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A seasonal mix Combat, musicals and more -- networks serve a smorgasbord of lukewarm specials during the holidays

It's that time of year. The networks realize you're out shopping or partying, time for them to clear their shelves and offer different things that might be bargains for viewers and advertisers.

It is time for a poignant documentary about the price of war, a musical remake that reminds us what television used to be like and a game show that hopes to get lucky and become the next "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." And, of course, a sappy Christmas movie.

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The one program worth watching is "Tom Brokaw Reports: To War and Back," airing at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 2. The documentary offers a poignant look at friendship and male bonding during and after war.

Brokaw, the former Nightly News anchor and author of "The Greatest Generation" goes to Glens Falls, near Albany, to talk with the survivors of a group of seven close friends and Army National Guardsmen whose lives were dramatically altered by their tour of duty in Iraq.

One of the seven died, three were seriously injured and they all have emotional scars. Brokaw's experiences with World War II veterans helps him ask the right questions. The respect the soldiers have for him is evident as they reveal the difficulties they had in Iraq and later adjusting to life back home.

They are haunted by the death of one friend, feel deeply for his mother and haven't found it easy to return home to a so-called normal life that isn't as exciting as their Iraq mission.

It isn't a political piece. The survivors believe there is no place for politics while you are in combat. And they say they have no regrets for going "Over There."

You couldn't blame them if they felt anger. They didn't expect to go to war. After all, no infantry unit from the New York National Guard had been sent into combat since World War II and their lives were dramatically altered.

A guitarist lost some fingers. An athlete suffered a severe leg injury. A disfigured third man suffered such severe head trauma that he's had to have several operations and he faces more.

You sympathize deeply with them all and realize their story is being played out in several American communities, including our own. We can only hope that Brokaw follows this story of sacrifice and gives periodic updates about the lives of these patriotic All-American men.

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Now on to the creaky Broadway musical remake, "Once Upon a Mattress," airing at 7 p.m. Sunday on Channel 7. It reportedly has been sitting on ABC's shelf for more than a year and plays under the "Wonderful World of Disney" umbrella.

The musical version of "The Princess and the Pea," it has a stellar cast that includes Carol Burnett, Tracey Ullman, Tom Smothers, Michael Boatman, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Hibbard and current Broadway stars Denis O'Hare and Matthew Morrison.

Burnett, who starred in Ullman's role, Princess Winnifred, off and on Broadway in 1959 and a couple of TV productions, is one of the producers. This time, she plays Queen Aggravain, who is putting obstacles in the way of pea-brained Prince Dauntless' (O'Hare) pursuit of a wife because she doesn't want to share her boy with anyone.

Burnett gets to mug and dress in colorful costumes designed by Bob Mackie and Ullman brings energy to her role as an off-beat princess. But the songs aren't memorable, making this "Mattress" often fall flat unless Morrison is singing.

Once upon a time, whimsical productions like this might have gathered big TV audiences. But those times have long since gone.

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When "Mattress" ends, "The Christmas Blessing," at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channel 4, begins. It is a sequel to the highly-rated 2002 CBS movie with Rob Lowe, "The Christmas Shoes." Lowe appears in several scenes as the rich guy who discovered the true meaning of life three years earlier and has become a philanthropist.

Neil Patrick Harris ("How I Met Your Mother") is the romantic lead in "Blessing." The former "Doogie Howser" plays a medical resident, Nathan, struggling with his career choice and the inability to find his dead mother's prized shoes. He returns home to be with his widower dad, meets a beautiful teacher, Megan, (Rebecca Gayheart) and a young boy (Angus T. Jones of "Two and a Half Men"), Charlie, who also grew up without his mom.

The roles are a gift to Harris and young Jones, who play characters who are far removed from their sitcom personas.

But it is an extremely slow-moving, depressing story, which often finds Nathan having to play doctor when he just wants to be a mechanic for a while like his dad. The story mechanically moves along until the final 15 minutes, when everything is neatly tied together in the emotional way we expect our packaged Christmas movies to end.

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Finally, NBC offers its version of the latest international game show hit, "Deal or No Deal," airing at 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. The ubiquitous Howie Mandel is the host of a simple game of chance for contestants who are in danger of forgetting they are playing for real money.

In an episode made available for review, a woman named Karen picks one of 26 suitcases held by beautiful models. It may contain a prize money figure as low as a penny and as high as a million. She narrows it down by picking several other cases at a time, with an unseen banker offering a sure prize at various junctures depending on what previously turns up. After each of his periodic offers, she has to decide whether to take his deal or not. She gets advice from her family, who is invested in the decision, and the studio audience, which is not.

It isn't exactly a taxing game and if you expect some skill involved in your game shows, then you're going to shout "no deal." But if you start watching, the odds are it will be tough to walk away before you learn whether greed will win out over a safer and smarter choice.

Tom Brokaw Reports: To War and Back

8 p.m. Sunday, Channel 2

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Once Upon a Mattress

7 p.m. Sunday on Channel 7

Review: 2 stars

The Christmas Blessing

9 p.m. Sunday on Channel 4

Review: 2 stars

Deal or No Deal

Starts 8 p.m. Monday

Review: 2 stars

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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