This week, don't miss Gaius Charles give one of prime-time's best unsung performances on ''Friday Night Lights.'' Plus: a new Randy Newman song, ''The Sarah Silverman Program,'' and more

By Ken Tucker
Updated February 01, 2007 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Van Redin
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”Friday Night Lights”: A Smash, if not yet a hit

1. Steroids, Show Biz, and Smash Williams on Friday Night Lights

(NBC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.)

The best show you’re not watching features an Emmy-worthy performance (among a number of others) by Gaius Charles as a high-school running back, the flashy Smash Williams, trying to get off steroids and redeem his career. In the process, he’s offering one of the most nuanced presentations of a young black man on TV. As Charles said when I interviewed him recently, ”My goal was to say, OK, we can show this guy cocky, we can show this guy rapping, with all this swagger. But we have to show why he uses that as a shield, why are the walls around him are so thick.” The actor does just that, every week; tune in.

2. American Idol Gets Murdered in David Hiltbrand’s Dying To Be Famous

(Harper paperback)

In the third of Hiltbrand’s devilishly pop-culture-stuffed, deviously plotted series of mysteries featuring music-industry private-eye Jim McNamara, someone has killed an American idol — that is, a contestant on the ratings-busting fictional TV music competition called Star Maker — and McNamara is hired to find the murderer. As usual, Hiltbrand fills the book with sharp jokes about the biz — there’s a wicked caricature of reality-TV guru Mike Darnell (under another name, of course); one chapter finds the show’s finalists warbling an episode whose theme is Glen Campbell songs. I’d say that if you read mysteries, you’ll like Dying To Be Famous, but that limits its audience: Anyone who actually reads books is bound to enjoy a good, deft skewering of American Idol, don’t you think?

3. Veronica Mars fights for her life

(CW, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.)

While Gilmore Girls takes a slow, empty-talky boat to nowhere, its Tuesday-night follow-up, Veronica Mars, keeps trying new things to boost ratings without sacrificing the bristling smartness that made it worth watching in the first place. The latest idea is to present some stand-alone episodes for newcomers who don’t know the series’ backstory. Excellent idea. Watch for Kristen Bell’s irresistible brains-beauty dialectic, and get hooked on creator Rob Thomas’ gift for having created the wittiest detective show since The Rockford Files.

4. ”A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country”

Randy Newman, FDR, and terrorism

Newman’s latest, non-movie-soundtrack music is a song that, to judge from the abridged lyrics printed in a Jan. 24 New York Times op-ed, signal a return to form. In ”A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country” — available on iTunes as of Jan. 30, and you can bet I’ll be ponying up to download it — he quotes FDR in contrast to current terrorism policy. Newman also notes in a press release, ”I don’t like to write songs about current events. This one, for instance, won’t be relevant when this administration is no longer with us. It’s such a unique administration, though, that I thought it would be interesting to write something about it. I don’t think we’ll ever have one like it again.” Why do I get the feeling he crossed out the word ”Amen” at the end of that last sentence?

5. The Sarah Silverman Program

(Comedy Central, Thursdays, 10:30 p.m.)

The determinedly offensive yet sweetly charming comedian stars in a sitcom that — remarkably for a sitcom — mixes those two characteristics in just the right amounts. That is, if you’re willing to laugh when God turns two cops into boxes of Bugles snacks, and Sarah goes to bed with him. Him, I mean. God. Amen.

Friday Night Lights

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