- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

Despite what every color commentator will tell you over the next two weeks, not everyone lives and dies by the Olympic Games.

That’s where cable television and its bazilliion, give or take a few, channels comes in.

The end of the summer once yawned as television’s wasteland, a time when even the reruns were reruns and viewers wished the mediocre crop of fall shows would hurry up and get here.

This year’s Olympic counterprogramming offers a respite from all the diminutive gymnasts, underachieving b-ballers and steroid-enhanced athletes.

We’re assuming, of course, that you don’t mind a little reality in your television.

The Summer Games from Athens officially kick off at 8 tonight on NBC and run through Aug. 29. NBC, along with sister networks MSNBC, CNBC, USA Network, Bravo and Telemundo will provide wall-to-wall coverage of every breast stroke, hurdle and high jump.

That’s 1,210 hours of coverage.

In case you can’t make it through all of it, here’s what else is on.

For a cerebral challenge, look no further than “Word Wars,” the Discovery Times Channel’s peek at champion Scrabble players. The film debuts on the cable channel at 8 p.m. Thursday.

Cinemax offers a sobering look at schizophrenia with “People Say I’m Crazy,” which debuts at 7 p.m.Wednesday. The documentary follows John Cadigan, a bright, artistic young man with the proverbial limitless future who developed mental illness in his mid-20s. Not only did he not let his budding disease shut him down, he captured it all himself for this autobiographical feature.

HBO gets into the documentary spirit with “Back in the Hood: Gang War 2,” a follow-up to its 1994 feature following gangs in the heartland. The film, airing at 10 p.m. Aug 26, updates the tales of several gang members featured in “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock.”

A less literate alternative is “Growing Up Gotti,” A&E;’s slice of mob life featuring late gangster John Gotti’s daughter, Victoria Gotti, and her three sons.

The show airs at 9:30 p.m. Monday nights and already has angered some Italian Americans for showcasing a less than flattering Italian family portrait.

Over at FX, Denis Leary finally has a series that might last a full season. His “Rescue Me” firefighter drama, which he helped create and co-writes, blazes a fresh, if occasionally gratuitous, trail as it follows a gang of New York City’s bravest on their rounds in a post-September 11 world.

“Rescue Me” airs at 10 Wednesday nights.

If the big spring hit “The Apprentice” seemed too Wall Street, try MTV’s “The Assistant” on for size. The reality romp stars professional live wire Andy Dick as a B-level celebrity (now that’s a stretch) giving would-be assistants a trial run. It airs at 10:30 Monday nights.

Political junkies always have the usual shout-fests to fall back on, from “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News to MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

So why not check out “American Candidate,” Showtime’s reality series featuring 10 ordinary Americans training to run for the White House. The show airs at 9 Sunday night. A team of real-life political spinners, from Howard Dean-insurgency strategist Joe Trippi to veteran Republican adviser Ed Rollins, help the raw candidates polish up their politics.

Summer wouldn’t be summer without great music, which helps explain why John Travolta signed on for the latest AFI tribute special. The star of “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever” — two of the highest-grossing musicals of all time — hosts “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs,” which counts down the most memorable Hollywood tunes.

The special, meant to promote film and the rental of golden oldies, airs tonight from 8 to 11 on CBS.

And let’s not forget Fox, which will provide some very Fox-like counterprogramming with back-to-back episodes of “Man Versus Beast” starting at 8 tonight.

The network also whets our appetites for new episodes coming next year of “Family Guy” — the same show it cancelled ignominiously a short time ago — with two marathons starting at 8 p.m. Wednesday and again on Aug. 25.

Perhaps the best way to deal with Olympic fatigue is to retreat to one’s DVD collection. This month alone marks the first season debuts of “Happy Days,” “The Munsters,” classic “Star Trek” and “Laverne & Shirley,” plus the earliest shenanigans of bawdy Brit Benny Hill.

It’s either that or — gasp — curl up with a good book to ride it out.

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