NBC (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET)

Way back when, a triple threat was a football player who could run, pass and kick. In the performing arts, you might expect it to mean someone who can sing, dance and act or maybe play an instrument. You know, something to do with skills.

In the early episodes of this talent contest, the term was used incessantly by 'N Sync's Joey Fatone, the host, and Debbie Allen, the series' producer-choreographer-cheerleader. To win this thing you've got to sing, or at least rap. Dancing's a must. But Threat No. 3 is fuzzily defined. It can be presentation, star quality or a bigger-than-life personality. How can the competitors prove they have this X factor? By exuding energy and smiling till their faces hurt. This can be wearying to watch, particularly when the contestants strut their stuff—and I do mean strut—in group dance numbers.

As on American Idol, an expert panel evaluates the individual performances, though the voting public began determining the eliminations once the eager field was winnowed to 12. The showbiz sages—record exec Johnny Wright, singer and famous weight loser Carnie Wilson and L.A. disc jockey Jojo Wright—avoid Simon Cowellish negativity, maybe because Allen hugs the contestants protectively and often rebuts criticism in a mother-hen tone. I feel genuinely triple-threatened by diminutive dynamo Harlemm Lee, and he'd be worthy of the top-prize package (record deal, management contract, etc.). But Allen hyperbolizes in calling him "the ambassador for the whole human race."

BOTTOM LINE: Standard star-search hoopla

TNT (Sun.-Mon., June 29-30, 8 p.m. ET)

History's big names are becoming Jeremy Sisto's specialty. The 28-year-old actor ably played Jesus Christ in a CBS miniseries in 2000. Here he portrays the dictator of ancient Rome in a two-part, four-hour epic that's impressive but not totally satisfying.

The forceful Sisto is effective when Julius Caesar is a young man on his way up, defying the despotic Sulla (the late Richard Harris in a brief but colorful performance) or turning the funeral of his first wife into a political rally. The star is less convincing as his character ages. (Caesar was in his 50s when he was assassinated.) It doesn't help that the script fails to elucidate the conflict between the leader's principles and his lust for power.

Chris Noth gives strength and a sense of irony to the role of Pompey, Caesar's friend-cum-rival. But Christopher Walken orates listlessly as the conservative senator Cato.

BOTTOM LINE: Uneven but worth the time

A & E (Sun., June 29, 8p.m. ET)
Critic's Choice

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"Human nature is not fixed," 89-year-old Edith Hahn Beer says at the end of this fascinating documentary, based on her 1999 book about how she survived the Holocaust. Experience has taught her that people can't be divided neatly into evildoers and decent folk.

Hahn Beer, a Jewish native of Vienna, was aided by a Nazi party member and an SS officer after Hitler's forces took over Austria. Masquerading as a gentile, she fled to Germany and eventually married a Nazi who knew her true identity. Was he an anti-Semite nonetheless? Did she love him anyway? Was there something shameful about the way she stayed alive? Producer-director Liz Garbus's film, narrated by Susan Sarandon, asks these questions with compassion, always allowing for human complexity.

BOTTOM LINE: Extraordinary personal history

Showtime (Fridays, 10 p.m. ET)

Showtime makes a play for the Six Feet Under audience with this insistently irreverent new comedy-drama about death and what's beyond.

A sullen college dropout named George Lass (Ellen Muth) is killed in the June 27 premiere when a toilet seat plummets from a spacecraft and strikes her on a city sidewalk. George soon learns that she has been drafted by some higher power—the script is evasive on the subject of God—to join Rube (Mandy Patinkin) and his team of "reapers," undead beings assigned to collect the souls of those whose lives have just ended.

The bizarre causes of death on the show—woman gets hit by falling piano, guy accidentally drills hole in his head—are indicative of its self-conscious quirkiness. But George makes a touching effort to communicate with her harsh mother (Cynthia Stevenson), and the rookie reaper has some funny moments as an office assistant at a temp agency. That's right: These undead have day jobs.

BOTTOM LINE: Some signs of life

HBO (check listings)

I'm liking this documentary series more in its second season, and a new wrinkle is the reason. Instead of picking one wide-eyed novice and letting him direct his own screenplay, the producers (including Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) held separate contests for writer and director and matched up the winners. Now we get to watch the oddball directing team of Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin work with earnest writer Erica Beeney on The Battle of Shaker Heights. The personality dynamics are fun to watch even if the film (due out in August) turns out not to be.

BOTTOM LINE: Give it a go

Sunday, June 29 SEX AND THE CITY HBO (9 p.m. ET) Sex is precisely the problem between Carrie and her new boyfriend.

Monday, June 30 PRIMETIME ABC (10 p.m. ET) Diane Sawyer looks at four diverse couples on their way to the altar.

Tuesday, July 1 DOG EAT DOG NBC (8 p.m. ET) Contestants walk across a narrow beam suspended high above water--wearing 6" heels.

Wednesday, July 2 BOARDING HOUSE: NORTH SHORE THE WB (8 p.m. ET) Holly surfs against housemate Chelsea.

Thursday, July 3 TOP TEN PATRIOTIC PLACES Travel Channel (8 p.m. ET) The Alamo and Mount Rushmore are on the red, white and blue itinerary.

Friday, July 4 MACY'S FOURTH OF JULY FIREWORKS NBC (9 p.m. ET) Carson Daly and Molly Sims cohost the New York City spectacular.

Saturday, July 5 WIMBLEDON TENNIS LADIES' FINAL NBC (9 a.m. ET) Will Serena Williams repeat as champion?

ORLANDO JONES

The actor and former 7-Up pitchman, 36, hit the late-night circuit in June with the half-hour chatfest The Orlando Jones Show, airing weeknights at 11 p.m. on FX.

ON HIS LATE-NIGHT LEAP: "Believe me, I had some fears when somebody said the words 'talk show.' I felt late night was a guy sitting behind a desk with a cityscape behind him. [The show's music producer] Dallas Austin said, 'Why don't we do what's really happening in your living room every day?' It's me here, and then Gwen Stefani drops by because [Dallas] is producing her, or Denzel [Washington] is here because he's a friend.... That's not uncommon in my house in the course of a week."

ON HOW HE'LL CHANGE THE GENRE: "I watch Leno, Letterman, Conan—all of them have been cool to me. [But] there's a vast number of interviews where it's clear those guys don't have a clue who they're talking to. They talk to 50 Cent because they're told that he's sold a bunch of records. I heard his album months before it came out—that's the world I live in."

  • Contributors:
  • Monica Rizzo.