'Caprica,' 'Spartacus' Debut

Two big-time cable TV series debut tonight as SyFy launches "Caprica," the prequel to "Battlestar Galactica" and Starz airs "Spartacus: Blood & Sand."

Of the two, "Caprica" is the one to check out. Set 50 years before the events of "BSG," like its predecessor, "Caprica" offers great insight into our own world set on a distant planet not so unlike our own. Think Earth in about 10 years from now.

Caprica is a world that is quickly losing itself in its own technology. With virtual cyberspace "rooms" that offer sex, violence and whatever else the user wants, it's a world quickly spinning off its moral axis, even if no one realizes it.

The key player in this world is Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), the Bill Gates of Caprica who has invented a lot of the tech and is among the wealthiest men on the planet. He is trying to build a military robot that will eventually become a Cylon, the machines that wiped out Caprica on "BSG." Married to a surgeon (Paula Malcomson, "Deadwood") and with a spoiled but genius daughter, life seems to be going good.

At the same time, there's Joseph Adama (Esai Morales, "NYPD Blue"), a mob lawyer trying to assimilate into mainstream Caprican society while getting away from his immigrant Tauran roots. The two men are soon united by tragedy due to an act of terrorism.

Like "BSG," "Caprica" addresses a lot of things going on during our own society -- religious wars, terrorism, technology -- without passing judgment. It's one of the more intelligent shows on TV.

The best thing of all, while it will obviously appeal to "BSG" fans, new viewers can watch this new series without ever seeing a moment of "BSG." While it lacks the level of action of its predecessor, it's also less sci-fi oriented.

It's also got a great cast, including Polly Walker as a school headmistress secretly recruiting kids into her monotheistic cult (in the world of "BSG," the humans worship the Greco-Roman gods) and Alessandra Torresani as Zoe, Daniel's daughter.

On the flip side, there's "Spartacus," which bears more resemblance to the movie "300" and the TV series "Rome" than it does the Kirk Douglas film. It follows the title character (Andy Whitfield), a warrior enslaved by the Romans and forced to fight as a gladiator.

The series has been getting a lot of attention because it contains an almost obscene level of sex, language and violence. Seriously, it's like the whole show. There's a ton of slow-motion, CGI blood effects. It becomes so gory in the final scene in the arena that the violence is almost Monty Pythonish parody.

Still, the series doesn't take itself too seriously and its adult-oriented fare will have its own audience.

"Caprica" airs with a two-hour pilot tonight at 9 p.m., while "Spartacus" bows at 10 p.m.

WEEKEND'S BEST BETS: All of Friday's scheduled programming has been postponed for "Hope For Haiti Now," a two-hour telethon on all the networks and several cable networks, beginning at 8 p.m. Hosted by George Clooney and Wyclef John, it features a ton of musical acts, ranging from Bono and Sting to Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift.

Tonight also marks Conan O'Brien's final night as host of "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 11:35 p.m.) with guests Tom Hanks and Will Ferrell. O'Brien finalized a buyout deal on Thursday and can't get on the air with a new show before Sept. 1. Jay Leno will resume as host of "The Tonight Show" beginning March 1, after the Winter Olympics.

On Saturday, there's a new "Demons" (BBC America, 9 p.m.)

On Sunday, Fox carries the NFC championship game between the Saints and the Vikings starting at 6:30 p.m., after the AFC title game concludes. That means it's mostly a night of repeats.

"Masterpiece: Classic" kicks off a new retelling of Jane Austen's "Emma" (PBS, 9 p.m.) starring Romola Garai as the title character and Jonny Lee Miller ("Eli Stone") as Mr. Knightley. It's a three-part miniseries.

HBO airs a new episode of "Big Love" at 9 p.m.