The cast of <i>Smash</i>.

The cast of Smash.

Smash, Channel Seven, 10.40pm

AS IT reaches the penultimate episode of its first season, this lavishly staged drama about putting on a show continues its love affair with Broadway. It remains passionately devoted to the theatre and all its colourful characters, revelling in the whole messy, stress-filled process of developing, producing, casting and staging a musical: the insecurities, rivalries and betrayals, the romances and infidelities, the fear and the elation. As the cast and crew of Bombshell head to Boston for the ''tech'' runs of the show, the production is rocked by the sudden departure of a key player, which has particular implications for Julia (Debra Messing). Tom (Christian Borle) meets Sam's family, Ivy (Megan Hilty) frets about the fidelity of director Derek (Jack Davenport), and Dev (Raza Jaffrey) arrives unexpectedly for quality time with Karen (Katharine McPhee). But Sam (Leslie Odom jnr) encapsulates the show's thrust when, acknowledging the potential pitfalls and transitory nature of a life as a dancer, he declares, ''This is what theatre is: it's joy one day and it's gone the next. It's like a religion.''

7.30, ABC1, 7.30pm

EVEN with the improvements initiated by executive producer Sally Neighbour, who joined the ABC's weeknight current-affairs program in February, 7.30 can still be a bit stolid. But it undeniably has its qualities, and reliably solid reporting is one of them. If you're looking for the program that will provide a round-up of the day's events in Canberra, or a comprehensive overview of ongoing stories, such as concerns about the abuse of prescription painkillers, this is where you're most likely to find them. Host Leigh Sales is a class act, the former foreign correspondent and Lateline host bringing broad knowledge and precise interviewing skills to her role. However, the recent rumour that John Clarke and Bryan Dawe's satirical segment, a Thursday night fixture, might be in jeopardy is cause for alarm. Since relocating from A Current Affair 12 years ago, the segment has been a distinctive asset and it would be foolish to axe it under the mistaken belief it has passed its use-by date.

Mike & Molly, Channel Nine, 10pm

THIS unlikely charmer from the Chuck Lorre comedy factory, which also produces Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, launches itself from the dubious premise that two fat people falling in love is inherently hilarious. But the surprising kicker comes from the fact that, much of the time, the humour works, even if it doesn't exactly dazzle. As the show encourages viewers to care about its loveable leads, a large helping of the appeal comes from the casting of Melissa McCarthy as sweet and sparky schoolteacher Molly Flynn, and Billy Gardell as the slightly gruff teddy bear of a cop Mike Biggs. The dialogue is tart and peppy and the sure hand of seasoned comedy director James Burrows is felt in the snappy pacing and nicely modulated supporting roles. In terms of moving along at a clip and not outstaying its welcome, it probably helps this Thanksgiving-themed episode weighs in at a puny 18 minutes.

The Strange Calls, ABC2, 9.30pm

CREATED, directed, produced and written by Daley Pearson, this happily hokey hybrid blends horror, deadpan comedy and small-town shenanigans. Set in the Queensland coastal town of Coolum, the six-part series follows the adventures of an earnest new arrival, police officer Banks (Toby Truslove). He's been assigned to the late shift in the police caravan and dutifully deals with all manner of weirdness as he endeavours to make sense of events and acquaint himself with the somewhat eccentric mores of the place. He's aided, or possibly diverted, in this by Gregor (Barry Crocker), ostensibly a widower and a man with a passion for board games and the TV show Blossom. Tonight, Banks faces hostile teenagers, an unsympathetic boss (Patrick Brammall), murderous cats, agitated birdwatchers, imperiled cuckoo-shrikes and the possible interest of caterer Kath (Katherine Hicks). A little creaky, but likeably nutty.

DEBI ENKER

Highlight: The Melbourne Cup, Channel Seven, 10am

EVERYTHING you need to know about the Melbourne Cup - or at least its importance in the minds of the nation - was summed up when an ABC Radio newsreader announced that the Duchess of Cornwall ''will have the honour'' of presenting the silverware to the winner. Lucky next-in-line-to-the-throne!

You can argue until the last shoeless, reeling damsel has been carried out of the car park about the extent to which Australia really is a sporting nation, but there's no question that on this day everyone - even those with absolutely no interest in horse-racing for the other 364 days of the year - will be glued to the telly, cheering home a horse they possibly only heard of 15 minutes ago. Which is kind of odd, given that racing, rather than betting on the races, is really a rich man's sport. (Indeed, while I'm sure it takes skill, nerve and stamina to ride the gallops, is it even a sport?)

From the members' stand and the Birdcage to the millions of dollars it takes to bring a horse to the mounting yard (let alone the winning post), it's the ultimate in elitism. Yet such is the mythology of the Cup, enlarged over the centuries, it has somehow simultaneously come to be regarded as the people's race. The public has helped make it so, of course, with its gorilla suits and black-tie T-shirts and wildly inappropriate consumption of alcohol. I've never been to Ascot, but I'm pretty sure the grounds aren't full of tottering twentysomethings the way Flemington will be today.

Beyond that, though, something about this race touches the public imagination. Even those of us who will be stone-cold sober and many kilometres from the action will watch, and hold our breath, and care, even if it's just for the few seconds it takes to cover the distance.

So it's no wonder Channel Seven is throwing everything at its broadcast once again. Three hundred staff and 50 cameras have been assigned to the week's coverage (sadly, none of those cameras will be HD). And there's a substantial quotient of talent on screen to cover every aspect of the day. Bruce McAvaney will be presiding over proceedings with his trademark ebullience and, of course, encyclopedic knowledge.

Riding shotgun will be racing royalty Richard Freedman and former jockey Simon Marshall.

I have loved the inclusion of Francesca Cumani during the past few years. Too few mainstream sports in Australia (if racing is, in fact, a sport) have female commentators. She always has something intelligent to contribute. And then, of course, there's that other aspect to Cup day that for many is the real reason to tune in: the frocks. This year we're celebrating 50 years of fashions on the field, so as well as ogling the love or laugh-at outfits of the hopefuls this year, we'll get to see a bit of a retrospective of fashions past. What's not to like?

MELINDA HOUSTON