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They lied!

Hope you didn't believe the TV networks when they swore they were through with reality shows. You can't find a midseason schedule without a new one.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published January 4, 2004

[NBC photo illustration]
Donald Trump, center, tries to find the next him from 16 contestants in NBC’s new reality show The Apprentice.

photo
[HBO]
Starting the final eight episodes of Sex and the City tonight are, from left, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker.
photo
[ABC]
ABC Celebrity Mole Yucatan has Mole veterans Corbin Bernsen, third from left, and Stephen Baldwin, far right. Joining them are, from far left, Ahmad Rashad, Angie Everhart, Tracey Gold, Mark Curry, Keshia Knight Pulliam, Dennis Rodman and Ananda Lewis.

Remember when the networks promised they were done with reality TV?

That was back in May, when the suits who run television were desperate to snag advertising dollars and painfully aware of how much advertisers hated the often sleazy, always unpredictable genre.

This critic and others predicted that they'd be back at the trough before long. The appeal was too great: shows that draw all-important young viewers at a fraction of the cost of conventional programming. And when new shows failed, where else would a desperate network weasel turn?

Which brings us to now: the official start of TV's two-tiered midseason period (NBC's The Tracy Morgan Show and Fox's The Simple Life got a head start before the holiday season). As in years past, a steady stream of new series will hit the screen this month, followed by a few more in March.

And the name of the game in networkland this month is simple.

Reality, reality and even more reality.

Donald Trump channels his inner Daddy Warbucks on NBC's The Apprentice. Corbin Bernsen and Stephen Baldwin inexplicably sign up for another round of Celebrity Mole on ABC. Porn star Ron Jeremy and evangelist Tammy Faye Messner wind up co-habitating with four other D-list celebrities on the WB's Surreal Life 2, CBS presents an all-star edition of Survivor, UPN serves up another round of America's Next Top Model and Fox welcomes the 800-pound gorilla of all reality shows, American Idol.

Still, if your idea of TV entertainment ranges beyond Paris Hilton messing up a fast food order, fear not. As in years past, cable will continue picking up the networks' slack with compelling new scripted series while the suits in broadcasting chase the next Joe Millionaire.

HBO brings its two comedy big guns to bear tonight, kicking off new seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the final eight episodes of Sex and the City. Showtime brings back its quirky, satisfying Chris Isaak Show for a final season, and USA unveils a new batch of episodes from its Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning mystery series, Monk.

Here's a closer look at what's coming over the next two weeks.

SEX AND THE CITY/CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

Debuts: 9 and 9:30 tonight on HBO.

HBO's comedy heavyweights return in fine form, with the gals from Sex counting down the episodes until their series finale, and Seinfeld creator Larry David continuing his dysfunctional ways in the semi-improvised Curb.

First, a little Sex: Even though star Sarah Jessica Parker's new flame, Mikhail Baryshnikov, seems a little freeze-dried for my taste, the rest of the show is firing on all cylinders. Cynthia Nixon's Miranda is avoiding an acerbic ex (Blair Underwood) after dumping him to hook up again with her baby's father, Steve ( SPOILER ALERT: Steve and Miranda make a life-changing decision early in the new episodes sure to surprise fans). Kim Cattrall's Samantha is considering dumping her boy toy when a major health scare looms, and Kristin Davis' Charlotte is considering volunteerism to spice up her life. By now, Sex's over-the-top fashions, bizarre sexual situations and brief flashes of serious drama feel as comfortable as an old shoe and twice as dependable. What will we do with our Sunday nights when its cheeky flair is gone?

David's Curb continues to turn social discomfort into an Olympic-level sport as he tries hooking up a blind friend with a Muslim woman who wears a burka - so the friend can date someone no one else has seen, either. Of course, while introducing the pair, David accidentally pulls off her face covering, blowing the whole setup. For fans of David's socially inept shtick, this is pure heaven: all the most awkward moments in a typical Seinfeld episode pulled together and magnified times 10. Here's hoping David doesn't decide to walk away from his comedy triumph soon. Grades for both: A+

AVERAGE JOE 2: HAWAII

Debuts: 10 p.m. Monday on NBC (WFLA-Ch. 8).

From the moment former Miss Missouri Larissa Meek breaks out the four-letter words upon seeing the pot-bellied losers NBC assembled for this twisted dating show, it's obvious: This is the way the first Joe should have gone down. First-time Joe hottie Melana Scantlin pretended she could stand the average-looking guys NBC threw her way, only to pick as her final flame a handsome hunk inserted into the game's final innings. There's no such posturing in NBC's sequel, which was filmed before the first Joe hit TV screens this fall. This time, the geeks are geekier, the hunks are hunkier and the beauty can hardly hide her contempt. Let the games begin. Grade: B-.

AIRLINE

Debuts: 10 p.m. Monday on A&E.

Anyone who has waited hours in a packed airport to fly standby will quickly get the gist of this reality series, which comes off like an 18-episode commercial for Southwest Airlines while following the company's crews at Los Angeles International and Chicago's Midway airports. They bar drunk passengers from boarding, deal with a clueless jerk who wants to take target-shooting rifles on a flight and cope with the blackout that grounded travel across the country last year with a chummy grace mostly seen in training videos. After a half-hour, if you've ever been on a flight that's gone wrong, you'll wonder why you wasted 30 minutes reliving it here. Grade: C.

CELEBRITY MOLE YUCATAN

Debuts: 10 p.m. Wednesday on ABC (WFTS-Ch. 28).

We learned during the last Celebrity Mole series that former L.A. Law star Bernsen and the least-talented Baldwin brother were two sides of the same oddball, has-been celebrity coin. But with their decision to sign on for ABC's second version, we learn something new: They're even more desperate for TV time than we thought. Also featuring such luminaries as Dennis Rodman, Ananda Lewis, Tracey Gold and Mark Curry, this Mole edition has eight kind-of-famous people tackling stunts and competitions while trying to unearth the mole in their midst. My only question: If D-list celebs keep clogging these reality shows, will anyone be left for Hollywood Squares? Grade: C-.

THE APPRENTICE

Debuts: 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC (WFLA-Ch. 8).

Not long into the 90-minute premiere of NBC's latest New York-based reality effort, two things emerge: Creator Mark Burnett has an easier time making faraway lands look exciting on Survivor, and Donald Trump is nearly as leaden on camera as that Joe Millionaire guy. NBC has endlessly trumpeted the premise: 16 hotshots seek a job running one of Trump's companies by winning a Survivor-style competition. But their first task, selling lemonade on Wall Street, hardly produces the grandiose intrigue you'd expect from Burnett. The most mesmerizing aspect may be Trump's hairpiece, which looks ready to jump off into an Animal Planet series of its own at any minute. Grade: B-.

THE CHRIS ISAAK SHOW

Debuts: 10 p.m. Thursday on Showtime.

Just when you were ready to turn TV over to the likes of Trump and Hilton, along comes a quirky gem like retro rocker Isaak's singular series. Back for its final season, Isaak's show features a psychology student who has sex with each of his band members to finish her thesis; a keyboard player who freaks after installing Web cameras throughout his apartment to make money on the Internet; and a guilty Isaak pummeled by bank security while trying to return an extra $20 he got from an ATM. Sound confusing? It's sublime comedy on a show that walks a thin line between goofball situations and subtle humor, all fueled by Isaak's offhand but earnest delivery. And the music's great, too. Grade: A.

THE SURREAL LIFE

Debuts: 9 p.m. Jan. 11 on the WB (WTTA-Ch. 38).

Here's what I know after watching the first episode in the second edition of the WB's celebrity house party. Porn king Jeremy is a schlubby, slobby lech who lusts after all the women in the house, including 61-year-old disgraced evangelist Messner. Flash-in-the-pan rapper Vanilla Ice is a knucklehead in serious need of anger management therapy who hates the only thing anyone knows him for. Former Baywatch babe Traci Bingham is every bit the demanding, self-centered diva princess she seems. And watching formerly famous head cases bounce off each other while living in the same house was a lot more fun the first time around. Grade: C.

[Last modified January 1, 2004, 07:11:46]


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