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Stars make the jump from movies to TV

Think positive. And remember Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.

What everyone now knows about them is that they were two of the Rushmore stars in American movies -- cornerstones, really, of the American movie actor's trade. Young film actors starting out can only hope they'll ever be a third as good and memorable as Fonda was in "The Lady Eve," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "My Darling Clementine" or Stewart was in "Vertigo," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Harvey."

Both had half-century-plus careers in which each starred in some of the greatest films ever made in America.

We're also, though, talking about men who, at a certain time of life, starred in monumentally forgettable TV series. The shows were awful -- Fonda's "The Deputy" marginally better than "The Jimmy Stewart Show" -- but both movie pillars were perfectly fine with making TV money at a point in their careers when no one was asking Fonda to make movies like "The Ox Bow Incident" and Stewart to make movies like "The Shop Around the Corner."

So let's not pretend too much surprise learning that Harvey Keitel -- that roughneck saint of independent moviemaking for more than two decades -- is now appearing weekly in the much-awaited series "Life on Mars," which debuted last Thursday.

And don't tell me either you're amazed that Christian Slater is following on the heels of Charlie Sheen among tabloid bad boy substance abusing movie stars who are no stranger to ungainly headline dustups with women. Slater's new TV series is called "My Own Worst Enemy" and premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on NBC.

If Charlie Sheen can carve out a whole new career for himself by leering and blustering in a bowling shirt and swallowing punch lines, surely Slater can make it as a weekly doppelganger, half-secret agent and half-uptight exec. Slater hitting TV after a big credit movie career was as predictable as onetime movie star Donald Sutherland ("M-A-S-H," "Don't Look Now," "Klute") dispensing poisoned paternalism in "Dirty Sexy Money" (which, even as we speak this season, seems to be warming up to do a full Olympic shark jump).

It's Keitel, for pity's sake, that many of us are going to be shaking our heads over for at least a month -- one of Ridley Scott's original "Duellists" and crawlers through Scorsese's "Mean Streets," the "Bad Lieutenant" himself whose willingness to scuzz-up and/or go full monty at a moment's notice for cinematic art has been awe-inspiring for fellow actors.

On "Life on Mars," he plays a 1973 cop, continuing TV's fatuous slander of the 1970's as a vapid decade of thuggishness, polyester and sweat. (Yes, Jimmy, what's that you say at the back of the class? That the '70's were also the Second Golden Age of American Movies? Quite so but that's why all those TV producers and writers equate the decade with all that stylized hair, sweat and polyester. They saw it all in some of the decade's greatest movies.)

Elsewhere on the new season front, the news is not a fraction as interesting. The idea of an Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under") series about vampires on HBO is fascinating until you actually make the mistake of spending time watching "True Blood." Nothing on HBO is nearly as good these days as "Dexter," "Californication" and "Brotherhood" (with new episodes upcoming) on Showtime.

J.J. Abrams' "Fringe" is the sort of TV series whose first episode can be hyped to a fare-thee-well while people wind up being bored spitless by it. "The Mentalist," on the other hand, has settled very nicely into a new post-"Monk" niche, i.e. the Defective Detective, the wacko investigator who is likely to be just as nutty as anyone he investigates, if not more so.

In that new style, you can add the returning Damian Lewis in "Life" a show that gets better all the time. (The show, by the way, has moved to Friday nights.)

The most depressing offering of the new season to me so far is TNT's "Raising the Bar," a standard microwave meal from the kitchens of Stephen Bochco that, frankly, seems to me like a bad and toothless parody of a Stephen Bochco lawyer series.

Bochco's kids are involved in it up to their trust funds. And it stars Mark Paul Gosselar, Dennis Franz' young co-star on "NYPD Blue." Think of it as a "Baby Bochco" lawyer show, one that everyone hopes one day will grow up to be a full-scale Bochco series but at the moment is toddling around its time slot bumping into the furniture and falling ka-boom on its well-diapered bottom.

I say feed it, burp it, change it and put it to bed.

Grown-ups need better TV than that.


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