HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week


Death isn't necessarily the end for characters on this richly textured series about a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles. Still, we just knew Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) would survive that brain operation he underwent in the second-season finale last June. The opening sequence of the third-season premiere (March 2) is a dazzling exploration of the postsurgical possibilities—physical and metaphysical—but in fact creator Alan Ball is only toying with us. It's almost annoying to find Nate alive and well.

That complaint aside, the early episodes of Season 3 abound in Six Feet Under's trademark qualities—complexity, humor and humanity. You'll empathize with Nate's ambivalence as he struggles to accept the limitations of his new life as husband of sweetly controlling Lisa (Lili Taylor) and father of baby Maya. You'll laugh as Nate's mother, Ruth (the extraordinary Frances Conroy), discovers the joys of shoplifting in the company of a brassy new friend (guest star Kathy Bates). Ruth's second son, David (Michael C. Hall), and his lover, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), keep working on their troubled relationship. "I just want it to be worth it," David says from the heart. Isn't that what we all ask of life?

BOTTOM LINE: Good vital signs

CBS (Sun. and Tues., March 2 and 4, 9 p.m. ET)

Wailing and gnashing of teeth are the order of the day in this miniseries about the terror that gripped the Puritan village of Salem, Mass., in the 1690s. But only in Part 2 do the melodramatics have real power.

The film opens with a frenzied scene of young girls screaming and pointing fingers in church. Witch here! Witch there! What the devil's going on? Next, the script jerks us back 10 months and starts establishing the religious and social climate that contributed to this hysteria. As the characters shuffle about in their authentically drab grays and browns, the story bogs down in matters of property, politics and family rivalry. We get the idea that community leader Thomas Putnam (Jay O. Sanders) and the Reverend Samuel Parris (Henry Czerny) have some self-interest in driving the witch-hunt, but we gain too little insight into the mind of the key accuser, Putnam's daughter Annie (Katie Boland).

The second half sharpens when two veteran British actors come to the fore: Alan Bates as William Phips, the colony's skeptical new governor, and Peter Ustinov as his pompous, stone-hearted deputy, William Stoughton. Though confined to gazing heavenward and murmuring pieties in Part 1, Shirley MacLaine eventually gives impressive moral stature to the character of Rebecca Nurse, an alleged witch whose manifest innocence gives even Stoughton pause. On the other hand, you may weary of Putnam's hand-wringing wife, Ann (Kirstie Alley), long before she moves to stop the madness.

BOTTOM LINE: Worthy but terribly trying

ABC (Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET)

ABC says this six-week reality series (scheduled through April 3) had full Pentagon cooperation, and it's obvious why the brass viewed it with favor. Profiles from the Front Line takes a wholly admiring view of U.S. military men and women assigned to the war on terrorism in and around Afghanistan. It's pure propaganda, but it's largely effective.

Though the music is sometimes more dramatic than the visuals, most of Profiles avoids the flash and dash that cheapened last season's CBS military-reality effort, AFP: American Fighter Pilot. We meet several interesting and engaging characters, most notably a Special Forces master sergeant who skillfully plays the diplomat with Afghans whose honesty and allegiance are in doubt. Occasionally the good guys lay it on too thick, as when a likable corporal boasts that the sight of Afghan boys learning baseball must be "a huge, huge slap in the face for the al Qaeda." But then, journalistic detachment isn't the aim here.

BOTTOM LINE: Decent flag-waver

NBC (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET) Game Show Network (check listings)

Do you start every weekday with an old Game Show Network rerun of Let's Make a Deal (9 a.m. ET), staring at the outrageously attired participants as they flip over the fabulousness of the prizes behind Door No. 1, 2 or 3? If so, I urge you to reassess your life, but I can't stop you from watching NBC's prime-time revival of the raucous series, which starts a five-week run March 4.

Monty Hall, who emceed the show in the '60s, '70s and '80s, is an executive producer of the hour-long 2003 version. Because youth must be served, the host's job has been taken over by 31-year-old Billy Bush, an Access Hollywood correspondent and presidential cousin. Though less nimble than Hall in his prime, Bush functions adequately and could grow up to be Pat Sajak one day. Unfortunately Vance DeGeneres's comedy bits aren't worth two cents, and the new Deal seems desperate to be seen as more risqué than the original. One contestant on the premiere dresses as a pimp. How thoroughly modern.

At 7 p.m. on March 4, Game Show Network offers the first airing anywhere of Let's Make a Deal's 1963 pilot, and this historical treasure tops the new version in entertainment value. It's fun to watch Hall test his trading skill on audience members who seem to be dressed for a church service rather than a game show. The wacky costumes came later, but you can sense the hit potential.

BOTTOM LINE: The old one's a better deal

Sunday, March 2 MY BIG FAT GREEK LIFE CBS (8 p.m. ET) Guest star Joey Fatone reprises his movie role as Nia's cousin Angelo.

Monday, March 3 MEET MY FOLKS NBC (9:30 p.m. ET) Three sets of hot twins vie for a Hawaiian getaway with one lucky guy.

Tuesday, March 4 JAMES: BROTHER OF JESUS History Channel (8 p.m. ET) Scholars explore whether Christ had a sibling.

Wednesday, March 5 I'M A CELEBRITY—GET ME OUT OF HERE! ABC (9 p.m. ET) The semifamous survivors reach the finale.

Thursday, March 6 STARS ON ICE A&E (9 p.m. ET) Jamie Salé and David Pelletier are among the Olympians on the bill.

Friday, March 7 MISTER STERLING NBC (8 p.m. ET) Portia de Rossi does a guest shot as an actress pushing a cause.

Saturday, March 8 GERHARD REINKE'S WANDERLUST Comedy Central (8 p.m. ET) It's the debut of a tongue-in-cheek travel series.

Twelve amateur country music hopefuls sing their hearts out before a panel of three judges, who along with TV voters will slowly whittle the field down to one. The prize: a recording contract. Sound a little like American Idol? Yep, but there's one discordant note missing from Nashville Star, a USA Network series premiering March 8. "Thankfully we can say we don't have a Simon," says creative consultant Clint Black. The judges, who include singer Charlie Robison, are all "really nice," he says. "Nobody has to get nasty. It's cruel enough to say, 'Hey, I just don't think you have it.' "

Fortunately, Black did. "I got a record deal [with RCA in 1987], then kept singing in nightclubs for two more years before the record came out," recalls the crooner, whose debut album, Killin' Time, went triple-platinum. "The big ol' wheels just grind so slowly. For this winner, it's going to be immediate."

Black, in fact, will help produce the winner's album, to be released a few weeks after the show's May 3 finale. Until then, he'll impart his advice to all the contenders in visits to the six-bedroom Nashville house they're sharing. "You see people on TV being nasty with each other when the tension gets high. I'd like to be able to keep that to a minimum," he says. "You need to come through this with a good image."

At 41, Black is pretty image conscious himself. Currently recording a new album at his home studio in the colonial-style Nashville house he shares with his wife, actress-singer Lisa Hartman Black, 46, and 21-month-old daughter Lily, he stays in shape through a regimen of running and racquetball. "Naturally, if I'm standing onstage, I want to feel like I look like myself," says Black, "not me plus whatever I've eaten—or overeaten." Jennifer Wren