Ellen Gray: Now's a great time to get acquainted with the Visitors

"Southland's" Ben McKenzie (left, with co-star Michael Cudlitz) returns to TNT's cop series tonight and will discuss his picks as a TCM guest programmer on Jan. 19.
"Southland's" Ben McKenzie (left, with co-star Michael Cudlitz) returns to TNT's cop series tonight and will discuss his picks as a TCM guest programmer on Jan. 19.
Posted: January 04, 2011

V. 9 tonight, Channel 6.

SOUTHLAND. 10 tonight, TNT.

THE VISITORS are back tonight, and they're Up to No Good.

But, hey, you know that from the promos.

In fact, anyone who caught more than a minute of ABC's "V" last season - or who remembers the version from the '80s - already knows that the rodent-eating aliens' promise of peace and universal health care was just a subterfuge.

Like every other invading alien force in show-business history, the V's have far more sinister plans, and they're getting ready to carry them out.

The good news, at least for sci-fi fans who last season chose the now-canceled "FlashForward" over "V" and would like a do-over, is that anyone capable of reciting the alphabet all the way to V is unlikely to have trouble joining this one in progress.

The bad news, at least for "Lost" devotees who haven't yet found a substitute in NBC's "The Event," is that the drama of "V" is so far from the complications of "Lost" that it might just as well be called "Found."

That's OK. Not every TV show has to leave you wishing for a Ph.D. in physics and total recall of Philosophy 101, and "V," which seems to have embraced the cheesy goodness of the original, strikes me as a bit more fun this season.

Maybe it's that the divinely proportioned Visitor queen, Anna (Morena Baccarin), is showing signs of strain as she juggles foster motherhood in the sky and Earth's politics below.

Maybe it's the return to the franchise of Jane Badler, a key player from the 1980s "V," in a manner that's not likely to add to Anna's long-term comfort.

Or maybe it's just that once you've spent six weeks watching flesh-torn zombies stagger around Atlanta in AMC's "The Walking Dead," an occasional flash of lizard skin seems more fashionable than menacing.

'Southland' returns

Cable, often seen by viewers as a lifeboat for shows that broadcast networks have canceled for lack of mass appeal, lets many more shows drown than it saves.

And for good reason.

Small but passionate audiences tend to get even smaller (if no less passionate) when the Big Four production and promotional budgets go away and all the e-mail campaigns and online petitions in the wired world can't save most shows.

So if you've ever loved a show that didn't make it into the lifeboat, it might be worth checking out "Southland," which returns to TNT for a third season tonight.

It's a season that probably wouldn't have been made if the Turner channel hadn't stepped up when NBC canceled the show at the beginning of its second. TNT aired the series' six produced-but-unaired episodes, then ordered more.

One explanation that I usually give readers who ask why Show X or Show Y can't find a new life on Cable Channel Z - that the disparity in production budgets generally makes it difficult - seems not to have been much of a factor in "Southland," an ensemble cop show that somehow still boasts a large cast, gritty stories and a tone that seems more rooted in real-world Los Angeles than, say, TNT's "The Closer" or NBC's "Law & Order: Los Angeles."

I wish I could tell you that I loved it, because there's a lot of good work here, and the people doing it seem eager to get it right.

But there's a reason why reality requires so much, well, editing before it becomes a "reality" show. We need to know where to look.

Even the best cop dramas - "NYPD Blue," "Homicide: Life on the Street," to name a couple - have had larger-than-life characters to grab our attention.

"Southland," which seems to be at pains to give each of its characters and their stories equal weight, may just be a little too evenhanded for its own good.

TV cop's a film buff

Turner Classic Movies, doing its best to be a good corporate sibling, has enlisted "Southland's" Ben McKenzie (of "The O.C." fame) as guest programmer for January.

He'll sit down with TCM host Robert Osborne on Jan. 19 to discuss his picks: "Badlands" (1973), "This Sporting Life" (1963), "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) and, on a lighter note, the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup" (1933). *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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