Idiot Box: New Year’s Week Edition

All times are Eastern, but check your local listings just in case.

Thanks god it’s over. Holiday hell is behind us now, and things appear to be looking up–at least on TV. The repeats are fewer, the movies are better, the flood of gooey holiday commercials is drying up–they’re even showing back-to-back Ally on Fox (Mon., 8:00 & 9:00 p.m.).

Leading off the week, there’s good news for everyone still in a funk over Frank Sinatra’s passing: A&E has put together a swingin’ two-part, four-hour Biography on the Rat Pack (Part 1, Sun., 8:00 p.m.). Centered around the rise, fall, and redemption of the Chairman of the Board, the documentary is chock full of fascinating details about how the various Packsters were drawn into Sinatra’s orbit, starting in the early 1940s. Even RP aficionados will swoon over the old photos and footage of not only Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, and Joey (who does not make an appearance until hour three), but also of such silver-screen notables as Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift. There are also terrific vintage clips of kangaroo boxers on Atlantic City’s boardwalk, the Peter Lawford-Pat Kennedy nuptials, and the Kefauver Senate hearings on organized crime.

Attempts to weave the five men’s stories together result in some confusing chronological jumps, but the damage isn’t serious. One sour note: actor Danny Aiello’s voice-over. In theory, he’s a logical choice–a low-key Italian-American who sounds like he could have been one of Frank’s mob chums. In practice, he stinks up the joint. Admittedly, the script is no prize, but Aiello compounds the problem, droning along as if under the influence of prescription drugs.

This week’s movie scene offers something for everyone. Monday at 9:00 p.m., Bravo is running the Academy Award-winning Cinema Paradiso, while CBS goes for mass appeal with Sleepless in Seattle. In need of more manly fare? Tuesday, TNT delivers a Clint double-header: High Plains Drifter (8:00 p.m.) followed by Fistful of Dollars (10:05 p.m.). And late in the week, Fox Family Channel is showing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Fri., 9:00 p.m.), in which Johnny Depp is annoyingly beautiful, and Juliette Lewis is simply annoying. But the movie is charming despite itself, and a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio earned an Oscar nomination for his convincing turn as Depp’s mentally retarded brother.

For those not completely overdosed on reruns, there’s a special Thursday showing of Just Shoot Me (NBC, 8:30 p.m.). This is the episode in which Finch (David Spade) tries to trick Maya (Laura San Giacomo) into engaging in “forbidden love” with another woman–while he watches. Discovering Finch’s plan, the women plot revenge, devising a list of impossible tasks that Finch must accomplish in order for the love-fest to take place. The hysterical part is watching Spade’s character actually accomplish his mission with the aid and encouragement of several dozen strangers–all men who are desperate to help Finch live out “Every Man’s Fantasy.” It’s funny because it’s true.

Next week also brings the return of Al Franken’s dubious sit-com, Lateline (NBC, Wed., 9:00 p.m.). Before it was shelved last year, the show was populated by weak characters–Franken’s Al Freundlich was a total boob–and riddled with tired gags (e.g., Freundlich’s shrieking harpy of a wife, whom we hear only over the phone.) For the relaunch, I was hoping the series’ writers had done a major creative overhaul, but the early signs are not encouraging. This week’s show–in which anchorman Pearce McKenzie (Robert Foxworth) starts doing guest spots on the Conan O’Brien show–is just plain stupid, relying heavily on dopey sight gags and potty humor. The episode has some nice moments–mostly involving an intern’s desperate pursuit of a raise–but overall, it feels like a second-rate Murphy Brown.

Other questionable programming this week: Sunday, ABC is showing D3: The Mighty Ducks (8:00 p.m.), in which Emilio Estevez’s scrappy young hockey heroes face their grimmest challenge yet–Prep Schoolers. In the history of film, there are perhaps 10 sequels that deserved to be made. This is not one of them. Monday at 8:00 p.m., NBC is premiering The Wrong Girl, some bizarre made-for-TV deal starring country-music singer Barbara Mandrell as a concerned mom who suspects that her son’s new girlfriend is a dangerous psychotic. And perhaps most disheartening, UPN continues to air episodes of Love Boat: The Next Wave.

Where is a giant iceberg when you really need it?

Michelle Cottle