Most bad TV series are just boring. Others have so much ambition ' misplaced ambition, but ambition just the same ' that they earn a grudging respect. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Drive (Sunday, 7 p.m., Fox).
The premise plays as ridiculous as it sounds. A representative sample of Americans become involved in a deadly cross-country road race. Nobody really understands what the race is all about, since it's run by one of those mysterious little bald guys who know more than they let on (a thankless role for Charles Martin Smith). But they all feel that winning the race will, for some reason, solve their problems. An abused woman seeks refuge from her husband; Hurricane Katrina survivors hope to rebuild New Orleans; a woman with big breasts wants to keep her boyfriend from returning to Iraq.
No, the producers of Drive don't let a sense of shame get in their way. Spousal abuse, Hurricane Katrina, Iraq veterans ' they'll throw any sensitive topic into the mix if they think it will heat up their silly plot. And, indeed, it's the grasping for pathos ' amid screeching tires and crashing fenders ' that makes Drive more than simply awful. This is awfulness verging on insanity.
'It's a game of strategy,' says one racer. 'Getting there fast is never going to be enough. You have to get there smart.'
Drive, clearly, will not get anywhere smart. It's traveling dumb, and all fans of bad TV will want to go along for the ride.
The Staircase Murders
Sunday, 7 pm (Lifetime)
This TV movie is based on the notorious murder case involving Michael Peterson (Treat Williams), the best-selling novelist accused of killing his wife in 2001. As the story opens, Michael has seemingly discovered her dead at the bottom of the stairs following a fall. He's panicked and weepy and can barely make it through his 911 call. The man is clearly in a state of shock...or is he just putting on a show, even for himself?
It's hard to tell, given Treat Williams' brilliant performance. Even when the police poke holes in Michael's story, Williams keeps you believing in his innocence. This is a nice man who loved his wife and would never have killed her because he was deeply in debt and in need of insurance money. Indeed, Williams is so convincing that you're not even inclined to buy the climactic courtroom revelation.
Is it possible to appeal a TV movie's verdict?
Sunday, 7 pm (Animal Planet)
This special focuses on people who overfeed their pets, giving them ice cream, burgers and chocolate. After watching for an hour, you feel sickened ' and, in the case of a rottweiler who gets 16 pounds of fresh meat per week, just a little bit jealous.
America at a Crossroads
Sunday, 9 pm (WHA)
Public television pours a massive amount of effort into analyzing the challenges facing the United States post-9/11. This series of documentaries offers perspective on Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, the American military and other issues that don't get much space on the nightly news.
The series kicks off with 'Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda.' It focuses on terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, featuring previously unseen footage, firsthand testimony and archival images of really long beards.
Sunday, 9 pm (HBO)
This week, soulless Hollywood agent Ari (Jeremy Piven) tries to land a big client ' a predatory gay guy with an eye on Ari's gay assistant, Lloyd. The client makes it clear that he'll sign a contract only if Lloyd 'delivers the papers,' so to speak.
Ari doesn't think twice, dispatching a panicked Lloyd with a brusque motivational speech: 'All great men have to make sacrifices at some point in their lives.' But after sending Lloyd to his fate, Ari experiences a strange sensation: remorse. He tracks down the client and extracts Lloyd from his clutches just in the nick of time. 'We may be whores at my agency,' he says, 'but we're not pimps.'
In Entourage's vision of Hollywood, that's as close as you'll get to pathos.
Notes From the Underbelly
Wednesday, 8:30 pm (ABC)
A young couple (Peter Cambor, Jennifer Westfeldt) decide to have a baby. And with a premise like that, the jokes write themselves. She's scared of getting fat; he's scared of the responsibility. She stares, horrified, at the breast pump; he stares, horrified, at the ultrasound. She worries that her breasts will get ugly; he worries that their sex life will suffer.
Yes, the jokes write themselves ' but maybe a professional comedy writer should have handled them instead. Someone with the sense to reject punchlines like these:
'No one wants to make it with a pregnant chick.'
'Breast feeding destroyed my boobs. Want to see them?'
The wife says, 'Promise me that if having a kid is going to make us miserable for a while, we'll be miserable together.'
The husband promises. And I promise that, if you watch Notes From the Underbelly, you'll be miserable right along with them.