NBC (Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

Friends has been red-hot in the ratings this season, winning its Thursday duel with Survivor: Africa and finishing at or near the top of the weekly rankings of all prime-time shows. Why are Chandler (Matthew Perry), Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette Arquette), Ross (David Schwimmer), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) drawing such a crowd? Does the seven-year-old sitcom—also flourishing in syndicated reruns—serve as "comfort food" for Americans seeking the tried and true in a time of war and anxiety?

The familiarity factor can't be discounted, but give Friends more credit: It's reliably amusing. Kudrow's timing only gets better as years go by, and her Phoebe remains the unconscious master of the offhand insult. Speaking about Chandler to his new wife, Monica, in the season's second episode, Phoebe said, "I feel bad for the woman who winds up with him." Pausing just long enough to notice the look on her friend's face, she added, "After you, of course." When Phoebe shares a scene with twin sister Ursula, Kudrow handles the dual role with commendable subtlety. Meanwhile, Joey's gig as a soap-opera actor continues to produce laughs. Consider his TV character's calm but clueless reaction when told that his brain transplant was "not entirely successful."

Pregnancy is the oldest hook in the book, yet it's hard not to care at least a little about Rachel and Ross's new situation as unmarried parents-to-be. We know them so well, after all.

Bottom Line: Enduring friendship

PBS (Mon., Nov. 26, 9 p.m. ET)

"What age are you?" a woman asks Silas (Albert Finney). "Real or in my mind?" the old rascal responds, with a look that suggests no loss of appetite for life's pleasures.

Thirty-eight years have passed since Finney played the roistering title character in Tom Jones, but he still gets that'rakish gleam in his eye. The veteran actor (Julia Roberts's boss in Erin Brockovich) couldn't be a better fit for the lead role in this ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of several H.E. Bates short stories set in the rural England of the early 1900s. Silas is a lecher, a tippler and a mischief-maker-hardly a moral exemplar to his 10-year-old nephew Edward (Joe Prospero), who has come to stay with him for the summer. Needless to say, the wide-eyed lad and his bawdy uncle get along famously through this series of five vignettes. Though not what you'd call a fine figure of a man, Silas manages to charm females of all sorts, from the overburdened wife (Anna belle Apsion) of a teetotalist hotelkeeper to an upper-class lady (Charlotte Rampling) who invites him into her bed under unlikely circumstances. There's not a great deal of meat in the script, but Finney feasts on whatever's available.

Bottom Line: Say Uncle

History Channel
(Tues.-Fri., Nov. 27-30, 9 p.m. ET)

How to describe a survey that segues from the Good Humor man to Muhammad Ali to the smiley-face buttons of the '70s? I call it a pop cultural hodgepodge; The History Channel calls it American Classics. Host'Dick Clark says this four-part program is about the "icons" that "symbolize our national identity as Americans." Plenty of authors and academics show up to discuss which personalities and products qualify as true classics.(If New York University media expert Mark Crispin Miller is too earnest, you might prefer "rock and roll historian" Harry Hepcat.) Yet all this talk is merely an excuse to flip through the American scrap-book and learn, among other things, who created Uncle Sam and what made Betty Grable World War IPs hot pinup.

It's a treat to meet Gerry Thomas, inventor of the TV dinner. The more familiar the subjects—Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley—the less interesting American Classics becomes. When the program rhapsodizes about the Harley-Davidson motorcycle or the Chevy Corvette, it's barely distinguishable from advertising.

Bottom Line: Not among the classics

CBS (Mon., Nov. 26, 10 p.m. ET)

My handy Webster's says the first definition of showstopper is "an act, song or performer that wins applause so prolonged as to interrupt a performance." Unfortunately, the title of this ill-conceived special only plays on the word. The bulk of the hour is devoted to excerpts from Carol Burnett Show skits that were interrupted by the cast members' own laughter. The false assumption: If they cracked up then, we will now.

Gathered in the Los Angeles studio where they taped the CBS comedy-variety series from 1967 to 1978, Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence spend a little time reminiscing and bantering with the audience. Burnett and Lawrence do a song saluting costume designer Bob Mackie. Mostly, though, the ex-teammates sit back and enjoy clips of their old selves giggling uncontrollably. Though we get tantalizing glimpses of the show's best parodies—Gone with the Wind, Sunset Boulevard-no sketch is seen whole. Watching one breakup after another, some may want to ask, "Hey, gang, what's so funny?"

Bottom Line: Guess you had to be there

>Sunday, Nov. 25 STAR WARS: EPISODE I THE PHANTOM MENACE FOX (7 p.m. ET) George Lucas's 1999 sci-fiepic has its TV premiere.

Monday, Nov. 26 THE LYING GAME TLC (9 p.m. ET) Honestly, this two-hour special reveals the truth about why we lie so much.

Tuesday, Nov. 27 JOURNEY WOMEN OFF THE MAP WE (8 p.m. ET) Jamaica's the destination in the second-season debut of this show about adventurers traveling solo.

Wednesday, Nov. 28 CHRISTMAS IN ROCKEFELLER CENTER NBC (8 p.m. ET) Live from New York City, the big tree is lighted and Jessica Simpson and Destiny's Child perform.

Thursday, Nov. 29 TIMES SQUARE History Channel (10 p.m. ET) Modern Marvels takes a look at the crowded, pulsing heart of Manhattan.

Friday, Nov. 30 FROSTY THE SNOWMAN CBS (8 p.m. ET) Is it winter yet? Jimmy Durante narrates the animated perennial, followed at 8:30 by Frosty Returns.

Saturday, Dec. 1 MUSIC TO LIVE FOR MTV (8:30 p.m. ET) Bono and 'N Sync lend their voices to this World AIDS Day special.