Gimmicks turn Thursdays into must-flee TV

Gimmicks abound as NBC struggles to keep its perch atop the Thursday night ratings heap. Tonight, three of its prime-time comedies will unfold in 40-minute "super-sized" editions. Thankfully, that leaves no room for the pathetic "Good Morning, Miami." That show is tentatively scheduled to return next week.

"Friends" (7 p.m., NBC) features a guest stint by "Scooby-Doo" star Freddie Prinze Jr., as Rachel's male nanny. Maybe Prinze could star in his own spin-off, "Chico and the Manny." And later, Gene Wilder guest stars as Will's frantic boss on "Will & Grace" (7:40 p.m., NBC).

The network obviously is hoping that viewers will stick with these extended episodes long enough to skip "Survivor" and even miss the beginning of "CSI." But NBC needs more than scheduling tricks and stunt-casting to stay on top. Now in its final season, "Friends" ratings have begun to decline � and so has the show's quality.

Now that Rachel's 14-month pregnancy is over, the laughs have dwindled. The attention has returned to Chandler and Monica, whose brittle banter is more annoying than amusing. But we knew that two years ago, when "Friends" spent a weak seventh season leading up to their inevitable wedding.

It was only last year, when the focus returned to Rachel and Ross, that people started talking of a "Friends" revival. Phoebe and Joey's characters are simply too one-dimensional and ditzy to carry the comedy. While I know there are plenty of fans that would like to see "Friends" run forever, I am more than ready for them to pull the plug. This season seems more like a weak valedictory lap than a sprint to a memorable finish. In many ways, it resembles the final and forgettable season of "Seinfeld." Don't worry "Friends" fans, you'll still be able to watch it in syndication for at least the next 30 years.

And speaking of finished, you know a show has run out of creative ideas when it enlists Heather Locklear as a guest star. Doesn't anybody remember how bad "Spin City" got after her character arrived? The former star of "Dynasty," "T.J. Hooker" and "The Return of Swamp Thing," appears on tonight's "Scrubs" (8:20 p.m., NBC) as Dr. Cox's newest love interest.

� "The Elite � Jon Benet: A Second Look" (7 p.m., Court TV) examines the findings of Private Detective Lou Smits. Hired to find out about the possible involvement of the Ramsey parents in the beauty queen's murder, Smits soon discovered evidence that indicated the possibility of an intruder. He came to believe that the parents had absolutely nothing to do with the murder, an opinion that put him on the outs with the Boulder, Colo., police.

This excellent hourlong investigation also includes never-before-televised clips of the Ramseys under police interrogation.

� Phillip Noyce discusses his films on "The Directors" (6 p.m., Encore). Noyce's 1991 film "Dead Calm" remains one of the better contemporary thrillers. It was also a breakthrough movie for Noyce, actor Billy Zane and a young Australian actress named Nicole Kidman. Noyce has also directed "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Bone Collector." Interviews include Harrison Ford, Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Elisabeth Shue, William Baldwin and Zane.

Tonight's other highlights

� Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver star in the 1999 comedy "Galaxy Quest" (7 p.m., ABC).

� New evidence puts an execution on hold on "CSI" (8 p.m., CBS).

� A reporter tries to investigate Iraqi political repression on "Truth and Lies in Baghdad" on "Frontline/World" (9 p.m., PBS).

� Dr. Corday, who now seems to be on the warpath on a permanent basis, battles with the new resident (Don Cheadle) on "ER" (9 p.m., NBC).

� Scheduled on "Primetime" (9 p.m., ABC): interviews with Tionne Watkins and Rozanda Thomas, surviving members of the pop trio TLC; Tony Bennett and k.d. lang; health conditions in school cafeterias.

� The new animated series "3 South" (9:30 p.m., MTV) follows the misadventures of two dim freshmen as they explore college life. I didn't laugh once.

Cult choice

A put-upon puppeteer (John Cusack) enters the mind of a movie star in the wildly original 1999 comedy "Being John Malkovich" (7 p.m., Comedy Central), directed by Spike Jonze.

Series notes

Immunity, inanity and elimination on "Survivor: Thailand" (7 p.m., CBS) � Sixty minutes of amateur acts on "30 Seconds to Fame" (7 p.m., Fox) � Wrestling on "WWE Smackdown" (7 p.m., UPN) � French returns to grammar school on "Family Affair" (7 p.m., WB) � Joel borrows a song from the future on "Do Over" (7:30 p.m., WB) � White knuckles between the white lines on "World's Most Dangerous Police Chases" (8 p.m., Fox) � Improvisations on an hourlong "Jamie Kennedy Experiment" (8 p.m., WB).

Late night

Tom Brokaw and Jay-Z appear on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) � Jay Leno greets Dr. Phil McGraw and Sixpence None the Richer on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).

David Cross appears on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (11:35 p.m., NBC) � Andy Garcia, Jerry Springer and Nick Carter are booked on "The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn" (11:37 p.m., CBS).

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