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Friday, January 14, 2005 - Page updated at 09:11 A.M.

A full plate of tempting new entries on cable

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist

Enlarge this photoRANDY TEPPER / SHOWTIME

Kirstie Alley's lack of self-pity and over-the-top comedic flair serve her well in Showtime's "Fat Actress." The show, with Alley playing herself, mixes fantasy and reality.

LOS ANGELES — If space is the final frontier, then time is the first fatality.

I haven't enough of either to do justice to all the intriguing cable TV shows presented here at the midseason version of the Television Critics' press tour. Only two days in, and already behind.

But while à la carte cable may never be passed by Congress or volunteered by your local carrier, I can exercise a little freedom-of-choice fantasy in this column.

Here's what would go into my personal cable lineup in coming weeks:

"Battlestar Galactica," 9-11 p.m. today, Sci-Fi Channel. True, I'm not a big sci-fi fan. On the other hand, that means no preconceived notions.

This new version of the 1978 series may outrage loyalists and spark an e-mail conflagration like the one that accompanied the "Battlestar" miniseries two years ago. Nevertheless, it's a big improvement — more character- and story-driven than the original. The apocalyptic tone no longer seems camp.

Edward James Olmos reprises his miniseries role as Commander Adama. In a nod to tradition, Richard Hatch of the original series (and prolific author of "Battlestar" books) will guest star in two episodes.

"Great science fiction is visionary and about people, about exploring the universe and the mysteries of the human heart," Hatch said to critics yesterday. Amen.

"The Exonerated," 9 p.m. Jan. 27, Court TV (time TBD). Maybe I'm just really glad that Court TV has become television's most aggressive investigator of our system of justice — and as network chief Henry Schlieff would add, "our system of injustice."

Based on the Off-Broadway play, "The Exonerated" focuses on six individuals on death row before their convictions were overturned. Court transcripts and statements from the exonerees are used, with the story updated to how they tried to rebuild their lives.

Schlieff was able to attract a cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Delroy Lindo, Aidan Quinn, Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover and new actor David Brown Jr. Their belief in the project radiated from the stage.

"Robot Chicken," 11:30 p.m. Feb. 20, Cartoon Network. A new stop-motion sketch show from Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, it ruthlessly parodies every aspect of pop culture from excessively violent video games to "The Real World" cast.

Better yet, "Robot Chicken" is 15 minutes long. "It's tightly packed, ADD-type television," said Green. Most sketches last only a few seconds; the speed belies the enormous amount of craftsmanship that goes into many tiny, tiny sets, props and costumes.

There are times when your inner frat boy cries out for unchecked, uncensored and inhumane comedy. "Robot Chicken" satisfied my blunt cravings.

"Fat Actress," 10 p.m. March 7, Showtime. Series that zigzag between fantasy and reality often seem awkward and contrived. And a story about an overweight actress struggling to keep her career alive sends off bathos warnings.

Forget all that. "Fat Actress," starring Kirstie Alley as herself, is so beyond pity that it's an insult to call her a survivor. The same over-the-top comedic flair that made her a pleasure in "Cheers" and a bit scary in those Pier 1 commercials is on full view here.

Alley also successfully recruits many real-life entertainment figures to flesh out the landscape of a Hollywood where thin talent is no barrier if your body is thin, too. Like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO, the resulting deadpan interactions are a hoot.

"Kojak," March on USA Network (date and time TBD). The trove of '70s TV drama is apparently ripe for plundering this spring. This time, it's Ving Rhames giving new oomph to the old series about a hard-boiled, lollipop-loving police detective.

As the new "Kojak" in this one-hour drama, Rhames vows to play it straight. His challenge will be to subdue the collective memory of Telly Savalas.

"The Shield," 10 p.m., March 15, FX. I already was looking forward to the fourth season of television's best cop show, but the addition of Glenn Close in the role of Michael Chiklis' new boss promises to ratchet up the formidability factor.

It isn't only that Close is a terrific actress. It's the sheer rightness of her persona for the pingponging tension and flagrant displays of testosterone that characterize "The Shield."

"I just thought, wow, we can tango," said Chiklis in an interview. Or was that tangle?

"Into the West," June on TNT (date TBD). Hearkening back to its history of epic Westerns, TNT plans a 12-hour miniseries that explores the multigenerational saga of two families on the frontier.

The distinction is that one of the families will be settlers and the other is Lakota. Executive producer David Rosemont said to critics, "We don't really classify this as a Western. This is a film about the West."

Opting for vérité over vistas, "Into the West" will include actual Lakota language supplemented by English subtitles. The idea is to immerse viewers in an authentic experience — presumably while staying more family-friendly than HBO's "Deadwood."

Kay McFadden:

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