In today's TV free-for-all, shows end late, start early—catch 'em if you can!

No, you aren't paranoid, American television viewer. The networks are conspiring to drive you insane. They're messing with the clock that has guided your viewing habits from time immemorial. They've given splitting headaches to those sweet handmaidens of TV technology the VCR and her younger sister TiVo.

It was nice, once: Schedules were built with dependable, predictable little bricks, half hours and hours. Lately, though, the TV grid has started to look more like a Frank Gehry building. On NBC, Friends routinely spills over its 30 minutes with so-called supersize episodes. The Feb. 5 episode, for instance, clocked in at 44 minutes. That forced The Apprentice to start at the bastard time of 8:44 ET, leaving the viewer the choice of watching the first 16 minutes of Donald Trump or switching to CBS's Survivor: All-Stars, which had begun at 8, for the last 16 minutes of naked Richard Hatch. The Donald's reality show, which has already disrupted the schedule by dispatching Scrubs to Tuesdays, then ran for 75 minutes before making way for ER—not at 10 p.m. but at 9:59.

That was one night, one network, but toying with time is becoming routine across the board: American Idol ran over eight minutes Jan. 19; Survivor ran over five minutes Feb. 3; and ABC's hour-long The Bachelorette stretched to 91 minutes on Feb. 4. The official reason is usually that these shows are too wonderful to be whittled down—you'd think Francis Ford Coppola had become a network executive—but of course, with a hit, there's a fortune to be made in every extra minute. (A 30-second ad on Friends: nearly half a mil.) The problem is that viewers trying to keep track of their shows are the ones who get burned. If you were a rooster and the networks were the sun, by now you'd have crowed yourself to death from confusion.

HBO (Sun., Feb. 15, 9:30 p.m. ET)

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Last time I saw a TV program on women's fight for the right to vote, it was Ken Burns's 1999 PBS documentary on Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Worthy, informative—but a little musty.

None of that staid history for director Katja von Garnier (Bandits), who brings a distractingly contemporary feeling to this story of militant suffragists Alice Paul (a persuasive Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor). The jumpy film editing, the rock beat of the background music and the characters' modern way of talking (expressions like "Do the math" and "Everything's a trade-off') make it hard to remember that we're back in the Woodrow Wilson Administration. What the film gains in youth appeal it loses in authenticity.

After wasting time on Paul's potential love interest (Patrick Dempsey), Angels becomes truly compelling when jailed suffragists stage a hunger strike and endure force feeding. But this late dramatic rally isn't enough to carry the day.

DRAMA

CBS (Sun., Feb. 15, 9 p.m. ET)

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"I hate it when you whine," snipes architect George (Ted Danson). "I hate it when you breathe," retorts his wife, Clem (Mary Steenburgen, Danson's real-life spouse). It's no great surprise that these two are splitting up. But this TV movie asks us to believe that the affluent couple would take a road trip to plan their divorce. There's nothing like getting away together when you want to spend the rest of your lives apart.

What starts out as a contrived comedy turns into an equally implausible drama when George and Clem's camper gets stuck and a freak blizzard leaves them stranded. Their grown children are worried about the crisis but a bit preoccupied with other matters, since Joe (Adam Nicholas Frost) has secretly dropped out of Princeton and Tess (Erin Karpluk) has just abandoned her new husband.

Though it's too seldom convincing, the film offers a few moments of truth (such as when George admits that his professional aspirations exceed his talents) and an ending that's almost amazingly subtle.

DRAMA

NEWLYWELSH

American Dreams (NBC, Feb. 15, 9 p.m. ET) Nick Lachey tears himself away from Jessica Simpson long enough to guest-star as Tom Jones. Warning: The heat may exceed 98° when he sings "It's Not Unusual" like the brawny belter from Wales.

MR. BIG GOES 'BAD'

Bad Apple (TNT, Feb. 16, 9 p.m. ET) Sex and the City's Chris Noth hopes there'll be a high interest rate in this TV movie, which finds the ex-Law & Order cop playing an undercover fed trying to bust a loan-sharking outfit.

A PASSION FOR HIS WORK

Primetime (ABC, Feb. 16, 10 p.m. ET) Mel Gibson touts his controversial movie The Passion of the Christ in an interview with Diane Sawyer.

AND THE SABOTEUR IS...

Celebrity Mole Yucatan (ABC, Feb. 18, 10 p.m. ET) The season finale reveals whether Angie Everhart, Mark Curry or Dennis Rodman has been playing dirty. Couldn't be Rodman—he looks so innocent.

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Terry Kelleher.