FOX (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET, Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET)

This singing competition, shaping up to be the summer's guiltiest pleasure, wants to pretend that its heart is in the right place. The winner, determined by a call-in vote and announced Sept. 4 in the august presence of a triumvirate of celebrity judges, is awarded a recording contract. Yippee.

But as with all reality shows, the pleasure for viewers is the cruel one of rubbernecking a disaster. You watch with a flesh-creeping mix of awe, shame and delight as judge Simon Cowell, a British record executive and one of the show's creators, insults contestants with such unremitting bluntness it might be kinder just to take the poor kids out back and shoot them. ("They are losers," he said of two finalists, "and they do not deserve to be in this competition.") Sitting next to Cowell, fellow judge Paula Abdul smiles tensely and in general gives the impression that she has landed in hell. From time to time a bitter also-ran named Tamika, one of thousands of wannabes who bombed in initial auditions, pops up as a commentator and pretty much trashes everyone.

The hosts, Brian Dunkleman and Ryan Seacrest, two hey-dude types who act as if running a talent contest took no more concentration than waxing a car, try to buck up the demoralized singers. But frankly, Tamika is on the money. Most contestants belt out pop ballads in standard TRL style: buttery, fluttery and without a breath of spontaneity. No wonder, considering the poisonous atmosphere. The show is Star Search conducted on a death star.

Bottom Line: An Idol mind is the devil's workshop

Nick Jr. (Weekdays, 10:30 a.m. ET)
Show of the week

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Oswald, an adorable cartoon about an octopus as round and blue as a marble, is aimed at the same preschoolers (and adults) who were transfixed by the giggly Zen tranquility of the Teletubbies. Oswald, whose idea of excitement is breakfasting with a penguin, is a boulevardier: Hat cocked precariously on his head, he saunters out into the sunny city. On a July 22 special (8 p.m. ET) he travels all the way to the stars in a balloon, but usually he seems to reach the park, and that's it. If I were recuperating from a breakdown and had to choose between Oswald and an expensive sanitarium, I'd go with the cartoon and feel better in no time, especially if Oswald sang one of those songs—sweet melodic wisps—composed by Evan Lurie.

Bottom Line: The nice Ozzy

Showtime (Sunday, July 21, 8 p.m. ET)

Twenty-four years before her death in 1999, Judith Campbell Exner made a splash in the headlines with her claim that she'd been the mistress of both John F. Kennedy and mobster Sam Giancana in the early 1960s. Well, she could have slept with Robert Kennedy, all the Gambinos and Marilyn Monroe to boot, and this TV bio wouldn't be any juicier for it. Power, which depicts Exner as a nice girl exploited by the king of Camelot and the kingpin of crime, irons every kinky wrinkle flat. Its star, statuesque but stiff Natasha Henstridge, doesn't offer a hint of Exner's mysterious inner life. As JFK, Kevin Anderson talks in a wabbity Boston accent.

Bottom Line: Power tripped

USA Network (Fridays, 10 p.m. ET)

Tony Shalhoub, the unpredictable character actor who last year did a dynamic turn as a flashy, in-your-face lawyer in the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, does an about-face to play a recessive, insecure detective. Monk is a San Francisco investigator sidelined from the police force by the obsessive-compulsive disorder he developed after the violent death of his wife. Called in to consult at a murder scene, Monk seems to pull overlooked clues from thin air even as his illness yanks him physically off course. (Later, running from a hit man's car, he zips from one side of the street to the other, compulsively touching parking meters.) This is probably not a clinically accurate portrayal of an OCD sufferer, but Shalhoub's gentle earnestness keeps it from being gimmicky.

Bottom Line: Monk shines

Sunday, July 21 SEX AND THE CITY HBO (9 p.m. ET) Premiere of season No. 5 of the hit series starring the currently pregnant Sarah Jessica Parker.

Monday, July 22 MEET MY FOLKS NBC (10 p.m. ET) New reality series sends three bachelors a-callin' on the parents of a prospective date.

Tuesday, July 23 CHRIS FARLEY: RECKLESS LAUGHTER A&E (8 p.m. ET) Biography profile of the tragic, larger-than-life Saturday Night Live comic.

Wednesday, July 24 WORLD'S BEST LOST TREASURES Travel Channel (10 p.m. ET) Adventurers hot on the trail of loot from a shipwreck.

Thursday, July 25 TRUE LIFE: I'M BIPOLAR MTV (10 p.m. ET) Investigative series follows young people coping with bipolar disorders.

Friday, July 26 GOTTA KICK IT UP Disney Channel (8 p.m. ET) Original movie about Latina junior-high girls who find their groove as a dance team.

Saturday, July 27 THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS Starz! (8 p.m. ET) Hit summer flick from 2001, with Vin Diesel putting his pedal to the metal.

Playing a fast-talking assistant district attorney in the new Lifetime series For the People hasn't been easy for Lea Thompson. "Earlier today I had to say 'inexplicably,' " says the former Caroline in the City star. "It's hard for me, and I'm not even a natural blonde."

What come more effortlessly to the natural brunette are the theatrics of the courtroom. "As a female D.A. you have to wear a skirt, because you don't want the jury to think you're too tough," says the 41-year-old actress, who "luckily hadn't had too much hands-on experience with lawyers" and spent last spring trolling Los Angeles courtrooms as research for the part. "It's all about convincing and seducing the jury."

Thompson herself didn't need to be wooed back to showbiz following a break in 2001. After performing on Broadway in Cabaret in 2000, "I spent a year with my family and loved it," says Thompson, who lives in L.A. with her husband, director Howard Deutch, 51, and kids Madeline, 11, and Zoey, 7. "Then I started to get a bit nutty." Returning to the TV grind (the series premieres July 21) doesn't scare her. "I approach it the way I approached getting married," she says. "One day at a time. If you think about forever, it's too difficult." Champ Clark