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.”

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.

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

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.”

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.

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

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.

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.

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 –

– “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.

TV column for Monday, Dec. 12

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: “2 Broke Girls,”
8 and 8:30 p.m., CBS.

Here are two episodes of this dandy
show. In the first, Caroline plans to take jewelry back to an upscale
store; alas, now that she's broke and her dad is disgraced, that
won't be easy.

Then is a rerun, as they break into her
old penthouse. There are great moments, as Max realizes the sheer
excess of Caroline's now-departed world.

return, 8-10 p.m., NBC.

In its six seasons, “Fear Factor”
was just a half-step above torture TV. It had people eat and endure
awful things; the only redeeming traits were the sharp camera work
and the host, Joe Rogan.

Now – after a five-year break –
“Fear” returns. Rogan is back, which is good; the tasks are said
to be crueler than ever, which is bad. The opener has contestants
strapped to the front of a truck and the bottom of a helicopter; it
also has them eat scorpions.

Zach” debut, 8 and 8:30 p.m., Oprah Winfrey Network.

Winfrey's network has had its troubles,
but there was a plus: “Win Your OWN Show” came up with two
likable winners – Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco and Zach Anner, whose show
debuts tonight.

Anner, 27, has lived an adventurous
life despite multiple sclerosis. He grew up in Kenmore, NY, and went
to the University of Texas, where he did cable-TV interviews and
became a “sit-down comedian.” In these episodes, he visits Los
Angeles and then Chicago, hoping to try surfboards and water skis.

Other choices include:

– “Bag of Bones,” 7-11 p.m., A&E.
If you missed the first half of this Stephen King mini-series, don't
fret. It reruns here, leading into the finale at 9. Pierce Brosnan
plays a novelist in mourning, who hopes to recover in a lakeside
home; instead, he meets a dead bluesman and others.

– “12 Dates of Christmas,” 7-9
p.m., ABC Family. Here's another film you might have missed Sunday.
The plot – a chaotic Christmas Eve is repeated over and over –
might seem like a “Groundhog Day” retread. Still, there's a witty
script, a terrific star (Amy Smart) and gorgeous visuals and music.

– “Terra Nova,” 8 p.m., Fox.
Lucas is rushing to finish his mystery device before the arrival of
the 11th group of pilgrims. Meanwhile, troubles with the
“Sixers” (rogues from the sixth group) build; while preparing for
war, Jim and Commander Taylor confront the mole who's helping the

– “Saved,” 8 p.m., Animal Planet.
The fifth episode of this excellent series brings a grim tone. A man
describes decades of agony and addiction after Vietnam; a woman
describes two medical disasters. Eventually, dogs bring love and an
amazing swimming-pool rescue.

– “House,” 9 p.m., Fox. When
smallpox is suspected, the hospital is in lockdown.

– “Vanguard,” 9 p.m., Current TV.
Christof Putzel embedded himself in the Occupy Wall Street camp,
planting gardens and serving meals. He talks to the people there and
views the role of social media.

– “Enlightened,” 9:30 p.m., HBO.
Amy's ex-husband (Luke Wilson) shatters. Then Amy (Laura Dern) tries
being more assertive at work. It's a so-so ending to a season that
once seemed so promising.

– “Rock Center,” 10 p.m., NBC.
Two high-profile reporters appear. Ted Koppel views the lingering
U.S. presence in Iraq. Chelsea Clinton returns to Arkansas, to see
one woman's program to help kids.

TV column for Sunday, Dec. 11

Race” finale, 8 p.m. (or later, with football overrun), CBS.

Still in the running for the
million-dollar prize are three couples – dating (Jeremy Cline and
Sandy Draghi), engaged (Ernie Halvorsen and Cindy Chang) and married
(Marcus and Amani Pollard),

Pollard – a tight end who scored 40
pro-football touchdowns – is the best-known. From 2001-3 – as
Peyton Manning and the Colts moved to the top – he caught 130
passes, 17 of them for touchdowns.

of Christmas,” 8 p.m., ABC Family; repeats at 10.

In its 12th year, the “25
Days of Christmas” line-up tends to be stuffed with reruns. This is
its only new movie; fortunately, it's terrific.

The story is a “Groundhog Day”
variation, with the same chaotic Christmas Eve repeating a dozen
times. But the script peppers that with great touches – some funny,
some warm – and twists.

Amy Smart is wondrous in the lead, with
Mark-Paul Gosselaar solid in support. Under director James Hayman (a
key “Ugly Betty” producer-director) this is gorgeous in its look
and its music; new songs – from Jordin Sparks and Michael Buble,,
respectively – open and close the film.

Time” (8 p.m.) and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005, 9
p.m.), ABC.

Something special happens when a
fanciful, fantasy story is handed to a director who has visual flair.

That was the case with “Charlie.”
Under the deft touch of Tim Burton – with great work from starr
Johnny Depp and composer Danny Elfman – it was the best movie of

And it seems to be the case each week
with “Time,” which jumps between worlds. Tonight in fairy-tale
land, the queen seeks someone to assassinate Snow White. In our
world, the same characters are in Storybrooke, Maine, mourning a
death; now, one of them recalls shards of that other world.

Other choices include:

– “The Simpsons,” 8 p.m., Fox.
This year's Christmas episode flashes forward 30 years. In a
high-tech Springfield, Bart and Lisa – both married, with kids –
ask Homer and Marge for parenting advice.

– “A Very BET Christmas,” 8 p.m.,
BET. Expect lots of music and memories, with Monica, Lloyd, Robin
Thicke, Mindless Behavior, Elle Varner, Jacob Latimore ad Jawan
– “Stalking the Mountain Lion,” 8 p.m., Nat Geo
Wild. The second “Big Cat Week” begins with two hours in the
Rocky Mountains – Casey Anderson pursuing mountain lions, then
Boone Smith studying cougars. At 10 p.m., “Cat Wars” eyes a rare
and violent collision of lions and cheetahs in Africa.

– “The Good Wife,” 9 p.m. (or
later, with overrun), CBS. When a guilty verdict stuns the defense
and the prosecution, Alicia scrambles for a solution.

– “Bag of Bones,” 9-11 p.m., A&E.
In the first half of this miniseries, adapted from a Stephen King
novel., an author (Pierce Brosnan) mourns his wife. At a lakeside
home, he sees a bluesman's ghost.

– “Boardwalk Empire,:”9 p.m.,
HBO. The second season ends with Nucky facing trial.

– “Luck,” 10 p.m., HBO. This
series debuts Jan. 29, but HBO is giving the opener a sneak preview.
David Milch (“Deadwood”) set it in the world of horse-racing;
Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte star.