To rise up, A&E wallows in depravity

By Mike Hale

New York Times News Service

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2011 3:00 p.m. MST

A&E, now a joint venture of Hearst, Disney and NBC Universal, began life in the 1980s as a channel focused on fine arts and high-brow entertainment, and it's easy to make fun of the changes it's gone through and to see in them a metaphor for the general drift of our culture. But there's been a certain bloodthirstiness about A&E almost from the start. Its original lineup was heavy on British murder mysteries, and when it moved toward reality programming in the early 2000s — along with every other basic cable channel — its best shows were tabloid-style true-crime shockers like "City Confidential" and "Cold Case Files."

"Beyond Scared Straight," whose executive producer, Arnold Shapiro, directed the original "Scared Straight!" in 1978, takes the cautionary impulse of the A&E prime-time schedule to a new meta level: We're getting the message at the same time that we're watching someone else (who's more at risk than we are) getting the message. Lessons are being taught, and faces rubbed in unpleasant reality, in multiple dimensions.

You could lament the programming strategy that is being applied here, but there's one more thing, beyond titillation and voyeurism, that ties the A&E lineup together: From "Intervention" and "The First 48" to "Beyond Scared Straight" and "Heavy," these are well-made, compulsively watchable series. Someone in the programming department knows what Tod Browning recognized when he made "Freaks" in the 1930s: America always loves, and needs, a good sideshow.

On TV tonight

College basketball: Ohio State at Illinois (10 a.m., Ch. 2): Villanova at Syracuse (10 a.m., ESPN); Arkansas-Little Rock at Florida Atlantic (11 a.m., ESPN2); Stanford at UCLA (noon, Ch. 2); Kansas State at Texas A&M (noon, ESPN); Temple at Xavier (1 p.m., ESPN2); Wyoming at Air Force (1:30 p.m., the Mtn.); Texas at Kansas (2 p.m., Ch. 2); New Mexico at UNLV (2 p.m., Versus); Duke at Wake Forest (2 p.m., ESPN); Creighton at Missouri State (3 p.m., ESPN2); Kentucky at South Carolina (4 p.m., ESPN); Utah at TCU (4 p.m., the Mtn.); Memphis at Alabama-Birmingham (5:30 p.m., ESPN2); Michigan State at Purdue (7 p.m., ESPN); BYU at Colorado State (7 p.m., the Mtn.) Boise State at Idaho (8 p.m., KUTVDT2)

NBA basketball (5:30 p.m., FSN): Jazz at 76ers

CSI: Miami (7 p.m., Ch. 2): A blind man is the only witness to a girl's abduction.

Wipeout (7 p.m., Ch. 4): A rocket scientist, a dancer and a river guide face obstacles.

The Mentalist (8 p.m., Ch. 2): Romantic sparks fly when Patrick crosses paths with a supposed psychic during a murder investigation.

Law & Order: Los Angeles (8 p.m., Ch. 5): Winters and Jaruszalski question multiple suspects when a murderous cult member is stabbed to death.

Law & Order: SVU (9 p.m., Ch. 5): Detectives try to identify a girl who is so traumatized after being raped that she cannot tell them her name.

On TV Sunday

Hockey (10:30 a.m., Ch. 5): Flyers at Blackhawks. Skiing (11 a.m., Ch. 2): Deer Valley Celebrity Skifest

NFL football: Somebody vs. somebody in the NFC championship (1 p.m., Ch. 13); Somebody vs. somebody in the AFC championship (4:30 p.m., Ch. 2)

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (7 p.m., Ch. 4): The team helps build a home for a single mother of two who divides her time among family, work, college, and volunteering for the Girl Scouts.

The Simpsons (7 p.m., Ch. 13): Homer insists Bart must earn the new dirt bike he wants.

Bob's Burgers (7:30 p.m., Ch. 13): Bob is furious when a documentary filmmaker tries to makes a statement by placing a live cow outside the restaurant.

Hawaii Five-0 (8 p.m., Ch. 2): The head of the Tsunami Warning center disappears as the island is being evacuated for a major storm.

Desperate Housewives (8 p.m., Ch. 4): Lynette is angry when Renee starts spending a lot of time with Tom.

Masterpiece Classic (8 p.m., Ch. 7): Part 3 of "Downton Abbey."

Family Guy (8 p.m., Ch. 13): Meg offers to check on Joe while Bonnie is out of town.

The Cleveland Show (8:30 p.m., Ch. 13): Tim becomes consumed with power after accepting a management position at Waterman Cable

Brothers & Sisters (9 p.m., Ch. 4):Kitty meets a handyman while staying in Ojai

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