Idiot Box: Circus Mentality

Please note: All times given are Eastern, but check your local listings just in case.

Step right up, ladies and gents: The Sweeps have come to town. Everyone’s pandering, but the Fox network is the most blatant with its sleazy shockumentary When Good Times Go Bad 2 (Thursday, Feb. 11, 9 p.m.). The network is trying to reach a prized demographic: beer-swigging morons 18-49. Expect a ratings blockbuster.

The spirit of Fox seems to have influenced the arty networks, too. The latest installment of A&E’s true-life series, L.A. Detectives (9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5) is a slightly tonier version of Copssans the screaming drunks–in which detectives use dogged legwork to find the killer in a drive-by homicide, and then some more detectives go undercover to entrap male prostitutes. It’s not quite as seamy over at Frontline, which spent three years researching the life, crimes, and recent execution of the talkative Clifford Boggess (PBS, Tuesday, 9 p.m.). In this absorbing real-life Dead Man Walking, you don’t get to see the actual lethal injection, but creepy camerawork helps recreate his murders of two old men and the impact on the victims’ families.

Take a respite from February’s portentous programs with the irreverent humor of George Carlin’s latest HBO live concert, You Are All Diseased (Saturday, 9:30 P.M).

On Sunday, heartwarming but predictable made-for-TV movies duel with the much-hyped X-Files that “exposes” the convoluted alien conspiracy. For six years, Scully and Mulder have been working to unravel the arcane plot while even obsessive fans have been struggling just to follow it. The story so far: A mysterious Syndicate of rich white evildoers has been in apparent cahoots with aliens seeking to colonize the earth. One of their weapons: infecting humans with an oily virus that incubates aliens. Or something like that.

Want to get up to speed? Read this handy crib sheet by an X-Files expert at the Gist-TV site, GIST TV Sci-Fi: Feature Presentation, or tape the final four episodes of the FX network’s conspiracy repeats on Friday (February 5, 8 p.m. to midnight). This Sunday’s episode on Fox (9 p.m.) brings back repeat abductee Cassandra Spender, who will supposedly help unlock the mystery of what really happened to Mulder’s abducted sister, Samantha, and other secrets. Don’t hold your breath waiting for final answers.

The roots of today’s conspiracy thinking go back to the assassination of JFK, which kicks off NBC’s ambitious two- dimensional family drama, The 60’s (Sun. and Mon., 9 p.m.). It follows two families, black and white, who turn out to be the Zeligs of the 60’s: Their rebellious offspring turn up at every key event from the Freedom Rides to Woodstock. It works as soundtrack nostalgia and history lesson but flounders as drama. The acting is competent, sometimes even affecting, particularly 17-year-old Julia Stiles as an aimless, pregnant hippie. But this Classics Comics-style tour of the decade has neither gripping narrative nor compelling characters. And the actors, such as Charles Dutton as an idealistic black minister, aren’t helped by the dialogue: “The world is changing for the better, son. We got a long way to go but look where we are now!” On the plus side: This show will infuriate neo-cons. David Horowitz, eat your heart out.

Middle-American women who don’t like 60’s rebels or aliens are the apparent target of the new Hallmark Hall of Fame weepie, Night RideHome (Sunday, CBS, 9 p.m.). Don’t go there with them: It’s a tedious look at a troubled husband and wife (played by ex-sexpot Rebecca De Mornay) and their response to the tragic death of their son in a horse- riding accident. Family healing, blah blah. Only the threat of, say, an alien abduction could make a man watch all the way through this domestic bathos.

A better bet on Sunday is the delightful The Sopranos (HBO, 9 p.m.), the dramedy that keeps getting richer with each episode. James Gandolfini’s portrayal of the depressed mob boss on Prozac has become one of the most complex and enjoyable characters on TV. This week, Tony Soprano takes his daughter to scout a college campus, only to spot a mob snitch he may have to whack. Complications ensue.

The folks at HBO can make another claim to quality programming: their film of the hip-hop, black-owned Universoul Circus (Monday, 8 p.m.). Part uplift for black kids, part thrilling feats of circus daring, it’s family programming that can appeal to adults of all races.

The broadcast networks are keeping up with potentially strong episodes of their flagship series. On Tuesday’s NYPD Blue (ABC, 10 p.m.), Rick Schroder’s tight-lipped character, Danny Sorenson, opens up to Sipowicz while seeking help for an alcoholic friend. It’s about time. They won’t be killing off George Clooney’s character at ER like they did to Jimmy Smits at NYPD. Instead, Dr. Doug Ross is being forced out over the next two episodes because the maverick heartthrob gives an unauthorized painkiller to a terminally ill boy (Thursday, 10 p.m.). The other NBC ratings champ, Frasier, has Kelsey Grammer directing a three-vignette episode geared to Valentine’s Day (Thursday, 9 p.m.).

For bitchy wit at its best, set your VCRs to catch Bette Davis in the incomparable All About Eve (Monday, Cinemax 2, 4 p.m.). To track all of this month’s four-star movies, check out the TV-Now website Four Star Movies February TV Schedule.

Art Levine