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by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & Top Chef (Wednesdays, 10 pm, Bravo) & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ver since the first Survivor burst on the scene in 2000, America has tuned in whenever people are turned against each other. Sure, the triumph of the human spirit can be fun to watch, but it's the backstabbing that we can't get enough of. And that's exactly what makes Top Chef so delicious.

The recipe goes something like this: Take 15 promising but obscure chefs from around the country, pressure cook them by having them bunk in cramped quarters, pepper them daily with increasingly tough challenges and the rolling eyes of hard-ass veteran chef Tom Colicchio and -- voila! -- you've got yourself a tasty TV treat.

The challenges -- from making a dish from only what you can buy out of a vending machine to cooking breakfast for surfers over a beach fire to catering a dinner for Entourage's Debi Mazar -- are remarkable, but it's the personalities that add the real spice. Sam, the quiet New Yorker, is the clear front-runner, but Elia has been moving up, winning challenges with safe but tasty creations. Michael is the goofball dude, who wants to smother everything in cheese; nobody knows how he's lasted this long, or how he won both challenges on a recent episode. Cliff and Ilan both started solid, but have faltered of late. Then there's Marcel, the self-important jerk no one can stomach. While the other competitors try to sabotage him (as the cameras capture every shred of the drama), Marcel just keeps making some of the best food of any of them. (Every good reality show has someone you can't stand who might just win.)

At the end of each episode, the three worst performers are hauled in front of chef Tom, token babe hostess Padma Lakshmi and a guest celebrity chef judge (like Anthony Bourdain or Queer Eye's Ted) to find out who has to "pack their knives and go." The winner will be revealed after an all-day Top Chef marathon on Jan. 24. If you can't wait a week for your next fix, has blogs from just about everyone involved.

If you love good food, you'll learn some of the secrets chefs use to make it; if you love good reality TV, Top Chef is a fresh new take on that classic old recipe.



In the tradition of Band of Brothers, HBO's opulent, decadent recreation of Caesar-era Rome is back for its second and final season. Last season's finale was fatal to Caesar and tragic for his protector Vorenus. Now it's left to Brutus, Octavius and Marc Anthony to pick up the pieces. (Sunday, 1/14, 9 pm, HBO)

Flip That House

In hot housing markets like Southern California's, fixing up houses and selling them for a profit has, literally, become a cottage industry. Watch "flippers" splash some paint, lay down some granite and pocket $100,000 or more in profit -- or secretly cheer as they discover termites and lose their shirts. (Saturday, 1/13, 9 pm, TLC)

American Idol

Sure, we love our American Idols, but we adore those brave souls who are spectacularly, unforgettably bad. If you want to meet the next Taylor Hicks, you can catch up with Idol later. But if you want to meet the next William "She Bangs" Hung, you have to tune in Tuesday for the two-hour premiere. (Tuesday, 1/16, 8 pm, Fox)

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