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THE TINY SCREEN: Redemption:

If it’s a thin line between love and hate, it’s an even thinner line between sin and redemption. All that is required is a bit of humble pie and thirty lashes by a self-help guru to pave the way to newfound glory. Witness the recent turn of heretofore crazy man and perv Pat O’Brien who mysteriously left “Access Hollywood” for CBS’ “The Insider” before his bad behavior got the best of him and sucked him out of the public eye and rehab.

But worry not, O’Brien is back and better than ever and Dr. Phil (self-help guru of choice as anointed by Oprah) made the rounds last week to make sure we knew it. O’Brien’s public rehab began after his real life one, during which he underwent treatment for drugs and alcohol abuse just as the internet got hold of some the host’s racy telephone messages, horny old dog that he was.

So the game plan for Pat’s resurrection was as follows: hour-long prime time Dr. Phil special that played many tapes of O’Brien and had Dr. Phil making O’Brien repent, confess, own up all in the name, says Dr. Phil, of shedding light on the big problem of alcoholism and drug addiction. Pat O’Brien – the poster boy for turning bad behavior around. This is to be followed by O’Brien’s appearance on Dr. Phil’s regular daytime program and, finally, the well-connected O’Brien will return to “The Insider.”

If all goes as planned, O’Brien will be back at work and no one will ever have to really pay for any of O’Brien’s odd indiscretions. The public will forgive him, even pity him, and it will make ratings soar for “The Insider,” a direct competitor with O’Brien’s old show, “Access.” It’s all so oddly familiar.

Back in 1976, Sidney Lumet released the prophetic film Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a TV anchorman who loses his mind one day. And instead of taking him off the air, the network keeps him on the air because it’s a ratings gangbuster. Turns out, Beale’s ramblings make for great television. He urges viewers to go to their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” And they do, but, of course, they go right on taking it. They take it every night and never do anything else.

What Pat O’Brien needs is a year off. But they gave him two months, time off that seemed to suit the network a hell of a lot more than it’s going to suit O’Brien, whether he was the driving force behind this or not. In Network, when it came time for Americans to tune into reality, the news, they got spiritual paranoia, religious mumbo jumbo. Now, they tune in for dirty laundry in any shape or form. Do we want to see Pat O’Brien squirm under Dr. Phil’s “tell it like it is” thumb? Of course, we do.

O’Brien has something in common with another beleaguered sycophant this week – Paula Abdul, who has been slurring her words a lot more lately and acting odder and odder. But is anyone going to meddle with a hit show’s perfect formula? With the most popular “judge” on the panel? Absolutely not. She is the public’s angel. Well, she was the public’s angel, now her head is on its way to the chopping block – can a rap session with Dr. Phil be too far off?

“American Idol” itself epitomizes what we want from our celebrities and the people who report on celebrities, like O’Brien. We want them to do well, just not too well. We want them to stumble and fall in our sight line so we can watch in horror. Anything to keep us from turning off the television and doing something more productive with our lives.

Anyone who watched O’Brien could see he was belligerent with women. When he was on “Access Hollywood” he couldn’t get a monologue in without commenting on one of his co-host Nancy O’Dell’s body parts, a schtick that would, unfortunately, live on in O’Brien’s replacement, Billy Bush, another letch. Poor Nancy O’Dell, why hasn’t she left? O’Brien, for all of his obvious lasciviousness, had no trouble fitting in with the “in crowd,” and could always get the best interviews, and the best interviewees. So what did it matter that his foundation was crumbling?

Network remains pertinent because it nailed the nasty, co-dependent relationship between the networks and the hungry beast they continually feed. Sooner or later everyone who goes before a television camera is going to take his or her turn on the chopping block. And we’re all going to keep watching. We’ll never be so mad that we won’t take it anymore, no matter who tells us to shout it from the rooftops.

This Week’s Notable TV

Thursday, May 5

Angela’s Ashes (**), a disappointment, 7:30 p.m., WE.

Better Than Chocolate (**), 8 p.m., IFC.

Battlefield Britain, 9 p.m., KCET.

Damage (***), when bad things happen to good people, 9 p.m., IFC.

Friday, May 6

Dracula (***), from 1979, 7:30 p.m., AMC.

Monsters, Inc. (***), 8 p.m., DISNEY.

Rush Hour 2 (*), the first one was bad enough, FOX.

Mystic Iran, 10 p.m., KVCR.

Saturday, May 7

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (***), 7:30 p.m., ABC.

Star Wars: Episode I (*), 8 p.m., UPN.

Man in the Iron Mask (**), 8 p.m., KTLA.

Sometimes in April, a PBS original, A Hutu soldier tries to get his family to safety during the Rwandan genocide, 9 p.m., KCET.

Sunday,May 8

The Matrix (****), the first and only, 7:30 p.m., TBS.

Elvis, the much-hyped movie on the King, 9 p.m., CBS.

Blue Hawaii (**), speaking of Elvis, 9 p.m., AMC.

Building Babies, An Inner Adventure, 9 p.m., SCIENCE.

Monday, May 9

The American Experience: The Carter Family, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? 9 p.m., KCET.

Pale Rider (***), 7:30 p.m., TCM.

Reds (****), 9 p.m., TCM.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, 10 p.m., IFC.

Tuesday, May 10

Heaven Can Wait (****), 7:30 p.m., FMC.

American Idol, returns after much brouhaha, 8 p.m., FOX.

The Philadelphia Story (****), 9 p.m., TCM.

Newport Jazz Festival 2003, 9 p.m., KVCR.

Wednesday, May 11

Showgirls, still hanging on as a cult hit, 7:30 p.m., VH1.

Lost, 8 p.m., ABC.

Cooking Under Fire, 8:30 p.m., KCET.

American Masters: James Dean, 9 p.m., KCET.

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