DRAMA

ABC (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

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You'd figure a flashy spy show would be all about the action, but what's least interesting in Alias is the weekly quota of derring-do. In fact, I wish the characters would take a break from battling terrorists and other villains and concentrate on personal issues.

Alias creator J.J. Abrams is also the man behind Lost, and ABC now has the shows airing back to back. It should be a surefire combination, but I found it hard to get excited last month when Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) started the fourth season by pretending to quit the CIA and quickly slipping into the agency's new black ops unit, APO. Her boss is none other than Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), ex-head of the sinister SD-6, whom Sydney calls "a criminal psychopath beyond verbal description." Since words fail Sydney, let's just say she has reason to detest Sloane, who happens to be the father of her half sister and APO teammate Nadia Santos (Mia Maestro). Sydney also resents her own dad, old CIA hand Jack (Victor Garber), for killing her mother and telling lies. At least she's finding love again with colleague Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), who feels bad about gunning down the double agent he married back when Sydney was presumed dead.

Everybody here has a festering grudge or a haunting memory, and you wish they could simply sit down someplace and talk things over. (Rifkin, a terrific actor, is especially worth listening to because his every word suggests a hidden agenda.) But custom dictates that each episode send the spies off on some new mission improbable that allows Garner to play the sexy, butt-kicking chameleon. APO's next assignment should be group therapy.

DRAMA

HBO (Sat., Feb. 12, 8 p.m. ET)

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This TV movie fairly teems with life. Hard to believe it's based on a play with a cast of one.

Actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson wrote and performed the original Off-Broadway show, a valentine to the surrogate mother who raised him in the rooming house she ran in Lackawanna, N.Y., outside Buffalo. Santiago-Hudson played some 20 parts onstage, but here director George C. Wolfe fleshes out his work with an extraordinary ensemble (including the writer as one of the boarders).

Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson memorably embodies the strength and compassion of the central character, Nanny, and Marcus Carl Franklin plays young Ruben with a sweetness and intelligence that mark him as special. Delroy Lindo and Jeffrey Wright contribute vivid portrayals of boarders with violent histories, and Terrence Howard skillfully conveys the emotional contradictions of Nanny's philandering husband. There's lots of music too. A Lackawanna nightclub's jumpin' when Mos Def sings "Destination Love."

DRAMA

FOX (Sun., Feb. 6; following the Super Bowl)

Simpsons:

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Dad:

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After the Super Bowl, FOX offers an hour of cartoon comedy that features an accomplished veteran and a raw rookie.

The Simpsons, a winner for over 15 years, starts the postgame action at approximately 10 p.m. ET with a hilarious episode that scores satirical points left and right. Suddenly famous for doing a dorky victory dance at a carnival, Homer is hired to choreograph self-congratulatory demonstrations for football stars Warren Sapp and Tom Brady, basketball's Yao Ming and LeBron James, and skater Michelle Kwan (all guest voices). But when the NFL hires him to put his creative stamp on the Super Bowl halftime show, Homer makes the mistake of collaborating with fundamentalist neighbor Ned Flanders, and the result is grandiosity of biblical proportions.

Next up—and suffering by comparison—is what FOX calls a "sneak preview" of American Dad, the strained new show from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Dad doesn't go weekly till May 1—a lucky thing because this baby needs work. Stan, a gung ho CIA agent, heads a wacky household including a wife, two children, a space alien with a sweet tooth and a randy goldfish with a German accent. The pilot aspires to outrageousness, but the humor needs to get a whole lot smarter.

COMEDY

Showtime (Sat., Feb. 12, 8 p.m. ET)

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You should know going in that director Spike Lee made this gritty drama as a movie-length pilot for a Showtime series that went undeveloped. If you're not too let down by the inconclusive ending, you'll appreciate the potential of the material.

Sucker Free City follows three young men on the criminal path in San Francisco. K-Luv (Anthony Mackie), a ranking member of the black V-Dub gang, prefers to take profits without drawing blood but is willing to kill to solve a pressing problem. Lincoln (Ken Leung) pockets some of the protection money he collects for a Chinatown crime boss and secretly fools around with the big man's hot, haughty daughter. Nick (Ben Crowley), a white office worker who dabbles in drug sales and credit-card fraud, lends his computer skill to K-Luv's bootleg-CD venture.

Lee and writer Alex Tse tell the story with an eye for irony—particularly in their caricature of Nick's fuzzy-thinking liberal dad (John Savage)—but when violence erupts, there's no mistaking the film's dead-seriousness. Too bad we're left wondering whether K-Luv and Lincoln will collide or coexist.

The View (ABC, Feb. 7, 11 a.m. ET) The daytime chat show starts a week in L.A., with Desperate Housewives stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria and Nicollette Sheridan each playing cohost for a day.

Gilmore Girls (WB, Feb. 8, 8 p.m. ET) Richard and Emily renew their marriage vows in the series' 100th episode.

The O.C. (FOX, Feb. 10, 8 p.m. ET) Sandy showers Kirsten with Valentine's Day gifts, while Seth plots to win back Summer's heart.

That's So Raven (Disney Channel, Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m. ET) Here's a howler: Kathie Lee Gifford guest-stars as the owner of a doggie daycare center, and her daughter Cassidy plays a customer.

BAFTA Awards (BBC America, Feb. 12, 3:10 p.m. ET) Will The Aviator soar in the U.K.? Live from London's West End, it's the Brits' version of our Oscars.

MACGYVER: THE COMLETE FIRST SEASON ($38.99)
Series:

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Wisecracking special agent Angus MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) still impresses with his knack for using 99 Cents Store items to create bomb detonators and prevent acid spills. Despite some antiquated Cold War plotlines, the 22 episodes of this mid-'80s series remain timelessly enjoyable.

Extras? The one case where Mac fails to get the job done: There are no bonus materials.

MI-5: VOLUME 2 ($79.98)
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The BBC series that brought the intelligence back into spy dramas deserves smart packaging. Thankfully, this set carries over the clever surveillance-camera menu screen of the first season's compilation while adding two-plus hours of bonus scenes and commentary both wry and dry. Sure, the stairs to Thames House belong to London's Freemasons' Hall, but who knew Matthew MacFayden (lead spook Tom Quinn) was allergic to cats? Cover blown!

You have a constitutional right not to watch the Patriots-Eagles game Feb. 6 (FOX, 6 p.m. ET). So what else is on besides broadcast network reruns?

Bad Hair Day Court TV, noon It's Sunday at the crime salon. Twelve hours of murder cases featuring hair evidence.

Charmed TNT, 2 p.m. Nine-hour marathon of bewitching repeats.

Super Bowl Food Network, 2:30 p.m. Savannah chef Paula Deen cooks in reruns till 8, then on a new Emeril.

Puppy Bowl Animal Planet, 3 p.m. Aww—cute pooches frolic for three hours. Keeps repeating till 3 a.m.!

Super Sunday of Style HGTV, 8 p.m. When the game gets dull, switch to four hours of home-and-design stuff. It's a good thing.

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Kelleher,
  • Chris Strauss,
  • Cynthia Wang.