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.

TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 17


(TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 17)
By MIKE HUGHES
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Law & Order," 10 p.m., NBC.
One of the season's best episodes was scheduled during NBC's "green week" in November, then postponed. Now it finally surfaces.
A young woman, whose husband is ecology-obsessed, has been killed. The real drama, however, soon centers on a judge (Ned Beatty) and his manipulative clerk (former "ER" star Sherry Stringfield).
The result is a smart and involving story, beautifully acted.
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: Christmas specials, all at 8 p.m.
The best show tonight -- well, any night -- is the original version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," on the Cartoon Network. Propelled by the combined genius of Dr. Seuss' story, Chuck Jones' direction and a booming song, it's a classic.
Still, that same time (8 p.m.) also brings three new Christmas specials.
NBC has "A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa." After accidentally disrupting the mail, the Muppets must take care of three wishes on their own. Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane and Uma Thurman co-star.
MyNetwork has "Christmas is Here Again," which is one of the nominees for an International Animation Award in the direct-to-video category. A girl tries to rescue Santa's magic bag -- which, it turns out, is made of the swaddling clothes for baby Jesus; Andy Griffith and Shirley Jones voice the Clauses.
And TNT has "Christmas in Washington," which alway offers lush music and backdrops. This year has Kristen Chenoweth, a cappella group Straight No Chaser, contemporary Christian group Casting Crowns and two emerging country singers better known in other genres -- Darius Rucker (Hootie and the Blowfish) and Julianne Hough ("Dancing With the Stars").
Other choices include:
-- "Great Performances: The Nutcracker," 8-10 p.m., PBS (check local listings). The San Francisco Ballet is the oldest ballet troupe in the U.S., Kristi Yamaguchi says in her introduction, and the first American one to perform "The Nutcracker." Yamaguchi was enthralled by a performance when she was 4 or 5; now she introduces a new production with designs inspired by the Panama Pacific International Exhibition. It's a great-looking show, but TV still struggles to capture the full splendor of the music or the moves.
--"The New Adventures of Old Christine," 8 p.m., CBS. In an interesting episode last week, Barb and Christine refused to sign the franchise's "morality clause." Now on their own, they may try to convert to a day spa.
-- "Gary Unmarried," 8:30 p.m., CBS. Tom has been spending time with his mom's new boyfriend. Now his dad, Gary, works on tightening their bond.
-- "Private Practice," 9 p.m., ABC. Charlotte's new clinic continues to drain business from Oceanside Wellness. Meanwhile, Pete and Violet have been getting closer.
-- "A Christmas Carol" (1999), 9-11 p.m., TNT. Patrick Stewart is perfect as Scrooge, in a superb version of this oft-produced tale.
-- "L.A. Holiday Celebration," 10 p.m., PBS (check local listings). We can admire this concert for its great choral moments and its rich diversity; the performers and music have roots in Africa, Argentina, Korea, Mexico, Russia, the Philippines and more. Still, a TV show clearly isn't aiming for a big audience, when it brings out a school handbell choir within the first 20 minutes.

TV column for Tuesday, Dec. 16


(TV column for Tuesday, Dec. 16)
By MIKE HUGHES
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "A Charlie Brown Christmas," 8 p.m., ABC.
Here's another chance to see one of the great shows in TV history. Created in 1965, it has a charming minimalism, including fine little bursts of humor and music and true emotion.
To round out the hour, there's a second cartoon, new and Christmas-themed.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "House," 8 p.m., Fox.
Here's a rerun of the excellent season-opener, with life in chaos. Wilson's girlfriend has died and House is partly to blame. Now Wilson has left, leaving House without his only friend.
Meanwhile, there's a typically confusing case, involving the intense assistant to a feminist executive. House sputters some anti-feminist things, which his staff (and viewers) promptly ignore.
It's a complex case, the start of another strong season for a terrific series.
TONIGHT'S ODDITY: "Momma's Boys," 10 p.m., NBC.
A year ago, Jason Raff was producing feel-good television, with "Clash of the Choirs." Now comes the opposite -- toxic television that leaves viewers feeling awful.
That's mainly because of one of the moms chosen. Khalood Bojanowski makes it clear that she disapproves of her son making a match with a black woman. Or an Asian woman. Or a Jewish woman. Mainly, she wants a white Catholic, never married, who cooks and cleans.
To their credit, the women in the show -- black and white, serious and silly -- seem to react with universal disdain. Still, this first hour is more about stirring up drama than about having thoughtful discussions. People scream and shout at each other a lot.
Others seem thoroughly likeable. That includes the other two moms, all three sons and most of the 32 women; the show may get better, but for now they seem like nice people trapped in a nasty hour.
Other choices include:
-- "The Spirit of Christmas," 8 p.m., MyNetwork TV. Here's a two-hour burst of holiday music, much of it from great voices. Performers include Natalie Cole, Brian McKnight, Bo Bice, Al Jarreau, Tiffany and the Greater Los Angeles Gospel Choir.
-- "Mary Poppins" (1964), 8-11 p.m., ABC Family. It's another chance to see a classic for all ages. This won five Academy Awards (including Julie Andrews for best actress) and was nominated for eight more.
-- "The Mentalist," 9 p.m., CBS. Patrick Jane takes a special interest in a case because the widow (and key suspect) is his former psychiatrist.
-- "Eli Stone," 10 p.m., ABC. Desperate to learn if he'll always be alone, Eli asks for another peek into the future. The result stuns him for other reasons.
ALSO, PLEASE NOTE:
This is the scheduled day for "Independent Lens," but that varies because of PBS stations' quirks and because some stations are still in pledge drives. Here's the paragraph, for those areas that have the show tonight:
-- "Independent Lens: Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic," 9-11 p.m., PBS. An opera about the first atomic-bomb test? That makes sense, when you see this documentary. Gifted people -- composer John Adams, director Peter Sellars and great singers -- combined to mold "Doctor Atomic." Logically, this film was made by Jon Else, who had previously done a film on the bomb and a film on opera. He catches the process -- flaws and all -- and adds rich amounts of historical facts and footage.