Guide to Holiday Weekend TV: Liz & Dick, Downton Salute, SpongeBob Christmas
What unbecomes a legend most? Look no further than this long weekend's well-timed candidate for the TV Turkey Hall of Fame: Liz & Dick (Lifetime, Sunday at 9/8c), an epic of stunningly cynical and pathetic miscasting, a TV-movie so laughably inept it doesn't deserve to be on a first-name basis with anything resembling humanity.
Even deep breaths seem too much to ask of Lindsay Lohan these days, let alone capturing the essence of an exotic film goddess who reigned for years as a superstar sex symbol, by which of course we mean Elizabeth Taylor — who isn't so much rolling in her grave but yawning and laughing from the great beyond at this sorry and tacky exploitation of her torrid history with Richard Burton. The movie itself is awkwardly structured as a seemingly posthumous joint interview with Liz and Dick, sitting and talking about their highs and lows to an unseen questioner. (Who knew Access Hollywood had access to the afterlife?)
The story actually begins on "the last day of Richard Burton's life" in 1984 (which makes him the lucky one), but quickly flashes to the '60s set of Cleopatra, back when Liz was in her prime — which the wan and petulant Lohan is anything but —and where sparks first flew between her Cleopatra and Dick's Marc Anthony. It's lust and love-hate at first sight, and pity poor Grant Bowler (Ugly Betty) as he attempts to pitch ludicrous woo ("We don't need a pool. I've got a whole ocean in you") to a blank-faced co-star with the allure of an asp. You'll find more exciting chemistry in a high-school lab.
The most authentic moment occurs when Liz informs Dick, "I can't tell you a thing about acting." Tell us something we don't know. And later, during one of the many tantrums and benders that constitute a story line, Liz cries, "I'm a joke!" The joke is on anyone who tunes in hoping for a memorable TV train wreck, hoping that Lohan's tabloid notoriety might add a sordid subtext to this insipid love story. No such luck. Liz & Dick might as well be titled, "Who's Afraid of Watching Lindsay Lohan Channel Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (After watching that recreation, I immediately booked a ticket to the excellent Broadway revival of the Albee play. Now that's acting!)
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On Sunday night, you'll be in much better company if you accept the invitation of authentic TV/stage/film legend Angela Lansbury to celebrate one of TV's most delightful surprise hits in ages, with PBS' Downton Abbey Revisited (check tvguide.com listings). "Downton Abbey can become an obsession," Lansbury impishly understates as she teases scenes from the long-awaited third season — which premieres Jan. 6 — and relives many of the high points of the first two years, with well-chosen clips and charming commentary from creator Julian Fellowes and many of his stars. It's worth tuning in just to see the formidable Maggie Smith (the peerlessly amusing Dowager Countess) in her street clothes, interviewed on set and demurring as co-star Penelope Wilton sings her praises. We learn of "costume envy" among the plain-clothed "downstairs" actors as we go behind the scenes with wardrobe and set designers. And it's always fun to hear the actors talk with candor and affection about their characters — or others. "You can feel the grease, can't you?" Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora) exults as she marvels about the scenes between scheming Thomas and O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran, who takes special delight in her villainess' unflattering sideburns). No wonder Lansbury even utters a "Blimey!" before it's over. Angie, we can't wait, either.
This may be a holiday weekend, but TV isn't taking much of a rest. Here are some selected highlights of shows and specials worth considering:
Take a break from preparing your own feast by checking out the handiwork of master chefs Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse on Bravo's Top Chef: Seattle (10/9c), as they go into the kitchen to show off their own signature holiday dishes to the chef-testants, who must then try to replicate these savory treats. ... ABC gives your family two chances to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (8/7c Wednesday and Thursday nights), a classic from 1973 that is being paired with another Peanuts cartoon, This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers. ... Though not quite as seasonal, CBS' Survivor (8/7c) is teasing the fact that one of the winners of this week's reward challenge (a spa getaway) returns with "a full belly and a bitter attitude." Could they possibly be talking about the unbearable Abi? ... A new sports/entertainment talk show, Jim Rome on Showtime, premieres (10/9c), with the sports personality interviewing the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Green Bay Super Bowl champ Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Perry (who plays a fake sports-radio host on Go On) and producer-turned-NBA/MLB franchise owner Peter Guber.
You know the drill: parades in the morning, football in the afternoon and night, including NBC's first-ever Thanksgiving prime-time game, featuring the Patriots vs. the Jets. (Check tvguide.com listings for details.) But don't forget about a somewhat newer tradition: the 11th annual National Dog Show on NBC (noon/11c), this year featuring two new-to-the-show breeds: the Russell Terrier and the Treeing Walker Coonhound. ... Most of prime time is in repeats, but not on Fox, where The X Factor (8/7c) will air its live results show (the suspense is not killing me), followed by a new episode of Glee (9/8c) that feels more like a Halloween outing, with most of the New Directions kids decked out in superhero costumes. When Finn says, "This is all so ridiculous," you won't be tempted to argue. Heroism is the not-so-subtle theme of the week, as Blaine is lured back into the "dark side" world of the Warblers ("You know what goes great with a Dalton blazer? An impromptu song!"), while Finn steps up to be a "uniter of friends" when Jake and Ryder keep fighting over Marley. But honestly, Glee: I know every show needs a villain, but I'd be most thankful if you transferred or otherwise banished the hateful Kitty, whose ongoing scheme to turn insecure Marley into a bulimic is the worst idea this show has had since Terri's fake pregnancy in the first season. ... And if you didn't get enough of the music earlier this week on Dancing With the Stars, ABC marks the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's "Bad" album with a Spike Lee documentary, Bad25 (9:30/8:30c).
Showing more dimension than the usual cartoon hero, SpongeBob SquarePants goes the stop-motion animation route in the wacky new special It's a SpongeBob Christmas! (9:30/8:30c), designed as an homage to the classic Rankin-Bass style, complete with original music — including the 2009 standard, Don't Be a Jerk (It's Christmas) — and an irreverent narrator, the piratical Patchy (Tom Kenny, who voices SpongeBob as well). The infectiously silly story involves Plankton's scheme to turn Santa (John Goodman) against Bikini Bottom by turning everyone naughty through fruitcake tainted by jerk-tonium — merrily distributed by an immune SpongeBob, of course, who in the action climax comes face to face with his robotic doppelganger. (Nickelodeon will replay the special on Sunday, Dec. 9.) ... CBS' two-hour holiday cartoon block (also featuring two Frosty the Snowman classics and last year's Hoops&Yoyo Ruin Christmas) will be followed by a new edition of CBS News' Person to Person (10/9c), featuring interviews with Sean Penn, Alicia Keys, quarterback Drew Brees and gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas. ... For something more awww-inspiring, Nat Geo WILD breaks down barriers between species with back-to-back episodes of Unlikely Animal Friends (8/7c, Friday and Saturday). If you've ever dreamed of watching a golden Lab swim alongside a dolphin, or a Great Dane help raise an abandoned fawn, this is your show.
Stunt casting extraordinaire, as Stockard Channing guests on CBS' The Good Wife (9/8c) as Alicia's mom, paying a Thanksgiving visit with legal strings attached. ... More mommy issues on ABC's dramas, as Regina's mother Cora (Barbara Hershey) plots to take possession of the magic compass on Once Upon a Time (8/7c). While on Revenge (9/8c), an episode-long flashback to 2006 recalls a surprise visit from Victoria's own estranged mother (Adrienne Barbeau!), who's an unwelcome reminder of where the Hamptons' Queen B came from. (Hoping when the show returns to 2012, it can get its mojo back.) ... There are new episodes of AMC's The Walking Dead (9/8c) and Showtime's killer combo of Dexter and Homeland (9/8c and 10/9c) as well. Quite the way to end a long weekend. Happy Thanksgiving, all!
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