Well, aside from the obvious — the books I'm reading, the conversations I'm having with my spouse, the meals we're actually eating at the table — this drought of new material on the tube has led me to some watering holes I wouldn't otherwise have found. ...
1. "Aliens in America" — Months ago when I read about this — an American family signs up for a foreign exchange student and gets a teenager from Pakistan, hijinx ensue! — I wrote off the show as a risky venture, likely unfunny, dragging post-9/11 issues into sitcomworld. Sounds about as successful, and as entertaining, as "Reign on Me." But with nothing else to watch on Monday nights we surfed by the show several weeks ago, and now we don't miss an episode. Part "Freaks and Geeks" and part "Malcolm in the Middle," "Aliens in America" is charming, gut-laughter funny and, while it's got that "Malcolm" pace and quick-cut yuks, its humor never goes off the deep end of cynicism. Episodes usually have more "Simpsons"-like redemption than "Family Guy" lack of character. And, not since "Freaks and Geeks" have I seen a show so accurately nail the awkwardness and intelligence of high school life. Attribute that to the smart writing — and, hey, 17 of the 22 episodes were finished before the writers strike, so there's still a full clip loaded through the spring — and to actor Dan Byrd as Justin Tolchuk. Execs could have demanded a blemish-free Disney kid in this role, but they wisely landed Byrd, a cute everyboy who can mug with the best of them and control the scene when he needs to. You can jump in anywhere, so set your DVR.
2. "In Treatment" — OK, it's growing on me, this static HBO half-hour drama starring an actor I always thought was undervalued, Gabriel Byrne. Again, on paper, it's scary — it's a show about a treatment session between Byrne's character and one patient, and they never leave the office ... it's just televised therapy! Yegods! But also again, here's a testament to why writers deserve to be paid (and why it's good that the strike has reminded America of this fact — quoth me, the writer), because the show delivers its pitch and yaw via words, words, words, but without seeming heady like a Woody Allen movie.
3. "Jericho" — We totally missed this show about nuclear war survivors in a small Kansas town (surprising, given that one of my favorite old novels is Alas, Babylon) and are just now catching up to it via the glory that is the Universal HD network. (If you have an HD TV, don't overlook this channel, which dredges up all kinds of wayward programming and throws it back out in high-def. You haven't lived till you've seen "Northern Exposure" in HD.) That channel is rerunning the series' first season now, but we won't be caught up before next weeks' fan-demanded second season begins, on Feb. 12 on CBS. So we're catching up online (iTunes and CBS' site).
4. I've been a slave to Lifetime's "Frasier" reruns for a while now ("sherry, Niles?"), but I've also been cruising toward the oldie networks, like TV Land and our own Me TV, for helpings of more classic sitcoms. I'd forgotten how laughs-a-minute "M*A*S*H" could be, when they were setting aside the fact they were in the middle of the Korean War, and how satisfying and succinct the old Chicago-set shows, "The Bob Newhart Show" (RIP SP) and "Good Times," were. Which is only going to make the return of the writers that much more of a challenge. I've been reminded of how great TV comedy can be, boys and girls, so you'd better measure up.
5. The History Channel — I have been thrilled to discover that the History Channel, which I once referred to as Hitler TV, has evolved beyond its former incarnation as the WWII newsreel network and into something more expansive and occasionally academic. Its "Life After People" special was fascinating, positing how the earth would reclaim itself if humanity were to disappear overnight (though it never addressed the plastic garbage we'd leave behind). The "Ancient Discoveries" series just relaunched and is light years away from my high school textbooks, thank Merv. And in our house, we're hooked on "The Universe," a hardly-historical spacey show considering topics from "Alien Moons" and "Astrobiology" to "The Most Dangerous Place in the Universe." That black hole may be right around the celestial corner, but at least the History Channel is no longer a black hole of television.