TV column for Thursday, Jan. 8


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: Football, 8:15 p.m., Fox; with preview at 7:30.
The bowl season finally wraps up, with the championship game in Miami. Oklahoma and Florida, each with one loss, collide for the chance to be considered No. 1.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "Ugly Betty," 8 p.m., ABC.
For most of the hour, this is just standard silliness. A high-profile editor (Bernadette Peters) convinces Betty to learn the art of working a party to get contacts and informatiojn. She does and finds what seems like a kindred spirit (Nikki Blonsky); that sets up a bizarre -- and quite funny -- heist scene.
All of that is OK, but it leads to moments at the end of the hour that are much more important. Stick around.
TONIGHT'S ALTERNATIVE: "Soundstage" season-opener, 10 p.m., PBS (check local listings).
This concert starts and ends with some hard-driving rock 'n' roll.
In between, however, there is richly layered emotion. Adam Duritz leans into passionate songs about love, loss and despair. It's basically the "Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings" album, beginning to end.
Other choices include:
-- "CSI:NY," 8 p.m., and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," 9 p.m., CBS. It's a night of reruns for CBS. The first has a fire in Stella's apartment building; the second has a hypnotist suspected of murder.
-- "Grey's Anatomy," 9 p.m., ABC. Bailey and Dr. Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) treat a young patient. Also, Izzie finally tells Alex about the affair she imagines she's having with the late Denny.
-- "The Office," 9 p.m., NBC. In a rerun, the staff must spend $4,300 before the end of the year or lose the money from next year's budget,
-- "30 Rock," 9:31 p.m., NBC. Liz's new guy is played by Peter Dinklage, the talented and tiny (4-foot-5) actor. Meanwhile, Jenna wants to play Janis Joplin in a movie and the mega-wealthy Tracy wants his wife to sign a "post-nup" agreement. Also, Jack is attracted to his mother's beautiful nurse (Salma Hayek).
-- "ER," 10 p.m., NBC. After a break, the show returns for the episodes that will wrap up its 15-season life. Tonight, Dr. Banfield (Angela Bassett) treats two brothers hurt in a drug deal gone bad. She also reaches a turning point with her husband, played by Courtney Vance, Bassett's husband in real life.
-- "Greg Behrendt's Wake-Up Call" debut, 10 p.m., SoapNet. Each week, Behrendt will focus on one couple; he'll also toss in some clever sayings and bring in some friends to help. The opening hour is a good one -- two attractive people whose marriage is on hold until the woman is convinced they'll be a "power couple." A lot happens in this hour, including a surprise ending.

TV column for Wednesday, Jan. 7


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006), 7:30 p.m., and "Damages" season-opener, 10 p.m.; both FX.
Only in recent years has Hollywood discovered a great sort of character -- a female boss who can seem glamorous one moment, cruel the next.
Meryl Streep captured that perfectly in "Prada." She makes life agonizing and interesting for her intern (Anne Hathaway), in film that deftly blends comedy and drama.
Glenn Close takes it to another level as Patty Hewes in "Damages." She's a great lawyer who, in the first season, won a huge victory over an evil billionaire (Ted Danson). She lies, cheats, schemes and may be responsible for the murder of the fiance of her young assistant, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne).
Now Ellen is secretly working with the FBI, to bring Patty down. Meanwhile, a man (William Hurt) from Patty's past is involved in a murder case with huge implications. This opening hour, in “Damages” style, offers rich depth, intelligence and emotion.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "13 -- Fear is Real," debut, 8 p.m., CW.
Here's an interesting attempt to do a reality show with the style and feel of a horror film.
Thirteen strangers are taken to a distant location. In the horror tradition, all are young and most are attractive. The setting (Louisiana bayou) is spooky and the camera work is grainy and handheld.
That adds a sense of urgency, even when things are manipulated in standard style. The contestants seem a bit thick at times, especially in relation to a box that offers a key. Also, why would someone who says she's immensely fearful of everything sign up for a reality horror show?
Other choices include:
-- "Scrubs," 8 and 8:30 p.m., ABC. If you missed the season-opener Tuesday, the episodes rerun here. We meet the unethical new boss (Courteney Cox) and a funny band of interns. There's a fair amount of humor in the first episode, then some moving moments in the second.
-- "Great Performances: Cyrano de Bergerac," 8-10:30 p.m., PBS (check local listings). This really is a great performance by Kevin Kline, rolling through the rich and complex language with skill and panache. The theme -- obsession with the beauty of a face, rather than beauty of a soul -- remains as relevant today as it was when Edmond Rostand wrote the play 111 years ago. What seems terribly outdated, however, is the style of the show, with characters forever proclaiming in epic paragraphs. Viewers will admire Kline's immense talent, but might not stick with the show.
-- "People's Choice Awards," 9-11 p.m., CBS. The awards season starts with one of the most insignificant shows. The good news is that viewers see lots of stars and host Queen Latifah. CBS is happy, anyway, because it has half the nominees in favorite-new-show categories. For comedies, "Worst Week" and "Gary Unmarried" face NBC's "Kath & Kim"; for dramas, "The Mentalist" faces Fox's "Fringe" and CW's "90210."
-- "Spectacle," 9 p.m., Sundance Channel. Elvis Costello starts by chatting separately with Andy Summers, Stewart Copeland and Sting, the three members of the Police. Then they're together for a brief conversation and three quick songs. Copeland -- also a terrific film composer -- tends to overwhelm the others in conversation, but it adds up to a fascinating hour.
-- "Barbara Walters Special," 10 p.m., ABC. Eight days before the debut of his new series "The Beast," Patrick Swayze discusses his struggles with pancreatic cancer. Walters talks with Swayze and Lisa Niemi -- his wife of 33 years and his dance partner since their teen days in Houston.

TV column for Tuesday, Jan. 6


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Scrubs" season-opener, 9 and 9:30 p.m., ABC.
In its seven NBC seasons, this show shifted time slots at least 16 times. Only once did it make the year's top 30 in the Nielsen ratings.
Now it moves to ABC, starting with a couple of pretty good episodes.
We meet the new chief of medicine, played by Courteney Cox. Beneath a warm exterior, she's wildly unethical.
We also meet this year's interns. One can't stop text-messaging, another is a teacher's-pet type, a third has zero knack for comforting patients.
Most of this is quite funny, but there's also room for emotion. The second half-hour has good moments with a dying patient; he's played by Glynn Turman, who won a guest-actor Emmy last year as the grieving dad in HBO's "In Treatment."
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "The Biggest Loser" opener, 8-10 p.m., NBC.
This edition is filled with extremes. It has the oldest (63) and youngest (18) contestants in its history; it also has its heaviest woman (379 pounds) and man (454). And it has a medical emergency during the first day.
These people -- plus trainers Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper -- are worth rooting for. Still, in stretching to two hours a week, "Loser" gets terribly repetitive.
Other choices include:
-- "Homeland Security USA" debut, 8 p.m., ABC. This straightforward series bounces between a lot of situations, some non-vital. We see a 20-year-old Swiss woman who has belly-dance equipment, but no work visa; we see a mail shipment of barbecued bats. Some matters are much more serious; people go to extremes -- in these cases, unsuccessfully -- to smuggle drugs and people across the borders from Mexico and Canada. Done in a no-frills style by producers Arnold Shapiro ("Rescue 911"), this is moderately interesting.
-- "NCIS," 8 p.m., CBS. The team is investigating a murder in a women's prison. Then the inmates riot, leaving McGee (Sean Murray) trapped inside.
-- "The Mentalist," 9 p.m., CBS. A prisoner says he'll offer information about Red John, if Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) can prove him innocent. Jane promptly quits his job to focus on the case.
-- "Vice Squad" debut, 9 and 9:30 p.m., MyNetwork. This reality show follows cops dealing with sex, drugs and gambling. The opener is in Detroit, Memphis, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla.
-- "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," 10 p.m., NBC. A teen-ager returns, telling of four years as a sexual slave. One of her sisters embraces her; the other seems suspicious. Digging into it, police find a bigger story.
-- "Nip/Tuck" return, 10 p.m., FX. This show continues in a state of hideous overstatement. Tonight, it re-visits Colleen Rose's attack on Sean, then views the effects and hands a crisis to Christian. The result, as always, seems excessive and repetitive.
-- "Jo Koy: Don't Make Him Angry," 10 p.m., Comedy Central. At first, Koy might seem like just another angry comic; his diatribe against the French is funny, but familiar. Soon, however, sweetness and humor blend when he describes his son and his Filipino grandmother.
-- "10 Items or Less" season-opener, 11 p.m., TBS. The competing grocery store's new manager (Kim Coles) is a New Yorker, ready to crush Leslie's small-town operation. That seems likely at first, when Leslie obsesses over bowling with frozen turkeys. As in previous years, this is inconsistent, but has its funny moments.

TV column for Monday, Jan. 5


TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "The Bachelor" opener, 8-10 p.m., ABC.
This show stumbles when it has guys unwilling to commit. That definitely doesn't seem the case with Jason Mesnick.
At 32, he has married and divorced. He has also proposed to (and been rejected by) DeAnna Pappas on "The Bachelorette."
Now he's ready to try again, with women who know him well. One -- Shannon (29, an outgoing dental hygienist from Marshall, Mo.) -- confesses that "I totally feel like a stalker."
Competition springs up in surprising ways. Shannon (32, a teacher from Batavia, NY) wanted to salsa dance with Mesnick; Raquel (27, a medical student from Brazil) does it first. One woman grumbles about "flirty, gorgeous Melissa" (25, a sales rep in Dallas); Jackie (26, a divorced wedding planner from Dallas) is unhappy because she was rejected twice as a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, but Melissa was accepted.
This group doesn't seem to have much racial variety; it has also shed TV's recent obsession with bottle blondes. Mesnick was previously drawn to the raven-haired Pappas, a fellow Greek; in this opener, he seems quickly drawn to DeAnna lookalikes.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "The Story of India" opener, 9 and 10 p.m., PBS.
As India returns to international strength, Michael Wood saunters through its history.
That past was shaped by conquerers -- Alexander the Great and then the first three rulers of the Maurya dynasty. The third, Ashoka, said he was shattered by seeing the carnage from his battles; he created a non-violent leadership that would shape thinking in the Far East and (much later) the world.
Other choices include:
-- "Superstars of Dance," 8-10 p.m., NBC. After its Monday debut, this short-run competition settles into its regular spot. There, it may grab some of the people waiting for "Dancing With the Stars" to return.
-- "Big Bang Theory," 8 p.m., CBS. Emboldened by temporary fame, Raj making a move for Penny in this rerun.
-- "Football," 8:15 p.m., Fox. The Fiesta Bowl has Texas and Ohio State, with the pre-game show at 7:30.
-- "Masters of Illusion" debut, 9 p.m., MyNetwork. After dabbling with magicians in the past, this young network tries a weekly series. In the weeks ahead, it will have more than 70 magicians; MyNetwork says the show is taped live, with no camera or computer tricks.
-- "Two and a Half Men," 9 p.m., CBS. In a funny rerun, Charlie meets a long-ago girlfriend (Rena Sofer) whose son seems Charlie-like.
-- "True Beauty" debut, 10 p.m., ABC. The men and women think they're in a standard beauty contest; they don't realize that character is a key factor.
-- "The Diet Tribe" debut, 10 p.m., Lifetime. On the eve of a new "Biggest Loser" season, Lifetime tries a kindler, gentler version. The five women are close friends, co-conspiritors in a lifestyle that has seen their weight to escalate, ranging from 210 to 292 pounds. They work with Jessie Pavelka, a muscular sort who seems like the "Loser" trainers with a mute button. The result is upbeat and moderately interesting.

TV column for Sunday, Jan. 4


(TV column for Sunday, Jan. 4)
By MIKE HUGHES
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Superstars of Dance" debut, 9-11 p.m., NBC.
Under producer Nigel Lythgoe, the summertime "So You Think You Can Dance" has become immensely entertaining.
Now we'll see if Lythgoe can do the same with this short-run, eight-country tournament. Viewers don't get to vote, but they can settle back and savor some wide-ranging talent, with Michael Flatley ("Riverdance") hosting.
Each country sends two soloists, plus a duo and a mass act. The dancing will range from Russian Cossacks to Chinese monks to American hip hoppers. Expect some dazzling moves.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "Masterpiece Classic: Tess of the D'Urbanvilles," 9-10:30 p.m., PBS (check local listings); concludes next week.
A new "Classic" round begins, now with Laura Linney as host. First come a pair of oft-filmed novels -- "Tess" now and "Wuthering Heights" on Jan. 18 and 25.
The good news: Both stories have brilliant actors, including Gemma Arterton ("Quantum of Solace") in tonight's title role. Both are beautifully filmed and are, we're told, true to the novels and the eras.
The bad news? Well, both are true to the novels and eras.
It was, apparently, a tough time to be a good-hearted woman. Skillfully and gracefully, these stories leave viewers battered.
Other choices include:
-- Football, 1 p.m., CBS and 4:30 p.m. Fox. The wild-card round of the NFL play-offs wraps up today. The first game has the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins; the second has the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.
-- "Saturday Night Live Sports Extra," 7-9 p.m., NBC. "Saturday Night Live" has had some painful moments with sports stars as hosts. We'll see if there have been enough good bits to fill two hours.
--"24: Redemption," 8-10 p.m., Fox. Next week, "24" launches its season. First, here's a second chance to see this film which sets it up, as Jack and some kids are trapped in an African revolution. After a so-so start, this is a taut, involving movie.
-- "Desperate Housewives," 9 p.m., ABC. Bree is having a tough time adjusting to the family her son plans to marry into. Meanwhile, Dave is acting crazier and Lynette's son is still on the run,
-- "Cold Case," 9 p.m., CBS. This isn't one of those stories that leaps way back in time. Instead, it jumps back a year, to the murder of a lottery winner.
-- "The Unit," 10 p.m., CBS. Jonas, sometimes trapped in shoot-em-up adventures, instead finds himself in a baccarat game, with big money and more at stake.