TCA Cable Wrap-Up: HBO's Blinding Star Power; The Returns of "Dallas" and "Mad Men," Russell Brand Goes Wild (in a Good Way)

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The closing weekend of the Winter 2012 Television Critics Association Tour was comprised of two wickedly overloaded and over-stimulating days full of presentations by cable networks, followed by a more manageable half day in which FX proved once again that it is the basic cable network to beat at TCA gatherings.

As always, HBO was one of the stand-outs, kicking off the first day with six terrific sessions crammed into three hours that proved so dizzying many critics were saying that the pay cable giant ought to have a full day of its own. Panelists at HBO sessions included executive producers and writers Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais (en route to Golden Globe rehearsals) and star Warwick Davis for the new comedy series Life's Too Short; executive producer Judd Apatow for the new comedy series Girls; Julia Louis-Dreyfus for her new comedy series VEEP (in which she plays the first female Vice President of the United States); Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Woody Harrelson for Game Change, the film adaptation of the best-seller about John McCain's presidential campaign (Moore is outstanding as Sarah Palin); Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen for the biographical drama Hemingway & Gellhorn; and Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte for the new drama series Luck.

Panels for National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD followed. They included a session with The Dog Whisperer star Cesar Millan (who always reminds critics and reporters how much they miss their pets while they are at these tours) and one for a sure-to-be-buzzed-about new reality series American Gypsies. Next up were presentations by Discovery Networks, including one with Morgan Freeman, host of the Science series Are We Alone?, and one with legendary documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, on hand to talk about his new Investigation Discovery series On Death Row, a companion project to his acclaimed documentary Into the Abyss. The cast of OWN's Welcome to Sweetie Pie's was also on hand, along with Niecy Nash, star of the upcoming TLC reality series Leave It to Niecy.

Current TV was next, with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore talking about the state of the news media. (You can read an account of that session here.) Then Starz brought out the cast of its upcoming drama series Magic City (about the Miami underworld at the end of the Fifties), including Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kelly Lynch, Steven Strait and Christian Cooke, and Liam McIntyre and Lucy Lawless of the network's flagship franchise Spartacus (which, one TCA member joked, has had more sessions at TCA tours than it has had actual seasons).

A panel for the new A&E drama series Longmire with series stars Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, Bailey Chase and Katee Sackhoff followed. The day wrapped with a party by WE TV featuring network personalities Shannen Doherty, Joan Rivers, David Tutera and the Braxton Sisters.

Saturday began with the now legendary panel for Univision's Q'Viva! The Chosen, featuring Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. (You can read about that hot mess here.) As the morning progressed there were panels with Fran Drescher and her co-stars from TV Land's Happily Divorced; former Bachelorette star and Dancing with the Stars contestant Melissa Rycroft and her husband Tye Strickland for their new CMT series Melissa and Tye: A New Reality; and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele for their outlandish new Comedy Central series Key & Peele.

Turner Networks rocked the afternoon with panels for Major Crimes, the spin-off from The Closer featuring almost all of its cast; and Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy, on hand (along with other cast members) to talk about the upcoming TNT series Dallas, which is a continuation (rather than a reboot or remake) of the one-time primetime phenomenon. Significantly, Dallas was as well-received by veteran TCA members who were thrilled to see "The Big Three" again as by younger members who hardly remember or never saw the original.

AMC outdid itself with a session for its upcoming reality series Comic Book Men, which is set in filmmaker Kevin Smith's comic book store in New Jersey (Smith proved to be a wildly entertaining storyteller just answering critics' questions); the first-ever presentation at a TCA tour for its smash hit The Walking Dead and a cocktail party with the full cast of Mad Men and series creator Matthew Weiner.

Saturday ended with a January TCA tour tradition: A lavish cocktail reception and dinner hosted by Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel at the Tournament House in Pasadena with dozens of stars from their upcoming movies. This event is considered a highlight of the Winter tours in that it is a celebration of television past and present. From where I sat, the most popular guests were Dancing with the Stars alumna Stacy Keibler, General Hospital legend Genie Francis (who talked at length about the unforgettable episode in 1979 when Luke raped Laura and forever changed daytime television in the process), and the one and only Rhoda Morgenstern, aka Valerie Harper, on hand because Hallmark Channel this year is going to add to its schedule the classic The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of Hallmark's smartest moves ever.

FX – always the most prominent basic cable network at TCA tours -- on Sunday produced its usual half day of panels, which included the casts of Justified, Archer, Wilfred, Louie and its new animated series Unsupervised, starring Justin Long. But the network saved the best for last: A press conference with kinetic comic Russell Brand, who will star in an unscripted late-night talk and comedy series titled Strangely Uplifting that debuts in March. Details about the show were scarce, but the session with Brand was arguably one of the most entertaining and in its own way informative of the entire tour. If FX can harness the Brand we saw on stage and somehow keep that energy intact on a weekly series it will have another media fireball on its hands.

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