ABC Family. Here's a cartoon break, in between a batch of
holiday movies. “Polar Express” (2004) follows at 5.

“Elf,” (2013),
7:15 p.m., ABC Family. We get another chance to see one of the better
Christmas comedies. Suddenly realizing he's not an elf, Will Ferrell
leaves the North Pole; he soon discovers real life, confusion,
frustration and a sweet-spirited Zooey Deschanel.

“NCIS,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. While working a murder probe in this rerun, Gibbs is enraged by
a fraudulent charity that preys on families searching for missing

“The Flight Before
Christmas,” 8-10 p.m., Lifetime. When her plane is grounded,
Stephanie (Mayim Bailik) must spend time with a guy she dislikes.
And yes, that's pretty much the plot of “A Christmas Detour,”
which debuted last Saturday on Hallmark. Maybe all the Christmas
ideas have been depleted.

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 9 p.m., CBS. In this rerun, a suspect was wearing the
Navy jacket of an officer who was believed to be killed in
Afghanistan; Pride flies there to investigate.

“Doctor Who”
season-finale, 9 p.m., BBC America. This two-parter began with an
episode (rerunning at 7:45 p.m.) that found the Doctor alone, facing
a fierce foe, The Veil. That's followed at 10:20 by a rerun of last
year's Christmas episode; trapped at an Arctic base, the Doctor and
Clara are under attack.

“Back to the
Future” (1985), 10 p.m., Spike. Here's one of the all-time great
adventures. It wraps up a strong movie night that includes the
offbeat “Princess Bride” (1987) at 7 p.m. on CMT, the intense
“Prisoners” (2013) at 8 p.m. on FX and the action epic “Hunger
Games” (2012) at 10 p.m. on TNT.

TV column for Friday, Dec. 4

“Elf” (2003), 9:30 p.m., ABC Family.

Sure, our TV's are
stuffed with Christmas movies, many of them so-so. Still, some stand
out: A classy new “Hall of Fame” film opens Saturday on Hallmark;
first, this dandy comedy reruns.

Will Ferrell, who's
6-foot-3, plays a guy who suddenly realizes he's not an elf, then
flees the North Pole. It's a fun film, with a strong cast at the Pole
(Ed Asner, Bob Newhart, Peter Dinklage) and in the real world (James
Caan, Mary Steenburgen and a thoroughly charming Zooey Deschanel).

II: “Blue Bloods,” 10 p.m., CBS.

This rerun from
January finds Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) with mixed emotions.

An ex-Marine who
fought in Iraq, he's been a big supporter of veterans; now he learns
that several used their military skills to perfect a robbery. In a
separate story, a famed street artist starts a bomb scare.

ALTERNATIVE: More Christmas, cable.

For ABC Family, this
is an annual obsession, with “25 Days of Christmas” filling the
month. Tonight, “Elf” is preceded by the animated “Santa Claus
is Comin' to Town” at 6 p.m., and then by Vince Vaughn as “Fred
Claus” (2007), Santa's shabby brother, at 7.

“Scrooged” (1988) has some fairly funny moments at 7 and 9 p.m.
on AMC, with Bill Murray as a cold-hearted TV executive. Lifetime has
Tatyana Ali in “Dear Secret Santa” (2013) at 8 p.m. and Ashley
Williams in “Christmas in the City” (2013) at 10.

Other choices

“A Very Murray
Christmas,” any time, Netflix. Bill Murray's version of Christmas
dominates the day – the long-ago Murray in “Scrooged” and the
current one in this offbeat variety show.

mid-season finale, 8 p.m., CW. Widowed from the king of France, young
Mary tries a difficult relationship with Spain's prince. She needs
sexual advice from her former mother-in-law (played by the terrific
Megan Follows) ... who is also scheming to gain power over France as
its regent.

“Last Man
Standing,” 8 p.m., ABC. When his grandson's hockey team needs a new
coach, Mike surprises people with his suggestion – Ryan, who is the
boy's father and Mike's foe in many arguments.

“Dr. Ken,” 8:30
p.m., ABC. Here's another comedy focusing on kids and sports: Ken
tries to push his passion for basketball onto his son ... who would
rather go to a city council meeting about the drought.

“Hawaii Five-0,”
9 p.m., CBS. In another rerun from January, kidnappers plan to
weaponize a hospital patient who has a lethal strain of the bird flu.

“Grimm,” 9 p.m.,
NBC. This is why it's dangerous to explore at the dump: Two people
are killed there by the Rat King. Also, a badly wounded Trubel is
taken to the hospital and Nick finally meets Meisner.

“Marc Maron: More
Later,” 10 p.m., Epix. Maron is wonderfully witty ... but clearly
not the voice of Everyman. “I'm an anxious, angry-ish person” he
says, soon adding: “I just have a river of rage running through
me.” He makes his discomfort entertaining. It's fun to know him ...
and to not be him.

TV column for Thursday, Dec. 3

“The Wiz,” 8-11 p.m., NBC.

Let's credit NBC for
the boldly trying a live musical annually. The first, “Sound of
Music,” was good; the second, “Peter Pan,” wasn't. Now we get
this soulful variation of “The Wizard of Oz.”

The 1976 movie drew
criticism for casting Dianna Ross, then 32, as teen Dorothy; this
version has newcomer Shanice Williams, 19. She's joined by Ne-Yo as
Tin Man, David Alan Grier as Cowardly Lion and Elijah Kelley as
Scarecrow (the Michael Jackson role in the movie). Queen Latifah is
the Wiz, with Common as her gatekeeper and Mary J. Blige as Evilene,
the wicked witch.

II: “CMA Country Christmas,” 9-11 p.m., ABC.

On a night of music
overload, this concert collides with NBC's “Wiz.”

Jennifer Nettles
hosts and performs, with lots of other country people – Martina
McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Charles Kelley (of Lady Antebellum), David
Nail, Dan + Shay and newcomers Mickey Guyton and Kelsea Ballerini.
But there are also plenty of crossover stars – Darius Rucker,
Jewel, Pentatonix, Brian Setzer, Lindsey Stirling and Michael W.

ALTERNATIVE: Animation, 8 p.m., ABC and FX.

ABC reruns two
popular tales. “Toy Story that Time Forgot” (8 p.m.) has our
heroes visit a home where scary toys take their roles too seriously;
“Shrek the Halls” (8:30) has Shrek perplexed by a holiday.

The first is pretty
good, the second is so-so ... but we prefer the splendid “Rio”
(2011), at 8 and 10 p.m. on FX. A tropical pet in Minnesota is told
he may have a mate in Rio de Janeiro. From there, the film explodes
with vibrant colors, music and humor.

Other choices

“The Santa Clause”
(1994), 6 p.m., ABC Family. This clever Tim Allen movie shows up a
lot each December. It's followed by Vince Vaughn's moderately funny
“Fred Claus” (2007) at 8:15.

(2006), 6:45-9 p.m., HBO. On a big night for Broadway musicals, we
get this strong movie version. It drew eight Oscar nominations, with
wins for Jennifer Hudson and the sound-mixing.

“Bones,” 8 and 9
p.m., Fox. We're used to seeing Phyllis Logan as the head housekeeper
in “Downton Abbey,” where the servants are treated with respect.
Now she's in a rerun episode centering on the murder of an immigrant
maid. The second rerun has Booth risking a return of his gambling

“Project Runway
Junior,” 8 and 9 p.m., Lifetime. Last week's opener (rerunning at 7
p.m.) introduced designers ages 13-17. In tonight's first challenge,
they use items found in a car wash; in the second, they split into
teams to prepare a mini-collection. These repeat (in reverse order)
at 10:02 and 11:02.

Football, 8:30 p.m.
ET CBS, with pre-game at 7:30. For the second straight Thursday, the
Lions and Packers get national attention. On Thanksgiving, the Lions
won their third straight; they're at home again, with a 4-7 record;
the Packers lost their fourth game in the last five, but are still
7-4. The game wipes out tonight's “Big Bang Theory,” but reruns
are from 8-10 p.m. on TBS.

“The Originals,”
9 p.m., CW. Desperate to save Cami, Klaus follows devious clues
planted by Aurora.

“Top Chef,” 10
p.m., Bravo. The season opened Wednesday, packing three challenges
into a busy hour. That reruns at 9 p.m., preceded by other reruns
starting at 6 a.m. Then the surviving 16 chefs split into four teams;
each must create a pop-up restaurant in Los Angeles.

TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 2

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” 9 p.m., NBC.

In a splendid start
to the Christmas season, we've had the two greatest specials in three
days. It was Charlie Brown on Monday on ABC (it will return on
Christmas Eve) and the Grinch now.

Each has the perfect
mix of sentiment and humor, with dandy music sprinkled in. “Grinch”
started with the witty Dr. Seuss tale, then added great work from
animator Chuck Jones, narrator Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft
(the voice of Tony the Tiger) singing that he's a mean one, Mr.

II: “Empire” mid-season finale, 9 p.m., Fox.

To pull off its
ambitious blend of music and drama, “Empire” only has 18 episodes
a season. Now it's already to No. 10; after this, we'll have to wait
until March.

Tonight, Lucious
pushes his risky effort to buy a streaming service and Cookie
organizes a concert at the prison where she spent 17 years. Then,
Fox promises, there will be a big closing jolt.

ALTERNATIVE: “Top Chef” season-opener, 10-11:15 p.m., Bravo;
repeats at 11:45.

One of TV's best
reality shows gets off to a zesty start, with three quick challenges.
The second requires three people to work consecutively ... without
knowing what the previous one did; one person never notices that
there's a chicken in the oven.

Then comes the big
one – 17 chefs, each preparing a dish for an outdoor event with 200
food writers. These are likable and varied contestants. Angelina
Bastides is the youngest, a Miami chef at 25; Grayson Schmitz, 32, is
a veteran who competed four years ago. Frances Tariga-Weshnak, 33, is
a Philippines native, hesitant with English; Garrett Fleming uses
phrases like “culinary manifestation.”

ALTERNATIVE II: “Racing Extinction,” 9 p.m., Discovery, Animal
Planet, Science and Discovery Life; repeats at 10:36 on all but
Discovery Life.

It's logical,
scientists say, for some species to go extinct; now, however, that's
happening at 1,000 times the natural rate. Humans are to blame,
directly (poaching) or indirectly (upsetting the eco-balance).

This richly detailed
documentary – nominated for the Sundance Film Festival's grand jury
prize – tackles both problems. The ecology questions are tough,
including the immense impact of beef production; the poaching is
tackled with a bold combination of hidden cameras and protests.

Other choices

“Christmas at
Rockefeller Center,” 8 p.m., NBC. The tree-lighting is preceded by
the Rockettes and lots of music. That includes James Taylor (backed
by trumpeter Chris Botti), Mary J. Blige, Andrea Bocelli, Carly Rae
Jepson and Andy Grammer, plus The Band Perry and The Band of

“Frank Sinatra: A
Man and His Music,” 8 p.m. ET, Turner Classic Movies. This 1965
special is followed by three Sinatra musicals -- “Guys and Dolls”
(1955) at 9 p.m. ET, “Pal Joey” (1957) at 11:45 p.m. and
“Can-Can” (1960) at 1:45 a.m.

“Modern Family,”
9 p.m., ABC. When Gloria wins a free seminar on “cleaning out the
junk drawer” of emotions, reactions vary: Phil and Claire get
competitive; Cam and Mitchell try for a low profile.

“A Saturday Night
Live Christmas,” 9:30-11 p.m., NBC. An all-Christmas prime time
concludes with this collection of past sketches.

“Code Black,” 10
p.m., CBS. One key character is Jesse (Luis Guzman), the nurse who –
with Dr. Leanne Rorish – seems to run the place. Now he has a major
heart attack and she's shattered.

“You're the
Worst,” 10:30 p.m., FXX. With two episodes left this season,
“Worst” has taken a dark turn. Gretchen sinks into despondency
while sometimes-lover Jimmy is with someone she calls a guy's ideal –
a beautiful ski champion who owns a bar. There are funny moments
early ... and key changes ahead.

TV column for Tuesday, Dec. 1

“The Flash,” 8 p.m., CW.

For now, this
mini-network is mostly a youth-fantasy place. On Jan. 21, it will
debut “Legends of Tomorrow,” return “The 100” and nudge its
Thursday fantasy shows to Fridays.

Here's the first
step, introducing three “Legends” characters in a story that
continues on Wednesday's “Arrow.” Tonight, Cisco's girlfriend
Kendra -- unaware she's the new Hawkgirl -- is attacked by Vandal
Savage. She's taken to the “Arrow” turf for protection; also,
Hawkman zooms in.

II: “The Polar Express” (2004) and “How the Grinch Stole
Christmas” (2000), 7 and 9 p.m., ABC Family.

Back in 1996, this
network introduced its “25 Days of Christmas.” In the years
ahead, it would offer new movies – some, including “Snowglobe”
and “Snow,” excellent – and holiday episodes of series.

Now the channel has
such a huge backload that it's adding zero originals this year;
still, a busy line-up begins today. Cartoons start at 1 p.m., with
these movies – both of which will repeat often – at night.
“Polar” is visually impressive, but short on story; “Grinch”
is the Jim Carrey movie version.

ALTERNATIVE:“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” 8 p.m., CBS.

OK, there are times
when you don't need cable to see Christmas classics. CBS still holds
onto this one, which it's been showing since 1964.

We still think it's
overrated – bland animation and a so-so story that was was extended
to fill an hour – but that doesn't seem to matter. It's December
now and viewers will welcome Rudolph back.

ALTERNATIVE II: “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and
“Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce” season-openers, 9 and 10 p.m.,

In the first hour,
we see that the rich and beautiful can have real problems. Kyle
Richards frets about her sister (Kim, a former child star) in rehab
... Yolanda Foster faces an overwhelming illness ... Eileen Davidson
mourns her late father-in-law (Dick Van Patton). On a much lighter
note, Lisa VanderPump must throw the opening pitch at a Dodgers game;
she knows nothing about pitching ... or baseball.

Then we see the
exaggerated woes of “Girlfriends.” Abby is torn between her
good-guy estranged husband and her young-and-handsome boyfriend. In
an overblown scene, that gets decided for her.

Other choices

“The Muppets,” 8
p.m., ABC. Dave Grohl has had plenty of rock triumphs, drumming for
Nirvana and other groups and being guitarist and frontman for the Foo
Fighters. Now he faces the ultimate challenge – a drum-off with
Miss Piggy. Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a duet with Miss Piggy.

'Scream Queens,” 9
p.m., Fox. TV has plenty of holiday episodes, but here's one about
these characters' favorite – Black Friday. They celebrate it,
despite Thanksgiving horrors.

“Chicago Med,” 9
p.m., NBC. When Dr. Rhodes treats a family friend, he meets his
sister and confronts his own troubled past.

\World AIDS Day, 9
p.m., HBO, and 11:35 p.m., ABC. A “Vice” report views research,
talks to George W. Bush about global efforts and follows Bono to
Rwanda. Bono also shows up on ABC, where Jimmy Kimmel has a
“shopathon” fundraiser with Scarlett Johansson, Olivia Wilde, The
Killers and more.

9:01 p.m., CBS. Shifting its Tuesday shows around this week, CBS
reruns the second episode of this new show. Brian has a new job with
the FBI ... and promptly disobeys orders.

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 10:01 p.m., CBS. In a rerun from last March, a new murder
is linked to two unsolved cases. All three victims' names are on a
mural, in a dilapitated part of town.