CRIME

UPN (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

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For an American kid, the only thing worse than puberty must be class, and not the kind conducted beneath the cheap paneled ceilings of a high school. The tussle of the haves and the have-nots is played out on one show after another aimed at young audiences FOX's The O.C. and Reunion, even ABC Family's recent Beautiful People. But Veronica Mars, an hour-long drama now in its second season and intelligent far beyond its sleuthing heroine's 18 years, is practically the only one where you feel the corollary sting that comes with the arrogance of the rich: The non-rich feel the shame. Veronica, who works part-time in a cafe and is never allowed to forget her pinched social standing—in the first season, her father was forced out of the sheriff's office after he seemed to have bungled a case—has the charm and wiles to attract the superprivileged guys at Neptune High while investigating crimes that inevitably seem pinnable on their families and associates. If she's Cinderella, it's never a far stretch to imagine one of these Prince Charmings coming at her with a gun.

As Veronica, Kristen Bell has a lovely smile, but she doesn't have the radiance or sheen of so many other young actresses. Next to Mischa Barton she'd look bleached out, like driftwood. Which is exactly right for Veronica. She's not hardboiled. Not yet. But you got an egg timer?

Veronica is also a smart derivation of LA noir: It's not Buffy the Vampire Slayer sopped in the sordidness of James Ellroy, but the show has definitely been flavored, consciously or no, by the nasty cultural down-trickle of real-life crimes of pampered West Coasters: the Billionaire Boys Club, the Menendez brothers. Veronica could have cracked those cases even if she'd had cheerleader practice.

COMEDY

WB (Fridays, 8:30 p.m. ET)

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Putting Melanie Griffith into a sitcom is like packing a cute little overnight bag for SpongeBob SquarePants and sending him to South Park. You aren't predicting an extended stay—the sensibilities are just too different. Griffith, as a former model married to a lingerie manufacturer, floats in and out of the company office, smiling with loopy mystery, while just about everyone else is firing off the tiny blowdarts that are the standard of half-hour comedy. Get out of the way, Mel! The show is flat, although Mark Linn-Baker, as the husband, has a precise, exquisite talent for flustered nervousness. As the twins inheriting the business, gorgeous Molly Stanton takes after her spacey mother, and Sara Gilbert has inherited her father's business mind. They should cash in their 401k's.

HORROR

Showtime (Fridays, 10 p.m. ET)

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This 13-part anthology of hour-long stories directed by gore masters like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper starts off well—and repulsive enough to give Leatherface a drool-choked chuckle—with an episode called Incident On and Off a Mountain Road. Directed by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), it's the story of a woman tortured by a sadistic lunatic known as Moonface, who looks like Frankenstein with Michael Stipe's head. What Moonface does to his victims is loathsome and unspeakable. Which means Coscarelli is only too glad to show you. What gives Incident sick dramatic kick is a perverse tension between sexism and feminism (see the lady rig traps using her under-things) and flashbacks showing her previous torments with a survivalist-nut husband. Horror isn't my thing, but this is pretty good.

HORROR

CBS (Oct. 30, 9 p.m. ET)

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Lucy Lawless and Dylan Neal, who starred in a CBS nature-disaster movie called Locusts in April, return for a horror thriller about bats that display an unusually lusty appetite for blood. The creatures wing down at night to suck on their victims—students, fishermen, the random deer—and leave them as dry as a Transylvanian support meeting of reformed vampires. It's silly, although at least there's a criminal twist as Lawless, playing a science professor, hunts the bats. The preview tape I saw was lacking some digital special effects, but it did include close-ups of the bats feasting on blood. They appear to be puppets with doughy-fuzzy heads. They look like day-old fruit muffins with fangs.

Comedy Central (Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 p.m. ET)

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His last name is pronounced "col-BEAR," and so host Stephen Colbert, a comedian with a superb sense of subversive illogic, insists that the "report" in the title also end with a silent "t." It's The Colbear Repore, and it's something of a spinoff from The Daily Show, on which Colbert was consistently one of the funniest correspondents. A send-up of conservative FOX News programming, the series so far seems to be a loosely conceived experimental vehicle (more like a bumper car) that gives the former Daily Show correspondent the chance to try out a new persona; a dumb, chest-thumping anchorman who calls Bill O'Reilly "Papa Bear" and says things like "Ever walk into a room and everyone stops talking? That's how it feels to be America."

I wish it were easier to put a fix on what makes Colbert so good. Here we have a pleasant if unremarkable-looking man—actually, he's something like a lean, gentlemanly penguin—who specializes in weird discursions into deadpan fatuousness. Note how in the opening credits he pulls off his glasses to look "authoritative." All he looks like is a complete imbecile. Scrutinizing foreign press coverage of the US of A, he holds up an inscrutable cartoon from a Middle Eastern newspaper and concludes, "It's calling for a fatwah on a regional theater." Best repeat gag: When it's time to introduce the day's guest, he gets up from his own desk and trots over to a separate nook on the set—allowing him to get the studio audience's cheers of welcome.

Whether Colbert can sustain this schtick night after night, four days a week, remains to be seen. Unlike Daily anchorman Jon Stewart, he's not only ridiculing the headlines but mocking himself. This is closer to acting than comedy, and it may be tougher. But Stephen Colbert is a great American and deserves our support. And suppore.

But Can They Sing? (VH1, Oct. 30, 10 p.m. ET) Start of a six-week competition to determine whether the likes of Kim Alexis, Morgan Fairchild and Larry Holmes have got the pipes.

Medium (NBC, Oct. 31, 8 p.m. ET) Three back-to-back episodes of sweet, baffled Patricia Arquette crime-busting with an assist from the dead.

Inside the Actors Studio (Bravo, Oct. 30, 8 p.m. ET) Brave, funny Michael J. Fox appears on this, the 11th season of interviews by that man with the index cards.

George Carlin: Life Is Worth Losing (HBO, Nov. 5, 10 p.m. ET) A live performance by the grizzled rebel comic.

Grey's Anatomy (ABC, Oct. 30, 10 p.m. ET] A train wreck brings in some horrible victims, and Sandra Oh runs around trying to find a patient's leg.

Steven R. McQueen The 17-year-old grandson of movie legend Steve McQueen has landed his first regular acting gig as music prodigy Kyle Hunter on The WB's Everwood.

ON PREPPING FOR THE ROLE I don't know how to play the piano, but my friend does, so I'd watch him and kind of copy it a little. Sometimes they cut to my hands and they're someone else's, but most of the time it's me.

ON HAVING A FAMOUS NAME Well, it leans both ways. People are excited to meet with me, and that helps, but then when you get into the meeting or audition, they expect you to be great. So it adds a little bit of pressure. But it makes things more interesting.

ON HIS MOVIE-STAR GRANDPA People my age really don't know Steve McQueen [who died in 1980], but from what I've been told and from the research I've done, I know he was a great actor, a cool guy, very down-to-earth. Sometimes when I watch his movies I'm like, "Whoa, that's cool. I'm related to that guy!"

Supernanny Jo Frost

1 Her look, her presence. I don't mean the tailored suit of Barney-the-dinosaur plum and the hair up in a bun, which is how she's dressed when she arrives at a house in ABC's delightful reality series (now in a second season). I mean Jo with hair down, playful but watchful, keeping kids in line and parents alert to disciplinary failings. Sometimes she looks like a more powerful Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Except she's British, a genuine nanny, and speaks in an accent that sounds like one of those life-tested gals out of Secrets and Lies or some other Mike Leigh movie.

2 Her honest practicality. This isn't Brat Camp, with mystical-psychological healing on a snowy plain. Frost arrives, identifies the problem, establishes a regimen, ducks out to let the family test her lessons on their own, then comes back with additional pointers. She's Mary Poppins with a fresh, healthy dose of what feels like old-fashioned can-do spirit. If Harriet Miers's new handlers made her watch some Frost videotapes, she'd be perfectly able to calm an unruly Senate.

3 The basic Frost trick—bad behavior merits an isolating visit to a designated time-out spot—is foolproof for even nonparents. Try it on spouses, pets, colleagues and unwelcome officers of the law. Thanks, supernanny.

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Brenda Rodriguez.