It's Scream with playthings. A scream and a hoot, to be precise. And the first real event of the Halloween season, deserving to become an annual family tradition right up there with It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — which ABC is holding until Halloween night itself. Disney Pixar's first made-for-TV special, ABC's Toy Story of TERROR! (Wednesday, 8/7c), is a delightful half-hour vignette of gags, action and self-empowerment, couching its never-give-up message in terrific non-stop entertainment. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are back as Woody and Buzz, along with such other iconic fan faves as Don Rickles' Mr. Potato Head and Wallace Shawn's anxious dinosaur Rex, but the focus is on cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), who has to face her abandonment issues and fear of being boxed up alone when one by one, her pals keep disappearing from a shady roadside motel where their owner Bonnie (and her mom) are staying overnight.
The toy who sees it all coming is know-it-all scene-stealer Mr. Pricklepants (a very droll Timothy Dalton), who lays out all of the horror-movie clichés in advance, including the inevitable, "The first to leave usually gets it." When things get particularly dire, he observes, "What started out as a classic horror film has turned into something more of a tragedy." But this is a comedy, first and foremost, so with the help of Carl Weathers as robust action figure Combat Carl (and his miniaturized sidekick Combat Carl Jr.), the toys will live to play another day. If this does well enough — and it deserves to be huge — maybe they can all come back for another TV special. It's that good.
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PUBLIC LIVES: Unlike last year's miserable Liz & Dick Lifetime biopic, with its ineptly cynical casting of tabloid terror Lindsay Lohan, BBC America's Burton and Taylor takes a more mature and artful approach — even the title is more respectful — with a giddy Helena Bonham Carter and a wearily dignified Dominic West exorcising ghosts of these superstars' storied past during an '80s stage reunion of Noel Coward's Private Lives. (I saw that production, and this is much more enjoyable.) Coward might have relished the backstage tension as a capricious Taylor pines for sparks to fly, testing an exasperated Burton's resolve and affection. "Love is a drug," he warns. He may not succumb, but you might.
And this is how you honor show-biz legends, by hiring authentic actors to deliver sensitive interpretations (not caricatures), evoking the essence and burden of stardom without becoming a voyeuristic sideshow.
BULLSEYE: In its second season, The CW's Arrow is taking aim as the mini-network's most intriguing and appealing series (not a lot of competition, but still). Dark without being depressing, exciting without lapsing into silliness (sorry, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), the series has evolved into a bruising meditation on the nature of heroism in the wake of last season's climactic devastation of Starling City's embattled Glades and the death of Oliver's BFF Tommy. These events sent Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) back into exile on his Island of Solitude, but now that he's returned to a wrecked and ungrateful city, he's fighting not just crime but his own killer instincts: "I'm trying another way," he told no-longer-detective Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) last week after depositing still-living-and-breathing criminals at his feet.
This week (8/7c), Oliver (or Oliver-as-Arrow) keeps trying to convince skeptics, including the still grieving Laurel (Katie Cassidy) and Glades alderman/advocate Sebastian Blood (Kevin Alejandro), that "I'm not your enemy." His "Crusade 2.0," abetted by the loyal Diggle (David Ramsey) and the wonderfully feisty and funny Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards), is an uphill battle, as he tries to be a hero without taking lives — easier said than done when this week's caper, about violently hijacked medical supplies meant for Glades Memorial, pits Arrow against the Triad's fierce China White (Kelly Hu) and her new accomplice, the Wolverine-taloned Bronze Tiger (Michael Jai White). This is comic-book drama with actual conflict at its core, and the flashbacks to the exotic island of Lian Yu (where Oliver learned the ropes, always the hard way) remain compelling.
WITCHES BREW: My favorite part of last season's all-over-the-map American Horror Story was Lily Rabe's gleefully committed performance as the possessed Sister Mary Eunice. I'm happy to report that her role in this season's Coven, as a notorious bayou witch, becomes a bit more defined in Week 2 (10/9c, FX), as she takes on gator baiters in a memorable pre-credits tease and later bonds with a distraught Zoe (Taissa Farmiga, so out of her depth here), all while grooving to Fleetwood Mac and "white witch" Stevie Nicks. This week's supernatural mash-up features a resurrection spell that would do Dr. Frankenstein proud, a fertility ritual that wouldn't be out of place in conceiving Rosemary's next baby, and a confrontation between Supreme witch Jessica Lange and Voodoo queen Angela Bassett that wipes the cast's younger actors from memory.
FREE FOR ALL: A week after Frontline's devastating report on football's concussion crisis, pay service EPIX takes on the issue of the NCAA's treatment of its college football and basketball stars while raking in billions of dollars. The network deems Schooled: The Price of College Sports so deserving of wide exposure that it's making the world premiere broadcast (8/7c) available to non-subscribers online at this link. Sam Rockwell narrates the documentary, based on Pulitzer winner Taylor Branch's 2011 Atlantic article "The Shame of College Sports."
THE WEDNESDAY GUIDE: One of the most volatile seasons of CBS's Survivor in ages continues (8/7c) with another major twist on Redemption Island building toward what the network describes as another "wild, unpredictable" blindside at tribal council. ... CBS's Criminal Minds (9/8c) introduces a new BAU section chief, played by NYPD Blue's Esai Morales. ... For once, Criminal Minds isn't presenting the most disgusting storyline of the night. That honor belongs to CBS's CSI (10/9c), in which an investigation follows the distasteful discovery that contestants on a reality cooking show somehow consumed human flesh. Wolfgang Puck guests as himself, which doesn't sound like the wisest brand extension. ... Finer dining is the issue on ABC's Modern Family (9/8c), as Jay makes a posh reservation for all of the grown-ups on a rare adults' night out, but will any of them make it on time? ... An awww-inspiring episode of PBS's Nature (check tvguide.com listings) involves Saving Otter 501, an orphaned otter rescued, rehabilitated and nurtured by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in hopes of being able to release her back into the wild. ... A new four-part Nova series of Making Stuff specials opens with technology expert David Pogue exploring ways of "Making Stuff Faster" (check tvguide.com listings), including a demonstration aboard the cutting-edge Oracle sailboat, an experiment to test how to board airlines faster and a very special treadmill workout. No fast-forwarding, please.