ESPN (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

Does ESPN love pro football? It depends on the night of the week. Again this fall the sports network will air NFL games on Sundays, and the announcers will enthuse about the toughness, the intensity, the will to win. But starting Tuesday, Aug. 26, ESPN presents a drama series—the network's first—that starkly depicts pro football as brutal, dishonest and drug-infested. Oliver Stone's film Any Given Sunday took a similarly jaundiced view of the football business, then expected the audience to be swept away by the excitement of on-the-field action. The first two episodes of Playmakers, on the other hand, build sympathy for a few of the athletes but give viewers no reason to root for the fictional Cougars as a team. To me that's commendably unconventional; to Sunday-night fans it may be a turnoff.

The show benefits from a strong cast, led by Russell Hornsby (Haunted) as Leon, a veteran running back straining to come back from a knee injury; Omar Gooding (Baby Boy) as Demetrius, the cocky outlaw who took Leon's starting job but can't beat the urge to get high; and Jason Matthew Smith as Eric, a linebacker haunted by a hit that left an opponent paralyzed (we see it over and over in flashback). The Cougars are so laden with woe that the drama often seems like soap opera in shoulder pads, and the principals have too many confessional voice-overs in which they speak of themselves in the second person. But Playmakers has enough grit and talent to hold interest in its rookie season. BOTTOM LINE: Moves the ball despite mistakes.

ABC (Fri., Aug. 29, 9 p.m. ET)

Here's the pitch: an all-new animated special based on the late Charles Schulz's beloved Peanuts comic strip. That's reason to cheer a little even if Lucy Must Be Traded proves to be something less than a home run.

The baseball humor is pretty good here. When Snoopy, the most-and-only valuable player on Charlie Brown's pathetic team, comes to bat against Peppermint Patty, she decks him with a high, inside fastball. Whew, that girl's a competitor. It's also amusing to observe Charlie Brown's pale approximation of wheeling and dealing as he tries to unload inept outfielder Lucy. But the half hour has such a weak ending that it can't be called a real winner. BOTTOM LINE: A few hits and an error.

ABC (Thurs., Aug. 28, 10 p.m. ET)

Critic's Choice


Peter Jennings Reporting

Placing Martin Luther King Jr.'s eloquence in the context of civil rights history, this documentary marks the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington by recapturing the drama of an event that brought the quest for racial justice to the forefront of America's consciousness. Narrator Peter Jennings examines the "I Have a Dream" speech in detail, showing how a carefully crafted address turned into a "Baptist sermon" as King drew inspiration from the crowd. And movement veterans such as Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte contribute vivid memories. BOTTOM LINE: Join the march.

Sunday, Aug. 24 THE RESTAURANT NBC (10 p.m. ET) Hot stuff: Rocco hires a sexy blonde waitress in the series finale.

Monday, Aug. 25 TRIVIA UNWRAPPED Food Network (10 p.m. ET) It's the debut of a game show that tests players' knowledge of food-related pop culture.

Tuesday, Aug. 26 PERFORMING AS... FOX (8 p.m. ET) A new series lets regular folks sing in the guise of their favorite music stars.

Wednesday, Aug. 27 BIG BROTHER 4 CBS (9 p.m. ET) An eviction notice cuts the housemate roster down to five.

Thursday, Aug. 28 VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS MTV (8 p.m. ET) Chris Rock hosts and Missy Elliott tops the nomination list.

Friday, Aug. 29 COWBOY U CMT (9 p.m. ET) Ooh, nice boots! Six city slickers try to become cowpokes in this two-hour reality special.

Saturday, Aug. 30 RACE TO THE ALTAR NBC (9 p.m. ET) Only four couples left in the game, and Cindy feels guilty about sharing a bed with fiance Chris.