This month, network television rolls out a seemingly endless, gimmicky parade of extra-special guest stars, hyped season finales, and sensational, seamy movies based on true stories. It's all part of the "sweeps" period - which also happens every November and February - when local TV stations look at viewership levels to determine advertising rates.
But in the next few days, two programs carry lofty credentials that distinguish them as a cut above the rest.
First, ABC debuts the Wild West miniseries "Larry McMurtry's Dead Man's Walk" on Sunday, 9-11 p.m., and Monday, 8-11 p.m. Based on McMurtry's novel of the same title, the show is dubbed a prequel to "Lonesome Dove" - the McMurtry work that won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a well-heeled miniseries in 1989.
"Dead Man's Walk" follows the early days of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, when in the 1840s they enlist in an expedition to seize Santa Fe from the Mexicans. Their group is dogged by combatant Indians and harsh natural conditions, and in one plot twist they're captured by the Mexican Army.
"Dead Man's Walk" powerfully portrays the raw, wild adventures of the old West, and some violence may be too intense for some viewers. Even with frequent action scenes, however, the plot tends to drag, particularly in the stage-setting first half.
Filling in the plot lulls is exquisite sweeping cinematography, which was shot in southwestern Texas. Also appealing are the story's carefully drawn characters, as scripted by McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Strong performances - headed by David Arquette as Gus and Jonny Lee Miller as Call - add to the characters' appeal.
What "Dead Man's Walk" lacks in gripping plot, FOX's "Doctor Who" has in abundance. Based on the popular BBC series of the same name, which aired from 1963 to 1989 (it was also on PBS), the sci-fi movie premires Tuesday, 8-10 p.m.
The film begins with the Doctor, a scientist and time traveler, on the move in his TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), which is a "police box," similar to a phone booth. His mission is to transport the remains of the felonious Master back to his home planet, but instead he lands in San Francisco on Dec. 30, 1999.
While the Doctor is transported to a hospital to treat a wound, the Master, in a slimy form, escapes to destroy the universe. Once the Doctor realizes what has happened, it's up to him to save the universe as it enters the new millennium.
Made in tandem with the BBC, the film carries over many details from the series; but "Doctor Who" purists accustomed to the shows' low-key production values may balk at this film's fancy special effects. They add fun thrills to the already-rollicking plot, though, with a good dose of humor added in. A few scenes may be too violent or squeamish for some.
Making a strong debut as the eighth person to play the Doctor is Paul McGann. As is customary in the series, though, the previous Doctor - in this case the seventh one, played by Sylvester McCoy - makes a cameo appearance before "morphing" into the new one.