The Wednesday Playlist: Americans Finale, ABC's Tools, HBO's Manhunt
It's May Day (as in: mayday!) for the Russian spies — and just about everyone else — in the taut first-season finale of FX's emotionally engrossing The Americans (Wednesday, 10/9c). Chivalry is not dead, even in the estranged not-quite-marriage of embedded KGB operatives Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), as they prepare for a dangerous mission that could be a set-up, with lots of jockeying and posturing between husband (who wants to protect while serving) and wife (who's adamant about following orders to the letter) about who's going to risk everything, including their "normal" family life, to walk into what might be a trap. As usual in this gripping series, nothing's quite what it seems, and while the suspense is at times excruciating, it's always organic to the story (unlike the cartoonish antics of The Following's predictably nasty cliffhanger earlier this week).
Added bonus: another brilliant disguise for the Jennings' formidable handler Claudia aka "Granny" (Margo Martindale), as she takes care of some personal business. Elizabeth might still despise her, but as this veteran agent coolly observes: "I know you better than you know yourself. And you don't know me at all." Try to forget that you're actually rooting for the enemy and hang on for the ride.
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TOOLS TIME: Whoever first said "you can't go home again" probably couldn't have foreseen today's so-called "boomerang generation" of young-ish adults who've moved back in with their folks. It's no laughing matter for them, I suppose, and not that much funnier for the latest sitcom taking up midseason residence on ABC's Wednesday lineup of family-focused comedies. Wedged between the superior company of The Middle and Modern Family is the bumbling blandness of the slapsticky Family Tools (8:30/7:30c), about the homecoming of a born loser played by typecast Kyle Bornheimer (who starred as a similarly sweet-but-clumsy soul in CBS' short-lived and much funnier Worst Week). Having washed out of his latest career venture, divinity school, he takes over the family handyman business when his grouchy dad (an overqualified J.K. Simmons) is sidelined with a heart attack.
Based on a British sitcom titled White Van Man, this is the sort of show where no good intention goes unpunished, and sure enough, by the end of the pilot, Bornheimer has shot nails into his bare foot. Even then, as he contends with a surly dad, a shrill aunt (Leah Remini), an immature assistant (Edi Gathegi) and a pathologically weird nephew (Johnny Pemberton), our hero declares, "Turns out fixing decks is easier than fixing people." I'm not sure there's any fixing a dud as painfully ordinary as Family Tools.
SECRET AGENT MEN — AND WOMEN: "How can you do something like this without passion?" declares one of the "sisterhood" of female CIA analysts who spent years tracking al-Qaeda, painstakingly laying the groundwork for the raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound that resulted in the killing of the infamous terrorist leader. On the two-year anniversary of that event, HBO presents a fascinating documentary, Manhunt (8/7c), that might be described as a less Hollywood-ized version of Zero Dark Thirty. With many analysts and operatives speaking in detail for the first time on camera (for director Greg Barker), Manhunt goes beyond the actual raid to explore the CIA's culture of intelligence gathering, including the internal debates on Bush-era "enhanced interrogation techniques." Even though we all know how it turns out, this is as gripping an account as you're likely to find.
TOO MANY VOICES: In a mischievous exercise in potential one-upmanship, NBC extends its run of The Voice episodes this week into Wednesday, overlapping with its embattled singing rival on Fox, American Idol (both at 8/7c). But don't be too misled. The Voice is cheating with a "Road to the Live Shows" clip show, featuring highlights of the Top 16's journey to next week's live "playoffs" and new footage of the ever-popular coaches. On Idol, where the Top 4 females will face off again after last week's non-elimination, the theme will be "Then and Now," with a round of golden-oldie standards followed by contemporary hits.
THE WEDNESDAY GUIDE: It's business as usual on the broadcast networks on the first Wednesday of the season's final sweeps month, with everything new, even ABC's Nashville, with its first fresh episode (10/9c) in three weeks. ... CBS' Survivor (8/7c) accelerates toward this season's endgame with two immunity challenges and two Tribal Councils. ... Encore launches a month-long tribute to Elvis Presley with The Elvis Collection: Whole Lotta Elvis, a nightly movie series that begins with 1962's Girls! Girls! Girls! (8/7c). ... Discovery's Mythbusters (9/8c) celebrates its 10th anniversary by reprising its very first experiment: testing a rocket-propelled car. As a companion piece, the new reality competition The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius (10/9c), hosted by House's Kal Penn, tests the quick wits of engineering and tech wizards with wild challenges like, in the opener, stopping explosives from detonating on pick-up trucks set to collide. ... One of my greatest travel memories was a chance to observe the training of the Lipizzaner stallions in their Vienna home base. PBS' Nature traces the history of these majestic animals in Legendary White Stallions (check tvguide.com listings). ... One of the late, great Phyllis Diller's final TV appearances can be seen on, of all things, Bravo's campy Dukes of Melrose (10/9c), as boutique owner Cameron visits his famous friend's home in search of some vintage fashion.
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