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Bravo to the Weirdest of Weekends

"Participatory journalism."

Those are two words that strike fear in the hearts of right-thinking pop-culture devourers everywhere, much like the phrase "the directorial debut of Antonio Banderas." It brings to mind the loved-by-13-year-olds-everywhere Black Like Me, where a white author purported to understand the experience of being black by traveling around the South with darkened skin for a few weeks.

But a few days living around a different lifestyle doesn't make you of that lifestyle. That's what scared us about the concept behind Bravo's new import from the BBC (Fridays at 8 p.m.), Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, in which the titular Theroux (son of novelist Paul, as Bravo's press materials relentlessly remind us) "dives into a singular American subculture every weekend."

However, in Weird Weekends, Little Louis avoids the incessant, fatiguing irony so prominent on The Daily Show, TV Nation (where Theroux also appeared) and The Awful Truth (also on Bravo). Though he participates in the subcultures' activities, Theroux goes light on the condescending attitude.

Clearly, he's sometimes amused, especially during the Oct. 29 UFO episode, when chatting with Thor Templar, the self-described Lord Commander of the North American Sector of the Earth Protectorate. But his mocking is always gentle.

Then there's the porn episode, which has already aired; if it reappears in reruns, see it. For most of the hour, our host bounds happily along, having a nude picture taken for auditions for porn flicks, even appearing in a cameo part in one, as uncritical as if he were doing a documentary on Seventh Heaven.

But then Louis watches the taping of Forced Entry, a rape-fantasy-themed movie simmering with hatred and misogyny. The camera crew wisely focuses on Theroux's reaction, and -- whether acting or not -- he clearly starts to recognize that this is not something he wants to praise, or even to portray neutrally. And he simply walks out.

Next Theroux speaks with J.J., a new and rising (pardon the pun) porn star recently out of the Air Force. J.J. seems like a totally decent kid, yet he's doing four movies a week, ignoring the terrifyingly high industry HIV rate. Theroux spends a significant amount of time trying -- absolutely sincerely -- to convince him to leave that life.

Though he fails to do so, at least the program illustrates a genuine affection for the folks discussed, bad choices and all. Theroux doesn't make any pretenses that he is a UFO believer (though he's open-minded), and he doesn't make any pretenses that he is a porn star (though he gets an offer), but even so, Weird Weekends is genuine and fair.

And we're totally psyched for the "Living Undead" episode.

McBeal Gets Real

Seeing the hour-long premiere of Ally McBeal was something of a relief, after being subjected to a month of the rushed, incoherent and barely comprehensible half-hour Ally. Maybe the only good thing about Ally is that it makes the full show look better.

The third season gets off to a pretty good -- but surprisingly down-to-earth -- start. The last season ended with Ally sunk deep in a hallucinatory fantasy world, fighting fairly unsuccessfully to believe that The Man For Her is still Out There (out hanging with The Truth, we wager). And sure, it might've sucked to be her, but it was getting kind of tiring to watch. This season exposes us to fewer of those now-irritating "Ally-cam" experiences and to a mercifully reduced use of the word "bygones." And if ol' Calista's hairdo is any indication, Ally also seems to be spending more of her off-time with her finger in the power outlet.

Despite the plea Fox sent along with the preview tape to not reveal the "surprise elements" of Ally McBeal's first two episodes, we didn't end up actually being very surprised. Basically, McBeal delivers what we expected, rather than what we feared. As viewers, we continue to get a wider view of the office, with the non-Ally characters participating more than ever before.

Unfortunately, the twisted-up legal cases in which Cage/Fish get involved are officially beyond repetitive. The second episode has them involved in yet another "non-traditional" sexual-harassment suit, painfully reminiscent of a case Elaine brought against Cage/Fish back in the first season. The premiere had them trying to compel a minister (perfectly played by Ray Walston) to perform a marriage he has at the last minute refused to do. Neither case turns out particularly eventful, flashy or even interesting -- in fact, most courtroom scenes now have the flavor of "stuff-to-cut-when-converting-this-to-an-Ally-episode."

In other news: Out of the blue, Whipper decides to go into private practice with Renee; John Cage experiences a dropped connection to Barry White (and bumbles inconfidently around Nell); and Ling decides that she and Ally should try to become friends, so they go out. Remember in the last season's finale how Ling tricked Ally into offering up her finger to be licked? Fox won't let us say more.

Ally McBeal's third season seems to have regained its footing. Less insanity, more character development. Sure, it still primarily features a full-on obsession with gender stereotypes and biases. But then, should we be surprised? On the show that made multi-gender toilets hipper than hip?

They're Coming ...

You've been to your local mall, have walked through the first set of glass doors and have been bamboozled by them. Each one is the size of your torso.

They are attached to a giant fake-smile. And you cannot escape them. They are the culmination of the 20th century. They Know What You Did Last Summer.

Yes, the publicity posters for Time of Your Life are everywhere, and thus, Jennifer Love Hewitt's twin pals -- we'll call them "Brittney" and "Shania" -- ain't far behind. But you know what? A funny thing happened on the way to Fox's new Monday night T&A festival premiering Oct. 25 at 8: a pretty decent show broke out.

For the uninitiated, Time of Your Life is Fox's first Party of Five spinoff (can Julia's Idiotic Boyfriends be far behind?) and stars Ms. Love herself, who no doubt owes a great portion of her career to the minivans parked on her chest. However, if the pilot is any indication, there may be other reasons to tune in.

The show's conceit is simple: Love's Po5 character, Sarah, heads to New York City for a weekend to find her biological father. In the course of her first wacky weekend, she meets several abnormally attractive twentysomethings (hey, after all, it's still television), parties, throws up and talks very earnestly about herself. She meets a pissed-off actress (Jennifer Garner), a hunky, sort-of-famous guitarist (Johnathon Schaech from That Thing You Do) and a waitress (Gina Ravera), all of whom seem, well, pretty normal (except for the abnormally attractive part).

Yeah, the apartment seems a tad large for $300 a month (call it another brick in the Friends-ification wall ...), but these people seem, well, quieter than most of the urban angsters cropping up on shows like Wasteland and Felicity. The situations of awkwardness while JenLove corners her possible father candidate resonate fairly well; Hewitt has a pretty good knack for stammering hopefulness when she's not draped in a towel in some or other horror movie. For the most part, her earnest behavior sounds about right for a 20-year-old, even if her new friends do sit around and listen to her talk a bit much ("God, my heart is, like, pounding, and I feel like I'm about to take a leap off a giant cliff").

In light of Po5's increasing reliability on sex jokes and varying addiction plotlines ("Next week on Party of Five: Will Claudia fall for the paperboy-cum-ping-pong-champ and fall into a deep spiral of paddling compulsion?"), ol' Jen might've gotten out just in time. New York looks more movie than TV, it's not too terribly difficult to imagine these kids as money-starved, and there's only one, half-naked trying-on-dresses scene. Gosh. Kind of like real life.

Will Time of Your Life change your existence? Oh, no, we really hope not. But is it better than you thought, and better than most other Beautiful People dramas? One show in, we'd have to say "yup."


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