What are TV's guiltiest pleasures? Ken Tucker, to his shameful delight, names ''VIP,'' ''Ally McBeal,'' and Craig Kilborn. And then it gets really bad

By Ken Tucker
Updated February 13, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

What are TV’s guiltiest pleasures?

For you, it may be the gonzo soap opera ”Passions.” For your twerpy nephew, it’s the E! channel’s endless reruns of their ”Wild On” skin-baring travelogues. We’re talking guilty TV pleasures here; everyone’s got a few. Here are some of mine:

? VIP: Yes, the Pamela Anderson detective show. Why, just a week ago, Pam’s Val discovered that she had an evil twin, a villainous vixen with whom she engaged in frenetic, precarious, spike-heeled cat-fighting, culminating in Good Val (or maybe it was Bad Val) overcoming Bad Val (or maybe it was Good Val) by pulling up her tube-top! Brilliant!

? Ally McBeal: Initially, it was cute, then it was annoying, then it was irrelevant. Briefly, it had a great performance by Robert Downey, Jr., but now it’s really, really bad. Which, of course, qualifies ”Ally” for guilty-pleasure status. It’s become a hoot to tune in each week and see what loony or misguided stunt series creator David E. Kelley will pull from his life-time supply of scrawled-upon yellow legal-pads to try and boost the show’s sagging ratings. Recently, it was adding Jon Bon Jovi — nice guy, but no Downey in the acting dept. Now the big plot twist is that Ally’s got a child she never knew existed; a mini-Ally who, one assumes, is supposed to make the traditionally-ditzy heroine calm down, seem mature. Motherhood is grounding, you know. It’s fascinating to watch a good actress like Calista Flockhart continue to give her all to a character whose pop-cultural moment has passed. Her performance alone would make this worth watching, were it not for the constant interruptions — or perhaps more accurately, eruptions — of Vonda Shepard’s insufferable covers of pop and rock standards.

? Craig Kilborn: Not just any segment of the usually sluggish ”Late, Late Show,” but specifically those segments in which Kilborn interviews a young, attractive actress or model. At these points, he assumes an even more exaggerated version of his standard unctuous comic persona and becomes a leeringly unctuous comic, spouting single-entendres and barely restraining himself from putting the moves on the poor woman under interrogation. It’s mesmerizingly repellent.

? The Education of Max Bickford: Speaking of good actors entrapped, here we have the increasingly sweat-inducing spectacle of Richard Dreyfuss doing his best to make history-professor Max (whom the Oscar-winner touted in pre-premiere interviews as a variation on himself) into a more likable character. Which is to say, Max started out an uncompromising educator who wanted to take on the entire postmodern, flabby-liberal academic establishment in the name of that most discredited of university items, The Great Canon. After getting low ratings that even his Oscar-winning co-star, Marcia Gay Hardin, could not shore up, some producers were shuffled and, abruptly, Max became a nice guy, one who was suddenly more patient with his suddenly less-moronic students; one who suddenly found himself in the middle of sad plots, such as Eli Wallach guest-starring as Max’s cancer-stricken father. It’s fascinating to watch a series, probably doomed, with such talented performers, abandon its original premise and flail about in search of a broader audience.

? 7th Heaven: This show just gets goofier and goofier, as its ratings get larger and larger. Beyond its core family-fare audience, I think it’s people like me who are tuning in, so we don’t miss moments such as the Feb. 4 sweeps episode in which teen Simon (David Gallagher) got drunk inadvertently. How did he do so?, you ask. Why, he drank some party punch spiked with ”grain alcohol” (”grain alcohol”? where do you get that these days? From a still in the Ozarks?), and didn’t recognize the taste of the devil’s brew until he was well-soused. Meanwhile, Lucy (Beverly Mitchell), the sister who’s going to become a minister, almost also got drunk, elsewhere. Why?, asked the big sister played by Jessica Biel. Because, Lucy explained, since she was planning for the ministry, she needed to experience what other people did. Biel did a fine, slow pause before saying, ”Wow: That’s so dumb, that’s something I might say.” Brilliant.

What are your TV guilty pleasures?