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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 12.0° F  Fair
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Hot in Cleveland is a sitcom classic
Perfect timing and tone.
Perfect timing and tone.

Every year, the broadcast networks try to produce new sitcoms in the classical mode: laugh tracks, three-camera setups, punchlines, etc. These shows almost never work, despite massive infusions of money and stars. You begin to think the art form is dead until a series comes along and makes it look easy. Hot in Cleveland (Wednesday, 9 p.m., TV Land) is one of those series, nestled in the upper reaches of extended basic cable.

Start with a cast of veteran sitcom goddesses: Valerie Bertinelli, Betty White, Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves. Establish a serviceable premise: aging L.A. sophisticates move to unglamorous Cleveland so they can look more glamorous by comparison. Then sit back and watch the magic happen. The material isn't brilliant, but the actresses put it over with perfect timing and tone.

Last month on Saturday Night Live, 88-year-old White proved that she hasn't lost an ounce of her comic mojo. She proves it again here, playing a blunt local caretaker who punctures the L.A. ladies' pretensions. When Malick refers to Cleveland as "the Paris of Ohio," White deadpans, "No, that's Toledo."

Cleveland, Toledo, whatever. I'll take these four amazing actresses anywhere.

The Phantom
Sunday, 6 pm (SyFy)

This four-hour TV movie offers a fresh contemporary take on a musty old comic strip about a costumed hero. Young Chris Moore (Ryan Carnes) makes immediate contact with the audience as he practices parkour on New York City's rooftops while studying for a law degree. Just when he starts dating a beautiful paramedic (Cameron Goodman), a bald-headed advisor shows up to inform him that he's not really Chris Moore. He's Kit Walker, next in line to become the Phantom, a role passed down from generations since the 1500s. It's a thrilling prospect to me, anyway. Chris, on the other hand, has a hard time accepting the new state of affairs.

"You want me to give up everything," he tells the bald-headed dude. "My life, my name, my whole world, just like that."

Hey, if you don't want to do it, I will.

Sunday, 8 pm (ABC)

In this new dramedy, Virginia Madsen plays the matriarch of a nuclear crime family who make their living with heists and cons. When you want an audience to pull for criminals, tone means all. And Scoundrels' tone is way off the mark. I think it's supposed to be funny and cute when the son injures an old woman in a strong-arm robbery and the daughter blackmails her principal by shooting a Peeping Tom sex tape. But it's not funny and cute; it's creepy and off-putting.

I found myself rooting for the cop investigating the family's criminal activity. I don't think that's what the producers intended.

The Gates
Sunday, 9 pm (ABC)

It's nervy to try to wedge another vampire drama into a summer that's already crowded with True Blood and a Twilight movie. But The Gates is a worthy entry, staking out territory of its own: a gated community where vampires go to get away from it all. They try to pass for human, attending book club meetings and school committees. Only occasionally do their stomachs rumble and they eat a passer-by.

A new police chief is suspicious, but his family counsels him to back off. Life inside the gated community is so appealing that no one wants to rock the boat.

It's appealing to me, too, with good acting, droll dialogue and well-sustained spookiness. I plan to spend the summer in The Gates; if I'm not back by the start of the fall TV season, send someone in after me. With a wooden stake.

Neighbors from Hell
Monday, 9 pm (TBS)

Every once in a while, even a jaded critic is shocked by what they put on TV. Neighbors from Hell is a new animated comedy about a family of demonic torturers who travel from hell to Earth to live among people. It's a hateful spectacle, with shrieking characters and sickening images substituting for wit and humanity. The "jokes" concern women having sex with dogs, kids shooting heroin, and African Americans being run out of town. One ethnic character is referred to as a "little brown ape."

It'd be one thing if Neighbors from Hell were on premium cable, but this jaded critic is amazed that it's intended as mainstream entertainment on basic cable. I can't imagine who the audience is, other than maybe the Devil. He could play it in hell as another form of torture for the damned.

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