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The need for speed
Track saves lives in Racing for Time
Dutton teaches teamwork to an unlikely team.
Dutton teaches teamwork to an unlikely team.

I always bristle when TV tries to uplift me. If I want to be inspired, I'm not going to turn to a cynical medium that would do business with Satan himself if he had enough money to buy a prime-time ad.

But Racing for Time (Saturday, 8 p.m., Lifetime) slipped past my defenses. It hooked me with a setting unusual for TV: a juvenile correction facility populated by girls of color. The unknown actresses jump off the screen, communicating both defiance and vulnerability. Most striking of all is Yaya DaCosta as a girl sent back to prison for standing by her drug-dealer boyfriend. Her future looks bleak until a humane prison guard (Charles S. Dutton, who also directs) starts a track program for the inmates. She finds her stride, so to speak, and learns the value of teamwork and discipline. Can self-esteem be far behind?

I'm usually not one for TV-movie teamwork, but Racing for Time had me cheering quietly in the privacy of my living room. Who knows - maybe the movie will help me with my own self-esteem issues.

Friday, 8 pm (USA)

This week's episode is brilliant - or does it just seem that way because it's new, a rarity in the writers-strike era? No, I'm pretty sure it's brilliant.

Monk (Tony Shalhoub), the obsessive-compulsive private eye, goes from solving murders to committing one. In the opening scene, a robbery appears to have been committed by the six-fingered bomb-maker who killed Monk's wife. Monk tracks down his nemesis, draws his gun and fires.

Or does he? Monk is arrested for murder, but he claims he never pulled the trigger. This seems impossible, since the bullet was proven to come from his gun. "It's funny," a cop says. "This is the kind of case Monk always solves."

Monk's neat-and-clean neuroses make him an unusual prisoner, unwilling to touch the ink for fingerprinting. (It takes three deputies to hold him down.) When bail is set at $900,000, Monk can't stand the unevenness and begs the court to round it off to $1 million.

This is hilarious stuff, but the episode is also exciting, especially when Monk escapes from prison to clear his name. The hour ends with "To Be Continued" - an untidy conclusion that would surely drive Monk himself crazy.

Celine Dion: That's Just the Woman in Me
Friday, 8 pm (CBS)

Celine Dion once again tries to convince a TV audience that empty, melodramatic wailing equals vocal artistry. Personally, I haven't forgiven Dion since she "sang" a "duet" with "Elvis Presley" - that is, a virtual Elvis digitally transplanted from his 1968 TV special to the American Idol stage. Poor Elvis had no way to defend himself against the preening foghorn who attempted to upstage him 30 years after his death.

Oh, if only a digital Elvis from Spinout could smash through Dion's new special in his race car! The sight of Celine diving for safety in the middle of "My Heart Will Go On" would do my own heart good.

Knight Rider
Sunday, 8 pm (NBC)

Sometimes a hit comes at the expense of a network's reputation. For NBC, Knight Rider (1982-86) was such a hit. TV's most embarrassing actor, David Hasselhoff, posed through TV's most embarrassing premise: a hunk fights the bad guys with a talking car. The series is the butt of jokes to this day.

Gluttons for punishment, NBC has brought back both actor (in a guest starring role) and premise for a Knight Rider TV movie. The American people aren't too excited about the new version, but American cars are reportedly beside themselves.

My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad
Monday, 8 pm (NBC)

In this reality series, kids team up with their dads for a series of contests. The goal is to find the dad who's the smartest and strongest.

Put that way, the show sounds fun. But think about the dads who lose: the dumbest and weakest. How will kids feel about seeing their dads humiliated on national TV? I suggest that NBC immediately prepare another reality series: My Dad Is Not Better Than Your Dad, and That's Why I've Entered Psychoanalysis.

American Experience
Monday, 8 pm (WHA)

Kit Carson had arguably the coolest name in the Old West. He was a trapper, mountain man and soldier who helped tame the American frontier in the mid-1800s. "Tame," unfortunately, is a tame word for "eliminating Native Americans." Carson waged a brutal war against the Navajo, forcing 8,000 of them on a 300-mile walk to disease-ridden confinement. Describing a battle with the Blackfeet, he happily reported: "It was the prettiest fight I ever saw. After three hours we finally routed them and took several scalps."

What a waste of a cool name.

Tuesday, 7 pm (WHA)

An episode called "Ape Genius" explores the intellectual capacity of chimps, orangutans and gorillas. New research reveals that they're a lot smarter than we thought they were. (Four out of five, it turns out, were against the Iraq invasion from the start.)

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