First, a few words about fairy tales, one of the more unexpectedly hot trends of this TV season ...
Like Peter Pan, we'll never entirely grow up when it comes to our appreciation for a well-told fairy tale, the more fractured the better these days. ABC's romantically whimsical Once Upon a Time, which traps beloved storybook characters in our world, has become one of the season's surprise runaway hits. (This Sunday's episode, at 8/7c, focuses on one of the series' most fruitful relationships: John Doe/Prince Charming and Mary Margaret/Snow White.) Even NBC's Grimm, taking more of a horror approach in depicting creatures of fable living among us, is doing better than expected and has been picked up for a full season. (It's pre-empted this Friday, but gets a special Thursday airing next week at 10/9c.)
Syfy has a tradition of "re-imagining" classic stories in over-the-top revisionist miniseries like Tin Man and Alice, both of which left me cold with their frantic, self-consciously edgy attitude. I much prefer the latest in the series, the two-part Neverland (Sunday and Monday, 9/8c), which adds clever new twists to the origin story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook while remaining unpretentiously faithful to the adventurous spirit of the original.
Mashing up elements of Dickens, Lewis Carroll, The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter, Neverland introduces Peter (the very appealing Charlie Rowe) as the pied-piper ringleader of a gang of Victorian street-urchin thieves working for Fagin father figure Jimmy Hook (a robust Rhys Ifans). When they get their sticky fingers on a magical orb, it transports them into the magical "Neverland," where 18th-century pirates (led by Pushing Daisies' campy Anna Friel) lie in wait, along with mystical natives and glowing tree-spirit fairies including Tinker Bell (the voice of Keira Knightley).
There are fantastical sights, levitating swordfights and exciting encounters with giant crocodiles and spiders in this lush production, but the heart of the story is Peter's coming of age, his loyalties torn between his lost-boy buddies, the seduced-by-power Hook and the new friends (including Tiger Lily) he finds in this new world. As always, Peter is one storybook hero you never want to tell to "man up." He's happy just how he is, and I'm thrilled that Syfy let him be for a change.
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Now for some of the weekend's other highlights:
As I huddled under an umbrella on an unseasonably chilly and rainy September night for an all-star concert at Central Park's Great Lawn, I appreciated the music, but envied the audience who'd soon be able to watch comfortably at home. And now that time has come, as PBS' Great Performances presents Andrea Bocelli Live in Central Park (check local schedules). The famed Italian tenor performs with the New York Philharmonic, led by Alan Gilbert, joined by an eclectic guest list including Céline Dion, Tony Bennett and Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. Guess what? It's even better when you're dry.
No longer as wanted by Fox, which has reduced its presence to quarterly specials, the venerable America's Most Wanted moves to Lifetime to mark its 25th season as a weekly series (9/8c), with John Walsh returning to profile criminals in hopes the home viewer will help bring them to justice. This is being paired with Starving Secrets With Tracey Gold (10/9c), a docu-series in which the former Growing Pains star, who went public with her battle against anorexia, helps women deal with their eating disorders.
If you like your entertainment tough and nasty, with a sleazy rock 'n' roll swagger, Encore's The Take (9/8c), a four-part British crime-drama miniseries airing over four weeks, could fit the bill, although the working-class accents are often so thick you might feel the need for subtitles. Tom Hardy (Inception) stars as a cocky thug newly sprung from a four-year prison stay, sporting an insolent lopsided grin as he wastes no time getting even, getting drunk, and getting busy with anything in a skirt, much to the dismay of his pill-popping wife and his more level-headed younger cousin Jimmy (Shaun Evans). Brian Cox is splendid as the jailbird kingpin calling the shots from behind bars as the action unfolds over a 10-year period.
What would the holiday season be without an angel earning his wings with the help of good old George Bailey? It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's tribute to the self-sacrificing everyman (James Stewart at his best), is back for one of its annual NBC telecasts (8/7c). ... For something new, though it hardly sounds any more fresh, the tireless Hallmark Channel features Roger Moore as a Duke reuniting his estranged family in A Princess for Christmas (8/7c). ... One of the winners of OWN's Your OWN Show contest, Kristina Kuzmic, begins a six-episode run as The Ambush Cook (noon/11c), hijacking kitchen-phobic types to teach them tasty yet simple recipes. ... Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi hosts NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:29/10:29c) for the second time, with musical guest The Black Keys also making their second appearance. ... The puckish Graham Norton hosts a new comedic game/panel show, Would You Rather? (11/10c), which he describes as "the show that questions everything and answers nothing." Posing bizarre either/or scenarios like "Would you rather your mother or father have a sex change?" Graham dishes with a panel of celebs and comedians — the most recognizable in the premiere being Stanley Tucci and 30 Rock's Scott Adsit — and awards points to the cleverest responder. It's hugely silly, but just about right as a nightcap.
If you watched Scott Pelley's remarkable and heart-rending 60 Minutes report last week about homeless children living on the streets and in their families' vehicles in Central Florida, you may know what to expect from the latest edition of Nick News With Linda Ellerbee. In What's For Dinner? Hungry Kids in America (Nickelodeon, 9/8c), the invaluable Ellerbee gets kids from around the country to open up about the dire straits that have forced their families to ask for help to survive.
In another explosive episode of Showtime's thrilling Homeland (10/9c), it's the CIA vs. the State Department as Carrie and Saul fight to get a crack at interrogating the Saudi diplomat who has a line on the whereabouts of in-the-wind terrorist suspect Tom Walker. In the land of Brody, after a visit from the VP to urge him into politics, the compromised Marine hero turns to an unexpected ally to convince his reluctant wife Jessica to give him the OK to throw his hat into the ring. But first, Brody also has to clear the air with Carrie — and judging from the Miles Davis cover of My Funny Valentine she's playing in anticipation, she could be in for another emotional letdown.
Were you surprised by the big reveal in last week's Dexter? (My mail indicates a split between those who saw it coming and those who hadn't a clue.) In this week's episode (Showtime, 9/8c), enraged by the deception, Dexter declares, "From now on, I'm only putting my faith in myself" as he pursues his new target in hopes of averting the next murder, or a potentially far worse apocalyptic calamity. As Harry whispers in his ear, "Don't make this personal," the actions of the Doomsday Killer make this advice impossible to follow.
Signing the TV guest-star book: Michael J. Fox returns to the role that earned him an Emmy nomination last season, as The Good Wife's wily adversary Louis Canning, who in this episode (9/8c) is at odds with Alicia over an arbitration (involving guest star Jennifer Carpenter, moonlighting from Dexter) until a personal crisis intervenes. ... Can she talk? Joan Rivers guests on Fox's The Simpsons (8/7c) as Krusty's first agent, who takes the hard-luck clown back as a client to help him plan his comeback.
So what else is on? ... With those awesome sixtysomethings Bill and Cathi out of CBS' The Amazing Race (8/7c), I'm not sure who I'm rooting for anymore. But as the action moves to Panama City, at least one of the challenges promises the sort of spectacular visuals we've been missing for much of this so-so season. ... Disney Channel mixes music and comedy, a brand specialty, in the new series Austin & Ally (8/7c), about the friendship of an outgoing musician/singer (Ross Lynch) and a shy songwriter (Laura Marano). ... TLC, never a channel to shy away from the sensational, presents Virgin Diaries (9/8c), a one-hour special about adult men and women who've decided for a variety of reasons to be late bloomers. ... Bravo, never a channel to shy away from conspicuous consumption, follows Chef Roblé & Co. (10/9c) in a new docu-series about celebrity caterer Chef Roblé Ali, as he satisfies the whims of demanding clients — including, in the opener, a New York socialite who simply must have a live monkey at her birthday party. Who wouldn't if one could?
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