Today's history lesson: You shouldn't always believe what you hear. Long before TV, let alone social media like Twitter and Facebook, the medium of radio held sway over the public consciousness — and more to the point, the collective imagination — in a way that now seems hard for many to fathom. One visionary who understood its potential and power was Orson Welles, "prodigy and provocateur," who at the astonishingly precocious age of 23 triggered a Halloween eve panic in 1938 with his innovative and infamous CBS Radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
PBS's reliably satisfying American Experience series relives that cultural milestone of 75 years ago in War of the Worlds (Tuesday, check tvguide.com listings), a smart, sharp documentary that puts Welles's unnervingly realistic dramatization in the context of a society "highly attuned to the sounds of crisis," from the Great Depression to the encroaching winds of European war. Also seared into recent memory: the infamous Hindenberg disaster of a year earlier, which was indelibly broadcast as it happened. Welles used a similar "breaking news" approach to bring gripping immediacy to his adaptation of the classic novel of alien invasion, and those who tuned in late could almost be excused for swallowing this convincing "report" of alien attacks in rural New Jersey. Anxiety trumped reason among many who tuned in, and in this special's least effective gimmick, we watch actors re-enact listeners' horrified and/or amused reactions in mock interviews (based on actual letters and accounts). The best comes at the top of the program, quoting a South Carolina judge who refers to Welles as "a carbuncle on the rump of desperate theatrical performers [who] should make amends for his consummate act of asininity."
He did apologize afterward in a hastily arranged press conference that's described as one of his greatest performances, a public display of contrition that barely disguised his delight at having perpetrated such a galvanizing watershed moment — which thrust him into the international limelight, where he would soon flourish as the creator and star of Citizen Kane. His "War of the Worlds" remains one of his most celebrated works for good reason, and this is a terrific snapshot of a nation primed to believe the apocalypse was upon them because they'd heard it on radio. And in Welles's hands, a word could be worth a thousand pictures.
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WOMEN OF INTEREST: Here's an episode I've waited all season for: the reunion of madwoman Root (Amy Acker) and the ferociously shoot-first Shaw (Sarah Shahi) on CBS's never-better Person of Interest (10/9c). Root has been MIA since engineering her escape — with the Machine's help — from a psychiatric hospital several weeks ago, but she suddenly re-emerged at the end of last week's sensational episode, startling Shaw out of her sleep with these promising words: "We're going to have so much fun together." (The last time they shared space, it came thisclose to torture porn.) Turns out The Machine has sent Root to Shaw, and they'll have to work together to pull off a mission. This I've gotta see.
SONS OF GUNS: I don't usually play the "jump the shark" game, and am even trying to keep an open mind about the recent Homeland twist where Carrie let Saul publicly shame her and send her back to shock therapy, all a ruse to smoke out their Iranian enemies and force a meeting, which just turned into an abduction. (No excuse for the tragically irritating Dana subplot, though.) But I find myself drawing the line at Tara's fake pregnancy, revealed in last week's preposterous twist on FX's Sons of Anarchy (10/9c) as an elaborate plot to frame Gemma for phony-miscarriage-causing assault, thus keeping her Dragon Lady mother-in-law away for good from the Teller offspring. Watching Tara throw herself against a desk and puncture the blood bag inside her clothes, screaming bloody murder as Gemma the dupe looks on, was the sort of stunt you might expect to find on a fading soap like Revenge. Even the great Katey Sagal seems a bit abashed as she begins, "I know how this sounds ..." while trying to explain things to an understandably skeptical Sheriff Roosevelt. What it sounds like is a desperation move by a show that should know better.
Sons is on somewhat more solid, though still melodramatic, ground in the ruthless machinations of District Attorney Patterson (a fierce CCH Pounder) to take down the club by exposing its link to the gun used in the season-opening school massacre — another shark-breeding plot point that feels exploitive because the show hasn't effectively dramatized the impact on the community of such a tragedy. There's an effort to remedy that problem this week, as Patterson's clumsy attempt to stir the pot through the media turns very ugly very fast. The screws are tightening on Jax, but he only has eyes for Tara, and if he learns about her deception (which knowing this show is probably only a matter of time), I hope he's as disgusted as I am. Not by the wife, but by the writing.
PAINT BY NIPPLES: Pardon the expression, but they don't call it Naked Vegas for nothing. Syfy's contribution to the "express yourself" reality-workplace genre substitutes body painting — a skill often displayed by contestants of my beloved Face Off — in place of the typical tattoo ink parlor. A former Face Off player ("Nix" Herrera) is among the "Skin Team" staff of Kelly "Red" Belmonte's year-old body-painting establishment, and while the co-workers' interactions aren't particularly fascinating, this might be worth watching for the payoffs. Especially if they're as entertaining as the challenge in the premiere (10/9c), when a husband and groom ask the team to transform them and their wedding party into zombies. "It looks like she's been waiting for this day all her death," remarks Red in awe as she watches the ghoul go down the aisle.
Meanwhile, Face Off (9/8c) nears the end of another terrific season with the final four tasked to create a human-bird hybrid. As always, I look forward to watching their visions take flight.
THE TUESDAY GUIDE: The Weather Channel acknowledges the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy by basing the day's operations in Breezy Point, N.Y., and the Jersey shore, areas devastated by Sandy. A Sandy: Anatomy of a Superstorm special will air at 3/2c and 9/8c. ... Felicia Day returns to The CW's Supernatural (9/8c) as the adorable "IT" girl Charlie, but the real news this week is that the Winchester brothers break through a wall and find themselves in the company of Dorothy from Oz — and also the Wicked Witch. Does someone know that Wicked is celebrating its 10th year on Broadway right now? If someone starts singing "Popular" or "Defying Gravity," I'm in. ... Singing for their survival, the Top 16 perform live on Fox's The X Factor (8/7c) before the judges narrow it down to the Top 12 finalists. (But really, why stop there?)
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