TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 17

(TV column for Wednesday, Dec. 17)
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)
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.
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.

TV column for Monday, Dec. 15

(TV column for Monday, Dec. 15)
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "Big Bang Theory," 8 p.m., CBS.
One of TV's best comedies offers its Christmas episode, with some twists.
Leonard befriends a guy at work -- who lusts for Penny, Leonard's dream-girl-next door.
Meanwhile, Sheldon feels he has to get a Christmas gift for Penny. This isn't easy, for a guy who knows very little about women ... or, for that matter, any people.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "Cat Dancers," 8 p.m., HBO. A deep sense of pain and pleasure ripples through this documentary.
Ron and Joy Holiday met as dance-class kids. He went away to New York, returned a year later and found she'd transformed into a peroxide blonde with a bikini body.
They starred in stage shows and (in Ron's case) muscle magazines. They expanded their act, adding tigers and leopards; they also added a second man stirring rumors, eventually true, of a three-way sexual affair.
Their world flowed with artistry, elegance and animal magnetism. Then the tragedies cascaded; by the end of this film, most of the people and animals have been killed.
At 75 minutes, this is a very interesting documentary; at 45, it would have been much better.
Other choices include:
-- "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," 8 p.m., Fox. This wraps up the first half of the season, with the second half starting next month. Tonight, Riley gets closer to John, then faces Cameron; meanwhile, Sarah finds a blogger who seems to know a lot.
-- "Chuck," 8 p.m., NBC. This isn't the way Christmas Eve is supposed to go: An inept crook ends up at the Buy More, taking Chuck hostage, along with his sister and her fiance. The other spies want to simply remove Chuck, to keep his identity secret; however, he doesn't want to abandon the others.
-- "I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown," 8 p.m., ABC. Think of this 2003 cartoon as a preview for the real one; "A Charlie Brown Christmas" reruns Tuesday.
-- "Heroes," 9 p.m., NBC. There are fierce conflicts on all sides. It's Nathan against his brother Peter, with huge aftershocks. Meanwhile, friends try to rescue Hiro and Sylar has hostages at Primatech.
-- "20/20: Drama High: The Making of a High School Musical," 9-11 p.m., ABC. This documentary follows the development of "The Wiz" at a Virginia high school.
-- "My Own Worst Enemy," 10 p.m., NBC. This double-identity stuff gets complicated: Edmund finds a dangerous way he can switch back and forth with Henry; Tom meets someone who knew him as Raymond.

Weekend TV columns, Dec. 13-14

(TV column for Saturday, Dec. 13.)
TONIGHT'S MUST-SEE: "A Miser Brothers' Christmas," 8-9 p.m., ABC Family.
Ever since "The Year Without Santa Claus," we kind of knew the Miser Brothers didn't get along.
Nowadays, Heat Miser fumes about the bad image given to global warming; Snow Miser grumbles because the Ice Age got a bad name. Each blames the other.
Still, their mom (Mother Nature, of course) has a much worse son. That's the North Wind, scheming to get Santa's job.
What we have is a fun, new animated special, one that grown-ups can enjoy alongside kids. It has some fairly clever lines, a few bouncy songs, lots of action and (we hate to spoil this part) a happy ending.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946, NBC) or "Fargo" (1996, AMC), both 8 p.m.
Separated by a half-century, here are classic movies that capture small-town life in the wintry part of the world.
"Wonderful Life" is Frank Capra's optimistic tale of a decent banker (James Stewart) who feels he's a failure. "Fargo" is the Joel and Ethan Coen story of people who remain understated amid scheming and murder.
Each was nominated for best picture; neither won (although the Coens won for best script and Frances McDormand for best actress). Both will be remembered, long after some best-picture winners are forgotten.
-- "A Cranberry Christmas," 12:30 p.m., ABC Family. This new special (which debuted Monday) is part of an animation marathon that goes from 8 a.m. ("The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus") to 9 p.m. Some of the shows are OK, but viewers won't get involved in this tale of a deed dispute involving a cranberry bog. Still, the songs (co-written and sung by Barry Manilow) are fun.
-- "Hogfather" (2006 in England, 2007 in the U.S.), 7-11 p.m., Ion. In an alternate universe, Hogfather -- that's sort of Santa Claus -- is missing. Death (Ian Richardson) must take his place. It's really not his line of work, but his likable daughter will help. Filled with dark settings and dark humor, this is a surprisingly enjoyable film for grown-ups.
-- "Eleventh Hour," 8 p.m., CBS. In a change, CBS has scheduled this rerun of a so-so hour, in which 11-year-olds have heart attacks.
-- "America's Funniest Home Videos," 8 p.m., ABC. This rerun looks at Christmastime bungles.
-- "Surviving Christmas" (2004), 9-11 p.m., ABC. Ben Affleck plays a businessman who hires a family for Christmas. Audiences, apparently, weren't amused.  
-- "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," 9-11 p.m., Hallmark. A beautiful mom (Brooke Burns) is engaged to a guy who is -- in the TV tradition -- rich, handsome and deadly dull. Then her uncle (Henry Winkler) arrives, with a hunky stranger (Warren Christie) who was stranded at the airport. Approximately 98-per cent of all viewers will know the rest; still, this is a surprisingly pleasant, watchable film.
-- "Will You Merry Me?" 9-11 p.m., Lifetime. Here's another new Christmas film. Wendie Malick and Cynthia Stevenson play moms squabbling during the holiday.
-- "Saturday Night Live," 11:29 p.m., NBC. Hugh Laurie hosts, with music by Kanye West.

(TV column for Sunday, Dec. 14.)
SUNDAY'S MUST-SEE: "House of Saddam," 9-11 p.m., HBO.
The first half of this miniseries (rerunning at 7 p.m.) was fairly involving, as Saddam Hussein built his Iraq dictatorship, barely surviving the Gulf War.
Now the second half creates powerhouse drama. There's the crumbling of his sons and sons-in-law, amid drugs and deception. There are the attempts to flee, then the final capture and (two years ago) execution.
No matter how you feel about the war or about capital punishment, you'll find this film bracing and surprisingly satisfying.
SUNDAY'S MUST-SEE II: "Survivor," 8 p.m., CBS, with reunion at 10.
This is the good part. The field gets trimmed to two and we jump to a live broadcast, to count the votes.
Afterward, Jeff Probst interviews the winner and the others. It's a formula that has been refined over nine seasons and 17 editions; with Probst (now an Emmy-winner) in charge, it works.
Other choices include:
-- "Snow" (2004, 6 p.m.) and "Snow 2 Brain Freeze" (8 and 10 p.m.), ABC Family. The original film was a delight, with Tom Cavanagh as a young Santa-in-waiting and Ashley Williams as a zookeeper who helps him find his stolen reindeer. Now we get the new sequel: They're married and he's forgotten who he is and what he does. This is a problem, especially as Christmas nears.
-- "Lost Holiday: The Jim and Suzanne Shemwell Story" (2007), 7-9 p.m., Lifetime. Here's another film that's well above the TV-movie average. It's the true story of two people lost in the mountain snow, while their family was gathering for Christmas.
-- "The Simpsons," 8 p.m., Fox. This reruns a "Prince and the Pauper" take-off, with Bart trading places with a wealthy lookalike.
-- "Spaceballs" (1987), 8-10 p.m., CW. With the failure of its new Sunday shows, CW is plugging in old movies. This one is a sometimes-funny Mel Brooks film, with Daphne Zuniga as a spoiled rich kid in space.
-- "The Santa Clause 2," 8-10 p.m., ABC; and "The Santa Clause," 9-11 p.m., Disney Channel. They're just trying to confuse us now. The sequel starts at 8, the original at 9. They cross in the middle and your VCR might have a nervous breakdown.
-- "Desperate Housewives," 10 p.m., ABC. Here's a rerun of the season-opener. It's a good hour, leaping ahead five years to find lives in chaos -- and a new mystery man arriving; he'll soon bring death and dismay.
-- "Skins," 10 p.m., BBC America. This is a pivotal episode, setting up next week's terrific season finale. Chris is back from the hospital and Cassie takes care of him; there are hard feelings and things will get worse.

Also, please note: Amid the December pledge drives, some PBS stations are carrying this show:
-- "Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Lost Angeles," 9 p.m.,PBS. Edward James Olmos narrates this look at 60 years of music, including the death of the first Chicano star (Ritchie Valens, of "La Bamba" fame) almost 50 years ago.

TV column for Friday, Dec. 12

TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE: "Frosty the Snowman" (8 p.m.), "Frosty Returns" (8:30) and "The Flight Before Christmas," 9-10 p.m., CBS.
Here's a holiday animation spree, starting with the familiar and moving to something new.
The original "Frosty" has been around since 1969. The story and animation are so-so, but the jaunty song livens much of the half-hour. There's a first-rate voice cast, with Jimmy Durante narrating, Jackie Vernon as a droll Frosty and June Foray -- yes, the voice of Rocky J. Squirrel and Cindy Lou Who -- as the teacher and Kathy and more.
"Frosty Returns," alas, is no match. Done in 1992 by talented people who must have been having a bad day, it's flat and forgettable.
Then comes the new one. "Flight" was created in Finland, then dubbed by Norm McDonald, Emma Roberts (Eric's daughter, Julia's niece) and others for the English version.
A young reindeer has heard that his dad is a member of Santa's elite flying squad. The lad wants to find him, but doesn't know how to fly; an inept flying squirrel tries to help.
TONIGHT'S MIGHT-SEE II: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" (2005), 6 and 9:30 p.m., ABC Family.
To escape the World War II bombing, four children are sent from London to the country home of a stodgy professor. Life is dreary -- until they find that his magical wardrobe leads to another world.
There are many flaws here. The story tends to be stop-and-go and runs much too long.
Still, this is handsomely filmed, a grand adventure now making its basic-cable debut.
Other choices include:
-- "Greatest Holiday Moments: Songs of the Season," 8 p.m., NBC. This looks at the top Christmas songs. Clips range from Bing Crosby and Gene Autry (yes, we'll hear "Frosty" yet again) to John Lennon and Mariah Carey.
-- "Everybody Hates Chris," 8 p.m., CW. This episode skips ahead to New Year's Eve.
-- Family Entertainment Awards, 9 p.m., CW. Tyler James Williams, from the terrific "Everybody Hates Chris," hosts this show, with awards for movies, TV shows and video games. Lots of people are scheduled to appear, including two from "American Idol" (Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest), plus Julianne Hough and her brother Derek, Michael Phelps and his mother Debbie and more.
-- "Lipstick Jungle," 9 p.m., NBC. Not every show is obsessed with the holiday and family values. Tonight, Victory is pondering whether to go naked in a promotion for her clothing line. Also, Wendy fumes when Josie (Vanessa Marcil) offers Shane a chance to tour with Natasha Bedingfield.
-- "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007, HBO), "Cold Mountain" (2003, Oxygen) or "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006, TBS), all 9 p.m. Here are more choices for those not obsessing on the holidays. Quick and slick, "Ultimatum" is a terrific finale to the trilogy about a skilled gunman (Matt Damon) with no memory. "Cold Mountain" is deeply depressing at times -- as a Civil War tale probably should be -- but it is beautifully filmed, with a superb cast that includes Renee Zellweger's Oscar-winning work in support. And "Talladega" is just fun, a Will Ferrell film with some lame moments and some big laughs.
-- "Numb3rs," 10 p.m., CBS. In a rerun, someone is using his police job to commit rapes.