The more things change, the more they sound the same. And so it was as American Idol returned this week — with shiny new judges, a flashy new opening, but the formula pretty much intact from before. (Delusional tone-deaf losers? Check. Precocious talents? Check. Inspirational sob stories? Name that tune, repeatedly.) One essential ingredient is, of course, missing: the curmudgeonly and biting snark, but also the tang of weary boredom, that was the hallmark of Simon Cowell. In his place, two charismatic supernovas who represent flip sides of the Paula coin: the ditsy loose cannon (an electrifying Steven Tyler) who blurts things like "I think you got the what-is-it-ness" when he's not leering at a parade of nubile Disney Channel refugees or drumming along to the groove of the better talents; and the beatific cheerleader (a luminous Jennifer Lopez) who's quick with the goosebumps and moist eyes and hates to say no. "I'm not in the business of crushing spirits," says J-Lo, who goes on to protest too much: "This is awful. I hate this! Why did I sign up for this?"
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Steven Tyler has the answer, my dear: "We're all here because we're not all there." Tyler's joking. He's nothing if not in the moment, and single-handedly has raised my hopes of how Idol's comeback/rebuilding/10th season is going to play. He's into it, and not just into himself, although his and J-Lo's star power overwhelms many of the wannabes — and thoroughly overshadows the more-useless-than-ever Randy Jackson. Tyler at least is a breath of funky fresh air, perhaps lacking the sting of Simon even when delivering an insult ("Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?" was his high point the first week) but bringing an "unbridled" enthusiasm all his own to the show. This is, without doubt, a kinder Idol, even in these corny audition episodes seeming to emphasize the feel-good over mocking the knowingly godawful. An Idol for a new age of civility? No wonder the ratings are down — though still bigger than its rivals combined. Idol is still recovering from a banner bad season that was also the swan song of its defining voice. It's got a ways to go to reclaim glory, but if Tyler is any indication — and if, more important, they can find at least a few rousing singers for the live shows, which is when we'll really know if the new Idol has legs — this powerhouse is far from over. But please, guys. Keep your shirts on.
LEGEND WATCH, DAYTIME: Reege! Daytime TV took another body blow this week when broadcasting titan Regis Philbin announced he's pulling a Larry King and, at 79, is stepping down from his quarter-century hosting gig on Live With Regis and Kelly. First Oprah, now Regis. And somewhere Jerry Springer is still trolling gutters for guests? Seems unfair. Odds are that, unlike Larry, Reege won't be replaced by a supercilious, arrogantly self-promoting Brit. Unless, of course, Simon Cowell decides The X Factor isn't keeping him busy enough. (Which it will.) Lots and lots of speculation about who'll fill Philbin's Hush Puppies and sit beside Kelly Ripa for the long haul. (There have been many effective subs, but most of them — like Jeff Probst, Ryan Seacrest and Neil Patrick Harris — have day jobs it's hard to imagine them giving up.) Might they hire Kelly's hubby Mark Conseulos full time and turn the show into I Love Kelly? Or how about taking a page from the Kathie Lee-Hoda playbook and pair Kelly with a female. Kelly & Kathy (Griffin), anyone? However the audition process goes, it's hard to imagine the gregarious Philbin staying silent, or off camera, for long.
LEGEND WATCH, PRIME TIME: As we Cheered earlier this week, how touching was it to see comedy great Bob Newhart stretch his dramatic muscles on NCIS as Duckie's medical-examiner predecessor, returning to his old stomping morgue to rekindle fading memories of his past as he battles Alzheimer's. It was a poignant turn, but laced with humor. Such as his stammering reaction to watching Abby in action: "What I would have given for a-a-a piece of, uh, hardware like her — I mean, like this." Or doing a variation on one of Newhart's classic telephone gags from his stand-up prime, as he calls "Willie Wong's Wok" for take-out only to learn it's become "Bernie's Burritos" in his absence. (The episode is also notable for tackling the issue of gays in the military and the infamous "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, as a gay Navy recruiter is murdered by the overprotective father of a gay teen who misreads the counseling his son is getting. A sly dig there as well at bigots who think gays have a "recruiting" agenda.)
And yes, that was Newhart's long-ago Saturday night neighbor — Mary Tyler Moore — slumming on the second-season premiere of TV Land's campy Hot in Cleveland. In a kooky cameo unrelated to the rest of the episode, MTM shares a jail cell with Betty White's Elka, and when she rises from her bunk, there's a stenciled "M" just like in Mary Richards' apartment. (Those were the days.) "What's with the big 'M'?" Elka asks. "Stands for murder," MTM growls. And later, echoing one of the most enduring jokes from the Mary Tyler Moore Show pilot, she compliments Elka's spunk, adding, "I hate spunk." What I hate is a show like Cleveland milking canned laughs from repeated use of the word "balls." But Betty White rises above. She makes comic magic by mugging her way through lines like this: "Obviously, the woman looking back at me from my mirror isn't young. She bugs me sometimes." Twas a big week for our Betty. Not only did she celebrate her 89th birthday this week with the return of her sitcom and a big party in Manhattan, she capped it by playing Password with Jimmy Fallon on his late-night show (she won). Like that classic game, Betty White never gets old.
From a more recent vintage of legend, Murphy Brown herself, Candice Bergen, checks in on House as Cuddy's shiksa mom, ambushing the doc in the clinic and needling him at dinner: "And why do you call him House? The man's name is Greg. It makes it seem like you're not serious." Well, Greg's serious enough to drug her — and Wilson — into a stupor at the table. "My birthday gift to you," House tells Cuddy. (But really, House? Taub the face of the hospital? In what universe?)
PIERS' PEERS: Kudos to the CNN bookers for front-loading the first week of Piers Morgan Tonight with top-shelf guests like Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern and — the newsiest get, thanks to his controversial Golden Globe performance (which I reviewed here) — Ricky Gervais, which was easily the highlight of Morgan's first week. The high-profile strategy mostly backfired, though, because it built expectations too high, and the powerhouse guests generally talked their way around the British interloper, no matter how he tried to egg them on. "Emote with me, baby," he cooed to Oprah, who wasn't biting. Or giving him much of anything new. "At the core of me, I am a teacher," Oprah said, while schooling the obsequious newbie, who asked her flat out, "How did I do?" (If you have to ask, I don't think you want to know the answer.) Both Oprah and Howard Stern called him out for his calculated attempts at confrontation, which just reinforced the smugness with which Morgan assumed this perch. Stern cut through the bull, bravado and self-hype by needling him, "You're a nice guy, but no one wants to sit and talk to you." So far, we're only showing up for the guests.
And Gervais was the best guest with the best story to tell. With the requisite beer on the table, he said, "I'm not going to apologize for being true to myself," setting the tone for a generally substantive conversation about humor and if there are limits and the ability of Hollywood to not take itself so desperately seriously, with interesting sidebars on religion and fame. And yes, Ricky, Piers' pompous and florid intro creeped me out, too.
THE MOST FABULOUS SIMPSONS EPISODE EVER: A bit of an overstatement, but how else to respond to Moe transforming his dive bar into a "men's bar for the average-looking fella." Which is how Moe's becomes Mo's — "Somehow there's more 'no chicks here' than usual," says one of Homer's homies. This satirical outing (so to speak) tempers its political incorrectness with a bid for tolerance. "There's nothing against it in the bible," says Moe (referring, naturally, to the "Bartenders' Bible"). Transforming the bar is Smithers' idea (after learning he's not in Mr. Burns' will), and even though he's encouraged by Moe's new acceptance of his kind, he's appalled when Moe pretends to be gay to pander to his clientele. (His "Neil Patrick Hairless" chihuahua with the disco collar may be the last straw.) Before Moe comes clean, he locks lips with Smithers: ""Like Frisbee Golf, I'm glad I tried it once." But as usual, it's the details that linger. Like drag-queen patrons getting a load of Marge's hair and voice, and the flyer for Gay Pride Day at Krustyland: "This makes up for years of slurs!" It really doesn't, but we'll take progress wherever we can find it.
TEARJERKER OF THE WEEK: [The usual SPOILER ALERT applies to those lacking access to DirecTV's run of Friday Night Lights] This is the episode of Friday Night Lights I've been waiting for. It wrecked me, several times. There was enough emotional resolution for it to be the series finale, but thankfully, we still have three more episodes to go. Episodes I'm eagerly awaiting, yet dreading, because I'm not ready to leave home yet. And "home" really is the theme of this wonderful episode, a masterful showcase for Kyle Chandler's quiet dignity as Coach Taylor. He stands up for Tim Riggins at his parole hearing to help bring the boy home, and despite a "hell of a" job offer at a plush Florida college, Coach decides to stand by the kids of East Dillon whose lives he's changed. As he heads to an away game with the team, Coach tells the curious onlookers, "No matter where they are, no matter where this community goes, that's home. ... That's where I plan to stay, at home in Dillon." Hugs, cheers, and yes, tears. But how could he not stay? Not after Vince pledges to take his counsel (and not his bullheaded ex-con father's) in the year to come. "I don't know where I would be without you," he tells Coach. Promising "no mistakes, no mess-ups, no drama," he states the episode title: "Don't go." This follows the simply spoken but heartfelt tributes from his fellow Lions at the athletic banquet. Full hearts, wet eyes.
Also lost it in the scene between Riggins and Coach, when a subdued Tim reveals he wrote to his mentor often: "I'm sorry I let you down," he says, but Coach has never lost faith in this "good young man's" character. Was moved as well by Luke Cafferty, coming to terms that his future is not in football but on the farm, hopefully with Becky. (Loyalty is another big theme this week.) This is about as warmly realistic as TV gets, and as Luke looks over the Texas landscape with his girl at his side, there's a sense of peace that hit me where I live (or used to live, in small-town Indiana). What a great show this has been.
BASHING THE PEACOCK: Especially apropos in a week when the Comcast/NBC-Universal merger is approved, signaling an overdue corporate sea change for the long-troubled network — Bob Greenblatt, you have our best wishes, and sympathies — we're treated to some choice NBC slams from the network's signature comedies. Saturday Night Live spoofs the laughable The Cape by imagining other weaponized accessories: The Scarf ("Crime better bundle up"), The Smock, The Leg Warmer, culminating in The Spanx and the tagline "NBC — Take It Or Leave It." Bookending the week, 30 Rock satirizes the fictional Kabletown merger by imagining drastic cost-cutting, including turning the TGS green room into an extension of the NBC Experience store. A placard reads: "New Fall Show Merchandise, 100% off." Zing! Then Jack is heard on the phone telling his dad of the new cable package, "We made it very clear you have to buy NBC with everything else. ... Then just don't watch it!" And an NBC priority pie chart is divided with the lion's share of resources going to The Biggest Loser, and 2nd place going to "Make it 1997 again [Seinfeld's last full year] through science or magic." If only.
MAKE EM LAUGH: A road trip to a science symposium makes for one of the funnier Big Bang Theory episodes in a while. Amy tries bonding with "bestie" pal Penny, discussing her penis envy — "not for sex, for convenience" — but the brainiac's night terrors send Penny into Leonard's bed. Where she informs her ex, in Star Trek lingo, "From the waist down, my shields are up." Which wakes Sheldon from his "Dracula's coffin" sleep and sends him to Raj's room, and so forth. And why don't Amy and Sheldon share a room? "We decided we didn't want to jeopardize our relationship by getting to know each other too well," says Amy (Mayim Bialik killing in this role). Makes sense.
From ABC's Wednesday lineup: Modern Family makes the most from the sitcom staple of kids walking in on their parents having sex. "Did you notice that dad had the same look on his face as when he smells a new car?" wonders little Luke. The farce over parent-child panic escalates when Gloria intrudes, thinking Claire has seen her critical e-mail about being the boss of the bake sale and completely misreading the situation. "Just let go a little," Gloria adivses Claire as Phil looks on, agape. "Maybe even taste my cupcakes. I will join you." Phil says, "I may pass out." I had the same thought — from laughter. ... Inside baseball: That was former Mad TV cut-up Michael McDonald on Cougar Town as the snarky wine-bar owner who bonds with a disloyal Ellie because "my only interests are drinking wine and judging people" — until he goes too far mocking Jules' hair for being "so jet black she looks like a crow." McDonald has long been a producer-writer-director for the show, and it's good to see him in front of the camera again.
Welcome back to 30 Rock, Dr. Spaceman (Chris Parnell). We're not surprised to hear you're dating Squeaky Fromme, and that "she is difficult." ... And welcome back, Community. I second our Cheer on Malcolm-Jamal Warner's guest turn as Shirley's newly loyal ex, sporting a Cosby-style sweater. But I loved the guessing game regarding Annie's new beau. "Is it black Michael Chiklis?" wonders Troy. "White George Foreman?" — pipes Pierce. (As Britta notes, they're talking the same person, the biracial David, who I don't believe we've ever met.) And regarding Senor Chang of the slow clap joining the study group, here's Jeff's take: "What you see may be what you don't want, but it's also what you get."
HONOR ROLL: If I could, I'd make a reservation for Bodega, the pop-up eatery from the winning team on Top Chef: All Stars' long-awaited "Restaurant Wars" episode. With the charming Fabio working front of house, and Richard Blais brainstorming high-end comfort food, I'm sold. Added bonus: the arrogant twit Marcel is bounced from his dysfunctional team, taking his ever-present (and rarely welcome) foam with him. ... Surely Ron Swanson's "Pyramid of Greatness" chart will be on a T-shirt near you soon. Revealed on Parks and Recreation's much-anticipated premiere episode, the pyramid includes one entire line devoted to proteins (cow, pig, chicken, deer and fish — "sport only") with a box in the middle reserved for "romantic love." At the pyramid's pinnacle: "Honor — If you need it delivered, you don't have it." I sometimes feel this character has been fetish-ized too quickly — and I saw that Bobby Knight chair-throwing gag coming a mile off — but his pyramid's a winner. ... Ben McKenzie has come a long way from The O.C., and this week's Southland is one of his strongest. He spends much of the episode harassing the newly released con who raped his mother, risking his career as he oversteps his authority while making some fateful errors of judgment elsewhere on the beat. In the wrenching final scene, his mother reveals the assault wasn't as black-and-white as it appeared when he was a child, and as he comes to grips with the reality, he loses his grip and weeps in anguished remorse. Well played.
TWISTS AND TURNS: In the delicious second episode of Masterpiece Classic's Downton Abbey, a seductive Turkish diplomat has his way with not-quite-heiress Mary, and ends up expiring in her bed. (Can't remember that ever happening in Jane Austen!) A cover-up ensues to restore honor, but Maggie Smith's Dowager is nonetheless outraged. "No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house. Especially someone they didn't even know." And when told Mary is still a wreck, she clucks, "One can't go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We'd all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper!" ... Chuck's writers delight in putting obstacles between Chuck and Sarah, and this week's above-par episode (excepting the moronic subplot involving Lester and his arranged mate from Saskatchewan) finds Chuck repeatedly thwarted in popping the question to his soulmate. But thankfully, what's keeping them apart this time isn't another person — enough with the triangles already — but a mission. Sarah is going undercover in Volkoff's operation, the same assignment that cost Chuck his mom. ... Much of the recent conflict on The Good Wife has dealt with a split among the partners, as an insecure Diane plotted a coup to start her own firm. But when Will learns he's "been played" by Derrick Bond, who's having Blake investigate even the partners in advance of bringing a deep-pocketed "super PAC" into the fold, Will makes up with Diane and now they're plotting against Bond. It's about time. Little doubt who'll win that battle. But in the instant-win column: Kalinda, who rebels against working under her rival Blake, and with Will's help, she not only gets a salary bump higher than Blake, she also gets a country club membership. Can't remember ever seeing this vixen so happy.
AS HEARD ON TV: "You look taller on television." — A singer's grandmother bringing Ryan Seacrest down to size as American Idol hits New Orleans. ... "I kind of need this to be a hit, or at least something you can't make fun of on a talk show." — Matt LeBlanc hoping to escape the shadow of Joey, as he endears himself to his writers, and to us, on the second episode of Showtime's Episodes. ... "Skin her." — Erica finally taking action on V, ordering her Fifth Column cohorts to reveal Agent Malik's inner lizard to get the skinny on Anna's plots. The results are satisfyingly gruesome. ... "You think boxing's gone bad? Try writing about boxing. For a newspaper." — Ben Shenkman revealing a wry media truism as a reporter in Lights Out, chasing the story of the ex-boxer being pursued by the law. ... "If you need to make millions of dollars but have no real skills or education, the best place to do it is in entertainment." — Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock, speaking truth before launching wife Angie into her new career as a Bravo reality queen. ... Speaking of which, "I just want to sit on my couch in my underwear, drink Scotch and watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey. By myself. I just want one night off. Is that too much to ask?" — Dr. House on his guilty pleasure. I know how he feels, but my drug of choice would be catching up on Friday episodes of Supernatural. (With Fringe now in the mix, keeping up with Friday TV is going to kill me.)
That's a wrap. Hope you're enjoying the busiest January for TV in recent memory. And the fun's just starting. Keep following me on Twitter to make sense of it all.