Comedy Central, the network that gave us South Park and The Daily Show, weighs in with another masterpiece. Like its predecessors, The Sarah Silverman Program (Thursday, 9:30 p.m.) uses TV conventions against themselves, creating a parody that's truly, deeply dangerous.
The series takes off from earnest-young-woman dramas, the kind where the heroine gets in a pickle and learns a lesson at the end. With her ponytail and pout, Silverman is darling enough to have starred in That Girl or Gidget, and she exploits her cuteness for all it's worth. 'Sarah' talks in a babyish voice, shares her deepest feelings with her puppy and charms old ladies at the grocery store. At key moments, she clasps her hands and sings a pensive song to the camera.
So much for surface. The Sarah Silverman Program piles on the sugar so the satire will be even more jarringly sour. Sarah's problems are much more real-world and raunchy than Gidget's ever were. She gets high on cough syrup, crashes her car into a playground and lands in jail with a group of prostitutes. She talks dirty and thinks naughty thoughts, and her kooky narcissism borders on psychopathology.
Silverman is all about transgression, and she's adept at finding that absurd point where the sweet and the sickening meet. You feel ashamed for laughing at her grossest jokes ' and the minute you do, Silverman's job is done.
Sunday, 5 pm (CBS)
All manly men will be watching the Super Bowl, betting on either the Bears or the Colts and yelling 'SMASH 'EM UP!' at the TV screen. That's what I'll be doing, of course, but how about America's tiny population of non-Super Bowl fans? What do these wimps like to watch? The answer, conveniently, is revealed in the counter-programming strategies of the other networks.
For example, Animal Planet airs Puppy Bowl III for those who prefer cuddly little dogs to field goals and first downs. I admit that their itty-bitty paws are pretty darn cute, and I love it when they chase after tennis balls with their furry ears flopping....
I mean: SMASH 'EM UP!
Rules of Engagement
Monday, 8:30 pm (CBS)
It's time for a TV-critic parlor trick. I have not watched the pilot of this new sitcom, but I will predict the entire episode from the premise alone. The trick's not as hard as it sounds, given that the premise has been used so many times before, most recently in last fall's 'Til Death: A cynical, older couple (Patrick Warburton, Megyn Price) sets a bad example for a newly engaged couple (Oliver Hudson, Bianca Kajlich) thrilled by the prospect of marriage.
I predict that:
' The older wife will henpeck her husband with the line: 'You don't listen to anything I say, do you?' She will then threaten to withhold sex.
' The older husband, beer in hand, will nag his wife about spending too much money.
' The younger man will get cold feet when his fiancÃe signs up for a wedding-gift registry.
Okay, you've got me ' I did see the pilot. I only wish I hadn't.
Tuesday, 7 pm (WHA)
You've heard of Jackie Robinson, but have you heard of Percy Julian? Julian (1899-1975) was a chemist who blazed a trail for African Americans in science, just as Robinson did in sports.
'Forgotten Genius' tells the story of a man with all the odds stacked against him. As an African American growing up in Jim Crow Alabama, Julian wasn't supposed to go to school beyond eighth grade. But he did, graduating first in his class at DePauw University. Julian was passionate about a career as a research chemist, but he encountered discrimination at every turn. Graduate schools, university faculties and industry weren't interested in an African American, no matter how brilliant.
But Julian (whose son Percy Jr. practices law in Madison) didn't give up. Working as a lowly assistant at a liberal arts college, Julian beat out the era's premier organic chemist on a high-stakes research project. He went on to change the way we live, laying the groundwork for steroid medicine. His innovative work made drugs like cortisone available to arthritis sufferers, and his synthesis of a drug to treat glaucoma is considered one of America's greatest achievements in chemistry.
Remind me again ' why did we try so hard to hold this guy back?
Wednesday, 9 pm (ABC)
ABC sent me the return episode of Lost with this note: 'We kindly ask that in reviewing this show you not reveal any plot details that contain spoilers.' I thought, 'Screw that.' My allegiance is to the readers, and I'll tell them the spoilers if I think they'll want to know.
But I forgot how confusing Lost can be. I'd fallen behind on recent developments, so I had a hard time figuring out what was happening to our heroes on the mysterious Pacific island.
Jack is operating on a guy but seems to want him to die. Kate and Sawyer escape from a cell and beat the tar out of a bad guy. One of the Others offers to help Kate and Sawyer, but only if they help her find her boyfriend. When they do find him, he's being forced to watch images of speedometers, spaghetti and the moon.
Is this the stuff I'm not supposed to reveal? Frankly, I'm not sure. It's hard to give away spoilers when you have no idea what you're spoiling.