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Cable's making its grab for our attention
Mid-Season TV preview
By MELANIE MCFARLAND SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER TELEVISION CRITIC Thursday, January 13, 2005

HOLLYWOOD -- Several years of substandard viewing options have produced certain expectations among television critics. We arrived at the Television Critics Association winter press tour with fresh optimism, ready to be bemused, and expect to leave somewhat depressed at what we have seen.

Viewers already are enjoying a small glimmer of hope despite the networks. A revitalized ABC and UPN, and the lax but steadily winning CBS, all of which got off to smooth starts for 2004-2005, hit the wall with dismally rated midseason reality filler.

Meanwhile, much-chastised NBC made up for its slew of failures with the strong debut of mediocre scripted series "Medium" and "Committed." The new cycle of Fox's "American Idol" may prove to be the exception, but we can safely say actual imagination has returned to broadcast television, a subject certainly due to dominate conversations with silver-tongued executives.

All of them except for CBS's head honcho, Les Moonves. He must be bracing for a storm of questions about the Memogate report released this week. You know, that "60 Minutes" blockbuster about President Bush's National Guard service that led to the firing of four producers -- three of them women, including former KIRO/7 producer Mary Mapes -- while the main face of the scandal, outgoing anchor Dan Rather, and his boss, Andrew Heyward, emerged unscathed and quite employed.

That's all to come next week. First up is the cable shuffle.

Many fine cable series have launched in winter and springtime, when network television tends to lie fallow -- or, this time around, prone.

Still, cable's been fascinated with gambling for the past year or so, which already is leading to its own glut of sameness. This is no news flash; all attempts at new series are crapshoots with long odds. Of course, some options look better than others.

Tonight, ESPN launches a drama called "Tilt," with Michael Madsen starring as Don "The Matador" Everest, a cold-hearted poker king. (Review is on C7.) After ESPN's presentation, E! network strutted out Wayne Newton to promote its 10-part reality series "The Entertainer," premiering Sunday, Jan. 23, at 10 p.m., with the stakes being a featured performer slot in Newton's Las Vegas show. Tanned and crowned with a pompadour that stood to impressive heights, Newton was nonetheless shown up by Michael Jackson.

Not that Jackson was present, of course. For E! that's no longer a requirement. They simply can act it out.

Stymied by the ban on cameras in the courtroom, E! is partnering with B Sky B to telecast daily re-enactments of Jackson's trial, the next day, set to begin immediately after jury selection. A team of actors will dramatize the transcript, verbatim.

We're not sure which was more ridiculous, the news itself or the assurance from Ted Harbert, president and CEO of E! Networks, that the tone of the broadcast would be "deadly serious."

"I have to reject out of hand this idea of goofing on Michael Jackson," he said. (To which we silently replied, "What are you on? And do you have enough for the entire room?")

"This is beyond the fact of his rather absurd level of celebrity right now. This is at its heart a very serious matter. It will be treated as such."

By the audience? Hoo! Forget that!

Understandably, some of you would like to hide from this insanity. In that case, you may choose between the comforting bosoms of either Fabio or G4techTV.

G4techTV is presenting a virtual pageant called "Girls Gone Wired," a competition that puts 75 pneumonic, barely clad women from 40 video games into competition with one another. (Brought to us, we imagine, by Jergens.)

Drawing our attention to the calendar G4 handily provided us, pageant host Adam Sessler enumerated the finer qualities of the cover model "Leisure Suit Larry's" Sally Mae, who was cheekily clad in low-slung shorts. This came after "Mortal Kombat's" Jade, who has swollen a few cup sizes since her debut in the series, slapped her left haunch for our entertainment.

The response: cranky dismay.

On the exact opposite side of the exploitation spectrum lies "Mr. Romance," Oxygen's comedic search for America's next romance-novel cover model, hosted by Fabio and co-created, if you can believe it, by Gene Simmons of KISS.

Here, we'll have "Adonises" competing against one another, to be rated on their catwalk gamboling, camera-kissing technique and ability to ride into the sunset. This beefcake buffet culminates in a "man pageant," a festival of flexing and dry humping to the soundtrack of screeching women, co-hosted by Fred Willard, the man who stole "Best in Show."

"And for the guys in the audience, it's frustrating enough to know not only were these great-looking guys, but they had just been schooled in how to seduce women," Willard said. "The rest of us are just fumbling along trying to make the best of it, always saying, 'Why did I say that?' And there are people out there right now being trained to surpass you and defeat you."

We'd wager that much of this news is enough to make a lot of viewers even more annoyed at their TVs than usual. But there is hope.

March brings us the fourth season of "The Shield," and the introduction of Glenn Close to the cast as the new captain ruling over Vic Mackey and his crew.

This fresh infusion of talent is bound to further enhance the series, one of the few shows on television that had a superb ensemble to start with. Michael Chiklis spent most of the session genuflecting before Close's talents, to which she responded with the utmost class.

"I'm incredibly honored to be working with them, and I have a huge respect for what they do every week," she said. "And you know, I'm swimming really fast."


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