Isn’t it odd that the new legal dramas THE PRACTICE (ABC, Tuesdays, 10-11 p.m.) and FEDS (CBS, Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m.) are both featuring long-running story lines about lawsuits against cigarette companies? Rarely do you see network TV shows take on such a hot-button topic. Then again, since tobacco companies can’t advertise on TV, the networks don’t have too much to lose — except, ironically enough, all those potential defamation-of-character lawsuits by tobacco-company executives.
They dominated the Oscars this year; now indie movies are taking over Must See TV. How else to explain the presence of subUrbia costar Giovanni Ribisi as the dimwit brother of Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) and Swingers writer-star Jon Favreau as the millionaire software-magnate suitor of Monica (Courteney Cox) on FRIENDS (NBC, Thursdays, 8-8:30 p.m.)? Or The English Patient plotline (Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine couldn’t stand it) on SEINFELD (NBC, Thursdays, 9-9:30 p.m.)? Or the Flirting With Disaster family reunion of Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, and Téa Leoni on THE NAKED TRUTH (NBC, Thursdays, 9:30-10 p.m.)? Or Fargo star William H. Macy’s recurring role as Dr. Morgenstern on ER (NBC, Thursdays, 10-11 p.m.)? What’s next — Billy Bob Thornton as Karl, Brooke Shields’ new beau on Suddenly Susan?
For all its programming faults, Comedy Central has a knack for mining the occasional gem that most major networks wouldn’t touch. Its latest find is VIVA VARIETY (Comedy Central, April 1, 10-10:30 p.m.), a jubilantly weird, sketch-filled sitcom from three members of the sporadically funny MTV comedy group The State. The premise itself is a joke: Two not-quite-cosmopolitan Europeans, Mr. Laupin (Thomas Lennon) and the former Mrs. Laupin (Kerri Kenney), bring their hit variety show — featuring music, Gong Show-style acts, and comedy — to the U.S., but their Eurotrash sensibility doesn’t translate well in 1990s America. The result is a hilarious, dead-on parody of those bizarro foreign game shows on cable tv that are at once vaguely disturbing and oddly engaging. Viva‘s highlight is definitely Johnny Blue Jeans (Michael Black), the Laupins’ vacant, put-upon sidekick, who gleaned all his knowledge about America from imported ’70s TV. Black’s brilliantly unplaceable European accent is reason enough to watch. — Kristen Baldwin
Michael Caine seems to be entering the TV-movie phase of his career. His recent film Blood & Wine barely made a ripple at the box office. But suddenly he’s all over the small screen, costarring in Showtime’s Mandela and De Klerk and ABC’s upcoming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and reviving Harry Palmer in BULLET TO BEIJING (The Movie Channel, April 5, 9-11 p.m.). Len Deighton’s spy, whom Caine previously played in such theatrical features as Funeral in Berlin and The Ipcress File, gets forcibly retired from MI5. Still, he manages to stir up international intrigue, working for a mysterious Russian (Michael Gambon) to stop a shipment of chemical weapons to North Korea. Despite dreary visuals, Bullet provides endearingly old-style thrills. Sporting Palmer’s trademark thick black glasses, Caine’s in fine form. Palmer may have been put out to pasture, but Caine shouldn’t face any such fate.