FOX (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. ET)

If it's a question of which is the more talented actor—Hank Azaria or Conan O'Brien's ex-sidekick Andy Richter—I definitely go with Azaria. But for Best Walter Mittyesque Sitcom of 2002, Richter's new vehicle (starting a planned 10-episode run March 19) has it all over Azaria's Imagine That, an NBC entry that came and went in January.

Like Azaria, Richter plays a writer with an active fantasy life. What I like about this show, though, is that the main character turns out technical manuals for a soulless conglomerate (maker of "everything from night-lights to nuclear missiles") rather than sketches for a TV comedy series. Andy aspires to write fiction but basically he's an ordinary guy—a role right for Richter—and the humor springs largely from the contrast between his fertile imagination and his dull, dry job. The writers evince an awareness of small corporate absurdities, such as sandwich theft from the employee refrigerator, and the funny business benefits from the work of James Patrick Stuart as a good-looking gold-brick, Jonathan Slavin as Andy's weird office mate and Paget Brewster as his semi-sympathetic supervisor.

The second episode delivers top-drawer black comedy when an employee dies on the job and his colleagues—sorrowful or not—are ordered to undergo grief counseling. Unfortunately, the April 2 episode wanders over the bad-taste line when Andy finds himself unable to break off an affair with a sexy anti-Semite.

Bottom Line: Andy proves handy

PBS (Mon., March 25, 9 p.m. ET)
Show of the week

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James Agee's autobiographical novel A Death in the Family (published in 1957, two years after his death) tells a simple story with deep feeling but no cheap sentiment, and this Masterpiece Theatre version is movingly faithful to its spirit.

It's 1915 in Knoxville, Tenn. Mary (Annabeth Gish), the mother of 7-year-old Rufus (Austin Wolff), waits to hear whether her husband, Jay (John Slattery), survived a car crash. When the bad news comes it must be dealt with, even if Mary's Catholicism fails to provide the comfort she had a right to expect. "We go on," says Aunt Hannah (Kathleen Chalfant). It's as elementary—and profound—as that.

The standout in a fine cast is James Cromwell as Mary's father, a man of hard sense who bridles at the word "faith." Though Slattery pales a bit in comparison with Robert Preston in the 1963 film adaptation All the Way Home, we mourn the loss of his character as we should.

Bottom Line: Wise and touching drama

FX (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

Scratch the gritty surface of this new police drama and you'll find it's not a totally revolutionary contribution to the genre. It could be Homicide: Life on the Street transplanted from Baltimore to Los Angeles, and in fact the March 12 premiere and two more of the initial 13 episodes were directed by ex-Homicide actor Clark Johnson. But one thing sets The Shield apart: The most important character, brutally effective strike-team leader Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), is a detective so corrupt that he coldly murdered a fellow officer (Reed Diamond, another Homicide alum) who might have blown the whistle on his unit's illegal activities.

Far from his friendly top cop on The Commish and his house-husband turn on the sitcom Daddio, Chiklis plays this role to the hilt, lavishly displaying Vic's arrogance while letting us catch an occasional glimmer of his conscience. CCH Pounder also makes a strong impression as Claudette Wyms, a tough-minded detective who plays it straight but stays out of Vic's way.

Bottom Line: Arresting performances

Bottom Line: Not a hot time in any zone

BBC America (Sun., March 24, 10 p.m. ET)

In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman says "attention must be paid" to her broken-down husband, Willy. Try this British TV movie from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and you'll have no choice about paying attention to manic vacuum-cleaner salesman Tommy Rag (Timothy Spall from Topsy-Turvy and Vanilla Sky). The blighter's always yelling in your face.

Shot on digital video at all sorts of cockeyed angles—Tommy has his pedal to the metal and a camera in his glove compartment—Vacuuming will leave some viewers so overstimulated they'll be up half the night. Spall's expletive-filled performance is like his character's sales pitch—relentless and irresistible. Michael Begley makes the perfect foil as Pete, the wide-eyed trainee Tommy mentors so menacingly. Pete's true desire is to be a nightclub deejay, and I must confess my failure to grasp the metaphorical significance of his dance-music mix at the climactic company party. But see this one for its energy—and a strong dose of Spall.

Bottom Line: Plug it in

Sunday, March 24 ACADEMY AWARDS ABC (8:30 p.m. ET) Whoopi Goldberg emcees filmdom's big night from the new Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

Monday, March 25 ULTIMATE GUIDE: ICEMAN Discovery Channel (9 p.m. ET) It's a Stone Age CSI as researchers examine a mummy murdered 5,300 years ago.

Tuesday, March 26 THE COURT ABC (10 p.m. ET) Sally Field dons the black robe for the debut of this Supreme Court drama.

Wednesday, March 27 MISUNDERSTOOD MINDS PBS (9 p.m. ET) A 90-minute special studies the struggles and successes of five children with learning difficulties.

Thursday, March 28 FRIENDS NBC (8 p.m. ET) Alec Baldwin guest-stars as Phoebe's new boyfriend, a real gusher of a guy.

Friday, March 29 PREMATURE BURIAL TLC (1O p.m. ET) Hold those last rites. Get the medical lowdown on why some poor souls have been mistaken for dead.

Saturday, March 30 LIVE BY REQUEST STARRING CLINT BLACK A&E (9 p.m. ET) The country crooner ain't killin' time; he's singin' what fans want to hear.

Judith Light tried life in the fast lane and regretted every minute of it. "I got a speeding ticket once," says the actress, best known for playing single mom Angela Bower on the 1984-92 sitcom Who's the Boss? "I was intimidated. I went to traffic school to get it taken off my record, and I never got another ticket again."

That straight-arrow attitude will come in handy now that Light, 53, is back on the right side of the law playing executive assistant district attorney Elizabeth Donnelly on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. "She's really the head of the prosecuting team and she's very tough," says the actress. "The stories are very gritty."

Light has shown some grit of her own in recent years. She returned to the theater in 1999 following a 22-year absence and shaved her head to play cancer patient Dr. Vivian Bearing in an Off-Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit. "It grew back a little bit thicker," says the actress, who lives in Manhattan with her husband of 17 years, actor Robert Desiderio, 50. "My husband was very glad."

In April, Light will show off even more pluck, when she and Desiderio travel to South Africa for a 75-mile wilderness hike to raise money for South African AIDS charities. Growing up, "my idea of camping was the 20-ft. extension cord," she says. "So I'm a little nervous." She does, however, know what to pack. "When you don't have showers for a week," she says, "deodorant is a must!"

  • Contributors:
  • Amy Bonawitz.