TV column for Sunday, Jan. 23


TODAY'S MUST-SEE: Football, 3 p.m. ET
Fox and 6:30 p.m. ET CBS.

The pro playoffs were jolted last week,
when both top-seeded teams lost to sixth seeds. The New England
Patriots fell to the New York Jets, 28-21; the Atlanta Falcons were
crushed by the Green Bay Packers, 48-21.

Now we learn which teams will be in the
Super Bowl. First, the Packers are at the Chicago Bears, then the
Jets are at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Big ratings are expected. That's why
CBS has a new “Hawaii Five-0” afterward – and why there are
reruns on NBC (“Sex and the City,” 2008, 8-11 p.m.) and ABC
(“Desperate Housewives” and “Brothers & Sisters,” 9-11
p.m.).

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “Nature,” 8
p.m., PBS.

For generations, David Attenborough and
other wildlife filmmakers have focused on New Guinea's spectacular
“birds of paradise.”

Now the New Guinea people have their
own scientists, studying the birds. Attenborough, 84, narrates a
gorgeous film about their efforts.

ALSO TONIGHT:

– “Mean Girls” (2004) and “Mean
Girls 2,” 6 and 8 p.m., ABC Family. First is the excellent Lindsay
Lohan movie, written by Tina Fey. Then a new sequel (rerunning at 10
p.m.) has another high school newcomer facing mean beauties. That
film starts well, then deteriorates. It ends with wretched football
scenes, not even explaining why there are six players on one team and
five on the other.

– “The Simpsons,” 7 and 8 p.m.,
Fox. First is a rerun, with Lisa investing in Nelson's scheme. Then a
new episode has Bart willing to sell state secrets, to get a dirt
bike.

– “Masterpiece Classic,” 9-10:30
p.m., PBS (check local listings). Last week, the elegant “Downton
Abbey” ended with odd melodrama: Mary – the earl's eldest
daughter – had sex with an assertive guest, then moved the body
when he died in bed. Tonight, we see hints of aftershocks, amid
quieter stories – a health crisis, a career ambition and potential
romances – among the help.

– “Backyard Wedding,” 9 p.m.,
Hallmark. Alicia Witt stars in this romance, which debuted Saturday.

– “Big Love,” 9 p.m., HBO. Now
that he's in the legislature, Bill hopes to bring some social help to
people in polygamous marriages. Instead, he keeps finding noisy
trouble, in an overwrought hour.

– “Californication,” 9 p.m.,
Showtime. When Hank collapsed last week while writing a note to his
daughter, it seemed like a suicide attempt. That brings some
(temporary) warmth from his ex-wife.

– “Episodes,” 9:30, Showtime. In
a fairly good episode, Beverly fumes when her husband starts a
friendship with the actor (Matt LeBlanc, playing a variation on
himself) who may ruin their show.

– “Hawaii Five-0,” about 10 p.m.
ET (after football), CBS. Hoping to grab a huge post-football
audience, CBS transplants “Five-0,” with one of its bigger
stories: A tsunami is heading to Hawaii … and the head of the
Tsunami Warning Center is missing.

– “Shameless,” 10 p.m., Showtime.
As this well-made series unfolds, we start to admire the qualities of
the kids, amid their dad's shamelessness. Tonight, they cover up his
social security scam.

– “Master Class,” 10 p.m., Oprah
Winfrey Network. After the first night of the “American Idol”
season, it was clear that Simon Cowell will be missed. Here, he's
profiled by Oprah Winfrey.

TV column for Saturday, Jan. 22


TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: “Blades of
Glory,” 9-11 p.m., ABC.

This idea must have seemed riotously
funny at first: Two male figure-skaters, bitter rivals, find their
careers crumbling. They reluctantly become the first same-sex pairs
team.

Will Ferrell and Jon Heder get some big
sight gags. There's an abundance of comedy talent (including
husband-and-wife Will Arnett and Amy Poehler), plus glimpses of real
skating stars – Scott Hamilton as a sportscaster, Nancy Kerrigan,
Brian Boitano, Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming as officials.

The five people toiling on the script
weren't able to craft a complete comedy. Still, it has its moments.

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE II: “Backyard
Wedding,” 9-11 p.m., Hallmark; repeats Sunday.

If Hallmark had its way, it would be
Valentine's Month, not merely a day. The cable network has three new
romance movies set for Feb. 4-12, so this one is rushing the season a
bit.

Alicia Witt stars as someone who eloped
with the impulsive boy-next-door, then changed her mind and had it
annulled. Now she's marrying a steady, dependable business chap;
things are complicated by the return of her almost-husband. Frances
Fisher and Markie Post play her mother and aunt.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “An Idiot
Abroad” debut, 10 p.m., Science Channel; preview at 9:30.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the
“Office” creators, seem convinced that their friend Karl
Pilkington is a fool. Indeed, “The Ricky Gervais Show” (Fridays
on HBO) consists almost entirely of Karl talking and his mates
laughing.

We disagree and find folk wisdom in
Karl. Either way, however, this new show is enjoyable.

Pilkington travels the world, following
instructions from the others, and throws in his comments. Tonight, he
visits the Great Wall of China, which he decides is just “The
Alright Wall of China.” By the end of the hour, we like the wall a
lot and Karl even more.

Other choices include:

– “Sarah Palin's Alaska,” 2 p.m.
to 3 a.m., TLC. Here's a rerun marathon. The series opener airs atg 8
and 11 p.m.; the Gosselin family visits at 5.

– “CSI: Miami,” 8 p.m., CBS. In a
rerun, the only witness to an abduction is blind. He can only relate
what he heard.

– “Mean Girls” (2004), 8-10 p.m.,
ABC Family. A sequel debuts Sunday on this cable channel, so you
might want to catch the original now. Tina Fey wrote a clever script
and took a supporting role as a teacher. The sharp cast includes
Lindsay Lohan as the good girl and Rachel McAdams as a meanie.

– “The Mentalist,” 9 p.m., CBS.
In 2008, Leslie Hope (Jack's “24” wife) played Kristina Frye, who
claimed to be a psychic; Patrick Jane, a former fake psychic, was
skeptical. This rerun is the first of three episodes that brought her
back. They team to solve the abduction of a human-rights activist.

– “Law & Order: Los Angeles,”
9 p.m., NBC. In the rerun of a lame episode, the former member of a
Manson-type gang has been killed. Suspects include her former
cellmate.

– “Law & Order: Special Victims
Unit,” 10 p.m., NBC. This rerun has a rape victim disappearing from
the hospital. The assistant district attorney (Sharon Stone) insists
there's no case if she can't be found.

– “Saturday Night Live,” 11:29
p.m., NBC. In this rerun, Robert DeNiro hosts, with music by Ditty
Dirty Money. DeNiro handled comedy skillfully at the Golden Globes,
but had weak material here.

TV column for Friday, Jan. 21


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “Medium”
finale, 8 p.m., CBS.

After seven years, two networks and an
Emmy (for Patricia Arquette), this show ends. Like “Six Feet
Under,” “Mad About You” and more, it found a way to look far
into the characters' future.

As the episode starts, Allison is
becoming a lawyer, Joe has a new job and the two are splitting. Stick
around, though; this hour will keep pushing forward for almost a
half-century.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “Fringe,” 9
p.m., Fox.

It's been 15 years since “X-Files”
showed that a fantasy show could survive on Fridays. Since then, the
night has been littered with worthy failures. Now the superb “Fringe”
arrives with new episodes.

The alternate-world story has finished
and the Observers are back; one wants a mistake to be corrected.
Meanwhile, two gifted actors link when Walter (John Noble) meets the
former keyboardist (Christopher Lloyd) of his favorite 1970s band,
Violet Sedan Chair.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Onion News
Network” debut, 10 p.m., IFC.

A blond teen-ager, up for murder, has
received the worst news: She'll be tried as a black adult.

Her parents are stunned. She should be
treated with dignity “as a photogenic white girl deserves.”

Instantly, ONN serves notice: This will
be as witty as the delightful Onion newspaper.

At times, its satirical, mocking news
shows and more; at times, it's silly. Throughout, it's hilarious, the
latest step as IFC (Independent Film Channel) brings brilliant,
short-form humor to 10 p.m. weekdays.

Other choices include:

– “Kitchen Nightmares”
season-opener, 8 p.m., Fox. Running a family restaurant has its
problems, Gordon Ramsay finds tonight. The New Jersey brothers who
own the Spanish Pavillion spend more time arguing than noticing that
the food is raw. He orders a makeover of the food and the ambience.

– “CSI:NY,” 9 and 10 p.m., CBS.
Here are reruns of the season's first two episodes. First, a new
staffer (Sela Ward) arrives and discovers a body; that stretches
credibility, but holds your attention. Then the team must determine
if a young woman really was strangled during an Internet chat.

– “Piers Morgan Tonight,” 9 p.m.,
CNN. The first, star-stuffed week wraps up with George Clooney.

– “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena”
debut, 10 p.m., Starz. “Spartacus” ended its ambitious season
with a revolt that killed gladiator-owner Batiatus. Now we flash back
for six episodes to when Batiatus and his scheming wife (Lucy
Lawless) were creating their tattered empire. We also meet a new
hero.

– “Gold Rush: Alaska,” 10 p.m.,
Discovery. Things are still going badly for the Oregon guys who have
bet everything on finding gold in Alaska's Porcupine Creek. If they
don't raise money this week, the wives and kids will be sent home.
It's a tough hour that ends with one man crumbling and leaving.

– “Portlandia,” 10:30 p.m., IFC.
Here's the perfect companion to Onion News Network. Fred Armisen
(“Saturday Night Live”) and Carrie Brownstein portray Portland,
Ore., as “a city where young people go to retire.” They break
into a wonderful variety of short sketches; one – with Steve
Buscemi wandering into a women's book store – is hilarious.

– “Comedy Central Presents,” 11
and 11:30 p.m., Comedy Central. The season starts with opposite
comedians. Tom Segura is slow and droll, Michael Kosta is loud and
angry; both are clever. That's preceded by a preview at 9, followed
by reruns of Rob Riggle, Owen Benjamin and Doug Benson.

TV column for Thursday, Jan. 20


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “Parks and
Recreation” season-opener, 9:30 p.m., NBC.

Defying the TV laws of gravity, this
keeps getting better. Part of that is from new cast members, Rob Lowe
(temporarily) and Adam Scott. But mostly, the characters get sharper
and the settings get funnier.

A prime example tonight is a two-team
basketball league. Ron's coaching style suggests Vince Lombardi;
Andy's suggests Charlie Sheen. Tom officiates, with much anger and no
knowledge of rules.

Other plot lines range from Leslie's
efforts to restore the parks budget to Andy's effort to re-woo the
wonderfully deadpan April. It's a dandy brew that gets better in the
weeks ahead.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: More comedies,
8-9:30 p.m., CBS and NBC.

This stretch starts with “The Big
Bang Theory,” at 8 p.m. on CBS; little Wolowitz (5-foot-7) feels
insecure when he meets his girlfriend's previous boyfriend … played
by Rick Fox, 6-foot-7. It concludes with “The Office,” at 9 p.m.
on NBC; Michael awaits word on whether Holly's boyfriend met her
deadline for a proposal.

In between, “Perfect Couples”
debuts at 8:30 on NBC. Like the show itself, these couples are far
from perfect, but have their moments. One duo follows relationship
books, another alternates between lust and rage, the third is kind
of normal. Tonight's game-night scene is hilarious; the rest is OK.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Fairly Legal”
debut, 10 p.m., USA.

Kate (Sarah Shahi) tires of the tangled
legal world that made her father rich. She becomes a mediator.

She's good at it – even talking down
an armed robbery on her way to work. Then circumstance pulls her back
into the firm, with her dad's widow as her boss.

At times, “Legal” seems too quick
and slick. Still, it has the bright USA look and a character to root
for.

Other choices include:

– “American Idol,” 8 p.m., Fox.
The show moves to New Orleans for its second night of auditions.

– “Carlos” (2010), 8 p.m. to 1:35
a.m., Sundance. On Sunday, this won the Golden Globe for best movie
or miniseries, topping “Temple Grandin” and “Pacific” and
more; that left many viewers perplexed. Here's a chance to see
“Carlos” in one gulp, but don't expect too much. Tracing the
crime career of “Carlos the Jackal,” this film (with English
sub-titles) is gritty, violence, dark and uninvolving

– “The Pink Panther” (1963) and
“A Shot in the Dark” (1964), 8 and 10 p.m., Turner Classic
Movies. Three immense talents merged here. Peter Sellers – a master
of sight gags and droll British wit – starred. Blake Edwards
directed and co-wrote; Henry Mancini added the wonderful theme. Both
films watch Inspector Clouseau stumble through cases, oblivious of
his own absurdity.

– “Crime Scene Investigation,” 9
p.m., CBS. The murder might have been done via electric chair.

– “Piers Morgan Tonight,” 9 p.m.,
CNN. Ricky Gervais is interviewed. Morgan tends to do these in
advance, so we'll see if there are references to Gervais'
controversial work as Golden Globes host.

– “A President to Remember,”
9:30-11 p.m., HBO. Combining footage from four previous films –
“Primary,” “Crisis,” “Adventures on the New Frontier” and
“Faces of November” – this documentary offers a portrait of
John Kennedy. A Ronald Reagan portrait will follow, Feb. 7.

“The Mentalist,” 10 p.m., CBS. Working with a profiler, Patrick
Jane gets competitive.

TV column for Wednesday, Jan. 19


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “American Idol”
season-opener, 8-10 p.m., Fox.

TV's highest-rated show is back,
drawing curiosity. What will the show be like without Simon Cowell?
How will it do with mega-stars (Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler)
alongside Randy Jackson?

We'll find out tonight, with New Jersey
auditions. Expect a light mood and lots of golden tickets; in seven
cities, a total of 325 people advanced to Hollywood, almost double
the total of some years.

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: “Modern
Family,” 9 p.m., ABC.

On their parents' anniversary, the kids
make breakfast. Then they burst into the room … where their
parents, alas, had already started celebrating.

We haven't seen the rest of the
episode, which has Rachael Harris as a play-date mom whom Mitchell
and Cameron are desperate to please. Still, the anniversary scene and
its aftershocks are hilarious.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Friday Night
Lights,” 9 p.m., 101 Network, DirecTV.

There are only four episodes left, as
“Lights” ends its superb, five-season run.

There's no football game tonight, but
there are powerful personal issues. Coach Taylor has a glittering job
offer from a Florida college. Vince tries to get his starting spot
back, after being benched for obsessing on college scholarships. Luke
ponders life without football and (perhaps) with Becky.

More importantly, Tim has a parole
hearing; Taylor Kitsch re-joins some other splendid actors.

Other choices tonight include:

– “Nova ScienceNow,” 8 p.m., PBS
(check local listings). Pondering a three-year journey to Mars,
astronauts face imposing questions. There are deadly meteoroids,
perilous levels of radiation and more; Neil deGrasse Tyson samples
everything from exercise machines to an eight-year-old pork chop.

– “The Middle,” 8 p.m., ABC.
Brick learns football, so he can watch the Super Bowl with his dad.
That makes Axl – who used to be his dad's football buddy –
jealous.

– “Nova,” 9 p.m., PBS (check
local listings). A four-Wednesday project starts with studying how to
make things stronger. David Pogue ranges from mollusks to a toucan's
beak and a spider's silk.

– “Blue Bloods,” 10 p.m., CBS.
Already a ratings hit on Fridays, “Blood” starts a four-Wednesday
run. Frank (Tom Selleck) re-opens a case that was important to him 25
years ago. His son Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) works with his police
partner (Jennifer Esposito) to solve the murder of a high-end escort.

– “Hot in Cleveland”
season-opener, 10 p.m., TV. Last season ended with Elka (Betty White)
learning her husband was a fence for the Mob. Now she's bickering
with an angry cellmate – played by White's old friend and
colleague, Mary Tyler Moore. It's a wonderful little scene; the rest
of the episode is OK.

– “LA: City of Demons,” 10 p.m.,
Investigation Discovery. We may need legislation, banning authors
from narrating anything. James Ellroy, a mystery novelist, gives a
wretchedly stylized delivery to his overwritten words. That
overshadows the real-life stories – which really weren't very good
anyway. Ellroy relates four murders – three unsolved, one instantly
solved, none with interesting twists.

– “Off the Map,” 10:01 p.m., ABC.
This is something you don't learn about in med school: A 12-foot
anaconda has a photographer in its grip and won't let go. Cheech
Marin is the guest star.

– “Retired at 35” debut, 10:30
p.m., TV Land. With “Hot in Cleveland,” we were hoping TV Land
had found the secret to making old-school comedies. Apparently not;
this show has a dull chap quit his job and live in a retirement
community with his noisy father (George Segal); jokes are loud and
lame.