'Twas the week before Christmas, and I can't remember when so much was stirring on TV this late into the year. Here are some highlights from an unusually busy pre-Christmas week.
DINO-MIGHT? The biggest cliffhanger regarding the two-hour finale of Fox's time-tripping family sci-fi drama Terra Nova (8/7c) isn't so much what happens on the show, which is fairly standard action-adventure mayhem, but whether it will return for a second season next year. (That decision should be made fairly early in 2012.) If you can accept the fact that this lavishly produced exercise in escapist corn has more of the feel of an old-fashioned comic book than a newfangled graphic novel, it's not that hard to enjoy the melodrama. The finale gets off to a strong start when an invading mercenary army from 2149, acting on orders of the greedily rapacious Phoenix Group, explosively interrupts the arrival of the 11th Pilgrimage. Sheriff Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara) is violently sidelined in the skirmish, and wakes days later to a disorienting tableau of military occupation. With Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang) MIA in the wilderness, Jim plays resistance leader from the inside, but eventually the entire Shannon family has to go into hiding, resembling the Von Trapps at the end of The Sound of Music. And at times, it's just as schmaltzy. It's not much of a spoiler alert to report that the Shannon kids, who make Cindy Lou Who look edgy, are never in any real danger. Except perhaps of a saccharine OD.
The villains, meanwhile, are cartoonishly garish, starting with Taylor's psychotically vengeful physicist son Lucas (Ashley Zuckerman). When Lucas boasts to a tool named Weaver, the most odious of the Phoenix leaders, that they could strip half of this unspoiled continent of its natural resources in six months, Weaver actually cackles, "That's what I like to hear. ... Be one hell of a barbecue down here." Oh, Weaver, you're asking for it. In the course of the action, the source of Lucas' patricidal enmity is revealed, and Jim executes a drastic plan to stop Phoenix that will change the colony's and the series' future, if there is one. And should Fox decide Terra Nova is too costly an enterprise with too little return to keep going, there's just enough closure in this finale to keep the fans from going too T-Rex.
TAKING A FALL: Having had luck in past Christmas weeks with weeklong programming stunts introducing Deal Or No Deal and The Sing-Off to sizable audiences, NBC is hoping the spectacle of quiz-show contestants falling through trap doors will be similarly appealing. That's the flimsy gimmick of Who's Still Standing? (8/7c), airing through Thursday, but even host Ben Bailey (of Cash Cab) can't seem to get too worked up about it. The premise: A contestant — in the opener, a genial Arkansas volleyball coach — faces off against 10 strangers in head-to-head trivia rounds. If the player outlasts five of his loudly taunting rivals, he or she can keep the money they've earned (each opponent is assigned a different and random money value). Beat all 10, and the prize is $1 million. Not much to it, but who would have guessed that the stupid show with the briefcases would catch on? ... If the trap doors led to a snake pit, you'd be in Fear Factor territory, and in this week's episode (9/8c), that's exactly what happens, as one team member is covered with hundreds of snakes while the other moves the snakes with his or her mouth. And the winner of this show only gets $50,000. Hardly seems enough.
SOUL SISTERS: A tribute to the late Amy Winehouse is one of the highlights of this year's VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul concert special (9/8c), with Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine teaming with Wanda Jackson and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. Other headliners include Mary J. Blige, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Jill Scott and Jessie J, each saluting the cities that inspired their soulful styles, including Chicago, Detroit, London, Memphis and Philadelphia.
GUEST ALERT: On the next-to-last episode of The Closer's winter season (TNT, 9/8c), Major Crimes looks into the hit-and-run of a young female bicyclist, with Desperate Housewives' Mark Moses and Weeds' Elizabeth Perkins appearing as L.A.'s police commissioner and his wife, who may be covering up a scandal. ... On Rizzoli & Isles (10/9c), Lolita Davidovich returns as Korsak's ex-wife, when the sarge's stepson is accused of shooting a cop.
KATHY THE TIRELESS: Comedy diva Kathy Griffin bestows another gift on her snark-hungry fans with her fourth Bravo comedy special this year: Kathy Griffin: Tired Hooker (10/9c). It's not like she's ever lacking for material. Among her targets, skewered before a sold-out audience in Atlantic City: no-longer-newlyweds Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, and no-longer-wed Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, with a salvo aimed at Nancy Grace for her Dancing With the Stars wardrobe malfunction. Bravo, Kathy!
SANTA'S MOST WANTED: Adopting a lighter touch than most of the recent batch of TNT Mystery Movies, Deck the Halls (9/8c) is based on the holiday mystery novels written by Mary Higgins Clark and daughter Carol. Which might explain the tight bond between the movie's heroine, gorgeous P.I. Regan Reilly (Scottie Thompson), and her mom, mystery writer Nora (Jane Alexander), who team up with amateur sleuth/lottery winner Alvirah Meegan (a very welcome Kathy Najimy) when Nora's husband (David Selby) is kidnapped by a thug in a Santa suit three days before Christmas. Is it wrong that as I watched Alexander and Selby together, I couldn't shake the memory of their graphic sex scenes in HBO's short-lived Tell Me You Love Me? Not to worry. This one's strictly PG.
REALITY FINALES: It's going to be a Merry Christmas for someone this week, including the winner of Bravo's stimulating Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (9/8c), which gives the three finalists — Sara, Kymia and front-runner Young — a chance to display their collections to the judges, with the winner going on to a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. ... Top Chef: Texas (10/9c) is still a while away from crowning its winner, and in this week's episode, the Quickfire challenge forces the chefs to take instructions from tweets on Twitter, which is probably more annoying than it even sounds. Patti LaBelle is guest judge for the elimination round, in which the chefs prepare a "tribute dish" in honor of the person who taught them their way around a kitchen. Presumably not while tweeting.
And then there's Fox's The X Factor (8/7c), with the final 90-minute performance show divvied up among the three finalists: Melanie Amaro (the favorite, or at least mine), dark horse Josh Krajkic and addict-turned-rapper Chris Rene, who has the most compelling personal story. Who will win? Who's left to care, considering that in an act of ultimate hubris, the $5 million winner won't be announced until Thursday, awfully close to Christmas for much of the real world to be focused on the winner of an overblown singing competition.
SURREALITY FINALE: They've barely had time to mop up the bloody mess from last week's childbirth episode of FX's American Horror Story (10/9c), which was less horrific than horrible as Vivien predictably joined the ranks of the house's dense (in many ways) population of ghosts. In the season finale of this stupefyingly lurid hot mess, the fate of the surviving baby — and, presumably, the surviving Harmon (Dylan McDermott) — sets the stage for next season. Calling all exorcists!
JUST IN (JUSTIN) TIME: If The X Factor strikes you as off-key, there are other options, including CBS's A Home for the Holidays With Martina McBride (8/7c), the 13th annual holiday special extolling the virtues of adoption. Among those joining McBride in musical performances: Mary J. Blige, Gavin DeGraw, OneRepublic and the ubiquitous Justin Beiber. ... Just how omnipresent is the Beeb? He also appears in NBC's A Michael Bublé Christmas (9/8c), getting a second airing after the crooner's successful Saturday Night Live appearance. ... And TLC weighs in with This Is Justin Bieber (9/8c), a holiday special featuring acoustic versions of songs from Bieber's Under the Mistletoe Christmas album, plus footage of Bieber in London, including a performance on The X Factor UK, which somehow brings everything dizzyingly full circle. Please don't let this be the start of a Bieber celeb-reality show. I wouldn't put anything past TLC.
WINNING: The winner of The X Factor (8/7c) is revealed in what's sure to be a deafening two-hour live results show (and that's just the noise coming from the studio audience). ... And yet another reality competition comes to a blingy finish, as Lifetime's Project Accessory (10/9c) displays the three finalists' designs in front of New York fashionistas. Was anyone aware this was even still on?
THE OTHER BEEB: In a fun experiment of TV as radio, NPR's popular and Peabody-winning Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! quiz show-with-a-twist comes to BBC America for a year-end special, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! A Royal Pain in the News (8/7c). With "everyone's favorite news uncle" Carl Kasell as announcer and scorekeeper, and the genially glib Peter Sagal as host, the stage is set for topical and comedic banter as a panel including Paula Poundstone, Last Comic Standing's Alonzo Bodden and British wit Nick Hancock field questions and commentary on subjects including Occupy Wall Street, the Murdochs and the year in politics. Here's Bodden on the coverage of the crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street protester, likening it to the civil rights movement: "Good luck with the pepper spray. We had fire hoses. Not as spicy, little more pressure." Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman is brought on for a special round of questions on the royal wedding of William and Kate. He does better than you might think.
THE CHUCK WAGON: If you're looking for new network fare on the eve of Christmas Eve, NBC continues burning off the final season of Chuck (8/7c) with a new episode featuring comics legend Stan Lee, who once upon a time romanced the stone — by which we mean stone-faced but deep down warm-hearted General Beckman (Bonita Friedericy). Christmas is anything but peaceful at the Buy More, as a computer virus called "the Omen" takes aim at Carmichael Industries, but when it goes viral, ends up sending scores of customers to the store on Christmas Eve for some Nerd Herd maintenance.
(On actual Christmas Eve, starting at 8/7c, things get back to normal, with NBC re-airing It's a Wonderful Life opposite ABC's perennial The Sound of Music, while TBS revs up its 24 Hours of A Christmas Story marathon, which continues through Christmas Day. This is more like it.)
With that, a wish for happy viewing through the holidays.
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