Please note: All times given are Eastern, but check your local listings just in case.
Television is a mass medium, and this week's programs are going to lure some of the biggest audiences of the year--starting with an orgy of Super Bowl coverage on Fox. By the time of the actual kick-off on Sunday at 6:18 p.m., you may be convinced that it's your patriotic duty to watch the game. If you must be un-American, stick to cable and watch Comedy Central's marathon of The Kids in the Hall (Friday, 11:30 p.m.) and six hours of Absolutely Fabulous (Sunday, 2 p.m.).
But make no mistake: Fox rules the TV world this week. Its executives paid dearly to win the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl, and they're not going to let you ignore it. On the day of the big game, for instance, they're offering seven hours of pre-Bowl coverage, starting at 11 a.m. The Super Bowl isn't just about football, of course, but about ads, network promotions and a new series. The series this year is an innovative animated Fox series to air in March, The Family Guy; it previews at Sunday 10 p.m. Family Guy is closer in spirit to South Park than to The Simpsons, and not as funny as either, but still, it's pretty inventive and daring. Don't be surprised if the Anti-Defamation League attacks the show for highlighting a whining, bagel-munching "G.I. Jew" toy soldier.
Some other options: The Independent Film Channel's ...And GodSpoke (Saturday, 10 p.m.), a hilarious mock documentary about two B-movie filmmakers who are trying to make a big-budget Biblical epic, but are reduced to casting Soupy Sales as Moses. Friday (Jan. 29) at 8 p.m., IFC also offers an engaging documentary about a genuine indie filmmaker, In Bad Taste: The John Waters Story.
At the other end of the culture is wholesome Vince Gill, the country music great featured on A&E's concert series, Live by Request (Saturday, 9 p.m.). Gill's high lonesome tenor voice is a national treasure, and his success at pulling in Grammies and Country Music Awards shows that popularity and artistic merit sometimes coincide.
But there's no assurance of that when Fox broadcasts another unnecessary awards show, the first annual TV Guide Awards (Monday, 8 p.m.). It's based on ballots by one million readers; naturally, The Jerry Springer Show is up for an award. These specials bring to mind Larry Sanders' comment after watching a focus group: "Now I know why Baywatch is the number one syndicated show in the world."
On Monday night, real greatness can be found in I'll Make Me A World, the six-hour PBS documentary about the lives and works of 20th-century black artists (Monday to Wednesday, 9 p.m.)--everyone from Louis Armstrong to Spike Lee. As Lee says: "It's hard for me to imagine American culture without black people being part of that. It would be one b-l-a-a-a-n-d place, bland as Wonderbread."
Plenty of white-guy blandness on display in Tom Clancy's Netforce, a thriller about an elite group of FBI cyber-cops in the year 2005 who are fighting Internet crime and a powerful computer titan modeled after Bill Gates (ABC, Monday and Thursday at 9 p.m.). It gets mired in techno-speak and stars the dopey-looking Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap), who is no Harrison Ford, though even Harrison Ford would look silly saying things like, "Run all our emergency utility programs. I want a full diagnostic!" Bakula's arch-enemy is Judge Reinhold, a murderous sort who seeks to control the entire Internet with a nefarious...Web browser! It's never made clear why, since he already dominates the browser market. But the show does have potential as a kind of Mommy Dearest for computer geeks.
UPN has its own entry in the camp market, Roswell: The AliensAttack (Thursday, 8 p.m.), the story of human-like aliens who survive the Roswell UFO crash in 1947 and plan to destroy Earth with captured nuclear weapons. The female alien's secret weapon: seducing soldiers. Why rent Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! parody when you can see a genuine alien film for free?
Thursday marks the official beginning of sweeps month, and so there are some rich pickings. On Frasier (NBC, 9 p.m.), Woody Harrelson visits Frasier as Woody Boyd, the lovably dumb bartender from Cheers, but then won't leave. The best sweeps night program of all may be the Turner Classic Movies broadcasts of the original (and best) The Thin Man movie and its five sequels (Thursday, 8 p.m.). William Powell and Myrna Loy star, a reminder of the time when classy (if drunken) wit equalled box-office success.
Today, they'd be lucky to win anything at the TV Guide Awards.