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Spitzer Outshines New Sidekicks; Trump’s Freak Show: TV Review

Why doesn’t CNN trust Eliot Spitzer?

Freed of Kathleen Parker’s superfluous presence, Spitzer’s news and talk show (formerly “Parker Spitzer,” now “In the Arena”) had a chance at complete reinvention. Instead, the network hedged its bets.

Rather than risking Spitzer solo for 60 minutes, CNN added two sidekicks, conservative commentators E.D. Hill and Will Cain. Perhaps the decision was made for balance: Hill and Cain lean right, Spitzer left. Hill and Cain are news-anchor pretty; Spitzer, on the network boasting silver fox Anderson Cooper, looks like a balding coyote.

Granted, the former New York governor is an oddity on the cable landscape. He doesn’t yell like Chris Matthews, play the rodeo clown like Glenn Beck or posture as a soapbox populist like Bill O’Reilly. His teleprompter skills are, to put it kindly, in the development stage. When he smiles, he seems to be testing something new.

But his lawyerly tenacity as an interviewer puts his CNN compadre Piers Morgan to shame. Grilling a Wisconsin Republican senator this week about the state’s budget crisis, Spitzer was relentless but respectful. He plays worthy opponent, not enemy combatant.

So why clutter the program with frequent intrusions from Hill and Cain? The trio’s discussions feel rushed, loud and practiced. Spitzer, with his rapid-fire recitation of facts and history, makes mincemeat of his partners.

Hill, best known as the Fox News host who put “terrorist fist jab” into the national lexicon, is especially ill-matched here. With the exaggerated mannerisms of a red-carpet interviewer, she speaks in sound bites and talking points.

“I’m not a policy person,” she said during a roundtable debate this week. “I’m just a regular American.”

Duly noted.

“In the Arena” airs weeknights on CNN at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: **

‘Celebrity Apprentice’

Maybe Donald Trump should have been a shrink. His ability to transform apparent lunatics into functional members of society -- if society is defined as the shamelessly addictive “The Celebrity Apprentice” -- is unmatched.

All celebrity-based reality programs swim in the shrinking pool of the formerly famous (someone should sue “Dancing With the Stars” for false advertising), but Trump has a knack for latching onto D-listers treading the shallow end of sanity. The result is like one of his gilded skyscrapers: gaudy, embarrassing and hard to sidestep.

Model, Housewife

This season’s competitors for charity and the honorary title of apprentice range from an ex-teen idol (David Cassidy) to an actress best known for her recent lip reduction (Lisa Rinna, looking fabulous). I’ll save you the trouble of googling Hope Dworaczyk (Playboy model) and NeNe Leakes (Bravo housewife).

Based on the first episode, this year’s villain will be Richard Hatch, formerly of “Survivor” and federal prison. But the celebrity most likely to go bonkers is actor Gary Busey, an impressive distinction considering the cast includes La Toya Jackson and Star Jones.

With his wild eyes, growl of a voice and mug-shot hair, Busey all but speaks his own language. If one teen is scared straight or inspired to rent “The Buddy Holly Story,” this season of “The Celebrity Apprentice” might be worth more than anything raised for charity.

“Celebrity Apprentice” airs Sunday on NBC at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2

‘Justified’

The plaudits for “Justified” haven’t always matched that title. True, this adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Appalachian noir potboilers can turn a wicked phrase (barking dogs are “hillbilly doorbells”) and Timothy Olyphant is a charmer as the deputy marshal hounding all manner of backwoods bad guys.

But too many ingredients can weaken the moonshine, and last season was watered down with meandering subplots and wayward romance.

Fortunately, one bad mother has arrived to set things right. Mags Bennett, played by Margo Martindale (“Dexter”), is a Harlan County Ma Barker, the plainspoken, death-dealing matriarch of a dope-selling mountain clan. Mags is shaping up as an even better nemesis for Olyphant’s lawman than Walton Goggins’ syrup-voiced hoodlum Boyd Crowder.

Check out Mother Bennett in the March 9 episode. When one of her hulking, dimwitted sons needs a lesson in obedience, Mags provides it -- with a hammer.

“I have to hurt Coover,” she says. “And I like Coover.”

“Justified” airs Wednesday on FX at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***


What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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