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TELEVISION

Foundering father
John Adams is less than revolutionary

Giamatti portrays Adams as a slab of marble.
Giamatti portrays Adams as a slab of marble.
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I'm a major John Adams fan - one of those who think the brilliant revolutionary leader got cheated out of a spot on Mount Rushmore. So I'm the perfect audience for HBO's John Adams (Sunday, 7 p.m.), a seven-part dramatization executive-produced by Tom Hanks and based on David McCullough's biography.

Imagine my dismay to find that part one essentially turns Adams into a Mount Rushmore bust. McCullough's book pulled too hard for its subject (as if he needed any help in earning our respect), and the episode follows suit by making him a saint in a three-cornered hat. In the title role, Paul Giamatti has nothing to do but flash a steely gaze.

This isn't a man, but a slab of marble presented with a series of moral challenges that he passes with flying colors. When sitting at home with his wife (Laura Linney), does Adams say, "Where's my damn wig"? No, he says, "People are in need of strong governance, Abigail." And she replies, with an indulgent smile, "You have overburdened your argument with ostentatious erudition." No wonder these two never got invited to parties.

Part one re-creates a pre-revolutionary trial in which Adams honorably defended British soldiers against a colonial mob. It was a shining moment in his career, establishing his belief in fairness even for an enemy, but I think we could have gotten the point in a five-minute scene. Instead, Adams spends the whole episode making speeches and flashing the aforementioned steely gaze.

I hold this truth to be self-evident: Very few viewers will be back for part two.

The Return of Jezebel James
Friday, 7 pm (Fox)

We know Parker Posey is a great actress from Waiting for Guffman and For Your Consideration. We know Lauren Ambrose is a great actress from Six Feet Under and Starting Out in the Evening. So why do they both look like rank amateurs in this new sitcom? It must be the fault of writer-director-producer Amy Sherman Palladino, who can't write a joke or stage a scene to save her life. Posey plays Sarah, a high-powered children's book editor who's incongruously stupid. When an obstetrician tells her that she can't conceive, Sarah asks, "Conceive what?" The laugh track (but not a single viewer) roars.

Sarah asks her down-and-out sister to carry a child for her. Ambrose is completely at sea in this role, unsure if she's supposed to be nasty, funny or poignant. The only thing that made me laugh during the pilot is the self-congratulatory production-company name that flashed after the credits: Dorothy Parker Drank Here. If the legendary wit drank anywhere near The Return of Jezebel James, she'd get sick to her stomach.

Wisegal
Saturday, 8 pm (Lifetime)

In Lifetime TV movies, women Make Bad Choices but remain sympathetic. I think that was supposed to be the case in Wisegal, but the heroine's choices are so bad that the filmmakers can't figure out a plausible way to redeem her.

Patty (Alyssa Milano) doesn't have enough money to raise her two boys, so she gets mixed up with the Mafia. She does business with murderers and thieves - but hey, it keeps the kids in peanut butter. Patty finally draws the line when her boyfriend (Jason Gedrick) murders his own son on orders from the godfather (James Caan). But that's such a minuscule moral victory that it's kind of hard to say "yay."

Maybe a better actress could have stirred up Patty's good and evil qualities and made them fizz. But Milano is flat in every scene, even when she's brandishing a gun. Her son's narration calls Patty "a force of nature, like a bolt of lightning gathering heat, ready to strike."

Alyssa Milano, gathering heat? Gathering lint is more like it.

America's Prom Queen
Monday, 8 pm (ABC Family)

Ten girls live together in a house, vying to win the title of America's Prom Queen. But forget the winner - I want to see what punishment is in store for the losers. Dinner at Hardee's? With the third-chair trumpeter in the high school band? Who makes an ill-advised attempt to dance to Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" during prom?

Top Chef
Wednesday, 9 pm (Bravo)

The cooking competition returns for a fourth season of beautiful-looking food. But the season's crude contestants spoil your appetite every time they open their mouths in heavily bleeped-out interviews.

"I got my ass handed to me."

"I'm sweating like a beast."

"The judges are just shaking their heads, and I'm thinking sh*t."

Asses, sweat, sh*t - anybody feeling hungry?

One contestant believes she was sent by the Lord to win. She says He bestowed her with cooking talent and will crown her Top Chef if He so desires. Unfortunately, her shrimp scampi turns out to be less than heavenly.

"If I ordered this in a restaurant I'd have to send it back," says one judge.

"The amount of salt you put into the shrimp rendered the dish inedible," says another.

So God's not a big shrimp scampi fan. Interesting to know.

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