Anyone seeking momentary relief from the dazzling darkness of the anti-hero vogue so prevalent on Sunday nights — epitomized by Breaking Bad's harrowing race to the finish line — will find a delightful tonic in PBS's Last Tango in Halifax (Sunday, check tvguide.com listings), a winning romance about two widowed seventysomethings and their supportive but screwed-up families.
Not a meth dealer (Bad), serial killer (Dexter), bootlegger (Boardwalk Empire) or brooding bully of a fixer (Ray Donovan) in sight, but life is still not without its complications in Halifax, a six-part charmer blessed with instant chemistry between the esteemed Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid (from the recent Upstairs, Downstairs remake) as Alan and Celia, lonely pensioners and former childhood pals who reconnect on Facebook after 60 years and impulsively decide to take a second chance on love.
With Jacobi's elfin charisma and Reid's unsentimental but wry warmth, they are beyond endearing though never precious as they reflect poignantly on the circumstances that kept them apart for so many years. (Alan thought she once stood him up. Celia thought he'd forgot about her. Both are mistaken.) The "very happy and unusual event" of Alan and Celia's love story becomes a catalyst for their very different offspring to sort out the mess they've made of their own lives. "Let's be frank. We're none of us perfect," declares Alan's working-class daughter Gillian (the terrific Nicola Walker), a farm widow who initially clashes with Celia's haughtier daughter Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), a school headmistress reeling from a broken marriage.
Halifax bestows generous affection on even the most flawed and foolish characters in this tangled family web. They all have regrets, including the golden-aged lovebirds who can't help wonder what might have been, but viewers won't regret a single moment spent in their grand company.
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BOULEVARD OF BROKEN LIVES: As Sunday's most searing cable dramas near the end of their summer runs, in some cases for good, HBO's gorgeous but increasingly hollow Boardwalk Empire returns for a fourth season (Sunday, 9/8c) on as flat a note as I can remember. With several significant characters — most notably, Nucky's estranged wife Margaret — MIA for the first few scattered hours, and the season's most fascinating new character (Jeffrey Wright as a quietly lethal Bible-quoting player from Harlem) not arriving on the scene until next week, this re-entry into the world of Prohibition-era corruption is a slow and disjointed, boringly brutal slog that manages to make even the tragic assassin Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) less than compelling as he wanders far from Atlantic City. There's no center to this series anymore, least of all when Steve Buscemi's colorless Nucky is arguing for peace among his restless mobster cohorts and, in later episodes, exploring a land deal in Florida.
The last thing Boardwalk needs is more wanderlust, but at least the Florida setting introduces Patricia Arquette as a speakeasy owner who bites off a great line: "Anybody who says money doesn't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop." I'm watching Boardwalk now mostly for the period soundtrack, because the entertainment at Chalky White's new Onyx Club is sensational. Otherwise, it's all so sluggish it's beginning to make Treme look like Speed.
The action is much feistier and more emotionally ferocious on Showtime's sensational Ray Donovan (Sunday, 10/9c), where Ray's (Liev Schreiber) vendetta against his outrageously incorrigible father Mickey (Jon Voight, wow) moves boldly forward. As hired gun Sully (James Woods, also wow) executes his plan, though not quite by the book, the rest of the Donovan gang gathers for Fite Nite at brother Terry's gym. No one pulls their punches in this meaty melodrama, steeped in long-simmering family resentments and explosive recriminations. Even when the story takes borderline ludicrous turns, Ray Donovan is a joy to watch, never more than when focused on Voight, whose perverse code of honor includes this gem delivered to an unruly posse of murderers: "You kill a woman for passion, not business!"
AMC's insanely intense and magnificently plotted Breaking Bad only offers the enigmatic tease "Things heat up for Walt in unexpected ways" regarding this Sunday's episode (9/8c) — but when haven't they lately? Last week revealed everyone (including that awesome sister act of Skyler and Marie) at their most heartlessly ruthless, except, ironically and up to a turning point, Walt, who appeared to still be holding out hope for reconciliation with Jesse, unaware he'd partnered up with Hank — who was more than willing to sacrifice this tormented pawn if it got him a secretly taped confession. Now Jesse is back to his rogue self, in the wind as the most fragile yet dangerous of loose cannons. I still can't get out of my head his primal scream, "He can't keep getting away with it!" or his later soliloquy about Mr. White as the devil and the smartest, luckiest guy around (for now). Aaron Paul rocks. So does Breaking Bad. This is as good as it gets.
The jury's still out as to whether Showtime's Dexter will be able to wrap things up over the next few weeks in a satisfying fashion. This final season got off to a strong start with the introduction of Charlotte Rampling's creepy Frankenstein-like Dr. Vogel, who takes credit for Dexter's seemingly unique brand of do-good psychopathology. But the revelation that her own serial-killer son (thought dead) is the Brain Surgeon has been a contrived setback, and it's feeling like business as usual as, in this Sunday's episode (9/8c), Dexter delays his impulsively planned Argentine exodus with soulmate Hannah to try to settle his score with the latest killer on the block. Although from the trailer, it looks like the best-laid plans of the Dark Passenger may not go especially smoothly. Still, I'll embrace any development that takes us as far as possible from Miami Metro Homicide, otherwise knows as The Place Where Time (and Narrative Momentum) Stops.
THIS JUST IN: Bad news is good news for the denizens, and the fans, of HBO's The Newsroom (Sunday, 10/9c), which became a much more inviting and interesting place these last few weeks, ever since the firestorm exploded over ACN's anything-but-accurate Operation Genoa report. Let enraged boss man Charlie (Sam Waterston, having the time of his life) put it in perspective in his latest virtuoso rant: "We aired a doctored tape in support of a false report. The woman who's always wanted to fire us [Leona Lansing, fabulously and amusingly played by Jane Fonda] won't let us resign. And the unhappiest guy in the building [droll Jeff Daniels as anchor Will McAvoy] is in charge of morale (one of the better running gags of late). We have gone to the zoo!"
In the two-part season finale that begins Sunday (10/9c) and plays out over the course of last November's presidential election night, Aaron Sorkin feeds these animals a steady diet of bitterly funny wit as these disillusioned journalists beg to be fired in hopes of restoring a shred of credibility to their embattled workplace. In the meantime, the show must go on, and when these glib characters buckle down to deliver and debate the news — nice touch making Constance Zimmer's deposed Romney campaign press aide an on-air consultant — the show is at its best. The Newsroom is at its worst, however, when the lights go off and the rom-com wheels gear up again. The fate of the newsroom and its staff is of great dramatic interest. The fate of Will and Mac's (Emily Mortimer) on-and-off love affair, which involves yet another rehash of their past, is considerably less so. But what a blast to watch Waterston rail at the news gods, or Daniels ironically pep-talk the crew ("Are you ready to have some fun?"), all while a delicious Marcia Gay Harden observes, dressed to kill as the corporate lawyer dispassionately watching all of these high-minded nincompoops try to fall so nobly on their sword.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: With most everyone back to school, CBS presents the inspiring documentary Teach (Friday, 8/7c), a tribute to the dedication and ingenuity of public-school teachers. Queen Latifah hosts the two-hour special by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) and Participant Media, featuring testimonials by celebrities throughout. The stars, though, are four teachers from Denver, Los Angeles and small-town Idaho who give their all to their students. ... TV's most substantial nightly news program expands its reach with PBS NewsHour Weekend (Saturday and Sunday, check tvguide.com listings), anchored by NewsHour senior correspondent Hari Sreenivasan. Among the featured stories: on Saturday, Middle East reporter Martin Fletcher reports on what Israel's discovery of offshore natural gas reserves could mean for the country's economy and political future; and on Sunday, correspondent Jeffrey Brown profiles Stephen Sondheim and a New Hampshire arts institute nurturing new talent. ... As the much-lauded Modern Family heads into syndication on USA Network this fall, E! explores the popular comedy's genesis and ongoing success in a one-hour Modern Family special (Sunday, 9/8c) that's especially interesting when telling stories of how these instantly iconic characters were cast. It's also fun watching nearly everyone on set impersonate Sofia Vergara.