The broadcast networks' fall series gave TV a bad name, but Men of a Certain Age (Monday, 9 p.m., TNT) makes you fall in love with the medium all over again. Ray Romano co-created this masterful drama about middle-aged friends who've lost their mojo. Joe (Romano) is a sad sack with a gambling problem and a broken marriage, Terry (Scott Bakula) a fading actor and ladies' man, and Owen (Andre Braugher) a car salesman who eternally disappoints his father. At one of their lunchtime get-togethers, Terry says he feels like Sisyphus, the mythological character who forever pushes a rock up a hill. The other two know exactly what he means.
These brilliant actors have such rapport that they seem to be making up the dialogue as it comes out of their mouths. Nothing feels forced: not the quirkiness, not the poignancy. Every scene is a revelation, packed with observations about life in the '00s. When Joe drops his two kids off at their mother's, each is peering into a handheld device while politely enduring his awkward attempt to be fatherly. I didn't know whether to laugh, cringe or cry.
It's not easy to make a compelling drama on the subject of stagnation. But I can't wait to see these characters push the rock up the hill again next week.
12 Men of Christmas
Saturday, 8 pm (Lifetime)
Kristin Chenoweth has won an Emmy and a Tony, but I don't think she'll be picking up an award for this TV movie about a high-powered Manhattan PR executive named E.J. who inexplicably takes a job in podunk Montana.
I guess it is explicable - if not plot-wise, then at least business-wise. The Lifetime marketing folks needed a fish-out-of-water story for the holidays, featuring a brittle female urbanite in wicked designer fashions who's humanized by salt-of-the-earth types in the heartland. Fair enough. But the brittle female urbanite needs at least a hint of charm or we won't care about her humanization. Squeaky-voiced Chenoweth comes up short in the charm department, despite the fact that E.J. is supposed to be a stunning force of nature.
"I could give lessons in 'amazing'!" she exclaims.
Actually, Chenoweth could stand to take a few lessons in "amazing."
Sunday, 8 pm (SyFy)
For the first 15 minutes, this miniseries is a perfect domestic drama. Alice (Caterina Scorsone) teaches karate, flirts with her boyfriend and tells her mother about her disappointing love life. Scorsone has a strong screen presence and natural chemistry with her costars. Then Alice goes through a looking glass and lands in a creepy adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
An evil queen (Kathy Bates) is drugging her subjects into submission and harvesting the life force of abductees like Alice. Scorsone is reduced to looking confused and skeptical as she stumbles from one overdone CGI set to another. Meanwhile, the production worries about making cutesy correspondences with Lewis Carroll's book more than telling a coherent story.
I kept wanting to send Alice back through the looking glass into the normal world, where that domestic drama seemed so promising.
Carrie Underwood: An All-Star Holiday Special
Monday, 7 pm (Fox)
Taylor Swift, so earnest and dull in most of her TV appearances, surprised me during her recent hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. In sketch after sketch, the leggy young blond country singer proved to be a natural comedian.
No so much the leggy young blond country singer Carrie Underwood, who hosted last month's CMA Awards. Underwood read the Teleprompter with a blank expression and college-talent-show diction. And yet she's the one Fox tapped to host a variety show, featuring music and - God help us - comedy sketches.
Unless Fox does a last-minute leggy-young-blond-country-singer switcheroo, we're in for a painful hour of TV.
Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura
Wednesday, 9 pm (truTV)
No one asked Jesse Ventura to save the human race, but he's gonna do it anyway. The cartoonish pro wrestler and former novelty governor of Minnesota couldn't take himself any more seriously in this new reality series, in which he leads a team of investigators in unraveling so-called conspiracies.
For example, Ventura claims to have discovered a secret U.S. military research facility in Alaska that's creating "the most dangerous weapon the world has ever seen." He storms up to the very low gate with his beer gut and bald-guy ponytail, demanding entry. The lone gatekeeper in blue jeans denies this puzzling request, and that's enough to convince Jesse that a horrendous conspiracy is afoot - even though the gatekeeper helpfully suggests he come back on "media visiting day."
Jesse drives to a neighboring town, where a bearded old guy who drives a snowplow is one of the few locals who agree to talk to him. This dude believes the government is developing a doomsday machine that can control people's minds and cause earthquakes. "It's an invisible death ray!" exclaims Jesse, now with all the proof he needs.
Tune in next week as Gov. Ventura unearths more invisible menaces.