Next to Charlie Brown's Great Pumpkin, my favorite Halloween TV touchstone is The Simpsons' annual "Treehouse of Horror" special, with Mad Magazine-worthy parodies of things that go "D-oh!" in the night. It's airing unusually early this year in advance of post-season baseball pre-emptions, but what better way to get in the spirit — and as a bonus for the 24th edition (Sunday, 8/7c, Fox), horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro has designed an elaborate "couch gag" opening sequence that's a kaleidoscopic homage to classic monster/horror/fantasy movie images, a ghoulish grab-bag of Springfield's labyrinth from Hitchcock to Stephen King.
The vignettes are the usual fun but mixed bag, opening with an inspired Dr. Seuss riff led by Homer as "The Fat in the Hat," leaving comic anarchy in his wake. Two heads aren't better than one in the "Dead and Shoulders" sequence, in which Bart's severed head is attached to Lisa's body, sparking a head-to-head war between siblings and adding new punch to the time-honored Homer-strangles-Bart gag: "I'll teach you to make medical history!" The final bit uses Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic Freaks as source material, with Moe (harboring a crush on Marge) seen as the sideshow's "most hideous creature of all." Stay tuned for a surprise shout-out punchline at the end, and then we can start the countdown for the milestone 25th "Treehouse" trilogy.
The Halloween theme continues through Sunday's entire "Animation Domination" lineup, including Bob's Burgers (8:30/7:30c) and Family Guy (9/8c), in which (shades of the two-headed Simpsons sketch) Peter finds he has a vestigial twin named Chip growing out of his neck. (Guess who everyone likes better?) A poltergeist visits American Dad (9:30/8:30) to close out the night.
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SHOPGIRLS: Watching TV often involves comparison shopping, so while it's puzzling that PBS's Masterpiece Classic would present a second sprawling period piece set in a lavish cosmopolitan department store, I much prefer the delightful new Victorian-era The Paradise to last season's Mr. Selfridge (which returns next year), largely for the appeal of its central character. Where Jeremy Piven oversold the bluster of real-life capitalist visionary Selfridge, Joanna Vanderham plays it much cooler as the fictional Paradise's ambitious shopgirl heroine Denise, who takes one look at her charismatic but mysterious boss (Emun Elliott) and decides she doesn't want to marry him: "I want to be him." Although, naturally, there are sparks.
Airing over seven Sundays (check tvguide.com listings) through Nov. 17, Paradise is based on a Zola novel but is redolent of Dickens, envisioning the store as an insular world full of colorful characters, with its sentimental and romantic upstairs-downstairs intrigues opulently packaged. Buyer beware: You're about to be charmed.
WITCHEY POO: Witches are the new black cat this Halloween season, infiltrating Sleepy Hollow and the new Coven incarnation of American Horror Story starting next week. But the mangiest and cheesiest of the species is Lifetime's crudely campy Witches of East End (Sunday, 10/9c), on which you'll want to cast a spell of silence when assaulted with cutesy dialogue like this exchange between sister-witches Julia Ormond and Madchen Amick: "You can't change fate. That's why they call it fate. It's fated." Thankfully, we're masters of our own TV fate, so steer clear of this unless you find the insipid The Originals to be too intellectually taxing, in which case: Enjoy.
Ormond plays long-suffering mama witch Joanna Beauchamp, who through the centuries has been cursed to watch her daughters (Jenna Dewan Tatum and Rachel Boston) die "over and over and over and over" from their gift of magic. So this time around, she decided not to tell the girls of their birthright, apparently never having seen Charmed to learn well that idea usually works. The gorgeous but opaque Tatum is Freya, a free-spirit bartender engaged to pretty boy Dash (Eric Winter), although her dreams and her libido are suddenly being stimulated by Dash's newly arrived brother Killian (Daniel DiTomasso), who looks like he stepped from a romance-novel cover, with nearly as much range of expression. As librarian sister Ingrid, the wan Boston spends much of the pilot episode describing herself as a "rational skeptic," which pretty well describes any genre veteran's reaction to the supernatural shenanigans as Joanna's "shifter" doppelganger (with glowing eyes) appears on the scene to cause bloody trouble.
I watched an apparently very rough cut of the pilot, so while I'll reserve judgment on what seemed to be unexceptionally tacky special effects, no amount of magic could elevate the amateurish acting and shoddy, choppy, derivative writing. Whatever the opposite of spellbinding is, that's this show.
In happier news, Lifetime brings back Drop Dead Diva (Sunday, 9/8c) for the remaining five episodes of its fifth season, with Jane (Brooke Elliott) defending a socialite and putting the firm in jeopardy with her tactics. What show does she think this is, The Good Wife?
Speaking of which, that excellent CBS series follows up last week's marvelous premiere with a timely episode (Sunday, 9:30/8:30c) in which Alicia and Cary take on the NSA. (Shades of Cartman in the South Park opener. And what show do they think they're on, Person of Interest?)
SEX AND SPIES: The course of risky science does not go smoothly in the second episode of Showtime's scintillating Masters of Sex (Sunday, 10/9c), when the university shuts down the study and Masters (Michael Sheen) considers moving his experiment to the local cathouse — where Annaleigh Ashford (a Tony nominee for Kinky Boots) proves to be a consummate scene stealer as tough-talking prostitute Betty, who negotiates her way into a hospital job. At home, Masters' marriage is tested by his wife's curiosity over his provocative work in the field of sexual behavior (their separate beds a clear sign that he's not nearly as progressive on the domestic front). And while Masters blames Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) for his academic setback, he soon comes to realize how essential she is to his research (as Caplan is to this fascinating series).
As a welcome reminder of why Claire Danes is the proud owner of two consecutive Emmys for Showtime's Homeland, she is simply devastating this week (Sunday, 9/8c) as Carrie once again melts down after being sold down the river during the congressional hearings. In a scenario that might as well be called "One Flew Over the Bipolar Analyst's Nest," Carrie's explosively abrasive and paranoid actions put her back in the agency's punitive crosshairs, while Quinn (Rupert Friend), who's struggling with his own demons, cautions her to be careful and an especially mournful Saul (Emmy-worthy Mandy Patinkin) tries to ease her troubled soul. Good luck on both fronts.
MOVIES ON TV: Don't start humming the Rocky theme when tuning in to HBO's docudrama Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (Saturday, 8/7c). It's not a boxing picture. The bouts here are all legal, as the former Cassius Clay, shown only in archival footage, takes his case for being a conscientious objector (for religious reasons) to the Vietnam War — a stance that cost him his title — to the Supreme Court. Frank Langella is Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and Benjamin Walker co-stars as a young clerk who challenges longtime jurist John Harlan II (Christopher Plummer) to get with the times. ... Not to be confused with the Saturday Night Live spoofs, Gina Gershon channels the flamboyant Donatella Versace in Lifetime's fact-based House of Versace (Lifetime, 8/7c), portraying the fashion diva's struggle to keep the family business going after her brother Gianna (Enrico Colantoni) is murdered. ... Cartoon Network goes the Afterschool Special route in the live-action Contest (Sunday, 6/5c), which takes on the issue of high-school bullying in the story of a thug and his victim who bond while collaborating on a TV cooking competition.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: Miley Cyrus watch: The maverick who put foam fingers back on the map (among other places) hosts and is musical guest on NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c), while MTV further exploits her notoriety by expanding Wednesday's Miley: The Movement all-access docu-special to 90 minutes for a Sunday replay (8/7c). ... AMC's Hell on Wheels (9/8c) wraps its third season with Elam attempting a desperate rescue while Durant welcomes Gen. Grant. Yes, that one. ... Christopher Titus is back for a new round of soul-exposing stand-up, in Comedy Central's Christopher Titus: Voice in My Head (Saturday, 10/9c). ... While Discovery launches a third season of Alaska: The Last Frontier (Sunday, 9/8c), profiling the Kilcher family living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness, TLC takes its usual high road with Alaskan Women Looking for Love (Sunday, 10/9c), in which six native Alaskan lasses head to Miami Beach for sun and, presumably, suitors.
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