You'd think Easter weekend might be a quiet time for TV. You'd be wrong. Easter Sunday turns out to be one of the most overstuffed nights since February's sweeps-stakes, capped by a face-off between the season finale of cable's hottest horror show and the premiere of pay cable's most deluxe epic fantasy.
AMC did not make the third-season finish of The Walking Dead (Sunday, 9/8c) available for preview, but we're already fearing the worst as the climactic showdown approaches between the Governor's troops and TV's most heroic prison gang, while failed peacekeeper Andrea swelters in the torture dungeon back in Woodbury. It's nothing new to wonder who'll live or die in this bleak post-apocalypse. But until this riveting and wrenching season, we were mostly worried about the zombie "walkers," who've taken a back seat lately to the human monsters battling for power and revenge.
War is also a constant in the sprawling, enthralling world of HBO's Game of Thrones (Sunday, 9/8c), where a veteran soldier observes in an upcoming episode, "There's a beast in every man, and it starts when you put a sword in his hand." Or hers. The females are every bit as fierce as the men in this grandly realized saga of combat and treachery between and sometimes within families, in a land where magic and dragons are making a comeback but where dragon ladies are seemingly always welcome. Villainesses don't come much colder than the calculating Queen Regent Cersei (Lena Headey), whether sparring with her impish and battle-scarred brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) or coddling her ogre of a son, the loathsome Bad Boy-King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). And heroines rarely appear so alluring as the exotic outcast Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), whose majestic dragons come in quite handy as she assembles an army to help her take back the Iron Throne of Westeros. But the heart of this story involves the fate of the widely scattered Stark clan, whose matriarch Catelyn (Michelle Fairley, poignantly worn and weary) has presided over so much tragedy that when she bares her soul to her uncle, he responds with this truism: "It often comforts me to think that, even in war's darkest days, in most places in the world absolutely nothing is happening."
Those parts of the world we never see on Thrones, though the scope of this series is staggering, even daunting, jumping from deadly battles in the icy North to royal intrigue in sunny Kings Landing, with dangerously picaresque detours for others, including spunky little Arya Stark (the wonderful Maisie Williams) and on a very eventful road trip, cocky king-slayer Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his Amazonian captor Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). The cast of characters is so immense no single episode can contain them all; little Arya isn't even seen until midway through the second episode. (This is a problem that eventually affects George R.R. Martin's book series.) Still, if you miss a favorite character or storyline one week, just wait: Your patience will be rewarded the next. It will take Thrones two seasons to cover the events of Martin's third and most darkly magnificent volume, A Storm of Swords. So far (judging from the first four episodes), it's living up to our highest expectations.
Among Sunday's other Big Events: the conclusion of History's ratings hit The Bible (8/7c), well timed to dramatize the events of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. And PBS emerges from its latest pledge month with a double-barreled assault of period British drama. The better news is a second season of the evocative and tougher-than-it-sounds Call the Midwife (check tvguide.com listings), about young midwives tending the desperate poor of London's East End in the late '50s, operating from a convent where the Sisters provide the helpful message, "We're not here to pity, we're here to serve." In the opener, naïve narrator Jenny (Jessica Raine) finds it hard not to pity an expectant mother living in an abusive relationship, while her spunky colleague Trixie (Helen George) faces her most adventurous challenge: climbing aboard a Swedish cargo ship with the gruff Sister Evangelina (the marvelous Pam Ferris) to attend a most difficult delivery-at-sea. By the end, just about everyone wants a taste of the new medical sensation that's making their jobs so much easier: nitrous oxide.
Something that could use a little more gas and pep is Masterpiece Classic's disappointing new mega-series, the eight-part Mr. Selfridge (check tvguide.com listings), which would like to bill itself as Downton Abbey in a turn-of-the-last-century department store. But where Downton always leaves us wanting more, Selfridge has the opposite effect — especially where Jeremy Piven's broad, bombastic and entirely unconvincing performance is concerned. He oversells every P. T. Barnum—esque moment as the American founder of the eponymous London retailer. The lavish Selfridges is a fine setting for class-conscious if derivative period drama — with shopgirl gossip and staff romances — and what we learn about the history of commerce is often entertaining, but the philandering showman whose name is on the door makes you feel you're being sold an inferior bill of goods.
LOOK WHO'S BACK: The good doctor, as in Doctor Who (Saturday, 8/7c), that's who. "I never realized how much I enjoyed hearing that [Doctor Who] said out loud," exults the Doctor (the delightful Matt Smith) as a new season begins with a saucy new companion (Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald) who initially can't remember her past encounters with the Time Lord. But she soon finds him invaluable as she becomes ensnared in exec producer Steven Moffat's latest ingenious sci-fi scenario: a Matrix-like organization that uses wi-fi to harvest living minds, leaving (in the Doctor's words) "human souls trapped like flies in the worldwide web." Clara's response — "Isn't that basically Twitter?" — endeared her to me instantly. Doctor Who turns 50 this year, but hasn't lost any of its giddy exuberance and sense of childlike wonder.
For Who fans, Matt Smith is scheduled to appear as a guest on The Nerdist talk show, which joins the "Supernatural Saturdays" lineup at 10/9c. And on Sunday, the ongoing anniversary tribute series Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited (8/7c) salutes the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, with a retrospective including the 1970 classic Spearhead from Space.
Who is perfectly paired this spring with the gripping new original series Orphan Black (Saturday, 9/8c), a tangy, sexy blend of sci-fi and Run Lola Run-style chase thriller, which poses the simple but profoundly weird question: "How many of us are there?" Asking that question is street-waif orphan Sarah (the captivating Tatiana Maslany), who isn't seeing double when, in the chilling opening sequence, she witnesses the suicide of a doppelganger on a train platform and impulsively decides to assume the look-alike's identity — a tall order, given that the newly deceased "Beth" is a cop with some serious, and seriously deadly, baggage. The stakes in this dangerous game quickly escalate as Sarah discovers more body doubles of all nationalities and hair colors and temperaments (including a paranoid soccer mom), all of whom seem to be targeted for assassination. Funky, freaky and fascinating, Orphan deserves to be adopted by any pulp-fantasy fan.
THE WEEKEND GUIDE: Will ABC's Happy Endings live up to its name, or shuffle off sadly into oblivion, now that the network has moved the cult comedy to Fridays with back-to-back airings? David Alan Grier guests in the first episode (8/7c) as a gym owner who needs Brad's help, and in the second (8:30/7:30c), Max pretends to be straight to score a girl's season tickets to the Bulls. ... SOAPnet celebrates General Hospital's 50th anniversary with a 50-hour marathon of classic episodes, starting with the 1963 series premiere (Friday, 10/9c) and continuing until it's time for Monday's milestone episode on ABC. ... One of America's most provocative writers, Philip Roth, opens up in a very rare and candid interview, the centerpiece of a new documentary, Philip Roth: Unmasked, airing on PBS' essential American Masters series (check tvguide.com listings) to acknowledge the author's 80th birthday. ... If History's The Bible doesn't satisfy your desire for biblical epics, there's always the annual ABC screening of the Oscar-winning spectacular The Ten Commandments (Saturday, 7/8c). And although ABC developed a new miniseries version of another Charlton Heston biblical blockbuster, Ben-Hur, several years ago, the network never aired it. Better late than never — or is it? — cable's Ovation presents the U.S. premiere of the remake (Sunday, 8/7c), starring The Vampire Diaries' Joseph Morgan as the heroic Judah Ben Hur, with an eclectic and unlikely supporting cast including Emily VanCamp, Kristin Kreuk and Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville. ... Wonderful news for fans of CBS' The Good Wife (Sunday, 9/8c): Dylan Baker is back as the diabolical Colin Sweeney, who's facing a life sentence, and Gary Cole returns to woo Diane as the rugged ballistics expert Kurt McVeigh. No matter who dies on The Walking Dead, I'm going to cheer myself up by watching this episode.