Stocks are down. Oil is up. All the more reason to escape to L.A. where celebrities and well-bronzed TV executives tried this week to woo critics with phrases like "story arc" and "groundbreaking" at the cable portion of the Television Critics Assn tour. Some succeeded. Others didn’t. A few themes: British influence continues to grow, with spin-offs, actors and producers increasingly involved in U.S. productions. And despite the continued dominance of reality TV, AMC‘s original drama "Mad Men" remained the toast of critics, with its panel drawing a huge crowd and sustained praise. Cable’s content diversity was also on display. Reality fare ranged from rocker Tommy Lee and rapper Ludacris talking about their new Planet Green reality show "Battleground Earth" to the History Channel showcasing complete unknowns: a group of blue-collar "Sandhogs" who dynamite tunnels under the streets of NYC. On the fiction side, Starz brought out movie legend Dennis Hopper to talk about his starring role in new series "Crash." Lifetime had Shirley MacLaine talk about historical pic "Coco Chanel." Hallmark trotted out nearly 2 dozen stars appearing in various movies. A&E introduced its first original drama in 6 years, "The Cleaner," starring Benjamin Bratt. And in an unusual twist, Turner screened an entire episode of Cartoon Network‘s new "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" animated series. BBC America lightened it up by introducing the writers and stars of "Gavin & Stacey" in which co-writer/actor James Cordon had critics rolling in the aisles. Clips from HBO‘s "Little Britain USA" also brought down the house before the net previewed "Generation Kill" about the Iraq war and delved into vampires with "True Blood." Meanwhile, the tour had a somewhat gloomy undercurrent, with critics from newspapers around the U.S. grumbling to each other about layoffs and the struggles of their industry. Good thing fuse, GSN, IFC, Turner and WEtv all sponsored parties to lift critics’ spirits. And kudos to CTAM‘s staff for its usual deft handling of the tour.

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