When a terrific series is truly on its game, some episodes can feel like absolute perfection. Happened Tuesday with a thrillingly entertaining and pivotal episode of FX's Justified, and the same feeling applies to Sunday's sensational The Good Wife (9/8c, CBS). It has everything: sex, suspense, surprise, humor, emotion — and as usual with this sophisticated standard-bearer for network drama, a dazzling array of guest performances.
Set against the elegant backdrop of a St. Patrick Day's society party where political candidates, including Alicia's husband Peter, vie for the favor of a powerful cardinal (a sly John Cullum), this episode is an especially fine showcase for Fringe's much-missed John Noble. He shines in a series of tantalizing flashbacks as Alicia's mysterious, mischievous and deeply litigious client, who's so paranoid he brings a soundtrack of Bach along with him to drown out his conversations. His sudden murder, which pulls the beautifully be-gowned Alicia from the party into a rowdy police precinct, also sets off steamy memories from the time when Alicia was still deeply involved with Will.
While Alicia frets over how much she can share with the police about the long list of potential suspects, she begins to believe this case could blow back dangerously on her own family. Not the sort of distraction hubby Peter needs as he spars with his malicious rival Mike Kresteva (Matthew Perry, having a field day). Worse yet, the Florricks have left their kids in the care of Alicia's irresponsibly flighty mother (the wonderful Stockard Channing). On St. Patrick's Day in Chicago!
The brilliantly twisty script, by show creators Robert and Michelle King, also dangles the possibility of turning points in several key personal and professional relationships. Fans won't want to miss it, and those who've wondered what all the fuss is about are encouraged to check in. It doesn't get much better than this.
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PHIL THE SPECTRE: HBO's latest shrug of a TV-movie, Phil Spector (Sunday, 9/8c), coming on the heels of last month's inert literary adaptation Parade's End, is an odd and oddly inconsequential experiment in fictional non-fiction. Writer-director David Mamet, though inspired by the legal ordeals of the fabled music producer, insists in a title card that this is "not based on a true story," but instead is a dramatic imagining of the relationship between Spector and his lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden. Whatever.
Beyond the draw of another flamboyant performance by the mannered and over-indulged Al Pacino, bedecked in a series of wacky fright wigs, and an admirably tough turn by Helen Mirren in the underwritten role of the lawyer, there's not much there here. Claustrophobic, stagey and muddled, the movie offers two memorable set pieces. First: the initial encounter of Phil and Linda, when she enters the mansion of the recluse, who's accused of murder, to hear his side of the story. As she wanders through this sprawling museum/mausoleum, he enters like a rock-star version of Norma Desmond, rambling and raving in a cocoon of megalomania. Later on, to test whether he's capable of testifying on the stand (he's not), a mock-trial rehearsal goes electrifyingly awry. It all adds up, or doesn't, to an unhinged (as opposed to "unchained") melody that's likely to fall on deaf ears.
BARBARIANS: The killing fields overflow by the end of a tragically eventful episode of Starz' Spartacus: War of the Damned (Friday, 9/8c), in which the noble rebel slave leader acknowledges to his troops, "We have fought for the choice to forge our own path," even if that means some of his mightiest muscle might split from the slave exodus to mount a frontal attack on Rome itself. This strategy causes dissension within the ranks of the Roman legions under the command of the increasingly brutal Crassus: Keep pursuing Spartacus or defend Rome from the breakaway savages? Within Crassus' camp, the rivalry between his arrogant son Tiberius and the not-yet-renowned Julius Caesar leads to an act of aggression that is shocking even by this show's outrageous standards.
No bad deed goes unpunished on History's Vikings (Sunday, 10/9c), as Ragnar's crew of heathen invaders "wait and listen" for church bells before making their violent move on another European village. But does Ragnar get a hero's welcome from Earl Haraldson upon their homecoming? What do you think?
In perhaps the most unsparing world of all, the post-apocalypse of AMC's The Walking Dead (Sunday, 9/8c, not available for preview), Team Rick faces a terrible sacrifice — involving the fate of Michonne? — if they hope to make peace with the vengeful Governor.
THE SONGBIRD: She wasn't well used on the red carpet or in the final-curtain "Here's to the Losers" parody at this year's Oscars, but the weekend before, Kristin Chenoweth was in her element, marvelously belting a full program of Broadway's greatest standards as part of Lincoln Center's "American Songbook" series in the gorgeous Allen Room. That performance can be seen in PBS' Live From Lincoln Center special Kristin Chenoweth: The Dames of Broadway ... All of 'Em!!!" (Sunday, check tvguide.com listings). All the greats are represented: Kern, Hammerstein, Rodgers, Hart, Sondheim, Herman and a particular favorite, Kander and Ebb's "A Quiet Thing." Which the petite yet powerful Chenoweth most certainly is usually not. If it's half as good on TV as it was live, this is a must for any musical-theater fan.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: Finale alert: ABC's "TGIF"-style sitcoms sign off Friday night, with a Home Improvement reunion on Tim Allen's Last Man Standing (8/7c), when Jonathan Taylor Thomas guests as a successful former co-worker of Mike's daughter Kristin; and on Malibu Country (8:31/7:31c), Reba is set up on an online date with Stacy Keach. (Was she catfish-ed?) ... Marathon alert: To herald Wednesday's new season of MTV's The Real World set in Portland, the channel will replay in their entirety three of the show's more memorable cycles: the first (New York), third (San Francisco) and 12th (Las Vegas), starting Friday at 8/7c. And to celebrate the upcoming 100th episode of USA Network's Psych, also airing next Wednesday, sister channel Cloo will replay the entire series in order, starting Saturday at 7/6c. ... Things will get slimy on Nickelodeon, as Josh Duhamel hosts the 26th Annual Kids' Choice Awards (Saturday, 8/7c), with performances by Pitbull, Christina Aguilera and Ke$ha. ... History's The Bible (8/7c) follows the life of Jesus, from the feeding of the multitudes in Galilee to the events of the Last Supper. ... The intrepid Anderson Cooper goes diving with man-eating Nile crocodiles on CBS' 60 Minutes (7/6c), while the teams on CBS' The Amazing Race (8/7c) face their fear of African scorpions. Sometimes it's easier just to stay home and watch.