For nearly 30 years, PBS's great American Masters series has profiled overachievers in the arts and culture at large. It only makes sense than when the documentary series finally decided to do its first study of a sports superstar, it turned to tennis legend Billie Jean King. Masters (Tuesday, 8/7c; check tvguide.com listings) has always reflected personality through performance, so who better than a woman who says of her craft: "Every ball I hit has a consequence."
It was true when she motivated herself to beat Bobby Riggs in the infamous "Battle of the Sexes" match 40 years ago — recaptured here in all of its high drama and low comedy — and even more so when she rallied other female pros to form the Women's Tennis Association to demand equal opportunity and pay. "Use us more. We are visible," King remembers telling Gloria Steinem at the height of the feminist revolution. "We [tennis pros] express exactly what the women's movement is about: using our bodies, trusting our bodies for the first time." King always saw tennis as a platform for advocating for social justice — "if I could reach No. 1." Which she did, eventually winning 39 Grand Slam titles through her career.
At nearly 70, King is frank and funny as she reflects on her triumphs in sport and in the social revolutions of the women's and gay rights movements. She's a game changer in every sense of the word, a true master of American life.
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SON-OF-A-BIKER: Brutal and bleak, yet also pretentious and preposterous, FX's high-riding Sons of Anarchy has the terrible luck of launching its sixth (and by all accounts next-to-last) season in the midst of what is turning out to be an instant-classic final run of episodes of AMC's Breaking Bad. (Seriously, Sunday's shootout cliffhanger was like something out of a Sam Peckinpah movie classic, cutting off at a moment of maximum intensity. If only we had the luxury to wait and binge this entire season!) Both series are dealing with the dire consequences of the criminal life, but what feels so tightly focused and earned in Breaking Bad too often comes off as forced and unconvincing in the land of the soulful bikers. This is especially true in the overextended season opener (10/9c), which begins with a long and precious voice-over from club leader Jax (Charlie Hunnam) advising his happily oblivious young sons to "find your own truth" and goes on to include a scene in which one club member welcomes another back into the fold with a savage beating meant to demonstrate "brotherly love" (macho eye-roll).
Worse yet, the new season indulges the show's old habit of introducing adversaries so loathsome ("Persian" torture-porn merchants) that it bathes the crooks of SAMCRO in an almost heroic glow. And the club's nemesis this season, Donal Logue (Terriers) as retired U.S. Marshal-with-a-vendetta Lee Toric, exercises his unscrupulous manipulative muscle with a doleful self-importance that renders it more incredible than sinister when he reveals to one of his pawns: "I never gave a s--- about justice. It was always about retribution for me. Hurting people who hurt people, that's always my endgame." I'd like to be able to say "Way to commit" (the way Toric did last season when he witnessed Otto biting off his own tongue), but Logue is projecting pomposity without passion.
Still, Sons has a propulsive allure as it dramatizes Jax's attempts to take the gang legit (though he still condones murder when it's convenient) while battle lines continue to be drawn between the show's ferociously impressive leading ladies: Katey Sagal as the formidable Gemma — just watch her put a new "prospect" in his place — and Maggie Siff as Jax's wife Tara, who's rocking the "Orange Is the New Chic" look, taking her turn behind bars. And throughout the first episode, while the various intrigues play out in a tapestry of casual crime and violence, we follow the enigmatic trajectory of an unnamed character who turns out to be a symbolic son of true anarchy whose actions could change life for everyone in Charming. There's no questioning the show's unflinching boldness even on those occasions when you're less than impressed by its methods.
DANCE, TEN: As in scoring a "10" for the dazzling 10th season of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance (8/7c), in which a male and female "favorite" dancer will be named at the end of the show. (Warning: Set the DVR for at least a half-hour extra time in the Eastern and Central time zones, because the two-hour finale will take a pause for President Obama's live speech at 9/8 and resume afterward; the Mountain Time broadcast will begin as soon as Fox's coverage of the speech is over.)
America voted last week, and the competition is especially fierce between the statuesque Jasmine and the dynamic Amy. (I agree with Nigel Lithgow that if they were rewarding the top dancers regardless of gender, both women would win this year.) The contest between strapping, versatile Aaron and the charismatic Fik-shun boils down to polish vs. personality, so it's anyone's guess. The only thing you can count on is some exceptional dancing before it's all over.
Meanwhile, the top 12 acts will perform on NBC's America's Got Talent (following the president's speech), with six moving on after Wednesday's results show.
THE DRAMA ON CABLE: Only one more week until the night's top summer dramas sign off for their midseason break, and expect plenty of action in USA Network's Covert Affairs (9/8c), as Annie (Piper Perabo) jets to Copenhagen — love this show's location work — to stop Teo from seeking vengeance on the man behind his mother's death, while an arrested Auggie (Christopher Gorham) learns more about his new boss Calder's (Hill Harper) motives. Lost's Zuleikha Robinson guests as a lawyer hired by Arthur (Peter Gallagher) to come to his beleaguered family's aid. ... More lawyers on display on USA's Suits (10/9c), as the firm dissolves its ill-fated British merger while Harvey (Gabriel Macht) faces off against the alluring Scottie (Abigail Spencer). ... On TNT's top-rated Rizzoli & Isles (9/8c), Maura (Sasha Alexander) is beset once again by family ties as she ponders whether to give shelter to her newly paroled gramps (Richard Herd) while Jane (Angie Harmon) sorts out her relationship with Casey (Chris Vance).
THE TUESDAY GUIDE: [adjust times for the president's speech as necessary] If you're wondering why ABC's 20/20 is devoting time and resources to a special about lottery winners subtitled "Crazy, Stupid Luck" on a Tuesday night (10/9c), it's because this is a thinly veiled promo for the unpromising new drama series Lucky 7, premiering two weeks later in the same time slot, also about lottery winners. ... Describing its mission as "taking you inside the worlds of everyday people living unordinary lives" — as opposed to extraordinary? — National Geographic Channel profiles two snake-handling Kentucky pastors in the docu-reality series Snake Salvation (9/8c), which focuses at least as much on "snake roundups" as on saving souls. ... More inspirational is Animal Planet's Hero Dogs of 9/11 (8/7c), which leads this week's remembrances of the Sept. 11 tragedy with a look at the search-and-rescue dogs that found their way to Ground Zero to seek survivors and comfort those in need. It's followed by a replay of February's acclaimed Glory Hounds special (9/8c) profiling military canines who sniff out explosives and hidden insurgents with selfless dedication. It's an authentic tear-jerker.