It's another ridiculously busy night of TV, with premieres and finales jousting for attention amid other distractions. It's just as well that CBS' top-rated lineup is taking a breather with repeats.
First, the farewells, going head to head. Once again, NBC sends away its reliably tear-jerking Parenthood (10/9c) earlier in the TV year than we'd like, but a limited run of 15 episodes beats the alternative. Shows like this don't tend to repeat well, and if a shorter run makes business sense — while freeing up the time period in the back half of the season for something else (in this case, a retooled Smash in two weeks) — then so be it. This fourth season has been Parenthood's strongest and most emotionally charged to date, especially in the storyline involving Kristina's breast cancer ordeal, providing Monica Potter and Peter Krause (as husband Adam) with their strongest dramatic material to date. Emmy voters, wake up and take note.
In the finale, these Bravermans bravely prepare for the next step of the medical battle, and it sounds like there are more significant turning points for many of the other members of this extended family: Crosby and Jasmine, celebrating their anniversary; Amber and the troubled war vet Ryan (Friday Night Lights vet Matt Lauria, a very welcome addition to this cast) reassessing their relationship; and Sarah still wavering between her ex-fiancé Mark, who's fighting to get her back, and forlorn grump of a boss Hank, who's acting as if he's already lost. (Don't judge, but I'll be watching in my "Team Mark" T-shirt.)
While NBC hasn't confirmed a fifth season for Parenthood, I'm optimistic we haven't seen the last of this underappreciated gem. But it really is the last hurrah for ABC's medical melodrama Private Practice (10/9c), which has earned the right to a happy ending after six seasons of over-the-top angst. This spinoff never grabbed me the way Grey's Anatomy still often does, in part because its central figure, Kate Walsh's Addison, seemed to morph from a confident doc to an emotionally stunted nincompoop the minute she switched shows. But now it's Addison's wedding day, so let's think positive thoughts, and welcome back Audra McDonald (with another Tony under her wing) as Naomi to class up the joint.
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Parenthood and Private Practice are modern practitioners — Parenthood on the high end, Practice on the low — of a time-honored genre, whose glory days in the '80s are fondly recalled in an episode of PBS' Pioneers of Television (check tvguide.com listings) devoted to "Primetime Soaps." The late Larry Hagman, who laughingly says of Dallas, "I always considered it a cartoon," gets plenty of face time, as does Dynasty's Joan Collins, deconstructing her elaborate slapstick catfights with the statuesque goody-two-shoulder-pads Krystle of Linda Evans. My personal favorite of the era, Knots Landing, earns a salute from its trinity of heroines: Michele Lee as "I want to be a Pollyanna" Karen, Joan Van Ark (reliving her triumphant Val-into-Verna transformation), and Donna Mills, the cul-de-sac's mischievous fly in the suburban ointment, still batting those marvelous eyes. This is very well timed, with TNT's Dallas reboot less than a week away from returning. But as my fellow suds devotee Michael Ausiello mentioned to me a few nights ago: What, no Falcon Crest retrospective? Maybe next time.
DADDY ISSUES: "My own dad conned me," laments professional con-man Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer), drowning his sorrows alongside sidekick Mozzie (Willie Garson) as USA Network's enjoyable if slight White Collar (10/9c) resumes its fourth season — with Neal reeling from the discovery that Treat Williams aka Sam is his long-lost dad, believed for years to be a dirty cop, though the real story is much more complicated. Lots of exposition and recrimination in this episode, as Neal seeks vengeance against an Irish mobster (responsible for the murder of his beloved Ellen) who's involved in a racket involving counterfeit whiskey. Hence the drinking, because there's seemingly nothing Neil can't fake.
TASTE TEST: Further blurring the worlds of cable and network, while mashing up elements of different (and mostly better) reality competitions, ABC's two-hour premiere of the low-rent foodie extravaganza The Taste (8/7c) is like an endless retread of MasterChef by way of the multiple judge/mentor set-up of The Voice, only this time with blind tastings as the gimmick. Which isn't nearly as enjoyable as watching judges operate those revolving chairs.
The judges are a mixed bag: The blunt Anthony Bourdain is the most electrifying (as you'd expect), Nigella Lawson the most alluring (again, hardly a shock), Ludo Lefebvre exotic and easily riled, and I'm not sure what to make of Top Chef veteran Brian Malarkey — who goes by the name "Malarkey" as if he thinks he's a household word, though maybe we're just meant to interpret anything he says as, well, malarkey.
In the opener, they start assembling four-contestant teams picked from a pool of pros and home cooks, judging only from a single taste of a concoction that must fit in the bowl of a spoon. (This tends to work against the most experienced chefs, who try to do too much.) They never know who's responsible for the food or even what the ingredients are, and I wish I could say the result is suspensefully tasty. But just like what's crammed into those spoons, there's not enough substance to leave much of an impression or aftertaste.
Once the teams are picked, the blind tastings will continue, so it's always possible that a judge/mentor will vote out a member of his or her own team. Such twists are the only conceivable reason to watch something this derivative, especially when there's so much else on the TV menu.
WILD LIFE: "Pain is temporary. Film is permanent," is Lost alum Dominic Monaghan's anything-goes rationale for the arduous stunts he endures in his diverting new BBC America travelogue-with-creepy-crawlers, Wild Things With Dominic Monaghan (10/9c). In the opening hour, he traverses paddy fields, jungles and a crocodile-infested lake in Vietnam in search of a lethal little creature known colloquially as a "giant water bug." But this irrepressible world traveler is easily distracted, which is why he temporarily halts his search to climb a tree so a massive python can slither all over him. "Man, that was fun," he crows, while I yearn for the relative relaxation of a replay of The Following. Fashion tip: If you're walking in this guy's shoes, best to bring along a pair of protective "leech socks."
On a similar theme, but much closer to home, Travel's Edge of America (9/8c) finds reporter Geoff Edgers diving headlong into local American subcultures and customs. His adventure starts in Oklahoma, where challenges include eating bull testicles and castrating a calf. Sounds like it takes b---s to keep up with this guy.
COMEDY TONIGHT: Guest star alert: Covert Affairs' Piper Perabo moonlights on NBC's Go On (9/8c) as a charismatic former group member who returns and threatens to steal Ryan's spotlight. ... "Gaydar" is the issue of the week on NBC's The New Normal (9:30/8:30c), as little Shania wonders about the sexual orientation of Rocky's latest crush (Mark Consuelos), while Nana has similar doubts about her stylish fellow realtor (John Stamos). ... Jimmy worries about losing control at his bachelor party on Fox's Raising Hope (8/7c). ... Childrens Hospital's Nate Corddry guests on Fox's New Girl as Nick becomes suspicious of one of Jess's night-school students. ... Danny dates Eye Patch (Girls' Allison Williams) on Fox's The Mindy Project, while Mindy pursues a one-night stand with her former midwife enemy. ... BET seems to have struck gold with its reality parody Real Husbands of Hollywood (10/9c), this week featuring cameos by Modern Family's Ed O'Neill and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. It's followed by Second Generation Wayans (10:30/9:30c), in which the show-biz wannabes try to land a project from a hard-partying screenwriter.
THE REAL WORLD: HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel opens its 19th season with a newly timely replay of a 2011 feature on brothers John and Jim Harbaugh, who'll be facing off at the Super Bowl as the coaches of, respectively, the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. Other segments include a profile of Houston Rockets draft pick Royce White, whose anxiety disorder regarding air travel led to his suspension; and a story on rapper-turned-high school football mentor Luther Campbell. ... Riding a high from last week's "get" with Lance Armstrong, OWN launches a new season of Our America With Lisa Ling (10/9c), which doesn't sound the least bit sensational as it explores the "Shades of Kink" within the subculture of bondage-dominance-sadomasochism popularized in Fifty Shades of Grey. ... PBS' investigative series Frontline (check tvguide.com listings) takes on The Untouchables, attempting to explain how the government failed to bring criminal charges against Wall Street bankers who knowingly trafficked in toxic mortgage loans, spurring the economic crisis we're still digging out from.
FINALLY: Some guilty pleasures: Syfy's addictive Face Off (9/8c) heads to the geek nirvana of San Diego's Comic-Con, where the make-up wizards are challenged to create original superheroes, with the winning design to be featured in a DC Comic. ... A week before he headlines FX's terrific new drama The Americans as a Russian spy living a double life, Matthew Rhys stars in Ovation's psychological-mystery British import The Scapegoat (8/7c), based on a Daphne du Maurier novel about a prep-school teacher who meets his doppelganger, a wealthy Frenchman, and assumes his identity, with predictably sinister results. ... On a venomous episode of FX's Justified (10/9c), Boyd Crowder's reputation as Harlan County's deadliest snake takes on new dimensions as he targets the interloper Preacher Billy.