Jay Leno returns to The Tonight Show (Monday, 10:30 p.m., NBC) after the failed experiment of his primetime talk show, displacing successor Conan O'Brien. NBC has been savagely attacked for this series of moves, but I really can't see why. Leno's foray into primetime looked doable on paper, but like many such risks, it didn't work out. Neither did O'Brien in the Tonight Show timeslot, losing a massive share of Leno's old audience, not to mention a massive amount of money. So if you were an NBC executive, what would you do? Allow O'Brien to keep failing at 10:30, as he seemed to think was his right? Or return to a schedule that viewers actually liked?
O'Brien received a lot of support in the media, but to me he came out of the whole affair looking juvenile. He refused an offer to move his show back a mere half-hour and spent his last days on the Tonight Show launching self-serving attacks at NBC. That's not a classy way to go out, especially for a guy who bombed big-time in his new job.
There's talk of O'Brien getting another show on Fox, and I think I have a good title for it: The Big Baby Hour.
Turn the Beat Around
Friday, 9 pm (MTV)
MTV's TV movie is about Zoe (Romina D'Ugo), a struggling young dancer/choreographer who fulfills her dreams after convincing cute impresario Michael (David Giuntoli) to let her program a new nightclub with a classic disco theme.
When you encounter a premise like that, the best you can hope for is dumb fun, and Turn the Beat Around certainly delivers on "dumb." Michael is a Prince Charming who falls for Zoe at first sight (Preposterous Plot Point #1) and decides to build a club for her within seconds (Preposterous Plot Point #2). "Life is short!" he says by way of explanation.
So does Turn the Beat Around deliver on "fun," too? Yes. The actors are gorgeous, as is the dancing. You could grouse about the silly story or you could give in to the irresistible disco beat.
I recommend the latter. Life is short.
Sunday, 8 pm (PBS)
"The 39 Steps" is a charming adaptation of John Buchan's seminal spy novel, which was also the source for Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film of the same name. The current version turns Buchan's Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) into a proto-James Bond: witty and cool under pressure. Hannay is a bored ex-spy who's wrongly suspected of murder after a mysterious operative shoves a codebook into his hand before dying. He eludes police on a wild journey to foil a German plot on the eve of World War I.
"The 39 Steps" approaches the material with a playful spirit, emphasizing the absurdity of chase scenes and mistaken identity. Hey, Masterpiece Classic, why have you been keeping your madcap sense of humor under wraps?
The Marriage Ref
Sunday, 9:30 pm (NBC)
Jerry Seinfeld produced this new series, in which a "marriage ref" arbitrates disputes between real-life couples. The ref will get advice from a rotating panel of experts, including celebrities like Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin. In the end, the ref will make a judgment about which partner is right and which partner is wrong. It's every married person's dream: an undisputed winner in an argument.
Yes, The Marriage Ref sounds like an idea Jerry and George would have cooked up on Seinfeld. And when did one of those ever turn out well?
Tuesday, 9 pm (NBC)
Move over, Brothers & Sisters - NBC's new series aims to be TV's top poignant-yet-funny large-family soap opera. Parenthood's pedigree is impressive, with executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer overseeing the update of their 1989 film, Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) writing the pilot, and Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) directing. The cast isn't too shabby either. Lauren Graham plays Sarah Braverman, a single mother who moves her two kids back to the family nest in Berkeley. Craig T. Nelson is the big-personality patriarch, Bonnie Bedelia the formidable matriarch, Erika Christensen the high-achieving sister, Dax Shepard the immature younger brother, and Peter Krause the troubled older brother.
The production itself has had its share of trouble. It was originally scheduled to premiere last fall but got pushed back after star Maura Tierney bowed out. That's right, folks - the amazing Lauren Graham was the producer's alternate choice. With sloppy seconds this good, who needs firsts?
Tuesday, 11 pm (PBS)
Many of us could associate the name "Dolley Madison" with "famous First Lady." But American Experience argues that she was much more than an appendage to Founding Father James Madison.
Dolley was a legendary Philadelphia hottie when she met the short, sickly, shy Madison. "She could raise the mercury in the thermometer of the heart to fever heat," said a contemporary. To put that in modern parlance: babe alert! Dolley married Madison, providing the charisma that helped elect him president. Subsequently, she more or less created the unofficial office of First Lady. She also helped set the democratic presidential style we have to this day: elegant and dignified, but not gaudy in the manner of a monarchy.
The documentary's most moving section covers Dolley's heroic behavior during the War of 1812, when the British overran D.C. As enemy soldiers approached the White House, she wouldn't leave until she had taken down a portrait of George Washington. With her keen understanding of symbolism, she knew the image's importance to the fledgling republic.
At this point, the mercury in the thermometer of my own heart rose to fever heat.