One of the better things about a good episode of NBC's stalwart Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is that you can rarely tell where it's headed. Is tonight's cameo-heavy hour (10/9c) the latest condemnation of reality TV's sordid excesses? Sure looks that way at the start, as we encounter an especially slimy Michael McKean (relishing his repulsiveness) as the predatory producer of a crap-tastic train wreck titled Showgirls, featuring young hopefuls who would do "whatever it takes" to land the starring role in a Broadway musical. (No small irony this is airing the week of the all-important-to-NBC Smash premiere, where such things could never happen!) As he liquors up a nervous contestant for her "audition," he leers for her to "seduce the audience. Let them know you want this." Doesn't take a genius to know where this is going.
Enter the SVU crusaders, who arrive in time to bust the creep during his next seduction — of guest star Miranda Lambert, who sticks around just long enough to refuse to press charges, because "if he goes to prison, what happens to the show?" (More meta-TV irony, as Lambert will be guest-mentoring later this season on her husband Blake Shelton's hitThe Voice, where such things could never happen!) We also get a glimpse of Robert Klein as the unrepentant McKean's lawyer, but the real star of this episode is young Cameron Monaghan (from Showtime's Shameless) as McKean's defiantly loyal son. His rage over his dad's imprisonment leads to a violent standoff, and the rest of the episode becomes Olivia Benson's desperate attempt to save this young boy's soul — and life. It's one of Mariska Hargitay's strongest post-Stabler workouts, and a reminder that even 13 years into its run, there's still life in this franchise. (It's also good to see Linus Roache return as Bureau Chief Mike Cutler, a carry-over from the final Law & Order team that deserved more time to close shop properly on the still-revered mothership.)
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On a very busy first Wednesday of the February sweeps, this was the only episode of a significant series made available in advance. Here are some of the night's other highlights:
MOVING ON: Good news for American Idol: The underwhelming auditions have finally wrapped, failing to ignite much buzz along the way while being seriously upstaged this week by the electrifying and entertaining "blind auditions" on The Voice. Thankfully, Idol's judges and contestants are at last moving on to the Hollywood round (8/7c), and Fox is promising high drama, and at least a little fainting, as the field gets narrowed down over the next few weeks. (Semifinalists are scheduled to be announced Feb. 23.)
IN THE NEWS: Warming up the time period for the return of Survivor next week, CBS News revives the iconic interview show Person to Person (8/7c), with morning host Charlie Rose and rising-star foreign correspondent Lara Logan taking over from the legendary Edward R. Murrow, chatting up George Clooney, Jon Bon Jovi and (from his office rather than his home) Warren Buffett. ... Meanwhile, NBC hopes to scare up an audience for its relocated Rock Center With Brian Williams (9/8c) with some rehashed political gossip, spotlighting Meredith Vieira's interview with Mimi Alford, the former White House intern during the JFK administration who's plugging her book Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath. Once upon a time, this would have turned into an insta-TV movie. Lifetime, what are you waiting for?
WELCOME BACK, ABC: After a couple of weeks of aggravating (to my readers, anyway) repeats, ABC's best-in-show comedy lineup returns, along with the start of a pivotal two-part Revenge (10/9c) that leads to next week's ill-fated Fire & Ice engagement party (the bloody incident that kicked off the series back in September). First, though, the comedies. On a Valentine-themed The Middle (8/7c), Poor Sue discovers her new beau is a bad kisser. ... Boyfriend issues also dog Suburgatory (8:30/7:30c), as papa George becomes increasingly nervous about Tessa's relationship with Scott Strauss. Finding a box of XXL condoms doesn't help — and isn't that the sort of thing that got Tessa exiled to the burbs in the first place? ... Greg Kinnear guests on Modern Family (9/8c) as Phil's new business partner, who may be making inappropriate moves on Claire — not that Phil would ever notice. Meanwhile, Mitchell and Cam temporarily move in with Jay and Gloria, and I imagine Stella won't be the only one barking. ... Coming full circle, Happy Endings (9:31/8:31c) is a Valentine's hot mess, especially for Max, who finds himself chauffering his ex-boyfriend (James Wolk, the hunk from last season's short-lived Lone Star) with whom he broke up on last year's Valentine's Day.
CHANNEL SURFING: Broadway star Sutton Foster, whose ABC Family pilot (from Amy Sherman-Palladino) reportedly has been picked up to series, appears on USA Network's Royal Pains (10/9c) in a stage-struck episode about a Hollywood actor (Medium's Jake Weber) who comes to the Hamptons to do Shakespeare, and all's not well that ends well. ... Guest judges on Syfy's addictive Face Off (10/9c) include Being Human star Sam Huntington, helping assess a trauma-makeup challenge in which the contestants create wounds that could have been made by a werewolf; and Vivica A. Fox, on hand for the Spotlight Challenge, in which teams must create animal/plant hybrids. ... Just when you thought it was safe to stick your hands back in the water, Animal Planet's Hillbilly Handfishin' returns with new episodes (10/9c), following a mini-marathon that kicks off at 8/7c. Catfish, you have been warned. ... More animal doings on PBS (check local listings), as Nature looks at man's battle with an urban scavenger in Raccoon Nation, and Inside Nature's Giants concludes its run by dissecting a lion and a tiger to see how different they are on the inside. Even without a bear involved, that rates an "Oh My!"