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Two new TV Christmas gifts arrive today, courtesy of the USA Network. Both are fruitcakes; one just happens to be a little more fresh and the other a little more stale.
First comes "Monk" at 8 p.m. Now in its sixth season, "Monk" has been one of the best and most popular shows on cable for years, with Tony Shalhoub playing the title character as a neurotic detective suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Shalhoub's skill at bending the role for both comedy and pathos has earned him three Emmy Awards and made the series a fan favorite. Yet honesty compels me to point out the show has been on the decline for some time, and this season saw it settle into a parade of guest stars, including Sarah Silverman, Sharon Lawrence, Gail O'Grady and, last but not least, Snoop Dogg, the former cutting-edge gangsta rapper who is now pretty much the poster boy for any TV show that has jumped the shark.
Tonight's episode, "Mr. Monk and the Man Who Shot Santa," is no holiday revival. In fact, it's not even as good as last year's Christmas special, which at least featured the excellent Dan Hedaya as Monk's father. It finds Monk apparently shooting a street-corner Santa who is throwing stuffed animals off a roof to children below. Monk claims it was in self-defense, but when a local tabloid-news TV reporter, described as "a vampire with a press pass" by Ted Levine's Capt. Stottlemyre, gets hold of the story, she turns Monk into a Christmas pariah.
Monk does an interview with her during the dinner-time news, proclaiming, "I have the truth on my side," but flummoxed by her questioning, he goes on to reveal, yes, the truth behind Santa for all the kids at home.
"Oh no, that can't be good," Stottlemyre says, watching back at the stationhouse.
Never fear. This episode reveals the whodunit to viewers before Monk even figures it out, then blithely watches him solve it, complete with a final sequence duking it out with Santa himself.
Early on, the show reminds a viewer that this is the 10th anniversary of the murder of Monk's wife, Trudy, a crime that brought on his disorder and that remains unsolved. But that's the only mention made of it. That element of lost love is what made the early "Monks" great, as in the third-season premiere, when he finds the man who actually set the bomb that killed her dying in a hospital and turns off his morphine drip -- only to turn it back on in a gesture of forgiveness from his dead wife. That's great TV, but "Monk" rarely approaches those heights anymore. It's just a playfully quirky police procedural, no more, no less.
The same can be said of "Psych," which follows at 9 p.m. on USA, but the difference is "Psych" has never aspired to be anything better. It gets by on the friendly chemistry between James Roday's Shawn and Dule Hill's Gus, and there's plenty of that to go around in tonight's holiday's episode, "Gus' Dad May Have Killed an Old Guy."
Shawn is a consultant to the police, and Gus is his childhood friend. Shawn had incredible powers of observation drilled into him by his domineering father, to the point where he now solves crimes with such ease he has to pretend he's psychic -- thus the title.
Like Monk's murdered wife, the borderline abuse Shawn suffered at the hands of his dad is the show's one dark corner, but with Corbin Bernsen playing the father it rarely goes there except to play it for laughs. Tonight they have their annual contest about who can guess the other's present, and then they poke fun at dysfunctional family gatherings by joking that it's been all of three hours since their last heated argument.
A-caroling they all go, along with Gus' parents, played by the welcome guest stars Ernie Hudson and Phylicia Rashad. But when they discover a murdered body hanging in the vestibule of a neighbor's house, things get a little complicated, especially when Gus' dad and mom are both charged in the crime.
Never fear, Shawn will come to Gus' aid, if only to prove himself worthy to his parents, who apparently think Shawn has been leading Gus astray all these years.
"I feel like Pepe Le Pew when he looked up 'pew' in the dictionary," an abashed Shawn says upon discovering his ill repute.
Even in a holiday episode, "Psych" is content to crack wise, crack the case and get out with a few chuckles. Unfortunately, so is "Monk" these days, but it is capable of being so much better than merely a good little TV show.
Remotely interesting: Even though the Federal Communications Commission railroaded through the Tribune Co. sale to Sam Zell last week, the grassroots group Chicago Media Action intends to go ahead with its protest-caroling demonstration at 5 p.m. today at Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago.
The fine new comedy "Aliens in America" airs a clever Christmas episode called "Church" at 7:30 p.m. Monday on WGN Channel 9, so give it a try, because what the show really needs for the holidays is a bigger audience. … WPWR Channel 50 airs "White Christmas" at 7 p.m. Monday. The Smashing Pumpkins perform on "Control Room Presents" at 8 p.m. Saturday on Channel 50.
Penn State University's Paranormal Research Society gets its own show in "Paranormal State," debuting at 9 p.m. Monday on A&E. … "Nick News With Linda Ellerbee" runs "A Global Warning From the Kids of the World" at 8 p.m. Sunday. … The History Channel runs the special "1968 With Tom Brokaw" at 8 p.m. Sunday.
End of the dial: Remember LeAlan Jones, the teenager who did the National Public Radio documentaries "Ghetto Life 101" and "Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse"? Now a local freelance writer, he's one of the people profiled on Harry Porterfield's "People, Places & Things" in the episode "Against all Odds" at 6 p.m. Saturday on WLS Channel 7.
WKQX 101.1-FM's Twisted 14 concerts take place Monday through Wednesday at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Waste Watcher's choice: Nobody expected "Casablanca" to be an enduring film, so the effortless ease of the performances is part of what has made it a timeless classic. Screenwriter Julius Epstein later admitted the script contained "more corn than in the states of Kansas and Iowa combined. But when corn works," he added, "there's nothing better." See for yourself -- again -- at 9 p.m. Saturday on Turner Classic Movies.