DRAMA

Showtime (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET)

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In 1999 Ally McBeal got Americans talking by sharing a kiss with a woman and finding the sensation curiously enjoyable. Ancient history, folks. Now Showtime bids for buzz with a new series peopled by beautiful, libidinous lesbians who actually have sex. A lot of it.

The L Word (premiering Jan. 18) is hot, to be sure. You can feel the erotic charge every time cafe owner Marina (Karina Lombard) renews her campaign to seduce Jenny (Mia Kirshner), a young midwestern writer who has just arrived in L.A. and moved in with her boyfriend Tim (Eric Mabius). But there are problems with this plotline. Jenny's approach-avoidance dance with Marina is protracted almost to the point of absurdity, and Tim's blindness to the women's mutual attraction is not to be believed. Wake up and smell the coffee, fella.

The series' other main focus is on Bette (Jennifer Beals) and her partner Tina (Laurel Holloman), who are trying to have a baby through sperm donation despite some apparent strains in their relationship. This situation has potential, as does the dilemma facing tense tennis professional Dana (Erin Daniels), who fears that coming out as a lesbian will hurt her career. And then there's Alice (Leisha Hailey), the gabby cynic who thinks everybody sleeps with everybody else. On this show, she may be right.

DRAMA

Court TV (Mon., Jan. 19, 9 p.m. ET)

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Definitely not to be confused with the lightweight Mandy Moore flick Chasing Liberty, this earnest TV movie concerns an ambitious corporate lawyer (Juliette Lewis) who finds her conscience while representing a persecuted Afghan woman (Kabul-born actress Layla Alizada) asking for asylum in the United States.

The drama deals intelligently, if didactically, with the important issue of how this country can keep out potential terrorists and still retain its identity as a safe haven for legitimate political refugees. The two leads give strong performances, but Lewis in particular is hurt by the script's predictable character development. At first the attorney is too preoccupied with her big-money cases to put down her cell phone and pay serious attention to the asylum-seeker. Inevitably, though, Lewis becomes so outraged by the brutality of the Taliban and the coldness of the U.S. immigration system that this pro bono mission is all she cares about. Her transition from careerist to crusader doesn't leave enough room for realistic ambivalence.

REALITY

NBC (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET)

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Like last summer's The Restaurant, this new venture from Survivor mastermind Mark Burnett is more interesting than the average reality show because we get something different from the usual business of finding a mate or roughing it in the wild. The premise: Sixteen candidates come to the concrete jungle of New York City to compete for a lucrative position with a major company. Anyone who has known the tension of a big job interview will empathize.

Alas, the organization at the center of the action is run by Donald Trump, the real estate pooh-bah (and co-executive producer of this series) with the pouty lips and phenomenally forward-looking hair. Trump, who dismisses one applicant at the end of each episode, heaped so much praise on himself in the premiere that I feared his limo couldn't carry the load. Divided into male and female teams, the contestants perform test assignments ranging from selling lemonade to creating an ad campaign. The group dynamics are worth observing for a while, but when the women go into catfight mode, the show slides into reality-TV routine.

ROMANTIC COMEDY

ABC Family (Sun., Jan. 18, 8 p.m. ET)

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How do you come up with scripted programming sure to entice viewers who are addicted to those dating-and-mating reality shows? ABC Family solves the problem with this diverting TV movie.

Actor Ryan Banks (Jason Priestley) has dropped from the A list, supposedly because his playboy image is a drag on his career. Hard to believe, but let's move on. His manager and old pal Todd (Bradley Cooper, from Alias) devises a series in which Ryan will reveal his tender, romantic side while the voting public pares down a field of 15 women vying to be his bride. The audience seems to favor beautiful, levelheaded Charlie (Emma Caulfield, late of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as the next Mrs. Banks, but it turns out to be Todd who falls for her.

The script takes pokes at the artificial drama of reality TV—one contender is called tragic because she has braces on her teeth—and the comedy profits from the casting of Mark L. Walberg (Temptation Island) as the host and For Love or Money runner-up Paige Jones as an overeager bachelorette. Though the far-fetched ending strains to rise above cynicism, this movie is more fun than most of the shows it spoofs.

MYSTERY

USA (Fridays, 10 p.m. ET)

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"He's scared of stuff—stuff and things," obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) says of his agoraphobic brother Ambrose (guest star John Turturro), who hasn't left the family house in 32 years. The Jan. 23 episode of this clever series could have played the neurotic-sibling situation strictly for laughs, but the comedy here has more than a hint of pathos. "You've always been the fearless one," Ambrose says, so he ends seven years of estrangement and asks Adrian to return to their small hometown and investigate a possible murder next door.

Turturro, who seems fully committed to every part he plays, makes Ambrose a sadder, more haunted version of Shalhoub's Adrian. It's rare to see brothers portrayed so convincingly, particularly on a show in the field of light entertainment. But don't be afraid: The episode has moments that are funny, pure and simple. When was the last time you heard a police officer ask a suspect for permission to search his pie?

For those who stick to the broadcast networks, reruns of Monk's USA episodes return to ABC starting Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. ET.

RACHEL GOES WILD

Growing Up Grizzly 2 (Animal Planet, Jan. 18, 8 p.m. ET) Jennifer Aniston makes friends with orphaned bears Bart and Honey-Bump, who were introduced on a previous special by her animal-loving husband, Brad Pitt.

MEET THE PARENTS

My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé (FOX, Jan. 19, 9 p.m. ET) Her phony fiancé is a total slob, her family is grossed out—and Randi Coy stands to win $1 million if she carries the ruse all the way to the altar. The catch? She too is being duped in this tricky new reality series.

I DO TO-DOS

'Til Death Do Us Part: Carmen & Dave (MTV, Jan. 21, 10:30 p.m. El) The wedding bells keep chiming on reality TV. This new show follows the nuptial preparations of Carmen Electra and Dave Navarro.

JUST ACHIN' TO SING

Ed (NBC, Jan. 23, 9 p.m. ET) Eli arranges for much Idolized Clay Aiken to be a guest on the radio station.

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Kelleher.