Tuesday TV in Review: USA, Dance Finales, Parenthood, PBS's Civil War special, more
Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer
Another sign that summer is over (as if the scattered fall premieres weren't enough): USA Network draws the curtain on two of its better hot-weather diversions — although one will be back before you know it. First up is the always enjoyable White Collar (9/8c), where once again the trust (or distrust) wall has gone up between veteran con-man Neal (Matt Bomer) and his FBI handler Peter (Tim DeKay) over the handling (or mishandling) of Neal's mysterious link to his cloudy family past: the ex-undercover cop Sam (Treat Williams), who no one knows whether to trust — including the ever-suspicious Mozzie (Willie Garson). With the big chill on and Neal barely speaking to Peter, it may not be the best time for an FBI conference to corral them into a panel discussion on what makes theirs such a unique and winning partnership. If only their audience knew both guys were still working secretly and without each other's knowledge on getting intel on Sam, while also trying to suss out the FBI mole — there's always gotta be one — who's putting everyone at risk.
But when a caper breaks out, involving the potential theft of valuable new high-tech body armor, Peter and Neal go back to work. Because deep down they're both still good guys, even when they're not playing well together.
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White Collar won't return until the new year, but USA's Covert Affairs (10/9c) is only taking a three-week break, returning Oct. 16 with six new episodes to finish out its exciting and best-yet third season. Following last week's frantic attempt (successful) to clear Annie's name and nab the notorious Lena (unsuccessful), the pre-hiatus episode finds the CIA seeking proof than an enemy (Lena?) is hiding in Russia. As Lena, Sarah Clarke is so good at being bad, I kind of wish someone would cast her as a badass good guy.
The night's other big finale is on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance (8/7c), wrapping a season hobbled by momentum-stalling pre-emptions and a network-mandated format change compressing the competition and results into a single night. Thankfully, the dancing has still been pretty spectacular, and before the "favorite" guy and girl are revealed — my votes go to Eliana and Chehon (though Cyrus seems to be the popular favorite among the guys) — they'll all dance again, joined by the rest of the Top 20, many reprising the judges' favorite routines of the season. Also on hand: the ubiquitous Carly Rae Jepsen, singing her new single "This Kiss." (I might have guessed Psy would bring his "Gangnum Style" to the party, but Saturday Night Live got to him first. Just as well.)
TEARJERKER ALERT: Yes, NBC's The New Normal is a comedy, but the steadily improving show finds its emotional bearings tonight (9:30/8:30c) in an episode where tears rightfully flow amid the silly jokes about being a shopaholic for baby clothes (Andrew Rannells as Bryan) or being an overly clinical killjoy (Justin Bartha as Dr. David). Nervousness over Goldie's impending sonogram turns into a different sort of heart-stopping anxiety — "How do we protect our baby from hate?" — when the guys get an unwelcome reality check at an outlet mall. (And not just because of the sticker shock, as Bryan remarks, "I'm confused as to why the prices are so low.") In another promising development, little Bebe Wood (as Goldie's quirky 9-year-old daughter Shania) is proving to be as adept a scene-stealer as any of the tykes on Modern Family. Nothing in the episode is as funny as Shania's priceless impersonation of Grey Gardens' "Little Edie" in last week's episode, but when a classmate takes an interest in her, and Nana (Ellen Barkin) catches on, there's hilarious hell to pay.
Also expert at mixing humor with wrenching drama, NBC's Parenthood (10/9c) may have you reaching for the tissues again as Julia (Erika Christensen) goes above and beyond to prove herself to her new adopted son, Sarah (Lauren Graham) works too hard to mend her son Drew's broken heart (Miles Heizer, one of the show's more subtle secret weapons), and Adam and Kristina (Peter Krause and Monica Potter) overcompensate by going to the dogs to fill their almost-empty nest. One of these families is about to be rocked in a way that makes sense of the episode's title, "Left Field" (and we're not talking baseball).
IF YOU LIKED ... Syfy's addictive reality competition show Face Off, which tonight (9/8c) features Kevin Smith as a guest judge in a superhero/sidekick challenge, you'll no doubt flip for the new Hot Set (10/9c), a near-carbon copy that also takes us inside the process of making movie magic, this time focusing on challenges of production and set design. The main difference is that two new contestants face off (so to speak) every week, each a production designer leading teams to create a camera-ready set in three days to fulfill a specific sci-fi/fantasy/horror scenario. In the opener, each team is tasked to design and dress the sound stage to resemble a desolate alien planet on which an astronaut has crash-landed. Along the way, you'll learn there's a "Dapper Cadaver" special-effects shop specializing in skeletons and body parts (I bet American Horror Story keeps them busy). The challenge ends with an actual film shoot, which becomes part of the judging. I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, but can't help worrying that by so closely mimicking the Face Off formula, Syfy risks diluting the franchise. This could be too much of a good thing.
At least PBS waited more than 20 years to produce what feels like the mournful missing chapter of the landmark The Civil War documentary. Fans of classically produced historical TV non-fiction already know to look to the invaluable American Experience series, which delivers another masterwork with Ric Burns (brother of Ken and co-producer of The Civil War, who went on to amass his own library of renowned films including the multi-part history of New York). Burns' Death and the Civil War (check tvguide.com listings) chronicles the fabled battles as part of an escalating and soul-sobering drumbeat and rolling body count of mortality, the scale of which this nation had never experienced before and was ill equipped to handle. Timed to mark the 150th anniversary this week of the battle of Antietam, said to be the bloodiest day in American history, Death is a grim story, but never morbid, as Burns and his scholars recount with compassion and poetic insight the impact of so much death on a devastated land. In the aftermath, systems would be put in place to properly identify, bury and transport the remains of the fallen. At its best, this elegiac work is a profound meditation on faith and what constitutes a good death, which was in mercilessly short supply during this terrible conflict.
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