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The Boston Phoenix Side Dishes

TV treats for the holiday season

By Robert David Sullivan

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Another sweeps month is over, and your television screens are once again safe from earthquakes, leprechauns, and the Virgin Mary. Now get ready for nightly attacks of déjà vu, as the networks rerun programs that originally aired at about the same time the Red Sox were knocked out of the playoffs. Rather than compete with holiday parties and movie premieres in December, television generally holds back the good stuff until it's too cold to go outside and most of us can't scrape up $30 for a bad dinner and a lousy flick anyway. So we can look forward to the return of The Sopranos and NYPD Blue in January, plus the usual midseason schedule shuffles. There are two pieces of good news on that front: NBC is moving Freaks and Geeks from the Saturday wasteland to Monday nights at 8, and it's moving Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to Fridays at 10 -- the old home of Homicide: Life on the Street and an appropriately late time slot for the seamy crime drama. But don't expect a lot of new prime-time series over the next few months: this fall's line-up has been so strong (except at Fox) that there are relatively few bombs to clear off the schedule.

Of course, we don't stop watching TV just because NBC isn't running promos for a mini-series about fanciful little creatures (the Birmingham Morning Bowel Movement calls Earwigs "better than chloroform!") and CBS isn't hyping a rock-and-roll epic ("Jaleel White is James Brown in Soul Survivor!"). We just like television to be a bit less intense around the holidays. Yes, it's great that complex series like Law & Order have destroyed the myth that all television viewers have short attention spans, but there's still room for simpler favorites. You could call them the cranberry sauce and pearl onions of the airwaves, and here are a few you may have missed.

You have no better friend on television during the holiday season than Julia Child, the woman who complains on one installment of this cooking show, "Everyone is so afraid of fat, just because they don't know how to manage it properly." Are you going to argue with a woman who, at the age of 87, still looks as if she could work as a bouncer at the House of Blues? Her latest show, with co-chef Jacques Pepin, airs Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. on New Hampshire's Channel 11, and I love to lie in bed and watch her pour melted butter and bacon grease over some cardiologist's nightmare while my vegan neighbors fritter away the morning at Bread & Circus. (Julia and Jacques also airs Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on Channel 2 and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on Channel 44.)

The Powerpuff Girls. This Cartoon Network original series looks like Japanese anime, but it has the same cornball humor as such 1960s classics as Underdog and Bullwinkle. One episode, called "Abracadaver," pays homage to Bullwinkle by showing a magician who pulls a moose out of a top hat. That episode also features one of the creepiest villains since Underdog's Simon Barsinister: the walking, rotting corpse of a hack magician who awakens to cast evil spells all over Townsville.

Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer like to point to its central character as a selfless heroine who continually puts herself at risk to protect her fellow high-schoolers. Well, The Powerpuff Girls has three wide-eyed, pint-sized (and apparently parent-free) young heroines. "I know it's scary, but we have to go," says one of them when the call comes from the mayor to save Townsville once again. Best of all, merchandise connected with the show hasn't yet flooded toy stores or fast-food outlets. Maybe the idea of paying teenage girls in Vietnam two cents an hour to stitch Powerpuff logos onto PJs is just too much of a contradiction to contemplate. (Sunday at 11:30 p.m., Wednesday at 11 p.m., and Friday at 9:30 p.m. on the Cartoon Network.)

The Late Show with David Letterman. Plenty of people try, but no one beats Letterman at wasting valuable airtime. The Late Show is a throwback to the early days of TV, before we got infotainment programs full of instant polls, quick-change graphics, and horrible syntho-music -- all of which add up to nothing. (Case in point: VH-1's The List -- laughably described in TV Guide as a "discussion" program -- or just about anything on CNBC.) The "Word of the Day" contest, with its unfathomable rules, was a brilliant running gag earlier this year, but Letterman knew to stop before people got sick of it. A newer Late Show feature is an open mike available to anyone with a song or a joke; the only hitch is that the mike is in the middle of the Mohave Desert, and there's never anyone in sight. One time Letterman insisted on keeping the Mohave feed on the air so that we could watch a distant train, barely visible, snake across the screen. Would you really rather see something newsworthy, like more wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 990? (Weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.)

Late night on C-SPAN. Channel-surfing late one Saturday night, I was startled to come across George W. Bush saying, "I'm a compassionate conservative . . . whatever the fuck that means." Okay, it wasn't the real Dubya. It was comic Jim Morris doing a routine that included impressions of Bill Clinton, Steve Forbes, and just about every political pain in the ass you could think of. And he wasn't on Saturday Night Live -- are you kidding? -- but on C-SPAN, the public-affairs channel funded by the cable-TV industry.

Yes, everyone with a cable bill helped pay for this broadcast of the word "fuck" just a few clicks away from the Disney Channel. (Somebody alert Rudy Giuliani!) Most of the time, C-SPAN brings us live coverage of the posturing and pontificating in the US Congress, along with reports from such star-studded events as the National Governors' Conference. But after all the magical little congresspeople scurry home, C-SPAN finds some creative ways to fill its schedule. The Jim Morris appearance came during its coverage of the "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest, a benefit for the Child Welfare League of America. (The winner was Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who's probably best known for denouncing "trash" TV and for advocating the V-chip as a way to protect fragile little minds.) This was another example of how less can be better on television: there was no music or snazzy graphics, just the off-screen sounds of clinking glasses and drunken laughter. You got all the atmosphere of the event without having to buy a ticket, and you could supply your own liquor.

Few C-SPAN offerings are this close to the old Dean Martin Show, but even dull events are enlivened by the network's practice of leaving its cameras running after the official proceedings have ended -- often giving us a revealing contrast to the scripted part of the program. And on Sundays at midnight, C-SPAN airs the loudest and rowdiest political program on television: "Question Time" at the British House of Commons. Just imagine hundreds of Jesse Venturas with bad teeth and Monty Python accents and you'll get the picture.

Homicide: Life on the Street. Its last season was probably its weakest, and there are plenty of other dramas worth following now, but serious TV watchers still miss this literate cop show. NBC cancelled it in the spring after a six-year run, but you can catch repeats weeknights at 9 and midnight on Court TV. One nice thing about sampling old episodes is that you can watch for characters and plot threads that will become more significant later in the series. I got a thrill a couple a months ago when I finally caught the first appearance of Luther Mahoney, the drug dealer who would evenutally change the lives of every regular character on the show. The idea of writing a TV crime show as a Dickens-like serial packed with sins and redemptions didn't start with Homicide -- Hill Street Blues beat it by more than a decade -- but this remains one of the best examples of the genre.

The Outer Limits. This is television's other science-fiction anthology series. The Twilight Zone covers everything from the afterlife to mass paranoia, but The Outer Limits is usually about space aliens, and the aliens are almost never friendly. Zone is unquestionably superior, but if you want a horribly misanthropic story to balance out Rod Serling's idealism, Limits is the ticket. In a typical episode, slimy space creatures visit a small town and trick a bunch of morons into killing each other; the twist ending is that the aliens call off the invasion, saying they'll just wait until our penchant for violence eliminates the human race. Merry Christmas! (Reruns of the 1990s Showtime version of this series air on the Sci-Fi Channel -- four episodes in a row every Monday from 7 to 11 p.m.)

Channel 27. Carried on most area cable systems, this is good for bite-size Spanish lessons, especially during Noticiero Univision (weeknights at 6:30 and 11:30). In fact, that's the only newscast you really need: the visuals are all that count in TV journalism anyway (Pat Buchanan looks just as scary here as on CNN), and it's pretty easy to figure out such on-screen phrases as "disidente cubano." Plus, you get to hear "Worcester" pronounced with a Spanish accent during every station identification.

And if you turn on TV a few minutes shy of the top of the hour, check out Turner Classic Movies, which fills the time with "One Reel Wonders" whenever a film is too short for its time slot. This potpourri includes genuinely interesting documentaries along with hoky travelogues from the 1940s and howlingly bad melodramas that were once shown in theaters under such umbrella titles as "Crime Does Not Pay."

Admittedly, none of these options makes for appointment television, but they blend in well with the ringing phones, drop-in visitors, and other holiday-season stimuli. Just remember to stock up on videotapes so you can catch all the "all-new" episodes after the world doesn't end on January 1.

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