Lauren Graham, Ray Romano
Once upon a time, I'd watch FX's Sons of Anarchy begrudgingly because it was popular. Now I'm watching because it's good. As in bad. As in: bad things happening to bad people. Consequences = drama. And that's rarely been more evident than as the fifth season gets underway Tuesday (10/9c), with the motorcycle club torn apart from within and without, capped by an act of retribution that's horrific even by this show's violent standards.
There was a time they'd bring "big bads" into Charming to make the SAMCRO anti-heroes seem maybe not so bad. Those days are over. After last season's spree of evil, former leader Clay (Ron Perlman) is irreparably a monster in our eyes, and to most everyone else who matters. His pathos merely hardens our hearts as he sucks down oxygen like it's crack, while pining for the wronged warrior-goddess wife (Katey Sagal, Sons' greatest asset) who's finding her own way to hit bottom. His estranged stepson Jax (Charlie Hunnam, growing more assured by the season) is now at the head of the table, but it's an understatement to say the shaggy head that wears this leather crown lies uneasy.
The club has made a fearsome new enemy in Damon Pope (Lost's Harold Perrineau, coolly lethal), kingpin turned power broker. But there's a new ally as well in Nero (the very charismatic Jimmy Smits), a self-described "companion-ator" (read: pimp) whose sleek confidence is only window dressing for what appears to be a fearless bravado. He's criminally chivalrous. Sons may be as busy as it is brutal, but at least its heartlessness is in the right place.
If it's heart you want, there's a clear alternative in the same time period: NBC's eternal underdog Parenthood (10/9c), surviving into a fourth season as that most rare of prime-time entities: the family drama. It can be argued that Sons is also about a family of sorts, but when it comes to the easily aggravated Bravermans of Parenthood, if someone says they'd like to kill someone — and who doesn't feel that way at times about a sibling who disappoints you, or a parent who won't back off — they don't actually follow through.
There's plenty of agitation in tonight's touching season premiere, as the extended clan gathers for a family portrait under a doctrine of "family only" rules that might force Sarah's intended, the good-guy teacher Mark, to sit out — because he's not quite family yet. A "weird policy," he thinks, and while he decides to fight it, over in the Julia-and-Joel wing of the family, they're trying to convince themselves after five months that their newly adopted son Victor is fitting in. The jam-packed episode also touches on such eternal family matters as religion (Jabbar is caught praying!), separation anxiety (Haddie is heading across country to college!) and boundaries, when Adam gets a bit too involved in niece Amber's flirtation with a studio musician (American Idol's toothy Paul McDonald). Meanwhile, as if to remind us this is a TV show after all, comedy superstar Ray Romano pops up quite credibly as Hank, the family's curmudgeonly photographer-for-hire, whose "meet cute" with Sarah (the perennially cute Lauren Graham) portends complications ahead. Some of the episode is forced — Sarah's babbling job tryout with Hank, for instance — but in those universal moments of family togetherness and transition, as these grown-ups who sometimes still feel like kids marvel at the mystery of parenthood, Parenthood is worth its weight in sentimental angst.
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The night's other scripted highlight is the follow-through to last week's shocker on USA Network's Covert Affairs (also at 10/9c; it's a crowded time period), as Annie's life and career hang in the balance after being ambushed and framed by the evil Lena (Sarah Clarke, channeling Nina the "mole" from her 24 days). While Annie's remaining allies work to clear her name, we spend much of the episode in Annie's head. Cue provocative dream encounters with the most important people in her life: her sister Danielle, and most memorably, her best bud Auggie in a romantic dance sequence that has some very familiar overtones. ... An hour earlier, on White Collar (9/8c), Neal goes all Fight Club as he takes on an undercover Wall Street assignment and discovers an underground boxing ring where insider-trading blows are the main currency. The episode is titled "Gloves Off," but if anyone messes with Neal's face, there will be hell to pay.
The worst alternative in that overstuffed 10/9c time period is ReelzChannel's six-part Canadian import Bomb Girls, a trite and drab melodrama about women on the WWII homefront who go to work on the dangerous front lines of a munitions factory, assembling bombs that aren't nearly as lethal as the corny dialogue and the comically stilted performances. Rosie the Riveting this ain't. Meg Tilly does her best as the factory's humorless "shift matron," supervising refugees from Danielle Steel's slush pile of clichéd subplots, but when she declares after one explosive mishap, "We built a bad bomb, girls," it's hard not to agree this is a dud of colossal proportions. (It didn't help that I screened this in close proximity to PBS' marvelous Call the Midwife miniseries airing later this month. Hold out for that one. It's a keeper.)
IN BRIEF: No one will be eliminated on the final performance-night installment of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance (8/7c), as the top four perform for America's vote one last time. (The male and female winner will be revealed next week.) Director-choreographer Rob Marshall is the guest judge, and I'm hoping for some truly constructive criticism to help us choose. I'm torn between the women (the versatile Eliana and the late-blooming knockout Tiffany), but since this is actually a dance competition, I have to root for the gifted Chehon over the game but limited Cyrus. ... Syfy's Face Off (9/8c) finds a new twist on the zombie makeup challenge, as the contestants must model their walking-dead creatures after classic characters from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Off with their heads! But not until after the judging. ... NBC's new sitcoms Go On (9/8c) and The New Normal (9:30/8:30c) air their second episodes, which means we can now move beyond our first impressions. ... Discovery's The 9/11 Surfer (8/7c) recounts a rare survival story from that tragic day, as Pasquale Buzzelli tells for the first time his memories of being trapped in the collapsing North Tower and somehow riding down a stairwell of debris from the 22nd floor, waking up on a pile seven stories high.
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