Show of the week
Once upon a time in the 1970s, when feminism was known as women's lib, a paunchy, garrulous former tennis champion named Bobby Riggs ran around daring top female players to face him across the net. First the hustler dispatched Margaret Court, and he crowed. Next Riggs took on Billie Jean King, 26 years his junior, in a nationally televised event massively hyped as the Battle of the Sexes. The Houston Astrodome showdown had all the theatricality of pro wrestling, yet it tapped into some fundamental feelings on both sides of the gender divide.
In this entertaining TV movie, writer-director Jane Anderson (The Baby Dance) captures the absurdity of the King-Riggs match without minimizing the importance it took on in 1973. Holly Hunter's King combines a keen sense of irony with a fierce will to win. Ron Silver goes full throttle as Riggs (who died in '95), making his shameless self-promotion strangely endearing. As the chauvinist swine stands sweaty and bedraggled on the edge of defeat, you want to jeer and console him simultaneously.
But what's a tennis film without a few faults? The on-court action is stretched out in an effort to boost the drama of a straight-set contest. Normally funny Fred Willard flops as Howard Cosell. And the ending waves the feminist banner too vigorously.
Bottom Line: Hits mostly winners
NBC (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET)
When this sitcom premiered last month, Brian Dennehy's irascible character struck me as Archie Bunker reincarnated. Then I noted some distinctions. The widower Fitzgerald (first name undisclosed) calls his three adult sons morons, not meatheads. When he announces that "the neighborhood is officially going to hell," he's lamenting the arrival of a "fancy-shmancy" coffeehouse, not a minority family. He's endlessly argumentative but not all that controversial. If it weren't for Dennehy's bulk, Fitzgerald might be designated Bunker Lite.
Fortunately the star has the strength to carry this formulaic show on his back-though the task seems to weary him a bit. It's the old story of the offspring failing to empty the nest. The married son (Justin Louis) lives in his father's house with his pregnant wife (Connie Britton) and little girl (Abigail Mavity). One of the single sons (Jon Patrick Walker) just quit his job and moved back in; the other (Chris Moynihan) is a cheeky good-for-nothing who keeps turning up for meals. Pop complains about their presence yet loves them deep down. Death of a Salesman it ain't, but I'd be the last to begrudge Dennehy a payday.
Bottom Line: Only Brian makes it bearable
Comedy Central (Wednesdays, 10:30 p.m. ET)
If I could pardon an impeachable offense in the April 4 premiere, I might vote aye on this new comedy series set at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) are aiming for a presidential spoof of sitcom conventions, and things begin promisingly when George W. Bush (Timothy Bottoms) tries to shuttle between his romantically inclined wife, Laura (Carrie Quinn Dolin), in one room and warring interest groups in the other. But I couldn't ignore the patently offensive fact that the antiabortion delegation is led by a talking fetus.
Though episode 2 treats capital punishment almost as tastelessly, Parker's idea of a bad improv troupe faking an execution really slays me. Maybe we need a White House where the maid (Marcia Wallace) wises off to the President and a chatty neighbor (John D'Aquino) can pop in without an appointment.
Bottom Line: Will polarize the electorate
The Complete Story
Discovery Channel (Sun., April 15, 8 p.m, ET)
PBS (Check local listings)
Catch both these specials at Eastertide, because they complement each other nicely. Jesus: The Complete Story draws on archaeology and historical scholarship for three hours of interesting speculation about the details of Jesus's life. The program closes with a reconstruction of what his face probably looked like-and it's something you've never seen on a holy card. The Face: Jesus in Art, a documentary of remarkable beauty, studies the myriad ways Jesus has been depicted in painting and sculpture. The two-hour film concludes that there is "no one authentic image" of a man beheld through the eyes of faith. Something to ponder after trying the scientific approach.
Bottom Line: Worthwhile seasonal viewing
>Sunday, April 15 THE MIRACLE MAKER ABC (7 p.m. ET) A clay-animation special, which first aired in 2000, tells the story of Jesus from a child's viewpoint.
Monday, April 16 INTIMATE PORTRAIT: ROMA DOWNEY Lifetime (7 p.m. ET) This bio follows the Touched by an Angel star from her Irish childhood.
Tuesday, April 17 CHAINS OF LOVE UPN (8 p.m. ET) Eeny-meeny...A chooser is chained to four possible romantic partners in this new reality series.
Wednesday, April 18 INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS: BEHIND BARS A&E(10 p.m. ET) Host Bill Kurtis unlocks the story of a London women's prison plagued by violence.
Thursday, April 19 ER NBC (10 p.m. ET) Complications abound as Drs. Greene and Corday prepare to tie the knot.
Friday, April 20 BORN IN MY HEART ABC (10 p.m. ET) Barbara Walters and ABC colleagues share personal stories of adoption.
Saturday, April 21 KIDS'CHOICE AWARDS Nickelodeon (8 p.m. ET) Rosie O'Donnell plays host as young viewers pick their entertainment faves.
ABC (Mon., April 16, 8 p.m. ET)