FOX (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)



Given that more votes were cast for the last American Idol finale than for George Bush in 2004, it's now a civic duty to watch the show's new, sixth season responsibly. (Hey, no jumping on the sofa!) In a few weeks, we'll be done with the gaudy, hysterical coast-to-coast tryouts and down to the final 24. Here are my Idol tips to clip for your handy reference.

1. Don't get caught up in the singers' backstories. I was surprised last season when a woman told me that Taylor Hicks ought to win because of his tough life, whereas Katharine McPhee had grown up in privilege. As we learned post-season, though, the girl had suffered from bulimia. You can live in a log cabin and walk five miles through the snow for an audition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That does not make you an Idol.

2. Keep an eye on Paula Abdul. She has stronger populist instincts than fellow judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson. She leaps with the enthusiasm of a Lakers Girl and weeps like a miraculous saint's statue. I trust her. I love her.

3. And ask yourself: Is there a Jennifer Hudson somewhere, a genuine Dreamgirl whose talent might be overshadowed by all this hoopla? Also: What look will Clay Aiken go for this time when he makes a guest appearance? Last season he looked like the ghost of Spandau Ballet.

Remember, America: This is your Idol. Thank you.

HBO (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET)


Season 2 of Ricky Gervais's show about a struggling actor keeps its central gag: Stars from David Bowie to Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe play themselves, usually as egomaniacal jerks. But Gervais tweaked the story. His character, Andy Millman, launches a sitcom, a sellout piece of working-class schlock called When the Whistle Blows. Andy's humiliations as a minor celebrity aren't quite as funny as was his earlier shame at being a nobody, but as a satire of showbiz vanity, Extras can still be described as (what else?) stellar.

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VH1 (Mondays, 9 p.m. ET)


Tiffany Pollard, christened "New York" by Flavor Flav, was rejected not once but twice on his crazy VH1 hit Flavor of Love. Nursing her heart yet bravely partying on, she now hosts her own Bachelorette-style show stocked with men. In the premiere, talking to a sensitive guy dubbed Romance—he weeps for his dead dog—she has a strange vision of the great outdoors. "I feel that we could [bleeping] plant trees or something," she tells him. "Are you a [bleeping] earth guy?" It's dumb, it's funny.

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PBS (Jan. 24, check local listings)


This is a sort of return engagement for Oprah Winfrey and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. She was one of the black celebrities profiled—right down to their DNA—last year on his PBS special African American Lives. Roots is a more general, hour-long history focusing on just Oprah, expanding on her participation in the first special. Working with genealogists, Gates threads small paths back across the landscape of black American history, where so many names have been lost, and finds Oprah's distant ancestors. We learn that both her great-grandmother and great-great-grandfather shared her enthusiasm for opening schools. "This unlocks a door for me," she tells Gates.

As always, Winfrey manages to articulate her moral lessons with a personal directness that's altogether unique in television.

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Heroes (NBC, Jan. 22, 9 p.m. ET) The fabulous freaks return, with a new hero played by British actor Christopher Eccleston (28 Days Later...).

Jane Eyre (PBS, Jan. 21 and 28, check local listings) Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson in a sexy Masterpiece Theatre production of the Brontë classic.

Ocean's Deadliest (Animal Planet, Jan. 21, 8 p.m. ET) This is the underwater documentary Steve Irwin was shooting when killed by a stingray last September.

Prison Break (FOX, Jan. 22, 8 p.m. ET) Crime doesn't pay. Nor does innocence. Wentworth Miller's adventure resumes from its late-fall break.

Saturday Night Live (NBC, Jan. 20, 11:30 p.m. ET) Jeremy Piven. Hug it out!

The Knights of Prosperity (ABC, Jan. 24, 9 p.m. ET) A trip to Atlantic City throws another kink into the gang's robbery scheme.

Alexandra Pelosi

The documentary filmmaker—you may know her mother, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—looks at America's evangelicals for HBO's Friends of God, premiering Jan. 25.

ON MEETING EVANGELICALS I was like an ambassador from the blue states—they realized I wasn't a fire-breathing dragon. We have this impression that all religious people are Jesus freaks. They're not caricatures, and we should take them seriously, because they are a formidable force.

ON BEING THE SPEAKER'S DAUGHTER It hasn't changed my life one bit. I'm still sitting at home changing diapers. [Son Paul Michael is 8 weeks old.] Every time my mom calls she asks about baby feedings. No matter how important she may be, all she cares about is baby feedings. It's inspiring to see how one woman can do it all—raise a family and have a super career.

ON A SPECIAL INVITE President Bush [the subject of her 2002 documentary Journeys with George] sent a letter to Paul Michael recently saying, "Come visit, you'll really like the Oval Office." Maybe I'll take him to D.C. That kid will get quite the tour.

Barry Watson

The 7th Heaven idol, 32, has moved on to ABC's What About Brian—and fought back from Hodgkin's lymphoma, diagnosed in 2002.

ON SURVIVING I feel better than I ever have. Really strong.

ON FIANCEE TRACY HUTSON We're still engaged, and we have something planned. [She's with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.] But the last couple years have been so hard.

ON BEING A HANDS-ON DAD TO OLIVER, 20 MONTHS If I'm not working, I'm changing diapers, feeding him. A couple of months ago he was very "Mommy, Mommy." Now he's "Daddy, Daddy."