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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

Veg-All TV

By Belinda Acosta

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  It's almost over. Don't get me wrong. I love the holiday season. I'm all Charlie Brown, "Christmas Time Is Here" on December 1st. I'm even fa-la-la-la-laing by midmonth.

But after all the shopping and cooking, the bell ringing, blinking lights, and unrelenting good cheer, I find myself craving a little silent night. Not too silent. More like a conscious coma. Call it vegging, chillin', kicking back, or just plain old-fashioned laziness. Whatever you call it, in that liminal period between the old year and the new, I need some down time. Just me, a pile of reading material, the couch, and the remote. A day of vegging does wonders for the soul. It's a time when you can let random thoughts and curious ideas meander through your mind as you float in and out of consciousness. And there is nothing like television to help the process along. But not just any TV show. For my taste, I look toward the talk variety, which includes talk shows and how-to shows. If well-selected, these shows will not entirely take you out of that magazine or book you've been meaning to read for the last few months, but still merit a glance from above the brim of your reading material once in a while.

The following list of veg-friendly fare includes weekday programming only (figuring that most people have scoped out weekend and evening fare on their own). The list is divided into two groups: lowbrow and middle-brow. Highbrow fare like Inside the Actor's Studio or morsels from Book TV are not included because they require a larger portion of brain matter than true, languorous vegging allows.

(Way, way) lowbrow: Talk shows hosted by Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael, Ricki Lake. Any Court TV show. The themes and guests on these shows are so intellectually and socially bankrupt you'll find yourself watching, slack-jawed, in spite of yourself. It's best not to tune in at all.

Middle-brow: This is by far the largest portion of the list. First, there's the Barbara Walters pet project, The View (ABC), and later, Oprah Winfrey (NBC) and The Rosie O'Donnell Show (Fox) competing with each other at 4pm. Although I fall into the demographic these shows are geared toward, I'm not sure what the appeal is. Oprah at least talks about books every once in a while. If you can bear to sit through the product endorsements on Rosie, you might overhear some amusing chatter between Rosie and a celeb of the moment -- usually someone promoting their next feature film. But for better veg-out, background chatter, catch The View. Listening to the ricocheting conversation between the co-hosts on The View is like sitting in a restaurant near a table of women who have known each other way too long for polite beating around the bush. On a recent episode, Walter's longtime escort, Senator John Warner of Virginia, was in the audience, prompting Meredith Vieira to ask: "How do we describe the good senator? -- I heard yesterday your horoscope said you're going into a very sexy time in your life. Is this the start?" Walters replied, "He is a longtime friend." A moment later, addressing all the co-hosts, Walters then remarked, "And if you do not behave yourselves today, there will be an entirely new cast tomorrow." Unlike that noisy table chatter described earlier, when The View gets so lively as to stir you from that midmorning catnap, you can change the channel.

I recently discovered a new veg-friendly show, one I would have never imagined: Martha Stewart Living (9am, CBS). Martha is scheduled against the still-popular Regis & Kathy Lee (NBC), but compared to the bombastic banter of Rege and Kathy Lee, Martha's voice is silky-sweet ambrosia. In fact, there's a good chance you'll catch her making ambrosia if you watch long enough.

Recent MSL episodes have shown the consummate homemaker cooking up homemade marshmallows, building a gingerbread village, preparing a standing rib roast, and assembling arts and crafts items you never knew you needed. Martha's soothing voice as she describes her activities is mesmerizing. Think of MSL as Teletubbies for adults -- the difference being that you may actually learn how to fold a dinner napkin into a swan or make a memory book. Martha Stewart Living and Martha's cooking show, From Martha's Kitchen, also air on The Food Network and Home and Garden Television. Check listings for more information.

Who doesn't like to hear stories of how couples met, when the baby was born, or how the first date went? The Learning Channel capitalizes on the curiosity about these milestone moments in a quartet of first-person narratives: The Baby Story, The Wedding Story, The Dating Story, and Reunion. Within 30 minutes, each program follows key players up to and through the title event, gathering asides from family members and friends along the way. Each episode is tastefully shot and edited, and leans toward the saccharin. You never see the bride and groom bickering in the final hours before the wedding, a birthing mother wigging out, or any other ego-withering moments on-camera. Still, there's a refreshingly non-exploitative quality to the shows, allowing all subjects to reveal as much of their story as they wish. The Learning Channel devotes the entire weekday afternoon to the quartet of tales, beginning with The Wedding Story at 11am, Reunion at 11:30am, and back-to-back episodes of the Dating, Baby, and Wedding stories beginning at noon and ending at 4pm (just in time for Rosie or Oprah).

Although the couch is getting an imprint of your behind and pangs of guilt are starting to creep in, the day of vegging is not complete until you watch The List (6pm, VH-1). This 30-minute debate features a guest host who shepherds a panel of four "critics" from all walks of the entertainment industry toward answering the question: Who or what is the best (fill in the blank) to come out of the rock music industry? Much of the success of The List depends on the panache of the guest host, as well as the mix of guests. The show can veer from playful rivalry to downright nastiness, depending on the temperaments of those assembled. The studio audience makes the final call, diffusing whatever sniping may have developed during the show. Unlike its late-night first cousin, Politically Incorrect, (11:05pm, ABC), The List doesn't have the pretense of talking about important matters, and the rotating host keeps it from being a grandstand for any one person. Hey, it's only rock & roll, but I like it.High Notes on HBOA marathon presentation of the Emmy Award-winning The Sopranos first season will air from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2. Two episodes per evening (excluding New Year's Eve) should bring newcomers to this exceptional series up to speed before the new season begins on January 16.


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