The Book of Ruth
The awful murder. The abuse. The blood. Yet all I keep thinking is: You mean to tell me Aunt Sid pointed Ruth toward the drawerful of letters, forgetting that the one from Mark — in which he trashed her husband and marriage — was in there? Not a chance. Man, nobody hurts you like your kin, huh?

Of course, that same husband did end up being a pill-popping lunatic who hit Ruth and beat her mom to death, but that drawer maneuver was tacky just the same.

State of Play
I guess I should realize praising this show is now a routine with me. The teaser alone is better written than most of what passes for drama on more mainstream American shows. After Cal, being interrogated, tells the cops they oughtta be embarrassed because he's doing a better job on the case than they are, Cameron pipes up with: "Well, you asked for that. I said 10 minutes ago it was getting repetitive. Were either of you listening?" Boom — right into the titles, then right back into the action without a second wasted. And speaking of action, the Chewie-hitman sequence was as tight, tense and effective as anything I've seen this season.

The Sopranos
I'm not sure who's dumber right now — Tony B. for killing Joe Peeps behind Tony S.'s back, Tony S. for lying to Johnny Sack and covering up for Tony B., or Finn for eyeing another girl on the construction site when dating Meadow's the only protection he's got.

OK, Finn wins (well, loses, really) for committing multiple errors. First of all, never show up for a job like that — working for guys like that — when you're not expected. Ever. Don't stand Vito up when what you now know is an obvious threat to him. (This is the guy who killed his own cousin, remember.) And don't propose to Meadow when you're not sure you're going all the way with it — and you're not sure, as the aforementioned eyeing demonstrates — since breaking her heart will get other things broken on and in you.

But for all the intrigue, drama and buildup, the best scene by far was Tony and Dr. Melfi pulling the real story of what happened the night Tony B. got caught. Two people in a room, nobody getting beaten up or killed and it's still the hardest hitting. That's what makes this show as good as it is.

That and Carmela on the phone, tears in her eyes as she hears of Meadow's engagement to Finn, gazing out the window at the ridiculous-looking Tony splashing about in the pool.

Oh, and this: Joe Peeps ends up with that — his nickname — on his headstone instead of his real last name. See? Even the mob needs a good editor.

Speaking of people getting beaten up and killed, I'd just gotten used to the level of cruelty on this show and now they introduce yet another level: two fresh-faced kids, looking for their father, wandering into the merciless world of Swearengen and Cy. It's like being forced to watch a couple puppies trying to cross a highway at rush hour. At least, it was before those kids got to talking about ripping off the two gambling joints and it became clear they didn't wander into anything. Now I get the feeling Flora's a lot better at crossing than I first thought — and those puppies have got some teeth on them.

Matter of fact, several of the women on this show have teeth a lot sharper than the men realize. So though Bullock's threatening Swearengen with harm — and given the growing body count Seth's got on him, that's a valid threat — I'm betting that if and when our favorite mustachioed do-badder heads to the pigs for disposal, one of the ladies (my money's on Trixie) will have a hand in it.

The Practice
Those of us expecting something special out of Dylan McDermott's return have to wait nearly 40 minutes to find out it only amounts to two short scenes. In support of Eugene, Bobby kicks his speech off by referencing the lies of politicians and other public figures. What about the whopper ABC told by calling him a guest star for about four minutes of screen time? I, at least, can tell myself I watch TV for a living, so I'm being compensated for being misled. But what're all you guys who got suckered for free supposed to say?

In the meantime, Ellenor punches Hannah hard enough to lift her off her feet and into a wall. What, she's Ben Grimm all of a sudden? Remember when this show valued realistic portrayals, like that psycho in nun-drag who ran around with a butcher knife? Wotta revoltin' development.

Also, if anyone out there is sick of William Shatner's Denny Crane repeating his own name over and over, imagine how those of us who remember Dennis Miller's Charlie Bixby doing the same thing on Boston Public must feel.


The Kentucky Derby
Score one for the little guy — literally. Diminutive colt Smarty Jones, to my mind the one to root for in this race because of his small stature and the fact that he's nearly blind in one eye, wins by two and three quarter lengths. There'd be a movie in that, if Seabiscuit hadn't come along first.

And of course, despite the fact that our sports guys led with Smarty in their preview column, I didn't bet on him. There'd be a movie in that, if my inability to strike it rich were more interesting.

Nashville Star
Oh, c'mon — Brad Cotter wins and Matt Lindahl gets third place? Matt steps out on stage in a tux shirt and jacket, overalls and a trucker's cap, pulls it off nicely, and even plays a washboard sometimes. He's got my vote right there. Brad, on the other hand, gets credit for being at this game for nearly a decade and having some talent to boot, but it's more in the pretty-boy vein, sort of the Brad Pitt of Nashville. I mean, he gets up there and does a Tom Petty song and that's supposed to be country? (Not that I'm some expert, but still...) And need I mention that he doesn't even wear a hat?

Two other random notes: How is it that all three finalists are guys? Some of the ladies were just as good along the way. And why, starting about 15 minutes into the hour, did Nancy O'Dell go to nearly every commercial break telling us we'd know who the next Nashville Star was when we returned? Uh, yes, Nancy, we will — in about 45 minutes.


Joan of Arcadia
Best exchange of the evening:

Joan: "Hey, we're talking about me here, remember?
Grace: "I got bored."

While Joan bemoans not being able to find "her thing," there's one unique quality she's missing. How many high-school girls can yank old-man God's walker away from him without suffering Divine retribution? And as long as I'm in a questioning mode, and as sweet as this episode is, with Joan raining copies of Grace's poem down on her fellow students in an act of sharing the beauty, I'm still left wondering: Where does God stand on littering?

Also, the 12 labors of Hercules... I don't remember catching those in the old TV-cartoon version from the '60s. You know, the ambiguously gay one ("softness in his eyes/iron in his thighs") where Herc, that irritating centaur and his pal Toot took on Daedalus? I get all my mythology from cartoons and if I didn't see it in that, I gotta question the accuracy here.

House of Clues
What kind of person lets two nosy women wander around his house, yanking his Viagra, his prostate books and videos and his marijuana pipe out in front of a national TV audience? One who should've thought harder about that decision, I'd say. There — what do I win?

The Late Show with David Letterman
Dave's wearing a single-breasted suit! He never does that! (Hey, that's as exciting as Friday night gets for me, OK?)

I won't get into where I stand on the war in Iraq — this isn't a political column. But it's worth noting that after Ted Koppel finished reading 721 of the names of the U.S. soldiers killed there, he made a point of saying he's not opposed to it. He just wants people to realize war cannot be waged while burdening only those who fight and serve. So there's something for the people who condemned him and called this an anti-war gesture to consider. And those who've died in the conflict deserve to be honored and recognized, no matter how one views the overall issue. Not leaving them in anonymity is the least we can do, and for that I give Koppel nothing but credit — and my respect.