TV column for Wednesday, March 11

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "The Chopping Block" debut, 8 p.m., NBC.
Cooking shows face an immense barrier: Viewers can form their own opinion of a singer, a model, a design -- but they can't tell how the food tastes.
Wisely, "The Chopping Block" involves much more than the food: It's a fun look at people trying to start a restaurant.
Here are eight duos: One is married, one is engaged, one is divorced. The others are brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, a mother and daughter.
They're split into two teams, to create competing New York restaurants. Along the way, they're advised and criticized by Marco Pierre White, who is said to be the man who trained Gordon Ramsay (Fox's "Hell's Kitchen") and others.
Like Ramsay, White speaks his mind. Unlike Ramsay's, that mind is not one-note; White praises, prods, cajoles, demonstrates and discusses what makes a restaurant succeed.
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: "Lost," 9 p.m., ABC.
Leaping back and forth in time, juggling different realities, "Lost" manages to be both fascinating and bewildering.
Now here's a second chance to see a pivotal hour. There's no new episode until next Wednesday, but this rerun from last week is a key one.
Time has shifted again and the survivors find themselves in a turf war. They're overwhelmed -- except for Sawyer, a master at lying and improvising.
This hour jumps back and forth over a three-year span, then ends with a jolt. Don't try to understand it; just soak it in.
Other choices include:
-- "The New Adventures of Old Christine," 8 p.m., CBS. Kristen Johnson ("Third Rock From the Sun") guests as a new friend -- someone so scattered that Christine is considered the responsible one.
-- "Lie to Me," 8 p.m., Fox. Moving to a tougher timeslot, this show has a gentle and involving hour. Lightman (Tim Roth) and Foster (Kelli Williams) bring their truth-detecting expertise to a missing-child case that has a personal impact on her. Meanwhile, Loker (Brenda Hines) dates the author he's been investigating.
-- "American Idol," 9 p.m., Fox. Beefing up its move to 9 p.m., the show adds performances by Kelly Clarkson and Kanye West. Then we learn who is the first person eliminated from the final 13.
-- "Life," 9 p.m., NBC. This show is finding work for some of England's best actors. That includes Damian Lewis (the "Life" star) and Helen McCrory (making one of three guest appearances in the show). McCrory has ranged from the title role in "Anna Karenina" to playing Narcissa Malfoy in the next two Harry Potter movies. Here, she's a security specialist, helping in a case involving a slain soldier.
-- "Ashes to Ashes," 9 p.m., BBC America. Before watching tonight's "Life on Mars" (10:02 p.m. on ABC), catch this dandy hour -- launching the sequel to the British version of "Mars." Keeley Hawes plays a modern cop who studied the case of a policeman claiming to have jumped from the 21st century to 1973. Suddenly, she finds herself in 1981 -- with the same colleagues he had. This dandy hour also airs at 8 p.m. Saturday, followed by the second episode.
-- "Ghost Hunters" season-opener, 9 p.m., Sci Fi Channel. Two historic Pennsylvania spots are probed in this reality hour: A 313-year-old building in Glen Mills has been everything from a courthouse to a church to a brothel; a Philadelphia home was apparently where Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. The places and people are interesting, but (as usual) there's nothing definitive about seeing or hearing ghosts. At least, we can enjoy this reassurance a ghost-hunter gives to a homeowner: "Remember, they are just people. People without bodies."
-- "Law & Order," 10 p.m., NBC. When the mistress of a failed banker is killed, there are plenty of suspects.

TV column for Tuesday, March 10

(Please note; I'm temporarily putting current columns here. That's only short-term, though. Basically, this Web site will only be for blogs and for samples of older columns.) 

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "American Idol," 8-10 p.m., Fox.
Now we're to the part of "Idol" that viewers remember. The final 13 have been chosen; it's time to eliminate one per week.
At first, that requires a full two hours on Tuesdays; gradually, "Idol" will pare down to an hour.
Each Wednesday, someone will be cut. And these first two are important; "Idol" has been taking only its final 10 on tour, giving them months of arena-sized crowds.
In the past (with 12 finalists) viewers figured they'd remember No. 11 and 12, but did they? A few (Mikaleh Gordon, Matt Rogers,last year's Amanda Overmyer) became memorable; most didn't. Don't look on the pop charts for Charles Grigsby, Lindsey Cardinale, Kevin Covais, Melissa McGhee or last year's David Hernandez.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "WCG Ultimate Gamer," 10 p.m., Sci Fi Channel.
Forget any stereotypes about videogame players. The 12 contestants here provide a rich variety.
There are also a couple muscular athletes; there are women who are, one guy admits, "all fairly attractive." There are cheery, social people and unbudging introverts.
This slick show throws them together instantly: They must split into fours to compete in RockBand 2. Soon, they have cool names -- Pandora Rox, Pirates vs. Ninjas, Napalm in the Morning --and semi-cool images.
The game will change each week. The overall prize includes $100,000, a full electronics package and a trip to this year's World Cyber Games in China.
Other choices include:
-- "The Biggest Loser," 8-10 p.m., NBC. There's a 24-hour fitness challenge, with the winning team going to a spa. Some winners, however, might end up overindulging.
-- "NCIS," 8 p.m., CBS. A night of CBS reruns starts with this one, in which colleagues finally learn a little about Gibbs' past. A case takes them to his home town.
-- "Kingdom of the Blue Whale," 8-10 p.m., National Geographic Channel. The blue whale is truly impressive. It's up to 100 feet long (longer than a basketball court), weighs up to 200 tons (more than 25 elephants), has a heart that can weigh a ton. Hunting them is now banned, but the number has shrunk by 80 per cent. In this documentary, we see an attempt to finally photograph a calf underwater and to establish which parts of the Pacific should be avoided by boats. The film is much too long, with too many empty seascapes, but remains fairly interesting.
-- "The Mentalist," 9 p.m., CBS. When a casino owner is killed, Patrick Jane sees a chance to use his people-watching skills to solve a case AND make some money at the tables.
-- "Without a Trace," 10 p.m., CBS. The teen son of a Secret Service agent has vanished.
-- "Law & Order: Special Victims & Unit," 10 p.m., NBC. Three years ago, Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March) was suddenly whisked off to a witness protection program. Now she surprises people by showing up at the investigation of a convicted child molester. This is the first of six episodes for March; Mariette Hartley guests as a lawyer.
-- "Trust Me," 10 p.m., TNT. Mason and Conner each have money troubles; now they search for new ad-agency jobs. Meanwhile, Sarah (Monica Potter) has trouble with her shampoo account and Tom (Mike Damus) has a romance.

TV column for Monday, March 9

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Castle," 10:02 p.m., ABC.
Amid TV's no-nonsense cops, we're getting some variety: This show joins "The Mentalist," "Bones" and others; the crimesolvers are as interesting as their cases.
Det. Kate Beckett is smart, serious and diligent. Richard Castle is merely smart; he's a crime novelist who needs to create a new character.
That's when someone starts copying murders from his books. Suddenly, these two opposites must work together. Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic are perfect and two real-life crime novelists -- James Patterson and Stephen Cannell -- briefly play themselves.
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE II: "Dancing With the Stars" opener, 8 p.m., ABC.
Two late injuries have given this edition a detour before it starts. Tonight, Jewel and Nancy O'Dell are expected to talk about why they're pulling out; then the show will announce their replacements.
In what would have been a fun twist, Jewel was going to compete agaist her husband, rodeo champ Ty Murray. That's vanished now, but there are still interestig combinations.
Chuck Wicks -- the likable new country star ("Stealing Cinderella") -- is lucky. His professional partner is also his girlfriend (and fellow country singer) Julianne Hough.
Also competing are professional dancers who are engaged to each other, Maxsim Chmerkovskiy and Katrina Smirnoff. He's with actress Denise Richards; she's with computer mogul Steve Wozniak.
Then there's Derek Hough, Julianne's brother. He's the professional dancer with singer Lil' Kim.
Derek is the show's current champion. The field also includes a previous winner (Mark Ballas, dancing with tiny gymnast Shawn Johnson) and two-time winner Cheryl Burke, with actor Giles Marini. Other celebrities include singer Belinda Carlisle, stuntman Steve-O and former football star Lawrence Taylor.
Other choices include:
-- "House," 8 p.m., Fox. A book editor suddenly starts speaking frankly and insulting everyone. Dr. House -- who does that even when he's healthy -- searches for an explanation.
-- "The Big Bang Theory," 8 p.m., CBS. On a plane ride to San Francisco, the guys are excited to spot Summer Glau, one of the "Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles" stars.
-- "The Wonder Pets Join the Circus," 8 p.m., Nickelodeon. The pleasantly adequate "Wonder Pets" show is usually confined to 10 a.m. weekdays. Here's a primetime excursion, in which the pets try circus acts. Pre-schoolers will be charmed; their parents will be undisturbed.
-- "How I Met Your Mother," 8:30 p.m., CBS. Laura Prepon ("That '70s Show") plays Ted's pompous girlfriend from his college days.
-- "Heroes," 9 p.m., NBC. Sylar finally finds his father (played by the talented John Glover), with unexpected results.
-- "Battles BC" debut, 9 p.m., History Channel. This series links intelligent military historians and a powerful computer-graphic style, the sort used in the movie "300." The opener looks at Hannibal, whose battlefield brilliance once killed 70,000 Roman soldiers in a day, in an area barely twice the size of Central Park. Coming are hours on David, Caesar, Alexander and Joshua.
-- "Rules of Engagement," 9:30 p.m., CBS. After mistreating his female assistants, Russell is required to hire a man. He soon takes advantage of that, in an episode that is both silly and funny.
-- "Saving Grace," 10 p.m., TNT. Counterfeit pills became deadly at a teen party. That leads to a moving hour that juxtaposes Grace's new partner and the link between Grace's guardian angel and a condemned criminal.
-- "Ax Men," 10 p.m., History Channel. The season's second hour focuses on human elements, including a California newcomer dismissed as a "pretty boy" by fellow loggers.

TV column for Sunday, March 8

(Please note: I'm temporarily putting current TV columns here. This is just short-term, however; this Web site will be strictly for blogs and samples of past columns.)

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Desperate Housewives," 9 p.m., ABC.
After being gone for a week, this show is back and toying with its characters' new economic troubles.
Bree promises to help Tom get a job, then stirs new trouble. Gabrielle finds herself helping Carlos' cheating boss deceive his wife.
Also, Edie starts digging deeper into Dave's troubled past.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-TRY :"Russell Brand in New York City," 10 p.m., Comedy Central.
Brand is the British comedian who drew raves in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and complaints when hosting the MTV awards. You may feel both extremes here, but stick with it; the hour keeps getting better.
Early portions -- dealing with the MTV experience -- are merely OK. At times, the humor gets jumbled in Brand's broad accent.
Then Brand gets to the part -- relating his misadventures at learning to ride a horse ... and at learning to surf ... and at having a gleeful sex life. Some of that is very R-rated (even with the constant bleeps);  much of it is quite funny.
Other choices include:
-- "Saturday Night Live: Just Game Show Parodies" (7 p.m.) and "Just Commercials" (8 p.m.), NBC. Ever since Jerry Seinfeld hosted "Community College Bowl" (which almost ended in a scoreless tie), game shows have given "SNL" some of its best moments. Here's an hour of them, followed by fake commercials.
-- "Amazing Race," 8 p.m., CBS. The two married couples were the first ones eliminated. Now the show has its first journey into Siberia.
-- "The Simpsons," 8 p.m., Fox. Homer Simpson, it turns out, is the latest home-finance victim. He overspent on his Mardi Gras party and had to put the house up for sale; now Ned Flanders is his landlord.
-- "Kingdom of the Blue Whale," 8-10 p.m., National Geographic Channel. At one hour, this might have been a good documentary. At two ... well, you spend a lot of time viewing the vast ocean, as experts search for new information on the planet's largest creatures. At least, the ocean is beautifully filmed.
-- "Celebrity Apprentice," 9-11 p.m., NBC. In last week's opener, the guys lost and Andrew Dice Clay was fired. (Hey, who knew they would be less-skilled at making and selling cupcakes?) Tonight, the object is to create a comic-book hero. Khloe Kardashian -- of rich-kid and reality-show fame -- leads the women; Scott Hamilton tries to lead the men, but finds his easy personality clashing with Tom Green's approach.
-- "Cold Case," 9 p.m., CBS. The murder of an honor student baffled police in 1976. Now a photo of her with a biker offers a fresh lead.
-- "The Unit," 10 p.m., CBS. Jonas' daughter, now considered a hero, is ordered to go on a media tour. Meanwhile, the unit initiates a new member.
-- "Breaking Bad" season-opener, 10 p.m., AMC. In its short (seven-episode) first season, this series offered a rich portrait of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) linking with his worst student to become a drug dealer. They're into dangerous territory; tonight, they scramble for a way to break off their dealings with Tuco.

TV column for Saturday, March 7

TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Ashes to Ashes" debut, 9 p.m., BBC America.
The original "Life on Mars" had modern British cop Sam Tyler whisked to 1973, where his boss had no political correctness. The series deliberately ran only 16 episodes; now a sequel has been brilliantly conceived.
This time, the time-trekking cop is a female. She's whisked to 1981, in a time and place where women aren't taken seriously.
She's working with those same cops Tyler did -- Gene Hunt, Ray Carling, Chris Skelton. Trained in psychology, she's studied the Tyler case; it's a mental trick, she assumes -- but can she get out of it?
"Ashes to Ashes" is full of smart twists, but the best part is the casting. The old "Life on Mars" actors are back, led by Philip Glenister as Hunt. And best of all, Keeley Hawes is the star.
Hawes starred in five top-rate films that reached PBS, plus the early years of the "MI-5" series. American viewers haven't seen her in the last two years, but now she's back, leaping through emotions in a terrific opener.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (8 p.m.) and "Without a Trace" (9 p.m.), CBS.
Here's a rerun of the episodes that linked these two shows.
A murder victim in Las Vegas matches the description of someone who disappeared in New York six years ago. Now Gil Grissom (William Petersen) and Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia) combine on the case.
Other choices include:
-- "School of Rock" (2003), 7-9 p.m., TBS. An irresponsible rock musician (Jack Black) wants to make some quick money by faking it as a substitute teacher. That plot like pure fluff, but there's an intelligent touch to the direction (Richard Linklater) and writing (Mike White). White -- who also plays Black's roommate -- is the guy who is currently leading "Amazing Race" with his dad.
-- "Celebrity Apprentice," 8-10 p.m., NBC. If you missed the season-opener Sunday, here's a second chance. Donald Trump gets to fire people who aren't used to taking orders, including Dennis Rodman, Andrew Dice Clay, Tom Green, Jesse James and Joan Rivers. Rivers' daughter Melissa is also there, plus Clint Black, Scott Hamiltohn and others. In this opener, they have to make and sell cupcakes.
-- "Star Wars," 8-11 p.m., Spike. Officially, this is now called "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," with a 1997 release date. But mostly (with minor tweaks here and there), it's the 1977 "Star Wars," the classic that launched a new era of adventures for kids and grown-ups.
-- "Gone Country," 8 p.m., CMT. For the third time, John Rich (of Big & Rich) has taken mismatched people and taught them to think and sing country. Tonight, they perform and Rich picks a winner. The contestants range in age from funkmaster George Clinton, 67, to former Miss USA Tara Conner, 23. There are some steep musical talents, including singer Taylor Dayne and percussionist Sheila E. The line-up also has actor Richard Grieco, Monkees singer-drummer Mickey Dolenz and Justin Guarini, the original "American Idol" runner-up.
-- "Brothers & Sisters," 9-11 p.m., ABC. Here's a rerun of Sunday's episode, which includes a birth, a health crisis and a money crisis. Rebecca finds a problem that could destroy the Walker family business. She contacts her father, played by Ken Olin, the former "thirtysomething" star who also directed this episode and has been a key writer-director since the show started.
-- "Law & Order," 10 p.m., NBC. Husband-and-wife divorce lawyers have been killed, opening up a probe into a nasty conspiracy.
-- "Saturday Night Live," 11:29 p.m., NBC. Dwayne Johnson, also known as The Rock, hosts, with Ray LaMontagne as musical guest.