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.

TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 14


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “The 10 Most
Fascinating People,” 9:31-11 p.m., ABC.

Barbara Walters' annual list mixes the
fresh and the familiar.

Some this year are already way too
familiar – Donald Trump, Simon Cowell and the Kardashians. Walters
also has Katie Perry, baseball's Derek Jeter and a famous
maid-of-honor, Pippa Middleton.

She interviews both halves of the
terrific “Modern Family” couple – Emmy-winner Eric Stonestreet
and the subtly perfect Jesse Tyler Ferguson. There's more, including
the No. 1 “most fascinatig.”

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

A week from its two-night finale, the
show has its final four perform.

Last week, viewers put Marcus Canty and
Rachel Crow in the bottom. Judges deadlocked, so the one with the
fewest viewer votes – Crow, 13 – was sent home.

That leaves Simon Cowell with only one
person left in the running; ironically, it's Melanie Amaro, 19, whom
he ousted, then changed his mind and brought back. L.A. Reid has two
(Canty, 20, and Chris Rene, 28), Nicole Scherzinger has one (Josh
Krajcik, 30), Paula has no one.

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

There's still time to get hooked into
this six-week mini-series, a sleek and smart story made in 2003.

In last week's opener, the death of
Sonia, a young political aide, devastated Stephen Collins, a rising
political star. His friend Cal, a newspaper reporter, comforted him;
then Cal's colleague Della found information linking this to another
death.

Now Della finds her life in danger and
Collins' wife finds her life transforming. Both actresses – Kelly
Macdonald (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Polly Walker (“Rome” and
“Caprica”) – have great moments.

Other choices include:

– “Pixar short films,” 6:30 p.m.
and “Finding Nemo” (2003), 8:30, ABC Family. It's a night to
savor the genius of the Pixar people. First is a collection of their
shorts, some made before “Toy Story” turned Pixar into a
billion-dollar enterprise; then is the lush beauty of “Nemo.”

– “Live From Lincoln Center,”
8-10 p.m., PBS (check local listings). The New York City Ballet
offers a new production of “The Nutcracker.”

– “The Middle,” 8 p.m., ABC. This
starts a night of ABC and NBC comedy reruns. Disappointed (yet again)
by her family, Frankie (Patricia Heaton) goes to her mother
(Oscar-nominee Marsha Mason).

– “Suburgatory,” 8:30 p.m., ABC.
Tessa tries to nudge her schoolmates into good deeds. Alas, their
charity of choice – giving people better complexions – seems sort
of surface.

– “Modern Family,” 9 p.m., ABC.
Just before Stonestreet and Ferguson are deemed “fascinating” by
Walters, catch them in this rerun. The family is at a dude ranch –
foreign turf for Mitchell (Ferguson).

– “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,”
9:30 p.m., Fox. The night's only non-rerun comedy centers on the
dad-daughter dance. Since Matt rarely shows up for Sophie, his
brother is ready in reserve.

– “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,”
10 p.m., CBS. Starting as a one-episode job for Robert David Hall –
a talented actor-musician with prosthetic legs – the role of Dr. Al
Robbins has become a 12-year career, with occasional key episodes.
Tonight, Robbins' wife finds a naked, dead man in their bedroom.

TV column for Tuesday, Dec. 13


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “Hidden City,”
10 p.m., Travel Channel.

Crime and punishment can seem
interchangeable in Boston, Marcus Sakey says. He meets an ex-cop who
became a busy robber. He also tells of the city's most famous mobster
(“Whitey” Bulger, arrested this year at 81 after16 years on the
lam); his brother was president of the state senate.

Sakey, a crime novelist, tells about
this, plus the Boston Strangler and the great Brink's robbery. Like
last week's opener (in his home town of Chicago), this is done with
wit and zest.

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: “The Biggest
Loser” finale, 9-11 p.m., NBC.

After all the sweating and shedding,
three men are in the running for the $250,000 prize.

Antone Davis, 44, was a 330-pound
lineman during his six years in pro football; in the 14 years since
then, his weight swelled to 447. In last week's episode – tape
before a long break – he was 293.

John Rhode, 40, is high school football
coach and special-ed teacher who has gone from 445 to 267. Ramon
Medeiros, 27, is a tattoo artist, who wrestled in high school at 190
pounds, then soared to 355. He was ousted previously, then got back
in by winning a marathon.

Tonight, we'll get a winner. Someone
will win $100,000 and Train will perform the theme song.

TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: “Good Morning,
Killer,” 9-11 p.m., TNT.

The first four “Mystery Movies”
have been oddly erratic. Despite being adapted from best-selling
novels, the stories have been flawed; the production values, however,
have been first-rate.

“Killer” continues that. In April
Smith's story, the FBI gets big breaks, then is inept at closing out.
But director Maggie Greenwald made a great-looking film, with
Catherine Bell perfect in the lead.

Other choices include:

– “William & Kate: Inside the
Royal Marriage,” 8 p.m., NBC. It's been almost eight months since
the royal wedding, so Natalie Morales hosts a re-visit. There are
highlights of that day, plus talks with the wedding photographer, the
bridesmaid-dress designers and such. The hour also looks at William
and Kate's life in Anglesey, the Welsh island where he's based as a
rescue pilot.

– “Christmas With the Mormon
Tabernacle Choir,” 8 p.m., PBS (check local listings; in East Lansing, Mich., this is replaced with a rerun of the "American Masters" portrait of Lucille Ball). A popular
young Mormon – David Archuleta, the “American Idol” runner-up –
solos.

– “Glee,” 8 p.m., Fox. In the
show's Christmas episode, the club is expected to do holiday concerts
at two places. That brings a moral dilemma.

– “New Girl,” 9 p.m., Fox. Zoey
frets when Paul (Justin Long) gives her an expensive gift.

– “CMT Artists of the Year,” 9
and 10:30 p.m., CMT. This year's special honors four solo stars –
Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean – and
the group Lady Antebellum.

– “Raising Hope,” 9:30 p.m.. Fox.
Even after Hope's mom was executed in the pilot film, you kind of
knew the actress (Bijou Phillips) would be back. Here's her fourth
episode – a flashback in which Jimmy imagines what life would be
like if he'd never met her.

– “Unforgettable,” 10 p.m., CBS.
A ghost hunter has been killed. Carrie suspects this involves
something he saw.