It's so hard finding good shows about help these days.
PBS' hit Brit import Downton Abbey, which humanizes the servants and nobility with equal sensitivity and wit, is an exception. In the second cable series within a month depicting the class divide between the unhappy rich and the equally conflicted domestics who tidy their fabulous homes if not their messy lives, both extremes of the economic scale are patronized with cartoonish levels of camp and melodrama.
If you liked Marc Cherry's Desperate Housewives, then you're pretty much already seen Lifetime's Devious Maids — what's next, Dangerous Masseuses? The characters and situations may be different, but creator/executive producer Cherry's signature tone of arch cattiness leavened with sentimental schmaltz is unmistakable. Like Housewives, this glossy adaptation of a Mexican telenovela (Sunday, 10/9c) opens with a mysterious death — of a Latina maid murdered in the manse of the show's most grotesque creatures, Adrian and Evelyn Powell (Tom Irwin as the King Leer of Beverly Hills and Rebecca Wisocky as his gorgon wife).
"Who's going to clean all of this up?" laments Evelyn as she surveys the bloody crime scene. The wealthy in this show are uniformly awful and self-absorbed, including Susan Lucci's self-parody of an oversexed, hopelessly vain drama-queen socialite. Their maids, all Latina, are inevitably more sympathetically drawn, though several have ambitious agendas involving career and/or romance — and one (Ugly Betty's lively Ana Ortiz) is an interloper with a personal interest in solving the murder. When she interviews for her job, her employer's shocked observation that "You sound like you went to college" sounds like an accusation. Which is about as deep as the social satire gets.
At least Devious Maids aspires to a heightened level of gaudy escapist entertainment and at times achieves it. Tyler Perry's drab, sluggish prime-time soap for OWN, The Haves and the Have Nots, which bowed several weeks ago on Tuesdays, might as well be called The Glum and the Listless. Tackily produced with cheap-looking sets and costumes, it's like Dynasty on downers and a tight budget, written and performed with such amateurish ennui that it often feels like you're eavesdropping on a bad rehearsal. With stand-ins.
John Schneider is the one recognizable "name" star, as Jim Cryer, a lusty Savannah judge who lovelessly married into a typically dysfunctional rich family. His political ambitions are threatened by the blackmailing hooker "Candy" (Tika Sumpter) — who turns out to be Candace, his daughter's college bestie as well as the conniving daughter of the household's virtuous new housekeeper, Hanna (Crystal Fox). When Candace taunts her disapproving mom with "yes, massa" slave talk, Hanna slaps her for it. A scene like this should crackle with intensity and a sense of pent-up resentment, but instead it just compels the naughty Candy to go into the master bedroom and muss up the sheets.
Both of these shows could be applauded for their diversity if anyone in them resembled actual human beings.
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SO (BUTT) CHEEKY: Embarking on what Discovery's announcer describes as "the Everest of survival challenges," 40-year-old "adrenaline junkie" Shane strips down all the way before entering the Costa Rican rain forest and shares to the camera, "I am definitely worried about the nudity level, with the predators we have out there." What, the voyeurs don't bother you?
If the idea of watching something called Naked and Afraid (Sunday, 10:20/9:20c) has anyone titillated, relax. The participants (a man and a woman each week) may be entirely unclothed as they endure a 21-day ordeal of deprivation in the wild, but even if all of their naughty bits weren't pixilated — it's still a bonanza for backside gazing, just saying — they soon become so grimy, gaunt and downright miserable as they starve and shiver for days on end that it's all about as arousing as a labor camp death march. "I don't want to be here anymore," says 22-year-old survival instructor Kim around the two-week point, and who can blame her? After finally getting some sustenance (a turtle), she suffers for days from what appears to be food poisoning, and Shane becomes so weakened caring for both of them that he can barely make it to the extraction point, which can't come soon enough for them or for us. If misery loves company, this could be the biggest hit of the night.
A GAME TO DIE FOR: Was it really 12 summers ago that Fox aired the mystery-reality hybrid Murder in Small Town X, in which amateur "investigators" descended on a Maine fishing village populated by actors pretending to be suspects in a string of simulated "murders" that claimed the contestants one by one? In a similar "And Then There Was None" spirit, but much cheesier in tone and execution, ABC confines the action to a generic Bachelor-style mansion in the disposable Whodunnit? (Sunday, 8/7c), which gathers 13 — but not for long — would-be detectives of various backgrounds and ages to participate in an elaborate murder-mystery game. An arch butler (played by Gildart Jackson) leads the houseguests through convoluted paces to follow the clues after one of the group falls victim to a fake "murder" of unknown origin and method. (Was it the busted fish tank, the frayed electrical wire, the pellet in the head, or just plain overkill? And where's Colonel Mustard?)
Agatha Christie's reputation is unsullied by the silly shenanigans that ensue as players feign being frightened — "My life is on the line!" — while seeking signs written in a fogged-up bathroom mirror or keys decoded in Bible verses. The sleuths who pass muster in their confessional conclusions are "Spared," while those who deduce especially poorly receive cards reading "Scared," setting up the next victim — who one hopes employed a stunt double to enact the fiery demise that ends the first episode. The problem with shows like this is that even if the game is diverting, it's all so patently phony that it's hard to muster up much of a rooting interest in who solves or even wins the game. Mostly, though, shows like this only tend to remind me how much I miss the original The Mole.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: Lots of comings and goings, as AMC's Mad Men (Sunday, 10/9c) wraps an uneven and often heavy-handed sixth season with the catchy plot description: "Don has difficulties." So what else is new? Watching him alienate daughter Sally and protégé Peggy has made for powerful drama lately, though, making us wonder what he'll do this week to turn Megan against him for good. ... Also in business-as-usual crisis mode: the staff of Veep in the HBO comedy's second-season finale (Sunday, 10/9c). ... From the literally never-say-die files: Lifetime resurrects Drop Dead Diva from cancellation for a fifth season (Sunday, 9/8c) that introduces a new guardian angel — Ben Feldman (Fred) being occupied as Mad Men's mercurial Ginsberg — while bringing Old Jane back to life (but in whose body)? ... NBC's new international co-production Crossing Lines (Sunday, 9/8c), featuring the always-intriguing William Fichtner as a maimed NYPD detective who joins forces with a European "justice league" of crime fighters, merely proves that dreary procedurals speak a universal language of mediocrity. ... And finally, as we mourn the great James Gandolfini, Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio repeats his memorable 2004 appearance (Sunday, 6/5c). Like all great character actors, he made it look so easy.
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