TV column for Monday, Dec. 22


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Shrek the Halls," 8 p.m., and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005), 8:30-11 p.m., ABC.
This is like the long-ago days, when theaters showed a cartoon and then a family movie.
The opener has Shrek -- who knows nothing about Christmas -- trying to master it for his wife and kids. The story is so-so, but this has quickly become an audience favorite.
That's followed by a great films. Roald Dahl's story of a poor lad and a candy king had already been made into one good movie, the 1971 "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." This version adds the stunning visual touch of director Tim Burton, plus the Johnny Depp as Wonka. It's a classic.
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: "House," 8 p.m., Fox.
The medical mystery in this rerun is fascinating: All the organ recipients from one donor have died -- with one exception. What killed them? What could save that last person?
On top of that is another dandy story: Dr. House has hired a private detective to learn more about the people involved; he hires him to find out what Wilson is up to.
As played by Michael Weston, the detective provides a great, temporary addition to a superb show.
Other choices include:
-- Christmas music, all night. From 8-10 p.m., MyNetwork reruns "The Spirit of Christmas," with music by Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, Brian McKnight, Bo Bice, Tiffany, the Greater Los Angeles Gospel Choir and more. At 10, many PBS stations have "Christmas at Luther," a concert taped at Luther College in Iowa.
-- "Today Looks Back att 2008," 8-9 p.m., NBC. The morning-show people view the year's top news stories and people.
-- "Big Bang Theory," 8 p.m., CBS. A night of CBS reruns starts with Penny having a clumsy date with Leonard, then turning to Sheldon -- no expert on such matters -- for advice.
-- "How I Met Your Mother," 8:30 p.m., CBS. Marshall and Lily have their first Thanksgiving as a married couple. That part works well; there's also a poor sub-plot, involving Barney and a "slap bet."
-- "Two and a Half Men," 9 p.m., CBS. Alan dates a woman who gossips about his ex-wife's sex life.
-- "Momma's Boys," 9 p.m., NBC. Last Tuesday's opener was toxic television, focusing on Khalood Bojanowski, who declared that her son should not choose anyone who is black, Jewish, Asian or divorced. We haven't seen the second episode, except for a sampling of the elimination process. It's truly painful, with some women being rejected threefold.
-- "Jesus in India," 9 p.m., Sundance Channel. It's fun to chase a legend, even if it can't be proved or disproved. In this documentary, author Edward Martin follows rumors that Jesus spent years in India and nearby countries. That would explain many questions: Why does the Bible have this huge gap, from age 12-30? Why were Jesus' gentle teachings so similar to Far East philosophy -- and so different from the harshness in his own world? And why have there been so many rumors of Jesus' time in India? Martin ranges from the Vatican to the Himalayan mountains; he finds no proof, but has an interesting story to spin.

TV column for Sunday, Dec. 21


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Cold Case," 9 p.m., CBS.
It's time to pause and admire how much life has changed in the past half-century.
In 1960, this story says, stewardesses had to be single, sexy and younger than 32. Passengers gawked; pilots groped. One young woman complained, then disappeared.
The crimesolving part is so-so, but this hour is enriched by classic Frank Sinatra songs.
TODAY'S MIGHT-SEE: Cartoons, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., ABC Family.
After a weak start, this marathon has "The Year Without a Santa Claus" at 11 a.m. and its enjoyable sequel, "A Miser Brothers' Christmas," at noon.
Then it alternates two immensely popular Pixar movies, "The Incredibles" (2004) is at 1 p.m., "Cars" (2006) at 3:30, "Incredibles" at 6 and "Cars" at 8:30.
Other choices include:
-- "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), 5:45 p.m., TNT. Here's another family favorite.
-- "Million Dollar Password," 8 p.m., CBS. After one Thursday outing, this well-made game show settles into its Sunday spot. Competing are hosts of two CBS reality shows, Phil Keoghan ("Amazing Race") and Julie Chen ("Big Brother").
-- "The Simpsons," 8 p.m., Fox. Here's a rerun of this year's Halloween show. There's a clever little opening in which a machine keeps subverting Homer's vote. The three tales that follow are fairly good, sparked by a fresh take on "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."
-- "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," 8:30 p.m., Cartoon Network. The 1966 classic, one of the great half-hours in TV history, reruns.
-- "In the Womb," 9 p.m., National Geographic Channel. Even "identical" twins, this film says, can be different in size, temperament and sexuality. Scientists still don't have all the answers, but this documentary skillfully uses advanced photography and graphics to illustrate development. 
-- "Desperate Housewives," 10 p.m., ABC. In a rerun, Susan's ex-husband Mike finally meets her young lover.
-- "Skins," 10 p.m., BBC America. This series views the sometimes-chaotic lives of teens in modern London. Now the season ends with some strong moments: Friends want to give Chris a funeral he would have liked; his father doesn't even want them there. Meanwhile, the kids struggle with the pain of final grades and final goodbyes, as new lives begin. There's a wonderfully funny car chase here, plus some richly moving moments.

TV column for Saturday, Dec. 20


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Elf" (2003), 8-10 p.m., CBS.
New Christmas movies keep pouring in (including three tonight), but only a few are worth bringing back each year. This is a worthy ones.
It starts with a full-sized human (the 6-foot-3 Will Ferrell) stunned to learn he's not a real elf. That notion (sort of a variation on Steve Martin's "The Jerk") is a good start, but the real fun comes when this innocent leaves the North Pole and enters the real world at Christmas time.
"Elf" has great supporting actors, some of them in throw-away roles. The cast includes Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Mary Steenburgen, James Caan and more. Some of the best moments, however, come from Zooey Deschanel as the department-store elf who matches this sweet soul.
TODAY'S MIGHT-SEE: Christmas movie marathon, 7 a.m. to midnight, ABC Family.
Things start slowly, including the truly awful "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (2002) at 11 a.m., then get better in a hurry. "Snow 2 Brain Freeze," which debuted Sunday, is at 1 p.m., Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Jingle All the Way" (1996) at 3 p.m. and Nicolas Cage's excellent "The Family Man" (2000) at 5. Then comes the debut of "Christmas in Wonderland," at 8 and 10 p.m.
Short on cash and having just moved, a dad (Patrick Swayze) takes his kids to the mall. There, they find a bag of money and a lot of trouble from two clumsy crooks, their mean boss (Carmen Electra) and an inept cop (Tim Curry). Chris Kattan also co-stars.
Other choices include:
-- "Crusoe," 8 p.m., NBC. We see flashbacks to the boyhood of Friday, who faced tribal tests. Crusoe decides to try those same tests now.
-- "I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown," 8-9 p.m., ABC. This 2003 cartoon was created after Charles Schulz's death, from gags in his "Peanuts" comic strip.
-- "Our First Christmas," 9-11 p.m., Hallmark. Widowed parents (Julie Warner and Steven Eckholt) face their first Christmas as a married couple. But which tradition should they follow? Her daughter wants to ski with grandma (Dixie Carter); his kids want to be in the Christmas pageant with grandpa (John Ratzenberger).
-- "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," 10 p.m., NBC. Stabler and Benson both go undercover, as an animal-smuggler and a prostitute.
-- "Saturday Night Live," 11:29 p.m., NBC. The best moments in this rerun come early, with a flurry of guest stars -- Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, then the real Palin and Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg as themselves. Josh Brolin hosts, with music from Adele.

TV column for Friday, Dec. 19


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Pride & Prejudice" (2005), 9 p.m. to midnight, Oxygen.
Jane Austen's tale has been filmed often and well. Still, it has never been done like this.
Joe Wright showed here what he proved again two years later with "Atonement": Few words are needed, when you can capture emotions with every glance and gesture. And no face projects those emotions more vividly than Keira Knightley's.
Knightley plays smart, sweet Elizabeth, a modest-income woman venturing into moneyed society; Matthew Macfadyen is the sturdy Mr. Darcy.
TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: "Miser Brothers Christmas," 7 p.m., ABC Family; and "Shrek" (2001), 8 p.m., TNT.
Families can catch an animated double-feature, with enough foolishness for kids and enough wit for grown-ups.
First is a return of the feuding siblings -- Snow Miser and Heat Miser -- from "The Year Without a Santa Claus."
Their squabbling -- plus a few nasty nudges from their evil brother, the North Wind -- knocks Santa out of work. Their mom, Mother Nature, is not pleased.
Then is "Shrek," the tale of a perfect princess (Cameron Diaz), a good-hearted ogre (Mike Myers) and an enthusiastic donkey (Eddie Murphy). It's quick, clever and fun.
Other choices include:
-- "Momma's Boys," 8 p.m., NBC. Here's a nasty surprise: Instead of the promised Christmas special, NBC tosses in a rerun of Tuesday's foul-spirited reality-show debut. The basic concept -- 32 women seeking three men, each guided by his mom -- is sort of OK. But producers included and focused on a woman who says -- loudly and often -- that her son must not date blacks, Jews, Asians, divorcees and more. The young women are properly appalled; "Momma's Boys" turns ugly.
-- "Everybody Hates Chris," 8 and 9 p.m., CW. Chris' dating life is key to both reruns. In the first, he does a favor in exchange for an introduction to a hot girl; in the second, a cutie asks him to the homecoming dance.
-- "Ghost Whisperer," 8 p.m., CBS. A ghost must accept the facts about her former marriage.
-- "Numbe3rs," 9 and 10 p.m., CBS. First is a rerun in which a rich man's daughter has been kidnapped. Then is a new episode: When a vigilante group strikes, Charlie has to link with a rival; meanwhile, Don is pondering religion.
-- "Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (2008, Hallmark), "Top 10 Christmas Towns" (HGTV) and "Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special" (Comedy Central), all 9 p.m. This is the hour for holiday specials aimed at grown-ups. "Most Wonderful Time" is the pleasant tale of a gorgeous single mom (Brooke Burns) whose uncle (Henry Winkler) arrives with a handsome stranger; the result offers zero surprises, but is enjoyable enough. "Christmas Towns" looks at a couple of big cities (New Orleans, San Antonio) and lots of little spots, all obsessing over the holiday. Meanwhile, Jeff Dunham offers a much-needed change-of-pace, with his puppets and humor; it's erratic, but has some great moments.
--"Get Shorty" (1995), 10 p.m., TV Land. The crackling-good characters in Elmore Leonard novels are occasionally transformed into good films. Here's a prime example, with John Travolta as a mobster who wants to make movies; the great supporting cast ranges from Danny DeVito to James Gandolfini.

TV column for Thursday, Dec. 18


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "30 Rock," 9:31 and 10 p.m., NBC.
Here are two reruns, the first of which is hilarious.
Nervous about a flight, Liz takes Jack's advice and his medication. She's thoroughly loopy by the time she spots Oprah Winfrey in the next seat. From there, things build in bizarre ways.
There are also sub-plots, one of them (NBC faking Olympic events) quite funny and one lame. The Oprah portions, however, are wonderful.
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: "Million Dollar Password" return, 8 p.m., CBS.
Someone came up with the odd notion of putting the razor-sharp Aisha Tyler against the ... well, eccentric William Shatner. The result is an epic mismatch.
That's modified by two factors: First, the contestants get to switch celebrities at the mid-point; second, host Regis Philbin is quick to point out any Shatner shortcomings.
After tonight, "Password" moves to 8 p.m. Sundays. There's lots of flash and fuss, but at its core this remains a well-conceived game with skillfully chosen words, suitable for play-along fun.
Other choices include:
-- Dr. Seuss night, 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., ABC Family. Things start with cartoons based on Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat" (7 p.m.) and on his ecology masterpiece "The Lorax" (7:30). Then the live-action "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000) airs at 8 and 10:30 p.m., with Ron Howard directing Jim Carrey.
-- "Ugly Betty," 8-9 p.m., ABC. In a fairly good rerun, Betty is being lured to work for the scheming Wilhelmina.
-- "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971), 8 p.m., AMC. Even if you prefer Tim Burton's magical remake ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), you'll like the original. It has wit, charm, music and Gene Wilder.
-- "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," 9 p.m., CBS. This reruns the episode that introduced Lauren Lee Smith as Riley Adams, the new staffer. Murder victims seem to be frozen into place, statue-style.
-- "Grey's Anatomy," 9 p.m., ABC, In this rerun, Derek peeks at the diary of Meredith's late mother, who was a brilliant and troubled surgeon.
-- "The Office," 9 and 10:30 p.m., NBC. The first rerun has Michael holding an auction, to pay for items that were stolen. The second finds Jim and Pam trying to cope with being in different cities; they have marathon phone talks.
-- "Soundstage: Faith Hill, Joy to the World," 10 p.m., PBS (check local listings). For much of the hour, this is simply an above-average TV concert; backed by an orchestra, Faith Hill sings beautifully. The defining moment, however, comes late in the special, when Hill sings "A Baby Changes Everything." Despite the annual cascade of so-so holiday songs, it's still possible to introduce a great one.