Carice van Houton and Stephen Dillane
No fooling, this April Fool's TV weekend has something for just about everyone.
Starting with the long-awaited (though not nearly as long as Mad Men made us wait) second season of HBO's masterful epic fantasy Game of Thrones (Sunday, 9/8c). As the world of Westeros expands in year two, the animated credits begin to look like the world's largest board game of Risk, introducing far-flung new kingdoms and characters jockeying for power and plotting war on land and sea, from arid desert to icy forest.
It's a Herculean task keeping all of these divided dynasties, treacheries and vendettas straight, playing out on a canvas so large no single episode can contain all the storylines. (Not unlike George R.R. Martin's equally daunting source material, which managed to leave out a number of key characters in its fourth volume.) But once you get back in the rhythm of this enthrallingly sprawling, lusty and brutal saga, flaunting enough sex and violence to make a Hobbit faint, it's impossible not to succumb to Thrones' visceral, dark magic. As the powerful priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten) from Dragonstone chants, "The night is dark and full of terror." And wonder.
Our favorite characters are in rare form: Tyrion the imp (Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage) throwing his diminutive weight around at King's Landing with sly, hilarious cunning; little Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) on the run, a scrappy fugitive disguised as a boy; Stark bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harington) battling for his soul in the wintry wasteland beyond the Wall; exiled princess Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), in the most slow-burning story in the first four episodes, nurturing her dragons along with ambitions to build an army. And with all the giant direwolves and supernatural forces afoot, the greatest monster of all is a sadistic boy king: Joffrey Lannister (Jack Gleeson), born of incest, who nearly everyone is desperate to depose from the Iron Throne.
Game of Thrones is fantasy for adults, a corrosive Camelot where blood runs thick as ambition and honor is as rare as the wings of a dragon.
On the same night, AMC hopes to continue the momentum of Mad Men's fifth season (10/9c) — the episode wasn't available for preview, but we hear we'll actually see the ex-Mrs. Draper (January Jones as Betty) this time; just don't expect her to do a sexy dance like Megan's. A darker cloud, both metaphorically and literally (given the rainy Seattle clime), hovers over the second-season premiere of AMC's The Killing (Sunday, 8/7c), a two-hour opus that hopes to win back some of the disgruntled viewers who felt burned when last season's finale failed to resolve any aspect of the "Who Killed Rosie Larsen" mystery.
It's an eventful episode that resolves a number of the more burning cliffhanger questions, sometimes poignantly, sometimes violently, though getting us little closer to the actual whodunit, which won't be revealed until season's end. (You probably already know if you're going to have the patience to make it that far.) One mini-spoiler I'm happy to share is that almost instantly, the show puts to rest (finally) the notion that dour detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) will ever pull up stakes and leave to join her boyfriend in sunnier California. The back-and-forth, with Sarah's poor kid being dragged along with every indecision, was one of the weakest elements of the first season. Even now, though, the way she treats her kid, including dumping him with others as she obsesses on this case, makes her an even worse mom than she is a questionably effective detective.
Sarah isn't easy to warm up to, and neither is The Killing, though I respect its moody insistence at depicting even the most sympathetic figures in the worst possible light. The acting remains exceptionally offbeat, from the inscrutable Enos to Joel Kinnaman as her unkempt and possibly corrupt partner, Billy Campbell as the mournful politician who's been their prime suspect, and Brent Sexton as Rosie's dad, overwhelmed by grief, frustrated rage and responsibility for the two boys his distraught wife (the great Michelle Forbes) has suddenly abandoned. These are messy lives, involved in a soul-crushing case that just keeps getting messier. The Killing, for better and worse, is the antithesis of the ordinary TV crime drama, which is why I expect to stay tuned to the denouement, in hopes the whole house of cards doesn't collapse the way the legendary Twin Peaks did after its second-season reveal of who killed Laura Palmer.
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But wait, there's even more high drama on Sunday night. PBS' Masterpiece Classic has been on a roll lately: enjoying glowing reviews and robust ratings for Downton Abbey, and this week announcing a $1 million gift to the Masterpiece Trust from a San Diego philanthropist. With all of that comes great expectations, and by coincidence, to help mark the bicentennial of Charles Dickens' birth, a new adaptation of Great Expectations (Sunday, check local listings). But, it must be said now and again, not every classic can be a masterpiece.
While there is much to commend in this latest film treatment, especially Gillian Anderson's morbid and ghostly portrayal of the perversely ghastly Miss Havisham, this frosty two-parter (concluding April 8) suffers by having a cipher at its core. Pip, the orphan from the marshes (appealingly played as a pipsqueak by Oscar Kennedy) who's transformed into a gentleman of means by a mysterious benefactor, comes off in adult form like a Gossip Girl dandy thanks to Douglas Booth's colorless performance. Even his pining for the elusive beauty Estella (Vanessa Kirby) lacks the necessary torment and passion. It doesn't help that Booth is surrounded by colorful scene-stealers: Ray Winstone as the menacing, misunderstood Magwitch and David Suchet as Havisham's imperious lawyer. The story holds up — it's Dickens, after all — but it may be best to manage your expectations downward for this one.
And now to the rest of the weekend:
MAC IS BACK: Returning from a seven-week hiatus that had many fans thinking CBS had suddenly canceled CSI: NY — a decision the network isn't expected to reveal until May — the show makes a case for its survival with an above-par outing (Friday, 9/8c) inspired by the vintage black-and-white crime photography of the legendary Weegie, a personal fave of executive producer/writer Pam Veasey.
The story opens at a snowy crime scene that's a picture-perfect replica of a murder in 1957 that Mac (Gary Sinise) remembers from the photo archives, and it hits even closer to home when he realizes the victim is one of their own young lab techs: "She was a white lab coat in my peripheral vision," Mac reflects, regretting he never really knew her. Echoes between the two crimes lead to evocative cross-cutting between eras. As we flash back to the '50s, an autopsy (juxtaposed with the present day) reveals that while much has changed in forensic science, some methods stand the test of time.
"I do get some satisfaction in knowing that sometimes the old-fashioned way still works," muses guest star Lee Majors as a retired detective who worked the original case. But new-fangled techniques also help crack the case — because this is CSI, after all, and we wouldn't be satisfied otherwise.
AWARD MANIA: It's slime time at Nickelodeon as the annual Kids' Choice Awards marks its 25th anniversary, with Will Smith hosting (Saturday, 8/7c). One celebrity likely to be immune from the cascades of green goop is First Lady Michelle Obama, on hand to present Taylor Swift with the Big Help Award for her efforts on behalf of tornado and floor survivors. Also making her first appearance (and more likely to take a slime bath) is Katy Perry, nominated for a handful of awards, who will perform live. ... Live performances from country royalty are the draw for CBS' three-hour telecast of the 47th Academy of Country Music Awards (Sunday, 8/7c). Reba McEntire and the very busy Blake Shelton are hosts, with the biggest musical stunt featuring Martina McBride and Pat Monahan performing "Marry Me" while a couple is married live onstage. When in Las Vegas ...
COLD ENOUGH FOR YOU?: Winter comes to Discovery's enthralling Frozen Planet (Sunday, 8/7c) at both frigid poles, with Emperor penguins standing duty in Antarctica (a behavior familiar to fans of March of the Penguins) and polar bears making shelter in the North. The most striking visuals this week belong to the natural phenomena, including the dazzling auroras in the skies and deep under the ice, spooky ice stalactites known as "brinicles."
CHANNEL SURFING: Gird your loins. Starz' Spartacus: Vengeance (Friday, 10/9c) calls it a season with a finale that promises a fateful and no-doubt-bloody confrontation between the rebels led by Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) and the Roman army led by Glaber (Craig Parker). ... Battle of a very different sort is on display in New Orleans, as the NCAA's Final Four square off (Saturday, 6/5c, CBS): Kentucky vs. Louisville, then Kansas vs. Ohio State. ... Barbara Hershey guests on ABC's Once Upon a Time (Sunday, 8/7c) as Regina's mother in fairytale land. The episode promises to reveal once and for all the cause of the Evil Queen's hatred for Snow White.
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