Last year's American Idol suffered from a lack of really exciting singers. Chris Daughtry, Katharine McPhee and Elliott Yamin were fine, but they didn't make you want to scream with joy. Taylor Hicks, who wasn't even fine, finally won the competition. And that made you want to scream in agony.
This season has had a lot of silly distractions. Antonella Barba turned out to be a pornographic model, and Sanjaya Malakar made the top 10 despite a complete lack of talent. Elvis was resurrected to sing with Celine Dion, then sent back to turn over in his grave.
But the season has also featured a singer who makes you want to scream with joy. Melinda Doolittle has been stunning week after week, even putting her stamp on Aretha Franklin songs - a feat almost unheard of in Idol history. All the while, she's been so modest that you can't help but wonder how she taps her inner diva at the microphone. (Compare this to Hicks' preening "soul patrol" antics last year.)
If Doolittle isn't declared the winner in this week's finale (Tuesday & Wednesay, 7 p.m., Fox), the American people will have a lot to answer for. I will be the first to call for a Senate investigation.
National Bingo Night
Friday, 8 pm (ABC)
In this new game show, contestants play bingo against the studio audience and viewers at home, who can get into the action at abc.com. Against all odds, National Bingo Night tries to make bingo seem explosively exciting. The first episode begins with a bingo ball's point of view as it races down a chute into the two-story BingoSphere. Lights flash, sound effects boom, and the hyperactive host screams, "Here at National Bingo Night, WE LOVE TO GIVE AWAY MONEY!"
Is the purpose really to give away money, or is it something else? Is it perhaps ABC's attempt to make money with a very inexpensive reality series? One that fools folks at home into thinking they have a good chance of winning a fortune?
Act of Honor
Saturday, 6 pm (History Channel)
This moving documentary brings us close to one of the soldiers who've died in Iraq. We follow Rafael Peralta from his childhood in Mexico to high school in San Diego. He can't wait to get his green card so he can join the Marines - "to protect and defend the freedom of this country," as his brother says. Rafael served in the battle of Fallujah, where his platoon went house to house clearing out insurgents. They never knew what they'd find when they kicked open a door.
Behind one door they found an ambush. In an extraordinary act of courage, Rafael pulled a thrown grenade under him to save his friends' lives.
The documentary avoids political commentary on the war, focusing instead on Rafael's sacrifice. It doesn't ask whether the president sent him to Iraq for no good reason, but that doesn't mean the question won't be booming in your ears.
Jesse Stone: Sea Change
Sunday, 7 pm (CBS)
In the latest Jesse Stone movie, rot has set in. Jesse Stone (Tom Selleck), the big-city cop transplanted to a dull New England town, is bored out of his skull. As sheriff, he does little more than write parking tickets. He drinks too much and thinks too much about his ex-wife. To stave off paralysis, he reopens a 12-year-old murder case. Hey, it passes the time.
You'd think we'd be as bored as Stone himself, but we're not. Selleck holds the screen even when moping. He laces his world-weariness with sardonic wit and his cynicism with compassion. He's an old TV pro, and so are supporting cast members Kathy Bates and William Devane.
Who ever thought I'd be cheering for rot?
Sunday, 8 pm (WHA)
When a woman walks on camera with a parasol, you expect to see the typical Masterpiece Theatre period piece. But The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton is not typical - it is surprising at every turn. The movie offers a nuanced portrait of Isabella Beeton (Anna Madeley), a Victorian woman who put together the celebrated how-to manual Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. In that initial appearance, Isabella addresses us directly, discussing her death at 28 in an airy tone. She then turns back the clock to tell us the story of her remarkable life.
Isabella marries a roguish publisher at a time when a woman's place was in the home. But she has no use for traditional roles and insists on becoming a part of his business. She writes her book in the face of continual setbacks, from dying children to collapsing finances.
Okay, that sounds like a typical scenario: plucky woman hurdles obstacles to challenge the status quo. But The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton accounts for the messiness of real life. The movie earns both its comedy and its pathos, and it manages to leave you smiling despite a miserable ending for both the heroine and her husband.
And to think it all started with a parasol.
On the Lot
Tuesday, 8 pm (Fox)
This new reality series gives aspiring filmmakers a shot at a $1 million development deal with DreamWorks. In the first episode we meet 50 semifinalists, who arrive in Los Angeles to face a panel of inside-Hollywood judges. The survivors will go on to make films every week, and the public will vote for their favorites à la American Idol.
It's a great concept, and I can't wait to see how it plays out. But if Sanjaya Malakar somehow makes it into the top 10 again, I'm gonna crack.