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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 38.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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A law unto himself
James Woods plays a cutthroat attorney in 'Shark'
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Woods believes that 'trial is war and second place is death.'
Woods believes that 'trial is war and second place is death.'

In "Shark" (Thursday, 9 p.m., CBS), James Woods stars as Sebastian Stark, a defense attorney with an almost magical ability to make juries cry "Not guilty!" He specializes in getting the rich and famous off the hook, especially those who really did commit a crime. But Stark is shaken after a client uses the not-guilty verdict as an excuse for murder - so shaken that he accepts an offer to work as a low-paid prosecutor for his erstwhile foe, the district attorney (Jeri Ryan).

It's exhilarating to watch Woods bring this character - this series, this season - to life. Stark is a fast-talker with the utmost confidence in his ability to bend truth to his own ends. His Cutthroat Manifesto holds that "trial is war and second place is death." He cackles over his own brilliance; he insults his underlings; he curls his lip in finely tuned condescension. But we like him in spite of these nasty qualities, and I'm not quite sure why. The only possible explanation is that James Woods is a genius.

I'm sure some critics will accuse Stark of being an unappealing hero. But I'll bet that, after watching Woods in action, you yourself will cry "Not guilty!"

Marie Antoinette
Monday, 8 pm (WHA)

Marie Antoinette said "let them eat cake," and the French chopped off her head. As a child, I didn't understand that at all. I would have welcomed a leader who urged me to eat cake. (And tell me George Bush's approval ratings wouldn't rise if he suddenly became a cake proponent, or better yet a cake-and-ice-cream proponent.) This documentary chronicles the 18th-century queen's journey from the splendor of Versailles to the squalor of a prison cell.

I'm tuning in just to see if the French citizens ever got the cake, and if so, what kind.

Runaway
Monday, 8 pm (CW)

The WB and UPN decided to pool their resources and form a new network called the CW. Based on the CW's first show, I'm ready to pronounce the merger a success. "Runaway" is about a normal family that goes underground when the dad (Donnie Wahlberg) is framed for murder. They assume new identities in a small Iowa town as he works to clear his name. The police are hot on their trail, as is the real murderer. In the meantime, the family threatens to crack as the kids struggle with their new lives.

The pilot is fast-paced and exciting. You buy into the scenario, despite the occasional attempt to wedge in a puppy-love subplot between the teenage daughter and a hunky schoolmate. (Whenever they're together, misty guitar pop rises on the soundtrack, just as it did in every WB show ever produced. There must have been a few leftover sound files after the merger.)

Dad is brilliant at covering his tracks, and he keeps the police guessing for the entire episode. "I give him one week to slip up," says the cop leading the chase.

Personally, I'm prepared to give him all season.

Jericho
Wednesday, 7 pm (CBS)

The prodigal son (Skeet Ulrich) returns to Jericho, his small hometown in Kansas. It's one of those quaint Midwestern burgs created by Hollywood types who've never been in one - how else to explain the hot blond babe in teased hair and tight clothes who looks like she just walked out of a shop on Rodeo Drive? She's incongruously surrounded by farm types with flannel shirts and heartland values, beaming at one another as they walk down Main Street.

Then comes an explosion. The folks in flannel shirts see a mushroom cloud in the distance. Their power goes out, so they can't communicate with the outside world. Will Jericho's residents pull together or fall apart?

Clearly, "Jericho" is trying to play on our fear of terrorism. But it's much more successful in playing on our fear of bad TV shows.

American Masters
Wednesday, 8 pm (WHA)

"Sketches of Frank Gehry" profiles the architect who challenged the straight line and the right angle. Gehry's buildings bend, crumble and fold, and yet somehow still stand up. "He mixed the freewheelingness of art with something that's really concrete, which is the laws of physics," says one commentator.

Gehry is a risk-taker who insisted on expressing an unconventional sensibility in the conventional field of architecture. After watching this inspirational portrait, you'll want to avoid straight lines and right angles too.

Six Degrees
Thursday, 9 pm (ABC)

This new drama is built on chance, following six characters who become interconnected through twists of fate. A lawyer (Jay Hernandez) falls in love with a beautiful client (Erika Christensen), who gets a job with a bereaved wife (Hope Davis), who befriends a romantically troubled public-relations executive (Bridget Moynahan), who hires a washed-up photographer (Campbell Scott). In the meantime, a debt-ridden cabbie (Dorian Missick) helps the lawyer find the beautiful client, who slips through his fingers but then turns up in his subway car. By chance.

There's a problem with building a drama around chance: Everything feels arbitrary. "Six Degrees" isn't bad, but it's not a show I'll make a point of seeking out. If I'm flipping through channels, maybe I'll come across it...by chance.

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