NBC (Sun.-Mon., March 4-5, 9 p.m. ET)

Though NBC publicity promises that this two-part movie (based on the book by J. Randy Taraborrelli) will offer "untold" stories and "rare glimpses" of the Kennedy family, most of it seems like the product of a recycling machine that never shuts down. The tragedies and triumphs of the political clan have been retailed in so many TV dramas (including CBS's Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, which Women of Camelot was originally slated to compete against last November) that it's almost irrelevant to ask whether Jill Hennessy (formerly of Law & Order) resembles the real First Lady of the New Frontier. What counts is that Hennessy compares favorably to Joanne Whalley, this season's previous pretend Jackie. Hennessy brings charm and elegance to the role, achieving a nice balance of beguiling softness and cool pragmatism.

You can't help sympathizing with Leslie Stefanson's pretty, vulnerable Joan Kennedy, here seen as frequently bolstered by sister-in-law Jackie. But Lauren Holly portrays Ethel as crass, envious, prone to astonishingly insensitive remarks and only slightly less ambitious than Lady Macbeth. Completing this Ethel's set of unattractive traits is a voice that can jangle any nerve within a five-mile radius. For a more positive portrait of Robert Kennedy's widow, turn to A&E's Biography March 1 at 8 p.m.

Bottom Line: Camelot—been there.

NBC, UPN, TNN (check listings)

•If these guys are so proud of their "smashmouth" brand of ball, why do the helmets have face masks? Give a few teeth for the cause.
•Shouldn't Minnesota Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura have something more statesmanlike to do than serve as an XFL announcer on NBC, which owns the enterprise in partnership with the World Wrestling Federation? Couldn't the ex-grappler run Wisconsin in his spare time? In Week 2 of XFL action, Ventura seemed surprisingly content to boom banalities ("They're throwin' the ball excellent tonight"). UPN's Brian Bosworth, on the other hand, is bent on putting some color into his "color commentary." In his first XFL telecast, the former linebacker said one of the gladiators played "like he's got a fire in his ass." In his second, "Boz" danced with the babe-alicious cheerleaders while urging play-by-play man Chris Marlowe to "slap my butt."

After NBC's XFL ratings sank in Week 2—and an overtime game delayed the start of a Saturday Night Live featuring Jennifer Lopez (oooh, definite cheerleader material)—the league announced rules changes to speed play. But what if XFL founder (and WWF honcho) Vince McMahon goes further, dropping overtime in favor of cliffhangers ("Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion...") and having cheerleaders mud-wrestle at midfield? I fear bad football will still look worse out of season.

Bottom Line: Punting situation

HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week
STARS "1"

If the true test of a show is how it handles adversity, the third-season premiere on March 4 proves The Sopranos is better than ever.

Nancy Marchand owned the part of Livia, the maddening mother of Mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), so the actress's death last June forced creator David Chase to write her character out of the series. In the second of back-to-back episodes Livia makes a brief appearance before dying off camera. But what's vintage Sopranos about Chase's script is its utter rejection of sentimentality. The mourners' reminiscences turn savagely candid, reminding us how indelibly Marchand portrayed the Machiavellian mama whom Tony denounces to his psychiatrist (Lorraine Bracco) as a "demented old bat."

The first episode is also a gem. Tony, wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and their two children go about daily life while ridiculously stealthy federal agents track the family's every move. Leave 'em alone, you might think—if not for a reminder that the breadwinner's business involves murder.

Bottom Line: Still a great racket

ABC (Sun., March 4, 9 p.m. ET)

Slow-paced and suffused with melancholy, this Oprah Winfrey Presents TV movie clearly has no aspirations to be escapist entertainment. But the acting and the atmosphere should hold you, even if you have doubts about the story (taken from a novel by Elizabeth Strout).

Elisabeth Shue, best known for the role of the gold-hearted hooker in Leaving Las Vegas, is excellent as Isabelle, a small-town single mother in the early '70s who is prim to the point of severity. Isabelle treats her daughter (Hanna Hall) cruelly after discovering the teen's sexual involvement with a high school teacher (subtly played by Martin Donovan). But you never entirely turn against Isabelle, because Shue makes you feel the ache of her loneliness.

Amy and Isabelle is too dependent on voice-over narration, and the film ultimately turns on a revelation that I found predictable and implausible. Fortunately it has what matters most: characters worth caring about.

Bottom Line: Sensitive drama

>Sunday, March 4 THE '70S: BELL-BOTTOMS TO BOOGIE SHOES TLC (9 p.m. ET) Danny Bonaduce (The Partridge Family, remember?) is host for a two-hour "Me Decade" tour.

Monday, March 5 EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND CBS (9 p.m. ET) Ray feels sick in a rerun filled with healthy laughs.

Tuesday, March 6 THE FIGHTING FITZGERALDS NBC (8:30 p.m. ET) Brian Dennehy is a short-fused widower bugged by his three grown sons in this sitcom premiere.

Wednesday, March 7 ONCE AND AGAIN ABC (10 p.m. ET) Don't think this is an action show? A disgruntled waiter takes hostages at Jake's restaurant.

Thursday, March 8 BEHIND CLOSED DOORS A&E (9 p.m. ET) Star reporter Joan Lunden snoops around at the FBI.

Friday, March 9 SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS Nickelodeon (8 p.m. ET) The delightful cartoon comedy has a special interactive episode.

Saturday, March 10 MISSION TO MARS STARZ! (8 p.m. ET) Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle blast off in a 2000 space odyssey directed by Brian De Palma.