Claire Danes

First, weighing in on two cable movies, one of which thoroughly chilled me and another that left me cold.

An acting tour de force that gives the viewer a squirm-inducing close-up view of the utter banality and hopelessness of evil, Sundance Channel's starkly fascinating British import Appropriate Adult (Saturday, 10/9c) is like no other crime drama I've ever seen. We see events unfold from the mortified perspective of Emily Watson, already getting Oscar buzz for the upcoming War Horse, who is riveting in the title role of Janet, a civilian volunteer to the police, the "appropriate adult" called in to observe the interrogation of a 52-year-old murder suspect deemed incapable of protecting his own interests.

Fred West, the prime suspect, is played by Dominic West (The Wire, The Hour) in a transformative performance that lacks any trace of leading-man vanity. Almost Neanderthal in his repugnant brutishness, an obvious psychopath who is yet somehow capable of projecting an unvarnished charisma — call it truly animal magnetism — Fred makes quite the impression in the first round of questioning when he matter-of-factly confesses to an "accidental" choking of his own kin, then adds, "I cut her legs off, and that was ... unbearable. And I cut her head off. You're not going to take a sword to your own daughter when she sat there lookin' at you, are ya?" And that's just the curtain-raiser to a horrific catalogue of crimes committed by Fred and his horror-show wife, Rosemary.

Fred is immediately solicitous of Janet, refusing to cooperate without her presence, and any moment when they're left alone together, he shares nuggets of information that she is duty-bound not to share with the authorities. Thus compromised, Janet is drawn into his spell, repelled yet compelled to hear more in hopes of learning the full truth. "How could I understand you? You've killed people," she demands of Fred, who assures her, "You're a woman who can see beneath the surface and a woman who knows remorse when she sees it." Is she being played? She's certainly being wrecked, neglecting her kids and a partner whose own fragile mental state is tested when the family gets caught up in the sensational media circus. "I'm not your friend," she insists to Fred, and yet the inappropriateness of their relationship threatens to break her spirit. Appropriate Adult is a psychologically harrowing character study of emotional manipulation against a backdrop of utter depravity.

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Long-buried crimes
also figure into A&E's two-part adaptation of Stephen King's Bag of Bones (Sunday-Monday, 9/8c), which serves as a reminder that the best hauntings are the simplest. In this updating of King's 1998 romantic ghost story, a grieving widower (Pierce Brosnan) gets messages from beyond on his smart phone, his laptop, even his iPad. But the moment with the most impact is when he notices that something is rearranging the magnetized letters on his fridge door. A classic King touch: the fantastic within the ordinary.

This is a far cry from the ridiculously lurid supernatural shenanigans churning the bloody waters every week on FX's American Horror Story, with its shock-for-shock's-sake graphic overkill going so far over the top that it becomes more silly than scary. If Horror Story evokes cringes and giggles, I'm afraid Bag of Bones goes too far to the opposite extreme of the spooky spectrum and provokes mostly yawns, once it becomes overly obvious why the spirits are being so persistent. Shouldn't there be some middle ground (like in the classics of Henry James and Shirley Jackson) where the ghosts don't spell everything out? Maybe next time.

In Bones, Brosnan stands in for King (with in-jokes about Misery and his Richard Bachman alter ego), playing a best-selling novelist who retreats to a New England lake house after his beloved wife's sudden death. Creatively blocked and besieged by nightmares and visions, usually of little girls being drowned, he soon becomes a pawn in a custody battle involving a single mom (Melissa George) and the town's decrepit old Mr. Potter caricature (William Schallert, having a ball). There's a local curse afoot, which must have something to do with the mysterious fate of a sultry blues singer (Anika Noni Rose) from the '30s, because why else would our hero keep finding himself transported to the past? The answers aren't terribly surprising, nor is the pat resolution. This Bag is sadly empty of surprises.

You want surprises? Your best bet is Showtime on Sunday, where Homeland (10/9c) is nearing the end of its remarkable first season with the resolute Brody (Damian Lewis) and the unhinged Carrie (Claire Danes) on an unpredictable collision course. In the wake of last week's explosion, Carrie is more manic than we've ever seen her, as she frantically tries to piece together a timeline that might reveal Abu Nazir's plot: "We have to code it, collide it, collapse it, contain it," she babbles as her protector and overseer Saul (Mandy Patinkin) looks on in concern — but also with a grudging admiration at her passionate tenacity.

Meanwhile, Brody takes the family on a road trip to Gettysburg, on the surface a bonding exercise in Americana, but there's blood-chilling subtext as he describes the daring gallantry of Union leader Joshua Chamberlain, "doing what was necessary for a cause he believed in." The episode is titled "The Vest," which explains Brody's other purpose in getting away and preparing for his own armageddon. I can't imagine how next week's season finale will play out, but there's no way it's going to be pretty.

An hour earlier, on the increasingly preposterous Dexter (9/8c), the Miami Metro Police Department is the last to realize it's under assault from the "Wormwood" plot, while Dexter tries to flush out the Doomsday Killer by staging his own creepy tableau. Nothing, however, earns a bigger "ewwww" than Deb's latest therapy session, where the shrink hits way too close to home in assessing the unhappy lieutenant's emotional state. The episode's fiery action climax, setting up what we expect will be one last encounter between Dexter and his adversary in next week's finale, plays like a Batman cliffhanger, which isn't exactly a compliment.

There are finales of varying interest all through the weekend, starting with Election Day on Starz' understandably neglected Boss (Friday, 10/9c). ... An unexceptional running of CBS's The Amazing Race (Sunday, 8/7c) enters its last leg, and now that front-running snowboarders Andy and Tommy are out, it's anyone's game, and still kind of hard to care. ... And after searing our brains and eyes last week with those incestuous flashbacks, capped by Jimmy's bloody patricide of the Commodore, HBO's suddenly eventful Boardwalk Empire (Sunday, 9/8c) wraps its second season with (in HBO's words) "Jimmy look[ing] to make amends" as Nucky's trial looms. But will a conscience-stricken Margaret actually testify against the Nuckster?

Stay tuned after Boardwalk's finale for a one-time-only sneak preview of the pilot episode of Luck (10/9c), David Milch's much-anticipated horse-racing drama starring Dustin Hoffman that will officially premiere Jan. 29.

So what else is on this weekend? Let's narrow it down to a Top 10 highlights reel ... Did you miss Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when CBS aired it not quite two weeks ago? Here's another chance (Saturday, 8/7c). ... ABC stages the latest debate (Saturday, 9/8c) for the remaining Republican presidential candidates in the caucus-central state of Iowa, with Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos moderating. ... Maybe they'll provide some fresh material for Saturday Night Live (NBC, 11:30/10:30c), where Katy Perry is guest host and Swedish performer Robyn provides the music. (Though it's hard to imagine Katy not singing.) ... Syfy is really reaching for its seasonal tie-ins, with the Saturday night movie premiere of Snowmageddon (9/8c), all about a magic snow globe that wreaks havoc in the real world every time it's shaken. Battlestar Galactica's Michael Hogan stars, and we hope he's got a liquor supply on hand at least as good as Saul's. ... There's going to be a casualty in Storybrooke on ABC's Once Upon a Time (Sunday, 8/7c), where the fairy-tale backstory involves the Evil Queen's search for an assassin to take out Snow White. (And we all know how that turned out — or in this case, do we?) ... On Fox's The Simpsons (8/7c), Bart and Lisa project 30 years into the future — almost as old as they'd be if they aged along with the actual series — as they turn to Homer and Marge for parenting advice, which indicates they never quite grew up. ... Fox's The Cleveland Show (8:30/7:30c) pays homage to Die Hard as Cleveland imagines himself in the Bruce Willis role. ... Now that Alicia is a free agent again on CBS's The Good Wife (Sunday, 9/8c), having broken it off with Will last week, she "begins to feel the consequences of decisions in her personal life" while trying to get a guilty verdict overturned. ... CBS's CSI: Miami (10/9c) goes into Toddlers & Tiaras territory as the team investigates the murder of a contestant's mom behind the scenes of a children's beauty pageant. ... Nat Geo Wild's second annual Big Cat Week kicks off Sunday with three hour-long specials: Stalking the Mountain Lion, American Cougar and Cat Wars: Lion vs. Cheetah. Why am I suddenly missing Cougar Town again?

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