TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 14

“Star” debut, 9 p.m., Fox.

There's every reason
to hope this will become a terrific series when it returns next
month. It's produced, directed and co-written by Lee Daniels, who has
turned “Empire” into a tasty blend of great music and sharp (if
overwrought) drama. Again, he focuses on the fast-flash music

This opener,
however, is mixed. The music is great; whether from a new trio in a
tawdry club or Queen Latifah in a church, it soars. The drama,
however, is so-so. Each person has a sharp attitude, until it becomes
monotone. Loud voices cancel each other out; we never quite know
these interesting women.

“Secrets of the Dead,” 10 p.m., PBS.

The story of Vincent
Van Gogh's ear has been told for generations. It's familiar ... and,
we now learn, mostly inaccurate. What historians got wrong has been
corrected by an amateur with great curiosity.

Bernadette Murphy is
an Englishwoman who lived in the French town where the deed was done.
She studied for almost a decade ... finding the final clue in
California, in author Irving Stone's long-ago research. She found
that history was wrong about the reason for cutting the ear ... how
much was cut ... and whom he gave it to. It's a fascinatig story,
spiced with glimpses of great art and a troubled artist.

ALTERNATIVE: “Survivor” finale, 8 p.m., CBS, with reunion at 10.

After an intense
battle of the generations, it's remained even – three finalists
each from the “Gen X” and “Millennials” tribes.

On the younger side
are Hannah Shapiro, 24, a barista and the only female finalist; Adam
Klein, 25, manager of a homeless shelter; and Jay Starrett, 27, a
real-estate agent. Their elders are Ken McNickle, 33, a model; Bret
LaBelle, 42, a police sergeant; and David Wright, also 42, who's
written TV comedies, mostly “Family Guy” and other cartoons.
Tonight, one of them wins a million dollars.

ALTERNATIVE II: The greats, cable.

On a night when we
don't really need it, cable reruns some all-time great moments. TNT
has “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) at 5:45 p.m., then “How the
Grinch Stole Christmas” at 8 and 8:30. Ironically, they're
surrounded by “Fred Claus” (2007) – which is merely fairly good
-- at 3:10, 9 and 11:30 p.m.

Need more greatness?
There's “Fargo” (1996) at 7:15 p.m. on Showtime” and the
animated “Happy Feet” (2006) on Disney.

Other choices

“Empire,” 8
p.m., Fox. To boost the election image of her boyfriend Marco, Cookie
plans a free park concert. Alas, she has new image problems in this
“fall finale,” when the FBI freezes Empire's assets.

“The Top 12
Greatest Christmas Movies,” 8 p.m., CW. We'd accept “Top 12” or
“Greatest” ... but “Top 12 Greatest”? Expect a thoroughly
redundant holiday. And after the feel-good moments here, there are
feel-frisky moments at 9 p.m., with a rerun of the “Victoria's
Secret Fashion Show.”

“A Pentatonix
Christmas Special,” 8 p.m., NBC. The Grammy-winning group sings
holiday songs, joined by Kelly Clarkson, Reba McEntire and more.

“SNL Christmas,”
9-11 p.m., NBC. Here are sketches from four-plus decades. The entire
night (starting with Penatonix) will be rerun Saturday.

“Modern Family,”
9 p.m., ABC. A string of four new seasonal sitcom episodes starts at
8 p.m. and peaks here. Luke and Manny volunteer to run the school
dance, then face a crisis. Also, their moms chaperone and try
matchmaking an overbearing mother (Vanessas Bayer) and the school

Survivor,” 10 p.m., ABC. For Kirkman, the accidental president,
problems keep growing. He finds new doubts about his
vice-presidential choice. Also, he begins to suspect there's a
traitor in the White House; Emily (Italia Ricci), his young aide, is
asked to quietly investigate.

finale, 10 p.m., Sundance. For four quietly passionate seasons, we've
followed Daniel, freed after 19 years in prison for a murder he
didn't commit. Now others work for exoneration, as he struggles with
a menial job, a departed love and halfway-house living. “Rectify”
ends as we might have guessed it would – brilliantly written and
acted, but deeply understated. “More people have tried to help me
than harm me,” Daniel says. “The harm just seems to leave a
deeper mark.”





TV column for Tuesday, Dec. 13

“New Girl,” 8:30 p.m., Fox; and more.

This is one of those
nights when Christmas episodes pile up. At 8 p.m., are four straight
on ABC and two more on Fox, including this one that's mostly so-so,
but ends wonderfully.

Jess (Zoey
Deschanel), a superfan of the holiday, is trying to organize a
secret-Santa plan, so each person buys only one gift and makes it
special. Naturally. Secrets dissolve, disappointments build ... and
then we get the sort of big finish that keeps us trying

II: “The Voice” finale, 9-11 p.m., NBC.

On Monday, the final
four had their last chance to gather votes. We can catch a recap of
those performances from 8-9 p.m., then – after lots of music –
find out who's the winner.

Adam Levine –
who's had three of the show's 10 champions – has half the
finalists, Billy Gilman and Josh Gallagher; Blake Shelton, with four
champions, has Sundance Head. And the necomers? Alicia Keys has teen
We McDonald; Miley Cyrus had two people in the final eight, but both
were ousted.

ALTERNATIVE: Music events, cable.

Already scheduled
for tonight was a “Rock the Troops” event at 9 p.m. on Spike
(which repeats it at 11), VH1 and Comedy Central. It includes music
by Nick Jonas, Flo Rida, Lynyrd Skynurd and more, plus comedy people
– Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Rob Riggle and Keegan-Michael Key.

Now added is Dolly
Parton's concert for her fire-damaged Smoky Mountains homeland. From
8-11 p.m. ET on Great American Country, AXS, RFD and Heartland, it
has Parton, Reba McEntire, Chris Stapleton, Kenny Rogers, Chris
Young, Alison Krauss, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and more.

Other choices

“The Nutcracker,”
7 a.m. ET, Ovation. Here's the Bolshoi Ballet, which is good at these
things. That's part of the annual “Battle of the Nutcrackers,”
with viewers picking one to rerun at 7 p.m. Dec. 21. Coming are
Mariinsky on Wednesday, Wiener Staatsballett on Thursday and
Semperoper on Friday.

“NCIS,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. It's time for another episode focusing on Ducky (David McCallum,
83). A new case sheds light on his late mother ... and has him
reflecting on a choice he made 37 years ago.

Nine-Nine,” 8 p.m., Fox. If you think you're having trouble finding
the right Christmas present, imagine seeking “Captain Latvia” --
an action figure that's not very popular outside Lativia. That, plus
a bungled Christmas-carol competition, creates a modestly funny

“The Real
O'Neals,” 9 p.m., ABC. Obsessed with winning the Christmas choir
contest, Eileen gives the solo to a newcomer instead of her son. That
brings resentment ... and then a possible romance.

“Fresh Off the
Boat,” 9:30 p.m., ABC. Two popular holiday-time stories take turns
here: Evan, Eddie's little brother, is accidentally left home alone;
and Marvin (Ray Wise) takes a spill and thinks he's visited by the
ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 10 p.m., CBS. A Marine corporal has died off-duty, in an
amateur auto race. The team suspects foul play.

“Frontline,” 10
p.m. to midnight, PBS (check local listings). Over two Tuesdays, PBS
will rerun its historical view of the era that began with the rise of
Jesus and (in next week's conclusion) saw Christianity become the
official religion of the Roman empire.

TV column for Monday, Dec. 12

“The Voice,” 8-10:01 p.m., NBC.

The final four have
their last chance to impress us and gather viewer votes, before
Tuesday's finale. And unlike most times, two of them were familiar to
viewers before the season started.

Sundance Head –
the son of singer Roy Head (whose “Treat Her Right” was No. 2 on
the Billboard chart) -- reached the “American Idol” top 16 in
2007. Billy Gilman had two songs in the country top-10 before he was
a teen-ager. Now he's 28 and on Adam Levine's team, as is Josh
Gallagher. Head is with Blake Shelton and teen singer We McDonald is
with Alicia Keys, leaving Miley Cyrus with no one.

II: “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), 7 and 9:15 p.m., TNT; or “Meet
Me in St. Louis” (1944), 8 p.m. ET, Turner Classic Movies.

Here is Judy Garland
at a career peak. She was 17 for the debut of “Oz,” a classic
blend of adult intelligence and childlike whimsy. The American Film
Institute has it No. 10 among all-time greats.

And she was 21 for
the opening of “St. Louis,” directed by then-emerging Vincente
Minnelli. They would marry the next year and divorce in '51, the year
he triumphed with “An American in Paris.” With “St. Louis,”he
showed his touch with gorgeous colors and great music. “The Trolley
Song” was nominated for an Oscar and the film introduced the
classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

ALTERNATIVE: “The Level,” any time,

Here's a vital
ingredient of some great mysteries: Give the hero a small secret;
maintaining it requires the lie to grow until it becomes unmanageble.
That happens here to Nancy (the terrific Karla Crome), a good English
cop whose secret grows as she's thrust into a hometown murder case.

As the story keeps
surprising us, as Nancy finds secrets about her family and herself.
New episodes will be released on five more Mondays, with one flaw –
a wildly unlikely undercover effort – and a lot of strong, deeply
layered moments.

Other choices

“Back to the
Future” trilogy, 5 p.m. (1985), 7:30 (1989) and 10 p.m. (1990),
AMC. On the same night that Lea Thompson visits “Scorpion,” catch
her in these thoroughly entertaining films.

“The Great
Christmas Light Fight,” 8 and 9 p.m., ABC. Each hour has four more
families with holiday mega-displays. The first hour ranges from a
Disney-inspired display to one with a 9/11 theme. The second includes
a tree with more lights than the one at Rockefeller Center.

“Man With a Plan,”
8:30 p.m., CBS. When a blizzard keeps the family from catching
Christmas at the grandparents' house, Adam and Andi scramble to
prevent a holiday disaster.

“Greatest Holiday
Commercials,” 9 p.m., CW. Here's a countdown of the top 12
commercials, plus others. That follows an 8 p.m. rerun of the cartoon
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

“The Odd Couple,”
9:30 p.m., CBS. Felix's mom (Jessica Walter) – a perfectionist like
him – can't do this year's Christmas party. That throws him into a
party-planning frenzy.

“Scorpion,” 10
p.m., CBS. These days, the La Brea Tar Pits is a tourist spot, where
people can see the place that consumed ancient mammals; in this
story, a woman is trapped there and running out of oxygen. Also,
Paige's mom (Lea Thompson) returns.

“The Great
American Baking Show,” 10 p.m., ABC. Here's a transplanted rerun of
Thursday's episode, focusing on “bread week.”

"America's Next Top Model" season-opener, 10 p.m., VH1. For a dozen years, this persisted on the CW network and its predecessor, UPN. It was cancelled after choosing its 22nd semi-annual winner ... but now returns, a year and eight days after its CW finale. Tyra Banks continues to produce with Ken Mok, but now will make only occasional appearances. Singer Rita Ora takes over as host, with Ashley Graham, Drew Elliott and Law Roach as judges. 

TV column for Sunday, Dec. 11

“Frozen” (2013), 8-10:04 p.m., ABC.

December is a time
for families to snuggle up and watch shows together. Here a gem that
is ideal. It started with a Hans Christian Andersen tale, then added
all the Disney touches -- gorgeous artwork, a funny snowman and great
songs handled by gifted singers.

Idina Menzel and
Kristen Bell star, joined by Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Santino
Fontana and more. The film won Academy Awards for best animated
feature and for the powerhouse ballad, “Let It Go.”

II: “The Dick Van Dyke Show – Now in Living Color!” 8-9 p.m.,

We're not too crazy
about the title, with its exclamation mark and it's “Living Color.”
(Is there a “dead color,” a “zombie color,” a ...) Still,
this is part of a great trend: By adding color by computer, CBS has
introduced new generations to some great comedy.

“I Love Lucy”
was first; now here are two favorite episodes of the Van Dyke show.
The first has a flashback, with Rob and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore)
recalling their son's birth. The second has hilarious moments, when
Laura tells the world that Rob's boss (Carl Reiner, the show's
creator) has a toupee.

ALTERNATIVE: “Critics Choice Awards,” 8-11 p.m., A&E.

Each year, award
shows seem to keep nudging earlier. Now this one jumps to the front
of the line, running five weeks earlier than it did last year ... and
before some of the films have reached theaters.

Viewers may
recognize “Sully,” “Arrival” or “Hacksaw Ridge”; other
best-picture nominees are “Fences,” “La La Land,” “Lion,”
“Loving,” “Moonlight,” “Hell or High Water” and
“Manchester by the Sea.” TV has familiar titles (“Game of
Thrones,” etc.), plus newcomers for best comedy (“Atlanta,”
“Fleabag”) and drama (“This is Us,” “Westworld,” “The
Crown,” “Stranger Things”).

ALTERNATIVE II: “Great Performances,” 9-11 p.m., PBS (check local

Here is amazing TV –
perfectly filmed and acted and (we're told) quite well-written.
Still, that doesn't mean it's for everyone. It's Shakespeare's “Henry
VI, Part I,” starting a three-Sunday “Hollow Crown” series.
Those of us not steeped in old-England history and verbiage will have
to scramble to keep up.

Let it wash over
you, without worrying about details. Director Dominic Cooke has made
this violent tale poundingly cinematic and has a stunning cast. Hugh
Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) is especially terrific, as a
good-hearted man who loves both his scheming wife and his
light-headed king.

Other choices

“Ho Ho Holiday
Special,” 7 p.m., Nickelodeon. Here's a rerun of last year's
special, which found a way to lump most of the channel's stars into
one hour. Invited to a big party, they find that it's a trap set by a
madman (voiced by Diedrich Bader). Now they must figue out how to

“The Simpsons,”
8 p.m., Fox. Spending Christmas with the Simpsons, Krusty tries to
impress his daughter. Meanwhile, little Maggie is haunted by a creepy

“Legends &
Lies,” 8 p.m., Fox News. This views the oft-overlooked blacks in
the Revolutionary War.

“Son of Zorn,”
8:30, Fox. The handy thing about being the child of a mixed marriage
is you might get more gifts. Alan's mom has Christmas; his dad has
Grafelnik, the Zephyrian holiday of revenge.

“Madam Secretary,”
9 p.m., CBS. Elizabeth rushes to prevent a war between Israel and
Iran. Also, her daughter hopes the president's chief of staff will
recommend her for Harvard Law School.

“Love You Like
Christmas,” 9-11 p.m., Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. A piano
teacher (Lindy Booth) learns her student's father is trying to buy
the school. That's one of three new Christmas films. Also at 9, Ion's
“A Husband For Christmas” has a marriage of convenience. At 8,
Hallmark's “Love You Like Christmas” sees car trouble dump a busy
executive (Bonnie Somerville) in Christmas Valley.

“Elementary,” 10
p.m., CBS. Shinwell has been framed for a gang-related killing.
Holmes and Watson have three days to clear him, before he's sent back
to prison.

TV column for Saturday, Dec. 10

“Mary Poppins” (1964), 8-11 p.m., ABC.

By 1964, the Disney
studio had lost its joy; it hadn't had a memorable movie in three
years. What was Walt Disney doing during this time? He was dabbling
with his theme parks ... and preparing this dream project. Starting
with a book about a magical nanny, he added songs and animation.

The result remains a
delight for any age. It drew 13 Academy Award nominations (including
best picture), winning two for its music and one apiece for its
editing, its special effects and Julie Andrews.

II: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” 7:30 p.m., TBS, and more

This is a night
overflowing with family delights. That peaks with this gem, which
links a great author (Dr. Seuss) and an animation master (Chuck

Yes, it's already
aired once this season on NBC and will return there at 8 p.m. Dec.
23; it will also be on TNT at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Still, you can catch
it now in an animation evening: On TBS, try the wonderful “Lego
Movie” (2014) at 5:30 p.m. and “Grinch” at 7:30; then go to CBS
for the season's second run of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
(8), “Frosty the Snowman” (9) and its sequel (9:30).

ALTERNATIVE: “A Nutcracker Christmas.” 8-10 p.m., Hallmark.

Lilly (Amy Acker)
was a young ballerina who almost starred in “The Nutcracker,”
until her former boyfriend Mark intervened. Now her niece Sophie is
up for the role ... and Mark is the artistic director.

Our weekends are in
holiday overload, including new Hallmark movies every Saturday and
Sunday. But the channel calls this one of its most ambitious, with
dancers in key roles. Sascha Radetsky, the former American Ballet
Theatre soloist and “Center Stage” star, is Mark; Sophia Lucia is

Other choices

“Star Wars”
films, all day, TNT. The prequel trilogy airs at 5:18, 8:15 and 11:22
a.m.; then it's the original trilogy, at 2:28, 5:13 and 8 p.m. For
another classic trilogy, catch the “Toy Story” films at 3:45,
5:45 and 7:50 p.m. on Freeform.

Soccer, 7:30 p.m. ET
preview and 8 p.m. start, Fox. Toronto and Seattle have a one-game
battle for the MLS Cup.

“The Voice,”
8-10 p.m., NBC. On Monday, the show's final four will get their last
chance to grab viewer votes before the Tuesday finale. First, this
rerun helps show how they got there; it's last Monday's show, with
eight acts performing.

More Christmas
movies, 8 p.m. USA has the classic “It's a Wonderful Life”
(1946), which will also return to NBC on Christmas Eve. Lifetime has
Marla Sokoloff in “A Christmas Wedding Date” (2012). And TV One
debuts “Merry Ex-Mas,” rerunning it at 10; single parents are
raising their daughter in separate homes ... complicated when he
plans a holiday-time wedding.

“Christmas With
the Andersons,” 9-11 p.m., Ion. When Mike (George Stults) loses his
job shortly before the holiday, he and Caroline (Christy Romano)
expect to cancel Christmas for their family. Then odd Aunt Katie
(Julie Brown) arrives with different ideas.

“Dirk Gently's
Holistic Detective Agency” season-finale, 9 p.m., BBC America.
There are two good reasons to catch this hour from the start: In the
early minutes, Todd (Elijah Wood) gives an explanation of what's
happened so far; it's a weird delight. Also, the crises are settled
early, leaving several minutes to set up the second season. And yes,
there will be a second season of this neatly daft nonsense.

“Saturday Night
Live,” 11:29 p.m., NBC. After a long hot streak, “SNL” finally
had a so-so episode last week. Now it has another new one, its ninth
in 11 weeks; John Cena makes his debut as host, with Maren Morris as
music guest.