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Bravo, bravo 

& & by Sheri Boggs & & & &

It started, as things so often do, with a gangly reporter from the BBC. But this was no ordinary CNN update from London, no Oxford graduate reporting from Cairo. Instead, it was the unassertive, ever-polite Louis Theroux and a TV crew on the overstuffed and flowery set of a televangelism show in Dallas, Texas. I was about ready to switch channels when I heard him confide to the show's hosts that he was concerned for his "27-year-old and sexually active" soul.

Such earnest confessions are par for the course on Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, which returns to the Bravo cable TV network later this year with a fresh new season of odd interviews from all across the United States. Whether he's talking to folks on the Aryan Nations compound right next door in Idaho or taking part in his first demolition derby, Theroux's amiable air of respect, combined with quick and ready wit, makes for some of the funniest -- and most fascinating -- TV viewing to be had.

"Louis Theroux will be back this winter," Tara McGuire, an associate publicist for Bravo, reassures me. "We don't have the dates yet, but he will be back with brand new episodes."

I can wait. Bravo's fall season has a veritable visual smorgasbord of new programs and returning favorites, one of which is a return engagement of Michael Moore's The Awful Truth, which runs on Friday nights at 8 pm through the fall. Considering that one of the show's most memorable episodes was the one in which Moore and the show's producers managed a campaign to elect a potted ficus plant to Congress in New Jersey's 11th District, it's especially timely that there will be a pre-election marathon on Nov. 6.

What makes Bravo so compulsively watchable is its combination of such witty, subversive shows as Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends and The Awful Truth with more standard arts and culture fare.

"Inside the Actor's Studio is by far our signature series," says McGuire. "It's been around for seven years, and it just seems to be reaching more and more viewers every year."

Filmed at the prestigious New School University in New York, Inside the Actor's Studio has featured more than 80 guests, including Anthony Hopkins, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Spacey. As famous for both his ability to draw out his interviewees and his questions, which are often of the "What is your favorite curse word" and "What is your least favorite sound" variety, host James Lipton handpicks his guests each year.

"James Lipton decides who's going to be on the show," says McGuire. "He works with the New School on who they would like to see, and then they all work out the scheduling."

While the Bravo publicity materials seem most proud of securing Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow this fall, other notable guests include Spike Lee, Mike Myers and Melanie Griffith.

In addition to IFC (Independent Film Channel) Fridays, which are a great way to catch indie films like Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Tango Lesson and Bravo Profiles ("our second most popular series," says McGuire), Bravo also trots out the occasional mini-series. The catch, however, is that they almost always seem to star Gerard Depardieu.

"He did The Count of Monte Cristo for us last year, and it was enormously successful," says McGuire. "It made sense to cast him again for Balzac." Premiering Oct. 23 and 24 at 8 pm, Balzac: A Life of Passion chronicles the life of the celebrated French writer in a lush, $14-million mini-epic. And just in case you haven't had your fill of the homely, largish Frenchman, Balzac kicks off a week of Depardieu homage, including 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Cyrano de Bergerac.

In fact, with a reputedly wicked winter approaching (and ergo, some prime TV consumption time ahead of me), my only quarrel with Bravo is its proclivity for suddenly dropping a series just as I'm getting hooked. This happened most recently with the Canadian soap opera/sitcom Twitch City. Every Wednesday night, I was glued to the TV, watching a TV show about a guy who is addicted to -- you guessed it -- TV. And while I wasn't alone, Twitch City is on hiatus.

"People really liked it, it seemed to get a lot of attention," says McGuire. "We just finished a 12-episode run, and I've heard it's coming back in the spring of 2001, but we don't know when yet."

With this in mind, keep an eye out for several new shows that look promising, including Cold Feet (previewing on Dec. 11 at 8 pm), a dramedy set in Manchester, Great Britain, and Aria and Pasta, which premieres Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 23 at 7 pm).

"Beverly Bergen is a famous soprano, and she's the host," says McGuire. "It's a simple concept really, it will just be her, talking to famous opera singers as they cook their favorite pasta dish at home." Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli, Wagnerian tenor Ben Heppner and Australian diva Yvonne Kenny are on the menu for the show's first season.

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