The Nashville Network -- There's a lot more to the network than country-music videos

At the moment, my favorite guilty-pleasure TV personality is Jimmy Carter — not the former President, but the identically named movie critic for the Nashville Network’s Crook & Chase entertainment-news show. Carter is a solemn-looking fellow who nonetheless gives ravingly positive reviews to nearly everything that passes in front of his eyes.

For example, Carter recently reviewed the Harrison Ford film Regarding Henry. ”It’s a movie that will change your life,” he exulted. Then his tone turned grave and he frowned intensely. ”Now, you might see people in the print media giving this movie a hard time,” he said (were your ears red, Owen Gleiberman?). ”Well, I think most of those people are pretty weird anyway, and wouldn’t know a sweet movie if it hit ’em.” (I like to think that the rough draft of every Jimmy Carter movie review contains the phrase ”pointy-headed intellectual” until some wise producer edits it out.)

The camera cut back to the hosts of Crook & Chase, Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase. As always after a Carter movie review, they looked, to their great credit, as if they’d both been slammed over the head with a shovel.

The ardent anti-intellectualism of Jimmy Carter — so ferocious as to be hilarious — is just one small reason to tune in the Nashville Network (TNN), which embodies an aggressive populism unlike anything else on television. To be sure, TNN is primarily the country version of MTV, an outlet for all those Waylon Jennings and Tanya Tucker videos that no other channel will touch. But over the course of its eight-year history, TNN has also assembled a roster of regular shows that give the channel its own unpredictable character.

The aforementioned Crook & Chase, for example, is sort of what Entertainment Tonight would be like if it were set in Nashville and if Mary Hart and John Tesh had personalities. Crook and Chase offer fannish, if not downright arcane, info on the Nashville scene — this is the show to watch if you want to know whether Diamond Rio is in the recording studio cutting new material. Unlike ET, Crook & Chase also features in-studio interviews with everyone from Randy Travis to Carlene Carter. In these, Chase proves himself a crinkly-eyed smart aleck who likes to rib and flirt with the stars. Crook, the more responsible of the pair, tries to ask reasonably serious questions of her guests and attempts to keep ol’ Charlie in line with mock exasperation.

Another endearing TNN series is Country Kitchen, a kind of Extremely Frugal Gourmet with The Brady Bunch‘s Florence Henderson as host. Typically, a country singer demonstrates the prep-aration of a favorite dish that sometimes just happens to contain ingredients featured in the show’s commercials. A recent edition had singer Lacy J. Dalton cooking shrimp fettuccine with much praise for, and label-display of, the pasta and olive-oil brands being used. If I sound disapproving of such practices, let me say that it doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of this show by so much as a teaspoon; it’s fun to see a celeb either cut loose in the kitchen or freeze up because he or she has never made anything more complicated than microwave popcorn.

Henderson, chipper and confident no matter what the ingredients, turns over the dessert segment of the show to the comedy team of Bruce Williams and Terry Ree, who refer to themselves as ”the Indian and the White Guy” (Ree is a Sioux). Williams and Ree are sort of an ethnic Rowan and Martin; they’ve become big TNN audience favorites and are amusing in a snappy-patter, wise-guy kind of way.

I have in the past saluted the skills of Ralph Emery, host of TNN’s nightly talk show Nashville Now, who asks long, ruminative questions of legends such as George Jones and Merle Haggard. With his steady gaze and seen-it-all demeanor, this veteran Nashville disc jockey and TV personality still manages to seem thoughtful and alert, not bored and cynical.

Emery can gab easily for hours, but he recently met his match in guest Marty Brown, an exceptionally talented young singer-songwriter (”Every Now and Then”) who is also an exceptionally loopy chatterbox. After Brown rattled on stream-of-consciously about his life as a poor farm boy, about passing his Stetson in bars to pay for food, about sleeping under a Nashville restaurant’s air-conditioning unit while trying to land a record contract, Emery finally cut him off, pleading, ”Marty, for gosh sakes, please let me go to a commercial!”

As for the blocks of music videos that constitute the format for such TNN programming as Video PM — well, I’ve noticed that most country vids offer the exact same scenario: A male singer sits alone in an empty house/motel room/bar after closing time and recalls the woman who has ( left him. In his flashback, she is seen smiling/crying/looking stoic. For female singers, the plot is usually the same, except that the singer walks out on her cruel, cheatin’ boyfriend/husband/one-night-stand.

Whether it’s Aaron Tippin’s baleful ”She Made a Memory Out of Me” or Tanya Tucker’s astringent ”Down to My Last Teardrop,” there are only so many times you can watch this sort of thing. Thank goodness TNN interrupts its videos with the Jimmy Carters of this world.