COMEDY

ABC (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET)

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John Ritter's death last September left a huge hole at the center of this sitcom. ABC chose to prop it up rather than shut it down, a decision that's looking increasingly unfortunate.

A November episode began with the news that Ritter's character, Paul Hennessy, had collapsed and died while grocery shopping. That a beloved father of three could be snatched away so suddenly was a sobering thought, and the laugh track respectfully kept silent. James Garner and Suzanne Pleshette appeared as the separated parents of Paul's widow, Cate (Katey Sagal), and Garner has gone on to display his usual solid professionalism in the regular role of the household's curmudgeonly grandpa.

But lately Cate has been invoking Paul's death to justify anything the writers dream up. Bridget (Kaley Cuoco), the daughter with more beauty than brains, was unaccountably chosen as the lead in a school production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Cate advised Bridget to draw on her own family's sadness to play the part, and the miscast airhead wound up earning a tearful "Bravo" from a Holocaust survivor in the audience. Now, that's pushing it.

The latest addition to the cast is David Spade doing his smarmy shtick as Cate's long-lost nephew. What moves the Hennessys to take in this creep? "If there's anything we've learned this year," says Cate, "it's the importance of family." Give us a break, huh?

COMEDY

USA (Mon.-Wed., Jan. 26-28, 9 p.m. ET)

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As you set out on this six-hour journey, expect Traffic to be heavy.

Like the 2000 movie of the same title, as well as the 1989 British miniseries Traffik, this well-acted three-part drama employs a multilevel narrative structure. The traffic here is not only in drugs but in illegal aliens and weapons of terrorism, and most of the story plays out in a moral gray area that's chilly and bleak.

Elias Koteas (The Thin Red Line) is strong and slightly mysterious as a DEA agent assigned to Afghanistan who is suspected of going over to the dark side when he forms an unexplained alliance with a heroin dealer (Ritchie Coster). Meanwhile, Koteas's wife (Mary McCormack) finds out their teenage son (Justin Chatwin) has been drawn into the Seattle drug scene by the wild girl next door (Jennifer Rae Westley).

On another track, a Chechnyan taxi driver in Seattle (Cliff Curtis) does a lot of lonely detective work to uncover why his wife and daughter died with other aliens smuggled onto a ship bound for the West Coast. Finally, an ambitious business-school graduate (Balthazar Getty, with a good performance in an underwritten role) lets his greed lead him into a position as financial adviser to a Chinese-American gangster (Nelson Lee).

The suspense gradually slackens after a taut first two hours, and you may find your interest level slipping just as the plot threads are coming together. A key revelation in Part 3 is sadly lacking in surprise. But the emerging threat of a shipment of smallpox virus should be enough to keep you hanging on.

DRAMA

Court TV (Thurs., Jan. 29, 10 p.m. ET)

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The rape victim seemed so sure that Marvin Anderson was her attacker. "That face will haunt me as long as I live," she testified at his trial. Anderson did the time—15 years in a Virginia prison—but he didn't do the crime. DNA evidence gathered by a pro bono legal team called the Innocence Project eventually cleared him.

This worthwhile special, narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, is the first in an occasional series on the project's work. Exoneration makes for a happy ending, but you'll be disturbed by the depiction of police mistakes, inadequate defense counsel and judicial intransigence. Anderson's experience is described as "hellish," and that's not much of an exaggeration.

DOCUMENTARY

RED CARPET ROYALTY Golden Globe Awards (NBC, Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET) Had it up to here with those movie ads boasting about Golden Globe nominations? Bet you can't wait for the actual honors to be handed out. Michael Douglas gets the Cecil B. DeMille Award for being an overall entertainment powerhouse.

10-4 FOR 10-8 10-8 (ABC, Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET) It's always something for L.A. deputy sheriffs. The freshman drama ends its season with back-to-back episodes featuring a gang shootout at a funeral and a child stuck in a refrigerator.

HOUNDS WITHOUT A HOME Shelter Dogs (HBO, Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m. ET) An America Undercover documentary looks at a shelter where unwanted dogs get love but euthanasia is sometimes an option.

MANY #@$%@! RETURNS The Osbournes (MTV, Jan. 27, 10:30 p.m. ET) Rock's raucous first family invites us into their home for a third season of all-access domestic chaos.

3 REASONS I LOVE...

Ab Fab

1 Because even after a two-year hiatus from the series, fashionistas Patsy and Edina remain as fabulously bitchy as ever in their fifth season (now on Oxygen). "I got a good bum, ain't I?" Edina asks Patsy in one scene. "I don't have a great big fat bum like J.Lo., do I, darling? I mean, how high are that woman's heels to keep that nancy off the pavement now?"

2 Because it stars series co-creator Jennifer Saunders. As celebrity publicist Edina, she invariably gives physical comedy precedence over vanity and is unafraid of being, often literally, the butt of jokes. (She spent much of one episode squeezed into a denim suit that made her comedy precedence over vanity and is unafraid of being, often literally, the butt of jokes. (She spent much of one episode squeezed into a denim suit that made her look like a breakfast banger with epaulets.) See also: her impression of Liza Minnelli as a sauced spider monkey swinging from clique to clique at a cocktail party.

3 Because no joke is out-of-bounds. Guest star and former Spice Girl Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton gets tweaked for her career decline ("Hope you haven't burnt your Spice millions," warns Edina's assistant Bubble), while Plum (guest star Kristin Scott Thomas) winds up detailing her colonic injury. And then there's the way Edina celebrates the news that her daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) is pregnant by an African man: "A mixed-race baby is the finest accessory anyone in my position could ever have! It's the Chanel of babies!"

Oxygen (Fridays, 9 p.m. ET)

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Kelleher,
  • Allison Adato.