Pioneers of Television

If I counted right, you can hear Betty White say "I'm the luckiest broad on two feet" at least three times during the course of the "Funny Ladies" retrospective that kicks off a new season of PBS' Pioneers of Television (check tvguide.com listings). Who could or would want to doubt her? The evidence is right there in clips and stills from this living legend's earliest TV appearances in the 1940s and '50s, establishing her as a versatile broadcaster and gung-ho performer even before Lucille Ball made us fall in love with her — and blazing a trail for all who would follow.

Telling the very familiar stories of these true pioneers of the medium, along with profiles of fellow groundbreaking icons Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore, plus Joan Rivers from the world of stand-up, and Marla Gibbs as an emblem of TV eventually welcoming non-whites to the party, this episode of Pioneers doesn't go very deep or reveal much that even a casual fan might not already know. But the hour has its pleasures, including the last on-camera interview with the beloved clown Phyllis Diller, who wryly recalls being forced to dance on air, badly, as we're treated to a clip from her short-lived and little-remembered 1968 variety flop The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, where she's seen cavorting awkwardly alongside Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in a Beach Party skit.

Not every funny lady found an easy path to TV stardom — it took seven years of rejection before Rivers finally got the invitation to make her mark on The Tonight Show — but their work has paid dividends, as anyone who watched this weekend's female-driven Golden Globes telecast can attest. (Tina Fey is one of the talking heads paying tribute to her predecessors, remembering what a "sacred night" it was for her growing up when The Mary Tyler Moore Show ruled Saturdays back in the '70s.)

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THE WEST WING: As President Barack Obama prepares for his second inauguration this weekend, PBS' most essential documentary series Frontline takes an unblinkered look back at his historic but rocky first term in office in Inside Obama's Presidency (check tvguide.com listings). Insiders from both sides of the political aisle weigh in on an administration challenged from the outset by a collapsing economy and an intransigent opposition. The economic-stimulus bailout, health-care reform, the covert military strategies that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, the debt-ceiling standoff that led the country to the fiscal cliff: It's been quite the polarizing roller-coaster.

Also timely, but taking a longer view of the executive branch, History offers The Ultimate Guide to the Presidents (9/8c), an eight-part series that looks at how the role of the presidency has evolved from the time that George Washington took office, when our new democracy had to decide just how much power to bestow on this unique position of leadership.

BREAKING THE MOLD: This actually happens midway through the first episode in the fourth season of Syfy's terrific reality competition Face Off (9/8c), when a creature make-up artist who has earned immunity accidentally drops the head cast of his team's model, breaking off its nose. Oops! So much pressure, so little time, and yet the show's toughest judge Glenn Hetrick confesses he's "blown away" by the high level of execution in the first challenge, which requires teams of two to create goblin kings influenced by a fantasy world's various terrains (desert, jungle, swamp, forest, etc.). A Project Runway for aspiring monster-movie make-up technicians, Face Off is off to another strong start, with host McKenzie Westmore's Oscar-winning dad Michael Westmore signing on as a thoughtfully detail-oriented mentor for the entire season. It's the only show where you're likely to hear a contestant fret, "The area around the mouth looks like a horror show — and not the good way."

OH, THE DRAMA: CBS' top-rated NCIS (8/7c) is sitting "Shiva" (this week's episode title), in mourning over the devastating events of last week's episode, in which Ziva's Mossad-leader father Eli and Director Vance's wife Jackie were killed when Vance's house was strafed by machine-gun fire. Payback is not likely to be pretty. ... Original cast member Peter Cambor returns to CBS' NCIS: LA (9/8c) as psychologist Nate Getz, enlisted by Hetty as her "pawn," whatever that means. ... Promos for NBC's penultimate episode of Parenthood (10/9c) this season suggest that Sarah (Lauren Graham) may finally have to make a choice between her former fiancé Mark (Jason Ritter) and her boss (Ray Romano). It's about time. An even tougher decision confronts Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel (Sam Jaeger) as the adoption deadline looms for their troublesome ward Victor. ... The night's most entertaining drama, FX's Justified (10/9c), finds Raylan seeking the truth — or rather, the Truths, a family of redneck miscreants connected to the mystery of the mysterious bag found in daddy Arlo's wall. In a potentially more explosive showdown, the devilish Boyd Crowder finds his way to Preacher Billy's revival tent. How long before all hell breaks loose?

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