HBO (Sun., May 13, 10 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

This remarkable documentary from HBO's America Undercover Sundays series had me talking to the screen. "Get a grip!" I shouted to a woman outfitting her 18-month-old daughter with hair extensions to improve the child's chances in a beauty pageant. "Listen to yourself," I implored a coach who urges a little girl to be "flirty" for the judges. "Are you nuts?" I asked a grimly determined mom who says she shelled out $1,200 for a used designer dress to give her 5-year-old extra glamor. "Yuck!" I cried when a smarmy male emcee croons, "You're all I can't resist.... The first time I held you, I knew.... " to a lineup of entrants in a beauty competition for girls age 7 to 8.

Some will find nothing unseemly here. Others will join me in being amazed—often appalled—by this look at the kiddie pageant scene in 1998-99. But Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen is not an exposé. It's an observant film about grown-ups who work and even sacrifice to turn children into objects for display. "You gotta think, like, 'I'm Barbie,' " the coach tells a 5-year-old named Swan Brooner. When the gussied-up girl walks onstage with a frozen smile and frightened eyes, we can see she got the message. She has a real shot at the $2,500 Star Grand Supreme title. But at what cost?

Bottom Line: Documentary earns a crown

NBC (Mondays, 8 p.m. ET)

When this rapid-fire quiz show premiered in mid-April, NBC advertised it as "faster than Millionaire and "rougher than Survivor." I'll say this: It's better than Greed. Like that FOX discard, this British import has contestants playing as a team before they turn on one another. But Weakest Link host Anne Robinson—loathe her or hate her—is far more interesting than Greed's slick and tired Chuck Woolery. Her imperious nastiness inspires an undeniable fascination, even if she does say "weakest link" three dozen times per hour.

Weakest Link, now seen weekly, opened by airing three nights in a row. NBC must protect Robinson from overexposure, or her image may fade from scary witch to common scold. "A miserable, depressing, pathetic $7,500...a very disappointing $27,500.... " Yeah, yeah, never satisfied. And if we see too much of her good-night wink, we'll start suspecting her of being a put-on artist.

Bottom Line: No weakling

ABC (Sun., May 13, 7 p.m. ET)

"Just because the critics don't like it doesn't mean the public won't," her mother (Connie Britton) assures little Shirley Temple (Ashley Rose Orr) after reviewers razz one of the kid's movies. How true. Just because I found Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story dull and superficial doesn't mean you will.

The 10-year-old Orr, while clearly talented, can't compare in cuteness with the moppet who captivated American filmgoers in the '30s. Orr never comes across as more than a hardworking impersonator. Worse, this Wonderful World of Disney production draws virtually no distinction between Temple onscreen and Temple in life. Whether she's weeping in private over the disappearance of aviator Amelia Earhart or forcing a few tears for a scene in Now and Forever, it seems like the same game of Hollywood make-believe.

Bottom Line: Rent Poor Little Rich Girl instead

CBS (Sun., May 13, and Wed., May 16, 9 p.m. ET)

Like the Joyce Carol Oates book on which it's based, this heavy two-parter on Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortensen) is presented as a work of fiction with some factual elements. Forget accuracy; think metaphor and psychology. Blonde tells us that Norma Jeane/Marilyn (played by Poppy Montgomery from the teen years on) thought of the mirror as her "magic friend," repeatedly lied about her personal history, saw her three husbands as father substitutes and had a desperate need for a child of her own. Montgomery (Relativity) has the right mix of girlishness, intensity and sexuality, and Patricia Richardson is the supporting-cast standout as Norma Jeane's mad mother. But Blonde makes the same points over and over en route to a depressing conclusion necessitated by the facts.

Bottom Line: Well done but dreary

PBS (Sun., May 13 and 20, 9 p.m. ET)

"I'm going to have to keep trying," says the ladies' man after the new beauty in town declines to be deflowered. "And I'm going to have to keep stopping you," she replies—in a tone that does not exactly discourage further attempts.

It's all in the game in this ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of a Kingsley Amis novel about sex pursued and withheld in 1950s England. Rupert Graves is engaging as Patrick, the bachelor teacher bent on conquest, and the loveliness of Sienna Guillory's Jenny explains Patrick's persistence. In fact, Jenny attracts a crowd of admirers, including her leering landlord (Robert Daws), an oh-so-worldly female neighbor (Kathy Kiera Clarke) and two of Patrick's friends—one suave (Hugh Bonneville), one awkward (Ian Driver). Though the 2½-hour Take a Girl seems stretched out in two-part form, it's a deft comedy distinguished by an air of regret.

Bottom Line: Worth the taking

>Sunday, May 13 THE X-FILES FOX (9 p.m. ET) An alien-human hybrid goes on a homicidal rampage in the first of a two-part season finale.

Monday, May 14 BIOGRAPHY: AL PACINO A&E (8 p.m. ET) Family and friends talk about the intense actor who vaulted to stardom in The Godfather.

Tuesday, May 15 BEYOND HUMAN PBS (8 p.m. ET) The premiere of a new science series studies the possibility of tiny robots battling cancer cells.

Wednesday, May 16 CONQUISTADORS PBS (8 p.m. ET) Historian Michael Wood concludes his two-part look at the Spaniards who braved the New World.

Thursday, May 17 FRIENDS NBC (8 p.m. ET) Chandler gets pre-wedding jitters and Gary Oldman guest-stars in the hour-long season finale.

Friday, May 18 DAYTIME EMMY AWARDS NBC (9 p.m. ET) Kathie Lee Gifford plays host. Will her ol' buddy Regis Philbin be a winner?

Saturday, May 19 MTV'S 20TH: LAUGH TRACK MTV (1 p.m. ET) An hour-long special recalls the comedy high points in MTV history.