Weekend TV: New Steel Magnolias, Simpsons' Halloween Special, PBS Goes Upstairs
Is there a more perfect Lifetime movie property than Steel Magnolias? This tragicomic celebration of female bonding through gossipy good times and bad, all while getting their hair done at Truvy's Beauty Spot in suburban Louisiana, has been a crowd-pleaser since its first incarnation as an off-Broadway stage play (my preferred version, where the men are kept entirely offstage). The epitome of a leave-'em-laughing-while-weeping heart-warmer, Magnolias reached its pop-cultural apex in the all-star 1989 film version, but its can't-miss universality is underscored in Lifetime's oddly genteel but ultimately affecting new TV-movie (Sunday, 9/8c), whose big twist is in the casting of an all African-American ensemble.
There are updated references to Facebook, Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, but little else has changed. Ill-fated Shelby (Condola Rashad in the Julia Roberts role) still loves anything that's pink, and her desire to bear children despite her diabetes and weak kidneys brings a disease-of-the-week melodramatic underpinning to the delightfully catty banter among the ladies in the beauty shop. This movie comes most alive in those scenes when all the well-cast women (including Jill Scott as an unusually reserved Truvy) are bouncing off each other, biting but never drawing blood, most particularly Alfre Woodard as the hilariously cranky Ouiser and Phylicia Rashad as the more regal Clairee. Bringing a mother-earth strength and warmth to the entire project: executive producer Queen Latifah (as the Sally Field character of M'Lynn), whose serene composure grounds the movie in an emotional realism, and when she finally breaks down, it's cathartic for all.
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KOOKY AND SPOOKY: Few TV traditions are as eagerly anticipated as The Simpsons' annual "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween trilogy, this year's 23rd edition (!) arriving a bit earlier on the calendar than usual (Sunday, 8/7c). Happy to report that for the most part, this one doesn't disappoint, starting with a human-sacrifice opener depicting the ancient Mayans' prediction that the world will end in 2012 — and even if it does, that isn't likely to keep The Simpsons from continuing indefinitely. The vignettes include a black hole ("Can we call it that?" wonders Homer) consuming Springfield — the punch line on the other side of the wormhole is a good one — followed by a spoof of Paranormal Activity seen from a HomerCam, and ending with a Back to the Future homage in which Bart's time travel to 1974 ("a world where no one's mad at George Lucas") interferes with his parents' courtship, altering his own existence. My favorite joke: an indelible twist on a classic Bart-ism.
There are Halloween-themed episodes of The Cleveland Show, Bob's Burgers and American Dad as well, but the episode I'm most eager to see is Family Guy's assault on the TV ratings system (9/8c), as the Griffins become a Nielsen-like family, and Peter tries to take control of the airwaves. Guest voices include Jon Hamm and power producers J.J. Abrams, Dick Wolf and Mark Burnett.
THE BRITISH INVASION: Be prepared to fall in love this weekend with a clumsy, overweight, socially awkward but altogether irresistible new character joining the nurse-midwives of PBS' Call the Midwife (Sunday, check tvguide.com listings) in this enchanting series' second episode. Chummy's her name (a blissfully shortened version of Camilla Cholomondley-Browne), and this new trainee is played with chipper gusto by Miranda Hart in a scene-stealing performance that wins you over from the moment she first tries, with a dreadfully amusing lack of success, to ride a bike. "One fears there is something in her that is misaligned," muses Sister Monica Joan, who's one to talk. "The East End'll eat her for breakfast," growls Sister Evangelina, she of so little patience. By the end of the hour, Chummy has earned our respect, having already claimed our affections.
I wish I were as enthused about the second and final season of Masterpiece Classic's stubbornly drab revival of the classic Upstairs Downstairs (Sunday, check tvguide.com listings), which can't help but suffer by comparison to the livelier cultural phenom of Downton Abbey. We pick up the story of 165 Eaton Place in September 1938, as "this house prepares for war," with sandbags, gas masks and trench digging among the distractions for the nervous staff. The manor's stuffy master, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), is a diplomat caught up in the testy negotiations between England's leaders and Hitler's aggressive Nazi regime, while his prim wife Lady Agnes (an unconvincing Keeley Hawes) is still getting over a difficult childbirth, which is nothing compared to mediating the battles downstairs when issues of wartime duty divide the servants — a much more colorful lot than the upstairs nobility.
This series desperately misses the salty presence of the original series' co-creator Eileen Atkins as Lady Maud (who died between seasons, reportedly at the actress' behest), the Upstairs equivalent to Downton's peerless Dowager Countess. Adding some necessary spice in her wake: Alex Kingston (most recently of Doctor Who) as Maud's outspoken half-sister, Dr. Blanche, ruffling feathers as she pokes her nose into family business. This is a family that could use some ruffling, with precious little chemistry between the series leads. I haven't had time (given the fall onslaught) to watch beyond the first of six episodes, so I am hoping things pick up soon. Outside of a bit of literal monkey business that puts the household into a bit of a tizzy, there's not a lot here that makes me sorry this sequel didn't make it past a second year.
NAIL-BITER OF THE WEEK: More than justifying its Emmy win, Showtime's thrilling Homeland (Sunday, 10/9c) keeps the tension high as Carrie (Claire Danes) goes off the grid during her mission in Beirut, and Brody (Damian Lewis) visits the War Room in sequences of excruciating suspense, ending in a jaw-dropping twist that makes you wonder where the heck this series could possibly go next. ... An hour earlier, Dexter (9/8c, Showtime) is nearly as strong, as Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) comes to painful grips with the enormity of her brother's crimes. As the conflicted lieutenant tries to make sense of his "code," her own lawmaker's sense of right and wrong is upended. Her attempt to do the right thing could seriously cramp Dexter's style, just as he's got his sights sent on the annoying overstepping intern Louis (Josh Cooke).
A SECOND LOOK: Evoking one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, a resident of ABC's 666 Park Avenue (Sunday, 10:01/9:01c) warns, "Don't mess with the birds. They're part of the Drake." But does Jane listen? Just two episodes in to this sleek but predictable supernatural drama, the show's intrepid heroine (Rachael Taylor) is literally tearing down walls to get at the building's dark secrets, which includes the winged "Murmurations" of the episode's title as well as a murder from the '50s that's among the many things haunting her dreams. Most of the twists aren't nearly as surprising or frightening as the series would like them to be, but the subplots involving an unlucky-in-love tenant (Mili Avatal) and the further seduction of the "nerdy cute" Brian (Robert Buckley) take us into a more intriguing realm of dangerous passion — think Sex-Sex-Sex Park Avenue, a much more suitable address to follow the berserk shenanigans of Revenge.
If this isn't enough haunted-house action, BBC America premieres a second season of Bedlam (Saturday, 9/8c), set in a posh apartment complex that used to be an insane asylum. And yes, the ghostly inmates are still restless, but they're tormenting a largely new cast.
WHAT ELSE IS ON: As part of a free preview weekend for premium movie channel Epix, the documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 (Friday, 8/7c) celebrates 50 years of the James Bond movie franchise, followed by screenings of several Bond favorites. ... By coincidence, current Bond superstar Daniel Craig hosts NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c), with musical guest Muse. All eyes will be on the show to see how they spoof this week's debate. Forget the candidates. Who'll play hapless moderator Jim Lehrer? And if there was ever a weekend when Big Bird should be allowed to break curfew, it's this one. ... There's more movie-history nostalgia with TCM's A Night at the Movies: Hollywood Goes to Washington (Friday, 8/7c), exploring the history of political cinema. This special launches a month-long "American Politics on Film" series, starting with Frank Capra's iconic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. ... Discovery is having a high-flying weekend, but fasten your seat belts. First there's Winged Planet (Saturday, 8/7c), a visually spectacular nature documentary filmed via Spycams attached to the backs of many varieties of our flying friends, giving us a literal bird's-eye view of Earth. Then on Sunday, the series Curiosity (9/8c) puts cameras inside an unmanned passenger plane, which is remotely crashed into an unpopulated desert with crash-test dummies on board, revealing just what happens at the moment of impact. ... Speaking of disasters, Discovery's MythBusters (Sunday, 8/7c) are joined by James Cameron to answer the undying question every Titanic fan has asked themselves: Wasn't there room for Jack to float alongside Rose on that board after the ship sank? Did he really have to die?
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