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Jeff Simon: Three TV shows you won't want to miss on Thursday nights

Jeff Simon: Three TV shows you won't want to miss on Thursday nights

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Tamala Jones, Dan Bucatinsky and Katey Sagal star in "Rebel," a new ABC series.

Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

Forget it. You can't do it. A DVR can help, but it can't solve the problem.

You need to have two TVs – at least – to see everything worth seeing that is network television at 10 p.m. Thursday nights. Even if you DVR what's on two networks, you're still going to have to go to your bedroom – or on-demand later – and watch the third new network show being shown on TV in 2021.

It's one of network TV's occasional Demolition Derby time slots where three genuinely interesting new TV shows crash into each other and you have to have a watching strategy.

The three in 10 p.m. rivalry are NBC's "Law & Order: Organized Crime," CBS' "Clarice," which premiered more than a month ago, and ABC's "Rebel," very loosely based on the life exploits of advocate Erin Brockovich and starring Katey Sagal, a now-senior actress who can often be counted on to stretch TV audience notions of what's normal (see such previous anti-social smashes as "Married: With Children" and "Sons of Anarchy").

The big winner here, on my scorecard, is "Law & Order: Organized Crime," the newest entry in the vast franchise which has become something resembling TV's very own programming infrastructure (with Dick Wolf as network TV's equivalent of Henry Ford).

That's the one where Christopher Meloni, as Detective Elliot Stabler, is returning to a role he left in a contract dispute 10 years ago to face off regularly against co-star Dylan McDermott in 2021.

That, for the time being, seems to be the basic plot and I can't tell you how much I'm into it.

Meloni just hit 60. He's a long way from when he first gained attention for his poses on Tom Fontana's prison drama "Oz." That doesn't stop him, mind you, from being appreciated on social media now for whatever remains of his well-exercised beefcake supremacy in his seventh decade. But what I personally like so much is that now that he's older, there's no kidding around: he's a first-rate character actor who has somehow drifted into stardom – always my favorite occupational dynamic among Hollywood stars.

Look at Meloni's narrow face and you can see on the tube that no one in hair and makeup is trying to take the mileage lines off his face. Mix that with his virtuosic ability to glower into the camera at Arctic temperatures that match George C. Scott's and you've got a terrific way to bring back Elliot Stabler, the most tempestuous and least controlled constable in the New York Police Department.

Get this now: According to the new show's setup, Stabler has been in Europe doing undercover work investigating terrorists and international mobs.

As soon as he got back to America to check in, his wife was killed and Olivia Benson – to whom he never even said goodbye – is even more surprised than the rest of us.

So he's already at half-tilt war with McDermott, the smooth, agreeably handsome actor whose genial suavity is a diametric opposite of Meloni's predatory stare. That's the paradox, you see, of the character McDermott is playing. He's an organized crime boss so nasty but so well-disguised that he seemed to take no small secret surprise in bumping off his own mobster father (played by the venerable Chazz Palminteri).

I'm finding all of this mesmerizing, I must admit.

Add to all of it, the future possibility of Elliot and Olivia finally resolving a whole generation's worth of sexual tension and you've got Wolf and his "Law & Order: SVU" people showing everyone how it's done for a new century.

Thursdays, NBC

Sure, look, there’s no reason to pretend that a “Law & Order” spinoff is going to win any Emmys and it’s almost certainly not equipped to handle conversations about policing that we need to be having, but Christopher Meloni’s Elliot Stabler is back and that’s all that matters.

What I must confess at this point is that I was never a "Law & Order: SVU" addict before, but that I have been using "Law & Order: SVU" reruns all over the cable dial as the pandemic programming equivalent of comfort food, whenever nothing else commands attention. TV's procedural attack on humanity's ugliest behavioral grunge has become immensely magnetic in this new decade when it seems to have truly altered the American agenda.

Not so unbeatable in the comfort food sweepstakes is "Rebel" on ABC which is loosely based on Brockovich's exploits after she beat the stuffing out of Pacific Gas and Electric in the Steven Soderbergh movie that starred Julia Roberts in one of the best roles she'll ever have.

At a perfect time in her performing life, Roberts was captured at the apogee of everything exceptional about her that an audience would love – her funky wit, her charm, her beauty, her sex appeal, her folksy way of subverting the hidebound status quo.

The combination of Roberts and Soderbergh at the movies was close to unbeatable. It was pop pulp feminism at its zenith. Roberts won a best actress Oscar to prove it. (It sure didn't hurt that Albert Finney was her droll co-star.)

Right about here, I must openly disclose about "Rebel" that I have a family connection to the showrunner of it, Krista Vernoff. She has, for some time now, been one of the reigning functionaries of Shonda Rhimes' fantasy factory called Shondaland. Most important to me, though, is that she is a longtime friend of my daughter, who, in fact, directed a couple of her one-act plays in Los Angeles, which I was delighted to travel across country to see.

Vernoff is a very talented young woman. Most importantly, "Rebel" star Sagal in her senior years is a truly formidable TV presence who couldn't possibly be more deserving at this moment of a smash TV hit as commendable as her first TV smash "Married: With Children" was naughty and gigglesome.

The show's debut episode, frankly, made me nervous about the possibility of virtue-signaling. I appreciate doing good immensely. I'm not sure watching people do so very much good every week isn't going to drown me in more virtue than I'm built to handle.

I've got nothing but faith, though, in Vernoff and Sagal so far to figure out how to do it. So I'll stick around for a few weeks at least. These are hugely talented people.

"Clarice" has already proved itself to be an acceptable dark and slick spinoff of the whole Thomas Harris plot universe that has already given us Clarice Starling and everyone's favorite serial-killing cannibal, Hannibal Lecter. He hasn't appeared yet on "Clarice" and may never, as the show's chronology is plotted out. The new show is all Clarice – West Virginia cunning against psychosis, evil and, this time around, the depredations of Big Pharma.

Too much of a good thing being arrayed for one Thursday night time slot?

You bet.

But are we or are we not just the TV audience who deserves it after the year we've all had?

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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