Game Change

"It wasn't a campaign. It was a bad reality show," concludes political operative Steve Schmidt (a forceful Woody Harrelson) toward the end of HBO's controversy-stirring Game Change (Saturday, 9/8c), a searing, sizzlingly well acted docudrama about the decision "to create a dynamic moment" in the 2008 presidential run of John McCain (a salty but sanguine Ed Harris) by selecting "a game-changing pick" in fellow maverick Sarah Palin, "the best actress in American politics."

Or was it, as another adviser warns, a "self-serving political maneuver" that backfired? "She's a star," Schmidt insists of Palin — and as played by Julianne Moore with explosively charismatic intensity, uncanny detail and more empathy than you might expect, it's clear he's right. Much like the genuine (if polarizing) article, Moore's Palin jumps off the screen and galvanizes the campaign as she does the movie — even as she becomes a rogue loose cannon, media lightning rod and Saturday Night Live laughingstock once her inexperience in world matters becomes glaringly obvious. (The movie, adapted from the best-seller by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann by the same writer and producer of HBO's Emmy-winning Recount, makes it clear the fault lies in McCain's team, who failed to vet her thoroughly.)

As Palin fights back against her handlers and critics, frightening even her running mate by the end with her ambition, we are witness to an electrifying and darkly entertaining parable of the perils of modern political celebrity.

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DEATH IN THE FAMILY:
Here's the understatement of the weekend: "People are gonna die," once-upon-a-different-time sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) says in a plain talk heart-to-heart with his son Carl (Chandler Riggs), who's still wracked with grief and guilt over the horrific death-by-zombie of group conscience Dale from last week's episode of AMC's riveting The Walking Dead. "There's no way you can ever be ready for it. ... Best we can do now is avoid it as long as we can, keep one step ahead." Rick's soul-weary attempt to talk to his boy like a man is one of the more contemplative moments in Sunday's next-to-last episode of the season (10/9c), which ends on another shattering note that portends a game-changing climax next week.

Before his grisly death, Dale declared their tribe to be broken, and this week there are some attempts to heal the various rifts — within the group and between them and Hershel's folk. But some grudges can't be resolved so neatly, and it all comes to a head during a manhunt in the woods, by which time it's clear things will never be the same again. Bad news for them, great news for us.

MAGIC'S HOUR: You don't have to be a sports fan to remember where you were when you first heard The Announcement — the startling and sobering declaration on Nov. 7, 1991, that beloved NBA superstar Magic Johnson was HIV-positive. The Announcement, from director Nelson George, is the latest in a series of terrifically personal and memorably intimate documentaries from ESPN Films (Sunday, 9/8c). Magic Johnson narrates much of this astonishing story in a trademark genial manner, giving a storybook quality to the early chapters of instant fame, glory and goodwill. When he is diagnosed with HIV at 32, having settled down with a wife (his college sweetheart) and a baby on the way, his personal distress is echoed among his legions of fans, as well as his fellow NBA colleagues, some of whom have to battle their own fears and prejudices regarding the virus as Magic initially retires, then returns to play triumphantly in the 1992 All-Star Game.

The film deals honestly with the impact of Magic's announcement on the game, but what is most remarkable is his acknowledgement that "when God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person." Not content to merely fight the disease, which he has done with spectacular success, he decides to become the most public face of HIV, raising awareness as well as funding in his activism. One of his most indelible appearances, excerpted here, was on a 1992 edition of Nick News With Linda Ellerbee, in which he comforts a little girl with the virus who cries as she talks about wanting to be treated as normal. There's nothing normal about Magic Johnson's achievements in the two decades since he received what many thought would be a death sentence.

SHORT TAKES: As Carlene Cockburn, Kristin Chenoweth gets her Carrie Underwood on, belting Jesus Take the Wheel at church — which her nemesis Amanda naturally sees as a dig at the way her husband died — in one of the less obvious moments of GCB's second episode (Sunday, 10:01/9:01c, ABC). It hits many of the same cheerfully vulgar beats of the pilot episode, and given that I was surprised by exactly one plot twist, this could all get tiresome very quickly, if they don't start churning stories meatier than the Carlene-Amanda feud. ... Fox's deadpan, but to me simply deadly, animated comedy Bob's Burgers returns Sunday (8:30/7:30c) for a second season with a send-up of The Goonies, albeit with more penis jokes, and I'm afraid this episode evaporated from my memory about as quickly as that movie did back in the day.

CHANNEL SURFING: Top of the watercooler charts this weekend is Oprah Winfrey's exclusive interview with members of Whitney Houston's family, most notably her daughter (and heir) Bobbi Kristina, as well as sister-in-law/manager Patricia and brother Gary, on a 90-minute edition of Oprah's Next Chapter (Sunday, 9/8c, OWN). This high-profile "get" is reminiscent of Winfrey's glory days in daytime, and is just the sort of must-see event that this struggling channel needs. ... In an attempt to further confuse viewers, CBS airs an original Mentalist episode Friday night in the time period previously occupied by CSI: NY (9/8c) — which (to answer the many questions I get about this every week) is returning March 30 with new episodes. ... Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog interviews inmates On Death Row in a new Investigation Discovery series (Friday, 10/9c). One of his upcoming subjects, George Rivas of the "Texas 7" gang, was executed last month not long after sharing his story. ... On a much lighter note, E!'s Fashion Police (Friday, 10/9c) expands to a full hour this week, because honestly, has anyone ever tried to shut Joan Rivers up? ... Jonah Hill returns to host NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c) for a second time, with The Shins as musical guest. ... Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory), aka Ruby the waitress, is the focus of ABC's Once Upon a Time (Sunday, 8/7c). ... CBS' The Good Wife (Sunday, 9/8c) continues to attract great guests, including Bebe Neuwirth as a judge, and Homeland's Morena Baccarin as the latest person accusing the creepy Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker) of bad behavior. ... On CBS' CSI: Miami (Sunday, 10/9c), the "Miami Taunter" kills again, but the real bombshell is the appearance of Raquel Welch as the matriarch of the suspected killer's family.

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