Shock Around the Clock: TV Highlights, January 6-13

ABC Family

Piper Perabo, who plays a French exchange student, tries to knock Texan teen queen Starla (Jane McGregor) off her throne in ABC Family's She Gets What She Wants.

Isthmus | December 29, 2004
(Times are Central Standard.)

"24" (Sunday, January 9, 7 p.m., Fox) follows another fateful day in the life of counter-terrorism expert Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). As in previous seasons, the day unfolds in real time, its 24 hours stretched over the course of the season. The debut episode has the nail-biting excitement of a clock ticking down to an explosion.

Jack is now a bureaucrat working for the Secretary of Defense (William Devane), having been fired from the Counter Terrorism Unit for past transgressions. This morning he's tense as he prepares to return to his old workplace on Defense Department business. On the way out of the house he kisses his new love, the Secretary of Defense's beautiful daughter (Kim Raver).

At the Counter Terrorism Unit, Jack gets a whiff of a train-bomb investigation. Though now an outsider, he perceives what none of his former co-workers do: The bombing was merely a diversion. Jack bursts into an interrogation room, demands that a suspect spill the beans and shoots him in the leg when he refuses. That does the trick, as the suspect finally reveals his awful secret.

I'm usually a firm believer in civil liberties, but in this case I'm willing to suspend them for the sake of a dramatic climax.

She Gets What She Wants

Sunday, January 9, 7 pm (ABC Family)

One tunes into ABC Family TV movies for pat morals, pure heroes and predictable plots. Or, more precisely, one tune in for those reasons. But hold onto your hats: She Gets What She Wants comes from an entirely different universe. Would you believe me if I told you it featured stinging social satire? And a black-hearted heroine? And a snide vision of Texas that would make George W. Bush's cowboy hat shrink from 10 gallons to 10 teaspoons?

Starla (Jane McGregor) is an arrogant teen queen with her future mapped out: She'll win her Texas town's beauty pageant and use it as a stepping stone to a career in TV. Starla is mean, sneaky and stupid--in other words, perfectly equipped to make her dream a reality. "It's my job to be amazing," she tells her fellow students. "And I take that job very seriously."

There's only one problem--that is, Starla meets a beret-wearing French exchange student (Piper Perabo) plotting to knock her off her throne. The clash between French and Texan culture provides the movie's laughs, and they're all at Texas' expense. Everything the Lone Star State holds sacred is profaned, from football to beauty pageants to meat to God to Republicans. And in Bush's America, any movie that makes Texas look worse than France has got to be considered revolutionary.

Masterpiece Theatre

Sunday, January 9, 8 pm (PBS)

As a critic, I was naturally attracted to the title of the current production: He Knew He Was Right. It's based on the Anthony Trollope novel about an insecure man named Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) attracted to a free-spirited woman named Emily (Laura Fraser). They marry, have a child and fall apart when Louis suspects Emily of adultery. The problem is that it all happens in the blink of an eye. Louis stews about Emily's supposed unfaithfulness within five minutes of the opening credits, and it's hard to care when we've seen absolutely nothing of their relationship.

My wife claimed that it didn't matter--that the production is salvaged by the elegant acting, sets and costumes. But I Knew I Was Right.

People's Choice Awards

Sunday, January 9, 8 pm (CBS)

This awards ceremony used to start the year off right, at least for the TV blurb writer. The People's Choice was pompous and old-fashioned and a perfect target for a joke.

But what's this? The producers have partnered with the pop-culture savants at Entertainment Weekly to create what appears to be--gulp--a cool 2005 ceremony. With categories like Favorite Hair and Favorite Smile, I can no longer make fun of the People's Choice for taking itself too seriously. And with hip nominees like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jack Black, Tina Fey and Kill Bill's David Carradine, I can no longer make fun of it for being clueless.

Thanks for robbing me of my annual January joke, People's Choice. What's next--a tasteful Miss USA pageant?!


Sunday, January 9, 9 pm (HBO)

HBO's new dramatic series affirms Shakespeare's dictum that "all the world's a stage." It cleverly breaks down the wall between theater and reality, starting with the fact that it cast three real-life struggling actors--Jennifer Hall, Krista Allen and Bryan Greenberg--as struggling actors named Jennifer, Krista and Bryan. We follow these three as they take classes from a brusque acting guru (Frank Langella) and look for work in L.A. They not only learn how to act on camera; they also learn how to act in real life on that glorified soundstage called Hollywood.

By "real life," I mean the characters' lives in the drama of "Unscripted." But as I said, the wall between theater and reality has broken down. Jennifer, Krista and Bryan are, to some extent, playing themselves. The dialogue is, in fact, unscripted--improvised on the set under the skillful direction of George Clooney. And the characters interact with real stars playing themselves, including Noah Wyle and George Lopez.

So how much is real and how much is fake? I don't know, but I do know that you can't fake quality. "Unscripted" is the show to watch in '05.

Crank Yankers

Wednesday, January 12, 8 pm (Comedy Central)

Time for new episodes of the crank-phone-call series, in which puppets act out recordings of actual calls. The pranksters ring up a diaper service to request diapers; a recording studio to create an audio ransom note; and a mattress store to ask if their products hold up under, ahem, heavy use. In the finale, guest star Jeff Goldblum pretends to be a perverted professor trying to set up an inappropriate lecture with a sorority.

Yes, this kind of harassment is probably illegal. But luckily for the producers, the statutes don't apply to felt.


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