Idiot Box: This Week’s TV Picks

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

It’s cold outside; the Midwest is neck-deep in snow; there are no good movies opening this week; the post-holiday sales are all over. Happily, the week’s TV line-up provides several decent alternatives to getting out of the house and actually doing something.

Most viewers recognize that, in terms of entertainment quality, the tag line “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” is basically meaningless, particularlyin the post-Larry Sanders era. HBO is just as likely to serve up dreadful programming as any other channel. That said, the new HBO series TheSopranos (Sun., 9:00 p.m.) may well be worth the price of a signal unscrambler. The show revolves around the middle-aged angst of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). In addition to obsessing over problems with his wife, kids, and elderly mother, Soprano is depressed that the golden days of la cosa nostra have passed him by. Plagued by panic-attacks, he starts seeing a psychiatrist (a pleasantly low-keyed role for the usually grating Lorraine Bracco). The series has everything you watch cable for–violence, drugs, profanity, automatic weapons, topless dancers. Gandolfini fans will be particularly pleased to see how well he’s made the transition from supporting-cast tough guy (True Romance, Get Shorty) to center-stage tough guy. He captures the show’s mix of darkness, humor, and humanity–without slipping into the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché. Start watching now; the early episodes are wonderful, but the scent of “short shelf life” hangs in the air.

Those without premium channels need not despair. Also debuting Sunday is Eddie Murphy’s animated series, ThePJs (Fox, 8:30 p.m.). In addition to executive producing the show, Murphy stars as the voice of the main character, Thurgood Stubbs, the smartass super of an urban housing project. Early rumblings are that The PJs delivers precisely what you’d expect from Murphy: harsh, brash, and 100 percent politically incorrect humor. (The ghetto jokes have already prompted protests from black activist groups.) But even if the show stinks, you should watch at least one episode so you won’t feel left out of the cocktail party/water cooler blathering about the social implications of the first black animated series to hit prime time.

Western junkies may want to give TNT’s much-hyped Purgatory a shot (Sun. 8:00 p.m.). Don’t misunderstand–it’s not great. The basic concept is hokey, if mildly original: A band of old-west nasties stumbles into a strange town populated by the souls of dead outlaws doing penance in the hopes of earning a seat on the great stagecoach to heaven. (To illustrate this, a big black stagecoach magically materializes at key moments.) The execution is even more problematic: There is an abundance of bad acting, heavy-handed moralizing, obvious dialogue–and, of course, the obligatory elderly Indian skulking about to highlight the mysticism of the situation. On the plus side, Eric Roberts is well cast as the irredeemable head nasty, Sam Shepard is charming (as always) as a penitent Wild Bill Hickok, and the grand finale involves a gratifying, albeit predictable, shoot-em-up sequence. Keep your expectations low.

Perhaps to atone for all the repeats we’ve endured in the past month, this week the networks are wheeling out new episodes of The X Files, The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond, King of the Hill, The King ofQueens, Law & Order,3rd Rock, Ally McBeal, Melrose Place, Homicide, NYPD Blue. … And for those who get TNN, there’s a special treat: the return of roller derby. Friday at 8:00 p.m. marks the inaugural telecast of the World Skating League’s RollerJam. It has all the power and poetry of traditional roller derby, but with that extra oomph made possible by today’s in-line skates.

Heavily promoted events best left unwatched: Gene Wilder’s MFTV movie, Murder In a Small Town (A&E, Sun., 8:00 p.m.), the 25th annual People’s Choice Awards (CBS, Sun., 9:00 p.m.), the 26th annual American Music Awards (ABC, Mon., 8:00 p.m.)–although the Burt Bacharach-Elvis Costello duet promises to be riveting–and, of course, the “ultimate milk squirt off” on Guinness World Records Prime Time, in which grown men snort milk up their noses and shoot it out their eyeballs (Fox, Tue., 9:00 p.m.). Though my gender has many flaws–its affection for Ally McBeal being among the most disturbing–I take comfort in the fact that the viewship of Guinness’s weekly freak parade is predominantly male.

All things considered, the viewing situation looks solid. But if nothing this week grabs you, take heart: The lockout is over, and NBA action should be coming your way soon.

Michelle Cottle