Critic's choice: the week ahead in TV

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HOWZAT! KERRY PACKER'S WAR
Sunday, 8.30pm, Channel Nine  ★★★★

It's June 1976 and, as the pre-credits sequence reminds us, it's a time of great colour, movement and unrest. In the US, the counterculture may have been and (almost) gone but, in Britain and Australia, the establishment still has a firm grip on society, even as the next generation is rising up against it. That's the backdrop for this cracking tale that presents a microcosm of that culture clash. (After all, plenty of people will tell you that cricket itself is simply life writ small.) If the first five minutes or so of this lush two-parter feel a bit unsteady, it quickly finds its feet. It is always tricky, for instance, casting well-known faces as other well-known faces - it takes a while for Lachy Hulme to stop being Lachy Hulme with bad hair and a pot belly to truly become Kerry Packer. But, all credit to the man, he absolutely does. Likewise with the Australian cricketers. It doesn't help that - in the great tradition of Australian cricket teams throughout the ages - they like to adopt a uniform style in hairdos and facial hair, so at first, not only are we saying to ourselves, ''Ooh! It's Dr Patrick!'' or ''Look! That guy from Laid!'', it's also quite difficult to tell one luxuriously mustachioed chap from another. The first few scenes in the script also feel a little uncertain, with the exposition delivered hard, fast and thick. The good news? Before we reach the first ad break, we are totally sucked into this colourful world and its characters. The squirrels from producers Southern Star must have been raiding op shops across the country to outfit both this cast and the mob from Puberty Blues. Never have so many high pants and body shirts been collected in one place at one time. The set dressing is equally impressive and composer Stephen Rae does a fabulous job with the incidental music. The top-40 hits are fun, but it's the original score that really builds the tension. In short, the attention to detail here is a wondrous thing, subtly layering elements to have us completely immersed in what was indeed a stupendous battle. And if this is unquestionably a celebration of Channel Nine and its remaking of international cricket, the network also has plenty to be proud of. I certainly got a real thrill when I heard that distinctive Nine cricket theme for the first time. I can't wait for next week's instalment.

HOUSE OF LIES
Monday, 9.40pm, Channel Ten  ★★★☆

Don Cheadle and his bottom headline this saucy, quirky comedy about a group of high-end management consultants. So does Josh Lawson! So does Kristen Bell! So does Ben Schwartz! So there are five reasons right there to give it a try. But wait, there's more. The series is based on the non-fiction book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, resulting in a rude, lewd romp that's part Burn Notice, part Hustle, part Californication and totally a take-no-prisoners satire on 21st-century capitalism. You certainly get the feeling that when Cheadle's Marty Kaan breaks the fourth wall to provide insights into the dark art of his trade, he's speaking the truth. Add some really likeable characters (despite their amorality) and a zingy script, and you have smart adult comedy that won't please everyone, but will please some an awful lot.

HUNG
Tuesday, 11pm, Channel Seven  ★★★☆

Here's another take on capitalism and the free market that's just as excoriating. They do call prostitution the oldest profession and in this sharp, mordant dramedy, market forces are stripped back to their basics: sex, money, power. Despite his thriving career as a gigolo, Ray is feeling powerless, dominated by his pimp, Tanya, and by his clients. Tanya is struggling to maintain her power base, with both Ray and the competition. And the competition? Well, they're in there, tooth and nail, in this most deregulated of markets. The nice thing, of course, is that some big ideas are wrapped up in a clever script and presented by characters that have developed beautifully during the past two seasons. Always good fun.

THE X FACTOR
Monday, 7.30pm, Channel Seven 
★★★

EVERYBODY DANCE NOW
Sunday, 8pm, Channel Ten  ★★★

I WILL SURVIVE
Wednesday, 7pm, Channel Ten  ★★★

Overwhelmed by the shiny floor shows being thrust at us this ratings quarter? Don't be. Yes, they all feature folk performing for their lives. Yes, they all feature performers on an extraordinary personal journey. Yes, it seems a condition of entry - at least for The X Factor and Dance Now - that contestants must have oddly spelt names. But there's also plenty to distinguish them. For instance, I Will Survive features professional performers having a second stab at stardom in an outback setting. Dance Now, in stark contrast, features professional performers having a second stab at stardom in a large urban arena. The X Factor and I Will Survive are judged and coached by professional performers having a second stab at stardom. Dance Now is merely hosted by professional performers having a second stab at stardom. I Will Survive and The X Factor feature people who can sing and dance. Dance Now features people who can dance but not sing. See? We're talking apples, oranges and pears here. Have a taste and see which one takes your fancy.

PAY TV

THE NEWSROOM
Monday, 8.30pm, SoHo  ★★★★

You can't help but come to a new Aaron Sorkin drama with expectations. Essentially, you want it to be as good as The West Wing. You want compelling characters. You want fast talking. You want big ideas. Happily, on the whole, The Newsroom delivers. In the opening moments, our hero, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), delivers a bit of that shocking, masterful speechifying that is Sorkin's specialty. Like Sorkin's best protagonists, McAvoy is one of those people who's never lost for words, who always has the facts at his fingertips, who says the things other people are too meek, or stupid, to say. Anyone who's ever been caught up in an argument in which you know you're right but just don't have the tools to prove it wishes they could be that guy. On the downside, this first episode gets a bit bogged down in its middle section, with some less-than-delicate exposition and a whole lot of personal stuff, and there's no doubt that - for now at least - The Newsroom slips a gear every time Daniels is not on screen. It does, however, create a visceral sense of the adrenalin rush of covering breaking news, and its slow-exhale aftermath. And if we know, rationally, that the picture of news and news makers presented here is fantasy (just as the politics of The West Wing was), it's unquestionably a fantasy many of us ardently wish were true. In short, it's not perfect, but it's brimming with the intelligent and unashamed idealism that makes the best Sorkin dramas such a thrilling and addictive ride.

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION AUSTRALIA
Wednesday, 8.30pm, LifeStyle  ★★★☆

House hunting in Byron Bay? Yes, please. Tonight, a Sydney couple decide to shift down a gear or two after a family tragedy. In rural Victoria, a dairy farmer decides his heart-attack-inducing workload requires a change of everything, including location. Enter Bryce and Veronica to help them achieve their dreams. Our couple has a million bucks to splash, our farmer less than half that, which means we get a really nice mix of lavish estates and humble brick veneers to visit. And, as always, while our house hunters are both picky and a little confused about their priorities, they're thoroughly likeable people and we can't help but wish them well. The other great thing about this series is its persistent element of reality. Not everyone finds their dream home; not everyone gets to buy it when they do.

THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER
Saturday, 6.30pm, Fox8  ★★★

I'm not sure how closely this resembles the actual lives of American teens. I imagine the actual lives of American teens are about as dramatic and action-packed as the actual lives of Australian teens, which is to say, not so much. Despite that, this glossy soap is a lot of fun and while we never actually get to see anyone have sex (or even kiss with any kind of commitment), it's undoubtedly ruled by hormones: mating, dating, breaking up. And in that respect at least, I'd say it's a pretty accurate reflection of the latter high-school years throughout the Western world.

TODDLERS AND TIARAS
Monday, 7.30pm, LifeStyle You  ★★★

On the one hand, watching this series makes you feel a little dirty. On the other, it's so darn hard not to watch. In this episode, June is not an attractive woman. She's not even trying to be. Instead, all her energies are devoted to, (a) extreme couponing, and (b) preparing her six-year-old princess, Alana, for pageants. Also six years old, gum-chewing Heaven is already a three-year veteran of the pageant scene. And then there's eight-year-old Laci, an eating disorder in the making. Laci's mother is not even pretending that Laci wants to participate in pageants; she's simply compelling her to through a combination of carrot (chocolate) and stick (spankings). This show teeters on the line between car-crash entertainment and evidence for child services.

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