Filmmaker Ken Burns adds yet another valuable chapter to his visual and oral history of the American character with an enthralling two-part biography of Mark Twain (PBS, January 14-15, check TV Guide listings). "A wise guy who's wise," says author Russell Banks of the celebrated writer, wit and fearless social critic described by a contemporary as "the Lincoln of our literature." As in many Burns films, the issue of race looms large, especially in the first night's climactic segments on Twain's masterwork, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How often can you say TV makes you want to pick up a book immediately?
In keeping with this issue's "jeers" theme, I top my own worst-of-the-year list with NBC's degrading, pandering Fear Factor. It's a reluctant choice, because calling any attention to this pathetic nadir of "reality" TV tends to give it the sort of notoriety that, sad to say, will only boost its ratings.
The other low point in the reality genre: CBS choosing to play out its voyeuristic exercise in claustrophobic exhibitionism, Big Brother, even after Sept. 11, then airing the egregiously inane finale immediately after President Bush's address to Congress.
Worst game-show trend: endless and tiresome "celebrity" editions of ABC's overexposed Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and NBC's overhyped Weakest Link.
Worst news trend: onscreen clutter of graphics, crawling type and distracting logos, most notably on CNN's amped-up Headline News channel.
Worst news obsession: the
"A fiasco from start to finish" is how Julia Louis-Dreyfus's disapproving agent (played by Jane Carr) described Larry David's grouchy fall from grace, as the triumphant second season of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm came to an end all too soon. (The only off note: a cameo appearance by Mike Binder, whose repellent The Mind of the Married Man was the network's real fiasco on recent Sundays.) Watching David become a pariah to all of Hollywood, alienating himself from every conceivable network through a series of public mishaps most of his own making made for the season's most uproarious, scabrous farce.
Lately I've been drawing parallels between Ed Stevens's (Tom Cavanagh) crush on Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen) on NBC's charming Ed and the torch that young Clark Kent (Tom Welling) carries for Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) on the WB's smashing Smallville. These great guys may always save the day in their baroque backwaters, but rarely do they get the girl.
Don't you just love a good TV romance?
If so, I hope you've been watching WB's Felicity, which goes on winter hiatus after this week (December 19, 9 pm/ET), leaving us basking in the afterglow of one of TV's most intimate, moody and tangled love stories.
The torrid triangle of well-meaning Felicity (Keri Russell) and the men in her life, earnest Noel (Scott Foley) and pensive Ben (Scott Speedman), has propelled this addict
Used to be, the networks saved their best for last, with many nights going out on a dramatic high. How times and time periods have changed.
The shift noticeably began two seasons ago, when NBC took what was considered a risk by placing the smart, slick The West Wing at 9 pm (all times ET). TV's other best drama, HBO's The Sopranos, airs on Sundays at 9 pm (when it airs original episodes, that is) opposite Fox's The X-Files.
In a further sign of the times, few would have believed a year ago that CBS's engrossing and sometimes just gross CSI (Thursdays, 9 pm) would challenge NBC's long-running and lately, running out of fresh ideas ER for ratings supremacy. (Just wait for rerun season, when CSI is
Far be it from me to stand in the way of romance, but I can't imagine a TV couple any ickier than Boston Public's pathetically lovelorn vice principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald) and "hook lady" Kathy Baker. The domineering mother of a psycho son, she was mysteriously maimed, and her prosthetic metal hand is being used for grotesque comic effect. Almost as unappealing is the forced courtship on ER between doctors Carter (Noah Wyle) and Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), who make googly eyes at each other in between crises. It seems like a long time ago since we were swooning over Doug and Carol, doesn't it?
While I'm still not sure it was necessary to remake 1971's Brian's Song, a truly unforgettable landmark in the history of TV-movies, I have to admit that ABC's new version (December 2, 7 pm/ET) tore me up every bit as much as the original. Sean Maher gives a charismatic, star-making performance as the scrappy Brian Piccolo, and because the movie gives us more context about his life (with Providence's Paula Cale is splendid as his wife) and untimely death, the climactic tribute by his teammate Gale Sayers (the excellent Mekhi Phifer) has perhaps even more emotional power.
CBS's Survivor had to reshuffle its tribes to make this season's stagnant African expedition interesting. Even now, the current series looks like a poor excuse to show whiners sitting around obsessing about the next vote in between insipid contests. Bor-ing!
Not to mention that by changing the rules midstream in hopes of salvaging a show that was dying in front of our eyes, Survivor has lost any claim of credibility. Instead of watching people playing a game, we're watching the game play them, which might be fun for some, but to me, it's foul play.
So given my disaffection for "reality" TV don't get me started on Fear Factor or Temptation Island 2 imagine my surprise to find myself still totally caught up in the globe-trotting antics of CBS's The Amazing Race (Wednesdays, 9 pm/ET).
As opposed to the static Survivor, Race is all about having experiences and going places: bunge
Let's hear it for the return of the classic cliff-hanger, a device as old as the Arabian Nights but nevertheless refreshing when executed so well on such dynamic new thrillers as Fox's 24 and especially ABC's Alias, which is making an art of ending each fast-paced episode on a note of peril. In this cunningly constructed, if often baffling spy caper, you never want to miss the last five minutes of any episode or the first 10 minutes of the following show. Not since The Perils of Pauline have we seen such a plucky heroine (the terrific Jennifer Garner) extricate herself from deadly situations with such impressive zeal.
When a TV character returns from the dead, it's usually a sign of creative desperation: an insipid twist on a daytime or prime-time soap (like Bobby on Dallas) or a sentimental haunting for schmaltzy (Providence) or phonily artsy (Six Feet Under) effect.
Whereas on the magnificently inspired Buffy the Vampire Slayer which has graduated from guilty pleasure to flat-out triumph this season (UPN, Tuesdays, 8 P.M./ET) the heroine's resurrection from the grave has had profound ramifications for the slayer and her "Scooby gang" of demon fighters.
"The thing about magic, there's always consequences," warns vampire Spike (the marvelously moody James Marsters), who has become Buffy's living-dead soul mate. So when witchy Willow (t