It's quite a week for those who enjoy rugged armchair escapism of the historical epic variety. First came the three nights of Discovery's enjoyable gold-rush melodrama Klondike (repeated in its entirety on Saturday, starting at 9:30 am/8:30c), during which Jack London (played by Johnny Simmons) is heard rhapsodizing, "What you're looking at here is a walking, talking novel," as he surveys the squalor and violent desperation teeming throughout Dawson City, the miniseries' Yukon frontier setting.
London's description also applies to the steamier climes of Starz's swashbuckling new series Black Sails (Saturday, 9/8c), set in New Providence Island in the Bahamas, an exotic and carnal paradise where pirates and other scalawags plot their next score. All that's missing is Robert Louis Stevenson taking notes for what would later become Treasure Island.
Of the two, Klondike delivers its dramatic bounty more effectively and compactly, capitalizing on some of Discovery's favorite obsessions: dangerous vocations, gold prospecting and harsh Alaska-adjacent terrain, in a fictionalized account of the 1897 gold rush. The miniseries never skimps on calamity as young adventurer Bill Haskell (Game of Thrones' Richard Madden) learns valuable survival skills while protecting his precarious claim. During a climactic crisis in which he's left to die of exposure, Haskell muses, "The worst part is how time slows."
He could just as well have been talking about the middle section of Black Sails' first season, which opens promisingly enough with a sea battle, followed by threats of violent upheaval aboard the Walrus, captained by the arrogant, aloof Flint (Toby Stephens). Too soon, though, the action moves onto land. And while Starz staples like graphic sex and savagery are hardly uncommon occurrences in the bustling debauchery of New Providence Island, Sails becomes stubbornly becalmed by its landlocked third and fourth hours, as tiresome wheeling and dealing triggers a bout of Restless Sea Legs Syndrome in the impatient viewer.
If only everyone were as good company as Luke Arnold's pre-"Long" John Silver, a libidinous scamp who leverages some ill-gained knowledge about a Spanish treasure galleon to keep Flint and other mercenaries from skinning him alive. Here's hoping the back half of its eight-episode first season — a second has already been ordered — gets a stronger wind in its sails. A mutiny by the audience wouldn't be pretty.
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THE CANDIDATE: Regardless of who you voted for in the last presidential campaign, the remarkably personal documentary film Mitt (premiering Friday on Netflix) fascinates with its fly-on-the-wall study of Mitt Romney and his large, earnestly supportive family as he pursued the presidency twice: first in 2008, losing the nomination to John McCain; and then four years later, with an unsuccessful bid to unseat President Obama. Filmmaker Greg Whiteley enjoyed unusually intimate access, start to finish, and if the brisk 90-minute film can feel incomplete at times — almost no mention is made of the colorful circus of opponents Romney defeated to gain the 2012 nomination, and running mate Paul Ryan isn't shown until the actual election day — Mitt is less concerned with being a chronicle of recent political events than it is with providing an unguarded profile of a man who rarely let his hair down in public. (His impeccable coif comes in for quite a bit of ribbing from his telegenic offspring.)
DEATHTIME: I'll be honest, the brazen title made me look — a choice I soon came to regret. One week after Lifetime scored a big tune-in with its clumsy remake of Flowers in the Attic (being repeated Saturday at 10/9c), the channel is likely to repeat that success (though with even less dramatic impact) in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (Saturday, 8/7c), an utterly pedestrian docudrama that never lives up to its campy billing. This plodding non-thriller coyly makes us wonder for far too long whether the notorious Lizzie (Christina Ricci) actually took said weapon to her repressive father and stepmother, a 19th-century forerunner of the sort of tabloid crime that you can see re-enacted ad nauseum on channels like Investigation Discovery.
With her owl eyes and birdlike frame, Ricci is an acceptably enigmatic but ultimately opaque Lizzie. "I've always wanted more," she confesses to her dour older sister (Clea DuVall), which is about as much character development as we get in this listless account. Despite her bona fides as a Sunday school teacher, Lizzie is initially shown to be a party girl, a petty shoplifter and liar, and borderline-incestuous flirt — two weekends in a row with that theme, Lifetime? — until the grisly crimes put her in the local law's crosshairs, resulting in an anticlimactic trial that even pros like Billy Campbell (her lawyer) and Gregg Henry (the mutton-chopped prosecutor) can't enliven. My advice: try to get your hands on the superior 1975 TV-movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery. (According to Amazon, it will be released on DVD in May. If so, it would be worth the wait.)
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: Another weekend, another awards show. But at least the Grammys (Sunday at 8/7c on CBS) usually delivers some memorable musical performances and pairings: Metallica and concert pianist Lang Lang the most offbeat, followed by Robin Thicke with Chicago, and Sara Bareilles' duet with Carole King perhaps the most anticipated. Surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are also on the roster. ... Oscar nominee Jonah Hill hosts NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c) for the third time, joined by U.K. band Bastille as first-time musical guest. ... Take a break from Super Bowl hype for some Olympics hype, with NBC's Shaun White: Russia Calling (Saturday, 8/7c), profiling the gold-medal snowboarder as he prepares for his third Games. ... Programming note: Fox is flipping its Friday comedies Enlisted (9/8c) and Raising Hope (9:30/8:30c), in hopes of raising the profile of its disarming new military comedy. (Both shows deserve to be on Tuesdays more than the dreary Dads.) ... Finally, no TV this weekend will be more entertaining than watching Benedict Cumberbatch, as PBS's Sherlock, deliver an epic best-man's wedding toast to his Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman), solving overlapping cases along the way, in the scintillating "The Sign of Three" (Sunday, check tvguide.com listings).
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