DRAMA

FOX (Sun. and Mon., Jan. 9 and 10, 8 p.m. ET)

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"This country continues to owe you a great debt of gratitude," President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) told terrorist-battling Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in the third season finale of this still-suspenseful series. That was then.

As the new season begins, the stalwart but scandal-plagued Palmer is out of office and his political foe John Keeler (Geoff Pierson) occupies the White House. Jack, having been dismissed by icy new Counter Terrorist Unit boss Erin Driscoll (Alberta Watson), now works for Secretary of Defense James Heller (William Devane) and secretly romances Heller's daughter Audrey (Kim Raver, from Third Watch). Jack insists he's content to be wearing a suit and leading a less dangerous life, but only a fool would buy that. By the second episode—four air over two nights—a bold terrorist move forces Driscoll to reinstate the notoriously independent Jack on a temporary basis. "You will not make any unilateral decisions," she commands. Oh, sure. He reads her loud and clear.

You may well have misgivings about yet another season for this show, particularly with Haysbert out of the picture. It's almost a joke how often Jack has crammed a lifetime of derring-do into a 24-hour period. But the plot, which involves the abduction of a high government official, will absorb viewers once again. Devane (Knots Landing) is an old pro at playing men of power, though he strains credulity when he displays Rambo tendencies. And Watson's formidable character presides over a hotbed of bureaucratic intrigue that features a couple of interesting new CTU staffers: manipulative Marianne Taylor (Aisha Tyler, from Friends) and nebbishy Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi, an FBI agent on The Sopranos).

Jack doesn't hesitate to step far outside the law to accomplish his mission, and the writers will stop at nothing to keep the audience hooked. For 24 fans, the ends justify the means.

DRAMA

Lifetime (Mon., Jan. 10, 9 p.m. ET)

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She coped courageously with a rare brain disorder and high-risk surgery, then had to face the death of a daughter in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. A dyed-in-the-wool cynic might say that the true story of Dawn Anna has "Lifetime movie" written all over it. This film, however, is tasteful, moving and tearful only when it has a perfect right to be.

Debra Winger, under the direction of husband Arliss Howard, gives a deeply felt but well-modulated performance as a divorced math teacher and volleyball coach raising four children on her own while dealing with a health crisis that saps the strength her kids have always depended on. Several supporting players also distinguish themselves, including Alex Van as the persistent new man in Dawn's life, Greg Lawson as the doctor who has to keep giving her bad news, and an uncredited Howard as her wryly supportive physical therapist. You'll care about Dawn and grieve with her when the shock of Columbine hits.

DRAMA

CBS (Saturdays, 8 p.m. ET)

    



Throughout this series' 90-minute premiere (airing Jan. 8), I waited for the wink, some sign that it could be a Joe Schmo-style put-on. But no, it's just really bad.

Land developer Bill Long holds a contest to decide which of 10 would-be beneficiaries will inherit his vast Kansas ranch. This might be watchable if Long were a colorful Big Daddy type. Instead he's a mush-mouthed septuagenarian with even less charisma than plastic host Tony Noakes. The requisite villain is Long's fourth wife, Penny, self-described as "extremely competitive and vindictive." She and the other potential heirs undergo such grueling challenges as keeping one hand on a safe while clutching a piggy bank with the other. The show ain't worth a plugged nickel.

DRAMA

Bravo (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

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Bravo publicity insists this new series is "no mere carbon copy" of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Okay, we'll call it a reasonable facsimile.

Rather than the all-male Fab Five, this show's makeover specialists are the four Gal Pals, comprising gay men Robbie Laughlin, Danny Teeson and Damon Pease and lesbian style expert Honey Labrador. And each week it's a hetero gal who'll receive an upgrade in wardrobe, living quarters, etc. But the presentation is almost identical to that of Straight Guy: At the start of the Jan. 12 premiere, subject Nicole dresses down to the extreme, and her domicile looks as if a pack of wild animals just passed through. As Nicole's transformation progresses in the runup to her 30th-birthday party, she often says, "Oh my God!" In a positive way, of course.

Laughlin appears ticketed for the chief quipster's role, though he lacks the waspish wit of Straight Guy's Carson Kressley. Labrador is buff and sexy, and Teeson has a New Age slant that suggests he's about inner peace as well as party planning. The cast is adequate, but the show comes off as a calculated Queer Eye brand extension.

REALITY

PBS (Wed., Jan. 12, 8 p.m. ET)

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A concert version of Leonard Bernstein's 1956 operetta based on the 18th-century satire by Voltaire—does that sound a little highbrow for your taste? Not to worry. This Great Performances offering, taped last spring at New York City's Lincoln Center, puts an emphasis on rowdy, often bawdy comedy.

Opera star Paul Groves brings goofy innocence and a great tenor to the title role of a naïf who bounces around the world on a series of misadventures. Kristin Chenoweth, from The West Wing and Broadway's Wicked, shines as Cunégonde, his wayward true love. Patti LuPone adds lots of attitude as a vampy old lady with only one buttock. And you know it's an "anything goes" kind of show when a Donald Trump lookalike snarls, "You're fired!" during the Spanish Inquisition.

MUSICAL

People's Choice Awards (CBS, Jan. 9, 9 p.m. ET) Okay, Listen Up. Sitcom costars Jason Alexander and Malcolm-Jamal Warner host, with presenters including Ellen DeGeneres and Jessica Simpson.

The Surreal Life (VHl, Jan. 9, 9 p.m. ET) The Brady Bunch's Christopher Knight and Verne Troyer (Austin Powers' Mini-Me) are among the minimally famous housemates for the fourth season.

Boston Legal (ABC, Jan. 9, 10 p.m. ET) Candice Bergen joins the cast as strong-willed founding partner Shirley Schmidt.

The Bachelorette (ABC, Jan. 10, 9 p.m. ET) She landed Andrew Firestone on The Bachelor, but that love cooled. Now Jen Schefft does the choosing on the mating show's two-hour season premiere.

The Biggest Loser (NBC, Jan. 11, 8 p.m. ET) Goodbye, girth. The svelte winner is revealed in a live portion of the 90-minute season finale.

SOUNDS OFF Craig Ferguson

Best known as the snobby boss on The Drew Carey Show, Scottish comic Craig Ferguson, 42, took over as host of CBS's The Late Late Show on Jan. 3.

ON THE LATE LATE SHOW I hope people expect a good laugh. We're working on a section called "Bob Saget gets hit in the [groin]," because of all the videos shown over the years of people getting hit in the [groin] on America's Funniest Home Videos. There's something satisfying about that

ON GETTING THE GIG I got the news in Vancouver. As I was driving back [to L.A.] that night, there was a blizzard in Oregon and the freeway was closed. There was no room at the inn. The last place I tried was the Seven Feathers Hotel & Casino, and they weren't impressed that I was the new boy on late night, so I slept in the parking lot. I like the idea that God made me sleep in my car the night I got a big job.

ON HIS FAMILY'S RESPONSE It's hard to tell with Scottish people. They don't say, "Wow, that's fantastic." They say, "Well, that's good. You'll be able to afford a new car maybe."

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Kelleher,
  • Laura J. Downey.