They rarely make TV-movies like Lifetime's Five (Monday, 9/8c) anymore, and I really wish they would. A sensitively told issue-of-the-week anthology in the classic life-affirming tear-jerker tradition, the high-profile talent is on both sides of the camera in these intertwined vignettes dealing with breast cancer. Though the subject matter is wrenching, the tone here is more about emotional uplift, emphasizing the importance of bringing loved ones along for the fight.
Among the directors: Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore and Alicia Keys, who all know better than to get in the way of a splendid cast that includes Patricia Clarkson (cue the Emmy speech), Jeanne Tripplehorn, Rosario Dawson, Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Holloway.
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The first segment, directed by Moore, is an evocative short story-like piece set in 1969 as a family gathers to watch Apollo 11 touching down on the moon, signifying social progress. Things aren't quite so up-to-date in this household, as a little girl named Pearl is kept in the dark as her mother (Goodwin) lays dying in another room. Pearl grows up to be an empathetic oncologist played by Tripplehorn, and she's the connecting thread to the other stories — including that of "Mia" (directed by Aniston), a wonderful character portrait told through a tapestry of flashbacks, as Mia (Clarkson) looks back on the two years since her diagnosis, a potential death sentence that she takes instead as a challenge to live life to the fullest. "I haven't been very nice to people. I was supposed to die," says this memorable survivor, whose caustic mock funeral is a highlight of the movie.
The next anecdote, about an exotic dancer named "Cheyenne" (Nikita's Lyndsy Fonseca), has an O Henry-like quality, as Cheyenne worries, "What happens when we lose our 'thing'?" — not just on the job, but also in her marriage to a handsome young loan shark. Humor is the defining element in the sardonic story of "Lili" (Dawson), an independent career woman who tries to shut out her domineering mother (Jenifer Lewis) and judgmental sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) from her treatment of this speed bump in her busy life. Easier said than done.
The final segment focuses back on Pearl, who has spent years helping everyone else cope but must now face the disease head-on and is determined not to repeat the mistakes of her family. The title Five refers less to the movie's episodic structure than to a wall of tiles in Pearl's clinic, where cancer-free survivors get to "kiss the wall" when they reach the five-year milestone. It's a symbol of hope likely to resonate with the Lifetime audience.
Also premiering tonight: a new HBO half-hour that's billed as a "comedy," but as usual, it's hard to tell. When it comes to HBO's so-called comedies, it's not all that difficult to curb our enthusiasm. (Although Larry David's long-running hit was on fire for much of the summer.)
Sundays are currently being squandered on new seasons of the dreary Hung and How to Make It in America. This relegates two more intriguing properties to Mondays: the twee noir parody Bored to Death (9/8c), which at least has the feel of a comedy (and a strong indie-cred cast), and the peculiar new Enlightened (9:30/8:30c) which feels more like a Showtime dramedy in its focus on a damaged female hero whose life isn't exactly a laugh riot.
Our first look at Amy (the electrifying Laura Dern) is not a pretty one. She's mid-meltdown at corporate HQ, screeching like a madwoman at those she feels wronged her, an act of career suicide. Flash forward three months to a transformed and calmer Amy, enlightened after a Hawaiian self-help retreat and a swim alongside a symbolic sea turtle. She's now ready to share her Zen, but the new touchy-feely Amy is confronted by a world determined to keep her at arm's length. Who can blame them?
The problem here is that we only know Amy at these extremes, from PMS rage to PMA (positive mental attitude), and while Dern commits fully to the role, Amy still feels like an annoying, exasperating caricature who probably ought to be committed. Enlightened is clearly a deeply felt show, and the cast is terrific, including Diane Ladd (Dern's real-life mother) as Amy's skeptical mom, Luke Wilson as her likable drugged-out ex who resists her self-help efforts, and Mike White (who co-created the show with Dern) as an admiring mouse of a co-worker in the basement where she's unhappily reassigned.
I wish I were as invested in Amy's journey as she is, but as she blathers on about being an agent of change at her uncaring corporation, I find myself restless to change the channel to something that's actually entertaining or, yes, enlightening.
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