Idiot Box

(Note from the editor: With today’s entry we inaugurate Culturebox’s new television column by Michelle Cottle, which will appear at the end of each week and cover the coming week in television. We know that when it comes to TV, everyone’s a critic, so we invite you to send your picks, pans, and flames to . We don’t promise to reply to each and every one of you. Also, all times given are Eastern Standard. Check local listings for broadcast times in your hometown.)

With only 14 viewing days left until Christmas, the yuletide spirit is approaching critical mass on pretty much every channel. And navigating the rising tide of warm-and-fuzzy holiday programming can be harrowing.

In the coming week, viewers will be bombarded with holiday episodes of everything from The X Files to Two Girls, a Guy, and a Pizza. Among the most promising offerings are Fox’s King of the Hill (Tues., 8 PM), in which Hank and Peggy try to nurse a depressed neighbor through the suicide season; and NBC’s Just Shoot Me  (Tues., 9 PM), a take-off on How the Grinch Stole Christmas narrated by Frasier star Kelsey Grammer. On a darker note, viewers in need of a good Christmas cry should check out ER (NBC, Thurs., 10 PM). The show is emotionally draining on a regular basis, so this week’s attempt by the idealistic Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle) to perform a holiday miracle on a dying teenager is guaranteed to have you doubling up on Prozac.

Monday night, you should probably tune in for AllyMcBeal’s holiday hijinks. (Fox, 9 PM). The episode itself sounds iffy–Fish launches a wrongful-termination suit on behalf of a major client who’s been fired for claiming to have seen a unicorn–but there’s a kind of perverse thrill in seeing what abject humiliation will befall the show’s emaciated heroine each week. One
recent episode found Ally wedged into a toilet; in another, she got her fingers stuck inside a bowling ball. And during last week’s holiday rerun, the micro-skirted minx fell into her Christmas tree and lay entangled in the branches until her roommate came in and marveled that Ally’s sex life had deteriorated to the point where she was humping the Christmas tree. Who knows, perhaps this holiday season the beleaguered Ms. McBeal will inadvertently drop her diaphragm into some Salvation Army Santa’s collection basket.

The coming week also delivers a sleigh-full of holiday movies and specials. Of course there are the requisite showings of  Miracle on 34th Street (WB, Fri., 8 PM) and It’s a Wonderful Life (NBC, Sat., 8 PM). For those who like their merriment in one concentrated dose, Fox is rebroadcasting GreatestChristmas Moments of All Time, a compilation of snippets from holiday cartoons, movies, specials, and commercials through the years (Thur., 8 PM). And then there’s NBC’s 17th annual Christmas in Washington (Fri., 10 PM), complete with a special Christmas message from President Clinton (Come sit on my lap little girl. … Ho. Ho. Ho.) and a guided tour of the White House by none other than this month’s Vogue cover-model, Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

Some of the more terrifying movies and specials to avoid include the Family Channel’s 1997 classic The Christmas List, featuring Marla Maples (Sun., 8 PM); USA’s Ms. Scrooge (Wed., 9 PM), starring made-for-TV-schmaltz-goddess Cicely Tyson as a bah-humbugging Ebenita (I did not make that name up); and PBS’s Saturday night concert (9 PM), Perry Como’s Irish Christmas–‘nuff said.

By far, your best bet this week is a relatively new but oh-so-jolly holiday tradition: 15 Days of  007 on TBS (Dec. 5-19). Connery, Moore, Dalton, even that George Lazenby fellow–they’re all there. (Pierce Brosnan has yet to make it into the line-up, but he’s also yet to make a decent Bond flick.) Seriously, what could be more festive than voodoo priests, poppy fields, space-based laser weapons, germ warfare, car chases, boat chases, ski chases,
and a half-naked Ursula Andress? This week’s highlights include Diamonds areForever (Mon., 8:05 PM), From Russia With Love (Tues., 11:05 PM), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Wed., 11:05 PM)–yes, Lazenby stinks, but the movie itself is one of the best, and it’s the only one in which James gets hitched–Live and Let Die (Thurs., 10:05 PM), and Dr. No (Fri., 11:10 PM).

A word of warning to those desperately seeking non-holiday fare: Although there’s not an Xmas tree or menorah in sight, steer clear of NBC’s retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Sun., 9 PM). Set in the Civil War South, Peter Fonda is the benevolent plantation owner Gideon Prosper, whose evil brother (John Glover) plots to have him killed in order to take over the plantation. Fonda escapes with the help of a slave, who also happens to be a voodoo priestess, and runs off with his daughter Miranda (Katherine Hegl) to live in the swamps. The movie has some smashing special effects a la NBC’s Merlin, but it also has its share of bad acting and heavy-handed dialogue. (We won’t even go into Fonda’s half-baked Dixie accent.) All told, you’re better off with Bond.

Disclaimer: Bear in mind that I’ve not had the opportunity to actually preview many of the aforementioned shows and in many cases am relying on press releases, written synopses, and assurances from network flacks that a particular episode doesn’t suck. My recommendations, however, are made in good faith and based on the most up-to-date research methods Slate can afford. Nonetheless, I will gladly and profusely apologize for any and all bad calls.

Michelle Cottle