ABC (Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET)

BY TOM GLIATTO

REALITY

Dean Kamen, the guy who introduced the Segway scooter in '01, says he hasn't given up hope that the thing ultimately will fulfill its revolutionary hype. The wheels of progress might have spun faster with the backing of American Idol's Simon Cowell, coproducer of this entertaining series. The show celebrates the humble, big-dreaming tinkerer, with inventors auditioning products before four experts. Finalists get $50,000 in seed money, with an ultimate prize of $1 million. But what stood out in the first two hours, which featured such oddities as a walking stick for warding off bears, was the searing, tearful humiliation of the rejectees. Paula Abdul would have withered like sun-dried fruit at such blasts. In a society that loves winners, American losers form an angry, lonely country all their own.

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NBC (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET)

COMEDY

High school English teacher Jeff Cahill affects a slouchy, sarcastic contempt for authority and even for his profession. If he were real and not a sitcom character, he'd probably do all sorts of awful things: buy beer for minors hanging outside the liquor store, steal school supplies and sell them to the Communist Chinese. But because Jeff Cahill is a sitcom character, his disaffection disguises a fundamental nobility. He cares too much: He wants to break through to the kids, make them understand the meaning of Hamlet and so on. He hides his heart beneath jokes and shallow ripostes and lets the rest of the faculty mistake him for a clown.

Justin Bartha (National Treasure) plays the part with just enough charm to make Cahill tolerable. Physically he comes across something like Freddie Prinze Jr., only with the "gee whiz" adorableness sucked out and replaced by a heavier gas. The best one in the cast, though, is new history teacher Sarah Shahi (The L Word). She's very pretty and impressively unpleasant. But it's all phony-dumb.

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Bravo (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

REALITY

Packaged as a sort of reality Desperate Housewives, this seven-week series is an anthropological study of a handful or so of women in a rich gated community in Southern California. Judging from the first few episodes, no one's got it too desperate. Wouldn't you like to be able to buy a second home (value: $780,000 plus) so you could install your son there and let him attend a different high school? The most touching character, so far, is Lauri Waring, a middle-aged blonde whose divorce has forced her to downsize into a tiny house outside the community. It's as if Nicollette Sheridan were banished from Wisteria Lane and made to live off locusts in the desert.

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"It's the people that interest me rather than their products," says American Inventor coproducer Simon Cowell. Sizing up contestants on American Idol, "I'm curious why someone who can't sing a note believes they can be famous. On this show, when someone comes up with one of the craziest things I've seen, what makes them believe it's gonna make them a millionaire?"

UNAN1MOUS (FOX, Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET) Week 2 of a reality series that locks a group of strangers into a bunker to hash out who'll walk out and claim a huge prize.

Eugene O'Neill (PBS, March 27, check local listings) Excellent American Experience documentary about the great dramatist (Long Day's Journey Into Night), who was by no means a happy camper.

Will & Grace (NBC, March 30, 8 p.m. ET) Guest-star bulletin! Britney Spears plays a conservative radio personality named Amber-Louise.

Survival of the Richest (The WB, March 31, 8 p.m. ET) Reality challenge that cuts off seven trust-fund babies from their dough and makes them live with seven kids who have zero assets.

8th & Ocean (MTV, Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m. ET) Young models in Miami—sun, skin and, yes, stress.

SOUNDS OFF

Frankie Valli, 71, is back on the tube as Mob captain Rusty Millio on The Sopranos, which returned to HBO on March 12. The singer, who crooned "Walk Like a Man" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" as frontman for the smash '60s pop group the Four Seasons (the subject of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys), talked to PEOPLE about life as a TV star.

ARE YOU MORE RECOGNIZED FROM THE SHOW OR FROM YOUR MUSIC?

As both. I just took a walk in New York City. And it was really terrific. I must have been stopped six or seven times. People wanted to talk about The Sopranos, my play (Jersey Boys), the music business. The whole spectrum.

WHAT'S BEEN THE HIGH POINT OF BEING ON THE SOPRANOS?

It's all been a highlight for me, the whole thing. I just love it. It's always challenging, and it is so different. I'm glad I'm not playing an overly violent character. I don't go around killing everybody, though I may have been responsible for a hit or two. I think [Sopranos creator] David [Chase] kept in mind that my audience might not like it. I don't like to watch myself. I'm very critical.

HOW DID YOU REACT TO TONY SOPRANO GETTING SHOT IN THIS SEASON'S OPENER?

I was shocked. Nobody knew. When you do that show, they don't let anybody know what's going to happen. It's all very secretive.

WHAT'S IT LIKE PLAYING A MOBSTER?

It's not hard to play if that's what you come from. I came from Newark, N.J., where the show originates out of. I knew plenty of guys like this when I was coming up. How could I not? They owned all the clubs we worked in.