Wisconsin Public Television's 30-Minute Music Hour (Saturday, 9:30 p.m., WHA) departs from its usual diet of regional acts for a national-caliber banquet featuring Grammy-nominated Loudon Wainwright III. Wainwright is a pro at the one-man-with-a-guitar routine. He warms up the small studio with satirical songs, wisecracks and sometimes frantic strumming. In the meantime, producer Andy Moore keeps your eyes busy with lively camerawork, an artfully cluttered set and a bank of kinetic video monitors as a backdrop. He also engages Wainwright in a good-humored chat about his music, his film career and his kids. You feel like you've just spent a half-hour with friends.
Wainwright is an incorrigible joker, and his set list wreaks havoc on holiday themes. He starts the show with an antic riff on Christmas commercialism: "Suddenly it's Christmas, right after Halloween / Forget about Thanksgiving, it's just a buffet in between."
After the last furious chord, Wainwright cracks, "That puts you right in the spirit, eh?"
Yes, as a matter of fact, it does.
Million Dollar Password
Sunday, 7 pm (CBS)
William Shatner, the aging oddity who'll do anything for a buck, is this week's celebrity contestant. The password is: "shameless."
Tuesday, 8 pm (ABC)
The guy who discovered Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell and JC Chasez created this showcase for wannabe child stars who never made it big. Now all grown up, five could-have-beens have a chance to perform for a $50,000 prize and a fresh chance at fame. Creepy hosts Donny and Marie Osmond are on hand to suggest that, hey, maybe child stardom wouldn't have worked out so great anyway.
To fill out the hour, Rediscovered shows the kiddie audition tapes from Spears, Timberlake, Aguilera, Gosling, Russell and Chasez. Just think of all the pain we would have been spared had Spears been rejected at square one.
Tuesday, 9 p.m. (TNT)
It's a Christmas miracle: a series that isn't in reruns in late December. Not only does TNT gift us with a new episode of Leverage, but a great episode. Just three weeks old, this dramedy is already one of my favorite shows.
Timothy Hutton is Nate, a former insurance investigator who turned Robin Hood after being betrayed by his company. And this wasn't any old betrayal - the company denied coverage for his ailing son, who subsequently died. Nate's grief gives Leverage poignancy around the edges, but at its heart it's a con-artist comedy. Nate has assembled a team of grifters and thieves to foil corrupt millionaires and corporations Mission: Impossible-style. They construct elaborate scams involving disguises and deceit, and it's pure pleasure to watch their plans unfold.
In this week's episode, a priest tries to save his church from an unscrupulous developer who plans to turn the property into a mall. The developer sends out thugs to scare him into backing down. That doesn't sit well with Nate. "This guy beat up a priest," he tells his team. "We're not going easy on him."
They determine that the quickest way to save the church is to fake a miracle there. Pilgrims will flock to the place, the Vatican will declare it holy ground, and the mall will be thwarted. They trick up a statue of a saint in which tears appear to drip from the eyes. Computer specialist Alec (Aidis Hodge), however, has grave reservations about the plan. "We're all going to hell," he says.
Maybe, but TNT is going to heaven for bringing us this wonderful series.
Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force
Tuesday, 9 pm (A&E)
While other networks clog the screen with seasonal specials, A&E offers a new episode of its gritty cops-and-robbers reality series. I bet that even Santa would find it a refreshing change of pace.
Our heroes are U.S. marshals on an elite fugitive task force. They're tough, smart, fearless trackers who find the criminals that no one else can catch. "It's basically a game of hide-and-seek," says Inspector Greg Holmes with a thick New Yawk accent. "They're runnin' and you're chasin'."
He makes it sound simple, but this week's real-life manhunt isn't simple at all. The task force pursues a woman who robbed a Virginia bank at gunpoint, figuring she's come to New York City to make contact with family. How to find a needle in a haystack? The task force heads to the Bronx and artfully puts the squeeze on the robber's sister. "Do I look like a #&@#! moron to you?" Greg asks. "I must, right? 'Cuz that's the only reason you would lie to a federal agent."
The task force chases a lead to Brooklyn, then heads back to the Bronx for a stakeout. The percussive soundtrack keeps you on the edge of your seat, and the finale reminds us once again that crime doesn't pay.
Trying to decide whether to be naughty or nice this holiday season? If you choose the former, be advised that the Manhunters will be right on your ass.