The new spinoff NCIS: Los Angeles (Tuesday, 8 p.m., CBS) doesn't try anything fancy. No gimmicks, no strenuously original ideas - just a pair of agents (Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J) going undercover to catch the bad guys against a backdrop of L.A. skyscrapers, with a high-tech team assisting at HQ. The agents banter amiably, then bust into houses with their guns drawn.
It doesn't sound like much, but NCIS: Los Angeles is one of the rare successes among the new fall series. O'Donnell was a lightweight on the big screen, but he's just substantial enough for TV, and his rapport with LL Cool J is instantly appealing. The script doesn't push the zingers, or the pathos, or the grotesquerie. It relies on the old-fashioned virtues of deft pacing and sharp dialogue.
NCIS: Los Angeles keeps you entertained for 60 minutes. In 2009-10, that counts as a radical approach to TV.
Saturday, 8 pm (Lifetime)
Cute college freshman Katie (Lucy Hale) rushes the exclusive Delta sorority, the same one her mom (Courtney Thorne-Smith) belonged to. The sorority is controlled by mean-girl Gwen (Amanda Schull), daughter of another Delta (Faith Ford). When Katie overhears Gwen say snobby things during rush week, though, she realizes that Delta might not be the paradise she thought it was.
These are the times that try young women's souls.
Sorority Wars approaches its subject gravely, competing with Dostoyevsky for moral intensity. The mean girls' behavior leads Katie to a deeper truth: "I don't need to buy my friends with sorority dues." This revelation is no less profound for occurring at a campus Keg 'n' Egg party.
Is Lifetime serious about Sorority Wars, or is the network inflicting it on us as some sort of elaborate hazing ritual?
The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After
Sunday, 8 pm (History Channel)
Every October and November, America relives John F. Kennedy's death on cable TV. I'm as susceptible as the next assassination ghoul, and I was transfixed by this minute-by-minute account of the crime's aftermath, focusing on Vice President Lyndon Johnson's experience. It's based on yet another cache of new information, biographer William Manchester's previously unreleased notes. (How does cable keep coming up with this stuff?)
The documentary uses interview transcripts, archival images and declassified material to put us right there in the chaotic Dallas hospital with Johnson, Jacquelyn Kennedy and the Secret Service agents. We learn that Kennedy's staff fought with Texas police - physically - to get JFK's remains out of the hospital room for an autopsy in D.C. We climb into sweltering Air Force One as hostility erupts between the Kennedy and Johnson camps over the V.P.'s decision to take the oath of office right there.
In the most devastating moment, we hear a recording of Johnson calling Kennedy's mother, Rose, as Air Force One leaves Dallas. Johnson breaks down in the middle of the conversation - just at the point you will, I predict.
Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags
Monday, 8 pm (HBO)
"Schmatta" is Yiddish for "rag." That humble word suggests the epic tale of New York City's Garment District, a.k.a. the Schmatta Center. This documentary begins on a bittersweet note with George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" accompanying archival images of the Garment District in its early- and mid-20th-century prime. The garment industry was New York City's biggest employer, with hundreds of thousands of cutters, spreaders, designers, etc. The work was a route from poverty to the middle class for immigrants, predominantly Jews and Italians.
Elderly folks with heavy New Yawk accents tell colorful stories of camaraderie, of union battles, of tough bosses chomping big cigars. Some of the stories are hair-raising, but most are sweetly nostalgic. It's moving to hear a veteran cutter describe the workers' dedication to their craft: "When a garment was finished in New York, it was something to be proud of."
In the present day, that cutter is being laid off after 43 years of service. The U.S. garment industry is downsizing, a victim of globalization. The unionized workers can't compete with foreign sweatshops that pay $5 a week, and their stories of vanished opportunities are simply heartbreaking. I would have cried into my shirtsleeve if it weren't made in China.
Wednesday, 9:30 pm (Comedy Central)
Here's more evidence that TV and the Internet are merging. Secret Girlfriend began as a web series from "your" point of view, with characters talking right into the camera as if viewers were the stand-in in for the protagonist. "You" are a lecherous dude with two obnoxious slacker friends and hot girls falling all over you.
The TV version of Secret Girlfriend offers a bigger stage for the crude, stupid, guy-oriented side of web humor. The dialogue is about as sophisticated as the comments posted below a YouTube video. "It's not like you can put 'poontang' into Mapquest and it will tell you where to go," one character muses during the endless hunt for fresh booty.
Secret Girlfriend made me want to put "anywhere but here" into Mapquest.