There really is no better or more satisfying drama on Sunday nights than CBS' delicious The Good Wife — and yes, I'm counting cable (even pay) in that equation, at least for now, while we're in between seasons of such dynamic signature shows as Homeland, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, etc. (Although PBS' Downton Abbey comes close as the quintessential TV great escape.) This is especially true this Sunday, as Good Wife delivers a pivotal and sensationally entertaining episode (9/8c) firing on all burners. There's suspense, humor, memorable and electrifying showdowns between many of the major characters, pretty much everything you want from a show at the top of its game.
Taking center stage: Will Gardner's (Josh Charles) judicial bribery investigation, a vendetta spearheaded by the crisply arrogant special prosecutor Wendy Scott-Carr (the terrific Anika Noni Rose), which is now at the grand jury stage where, the saying goes, they would even indict a ham sandwich — giving this episode its title, "Another Ham Sandwich." In this case, more like deviled ham.
The twists come fast and furious as both Will's and Wendy's sides play dirty and for keeps — and it gets especially personal when Alicia (Julianna Margulies) is called to the stand, being caught in the middle because her estranged husband Peter (Chris Noth) is the one who appointed Wendy, his former political rival, in the first place. The legal and emotional fireworks are tremendous and enjoyably surprising, with some wonderful-to-behold strategy and legerdemain executed by the show's current No. 1 and No. 2 scene-stealers: Carrie Preston as the deceptively ditsy-seeming lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni and Emmy-winner Archie Panjabi as sly, sexy Kalinda.
As icing on the cake — whipped cream, to be exact — we get the next chapter in the flirtatious yet cutthroat rivalry between Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) and upstart consultant Stacie Hal (the hilarious Amy Sedaris), vying for a crisis-management gig with Sun Tzu as inspiration for their devious tactics. Do they desire each other, or merely the win, or are these goals mutually exclusive? Either way, they provide brilliant comic relief in an episode that never stops twisting and turning. "Let's try to reduce the excitement level from now on, shall we?" Diane (Christine Baranski) pleads to Will at one juncture.
The very idea. The Good Wife has never been better.
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HBO'S MANE EVENT: There's poetry in motion in HBO's horse-racing saga Luck (Sunday, 9/8c), with the action on the track so thrillingly photographed and edited you may not mind when the human drama so often feels stalled at the gate.
A passion project from Deadwood's David Milch, who has an intimate and affectionate knowledge of this world, Luck teems with pungently realized characters, many living a precarious existence of determined desperation. Some quietly, like Nick Nolte as a gravel-voiced trainer-turned-owner, seeking redemption for a lost horse; and some loudly, most notably Kevin Dunn channeling Dennis Franz as a dyspectic gambler in a wheelchair, part of a gang of four shaggy underdogs (including a scraggly Jason Gedrick, plus Ian Hart and Ritchie Coster) who end up with a personal stake in what horse makes it to the winners' circle.
"Today's the day they take it all away from us," Dunn wheezes in the series' final episode as a big race looms. But throughout the nine episodes of Luck, they're all big races, with everything at stake for the rogue's gallery of polyglot (and frequently unintelligible) grifters, bettors, trainers, jockeys, agents, owners and addicts who hang around the Santa Anita racetrack, hoping fate will smile their way.
Whether you'll want to hang as well is a trickier bet. With director Michael Mann setting the visual template in the pilot, Luck always looks magnificent, especially when those mythic and majestic horses are center stage. But even with Dustin Hoffman headlining the impeccable ensemble, as an ex-con murkily plotting his comeback from a plush hotel suite, the plot is as stubbornly slow-burning as Hoffman's sharply reined-in performance and ultimately far less inspired.
Luck is essentially a sumptuous tone poem, and one of its best moments comes at the midpoint, when Hoffman's Ace spends a night outside the stable of the $2 million Irish champion he has his sidekick (the terrific Dennis Farina) buy as a front. While the horse gently nuzzles him as he sleeps, Ace and we for once feel at home.
HERE'S BLOOD IN YOUR EYE: Or at least the camera lens, as Starz' Spartacus: Vengeance gets underway (Friday, 10/9c) — or as I like to think of it, "Spurt-acus," thanks to all the gouts of blood, among other bodily fluids, that flow copiously throughout this lurid melodrama of savage swordplay, sordid scheming and animal carnality (a nice way to say sex, sex, sex).
"I have proven troublesome to kill," says the title character, the fabled gladiator-turned-revolutionary, perhaps a sly reference to the sad and untimely circumstance by which the show had to replace its original leading man, Andy Whitfield, who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma last year. (The season premiere ends with a tribute card to the actor.) Taking the beefcake reins, and filling the Thracian's sandals more than adequately, is the Australian actor Liam McIntyre, who has his work cut out for him as the soulful Spartacus and his ragtag band of warriors face being outnumbered and overwhelmed by a Roman army out for their blood. (Although it's usually theirs we see being spilled, always graphically and often in slo-mo.)
While our heroes lurk in the sewers and catacombs of Capua, plotting their next move, we return above ground to the scene of the climactic first-season massacre from the Blood and Sand season, where Spartacus' loathsome nemesis Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker) and his evil wife Ilythyia (Viva Bianca) are stationed at the ill-fated House of Batiatus to vanquish the uprising. (It won't be a surprise to fans when a certain survivor of the slaughter appears, but it shocks the togas off these vile Romans.)
With overripe dialogue that sounds like Shakespeare ground through a blender of baroque profanity, punctuated by action sequences of almost comical brutality amid orgies of debauchery, Spartacus is back with a vengeance. Don't say you haven't been warned.
OVER THE MOON: Even by Hallmark Hall of Fame standards, the inspirational schmaltz is cosmically off the charts in ABC's based-on-a-true-story A Smile as Big as the Moon (Sunday, 9/8c). John Corbett shifts his charm offensive into overdrive as dedicated teacher/coach Mike Kersjes, who rallies his special education students to be the first of their type (in 1988) to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. His class of adorably starry-eyed "kids" (including V's Logan Huffman as a dyslexic angry-young-man who of course turns out to be a born leader) is first seen leaving a planetarium early when their field trip erupts into chaos. They endure plenty of ribbing for their various learning and behavioral disabilities, often turning on each other, until Mike sets them the goal of a lifetime. As he convinces skeptics that this team of misfits has "the right stuff," a reminder of "the remarkable power of the human spirit" — and yes, he uses those very words — we risk being crushed by all the uplift.
But then they make it to Space Camp, and as they meet their challenges head-on, including a simulated Space Shuttle flight that tests their ability to get along and work together, it becomes almost impossible not to cheer them on.
CHANNEL SURFING: Friendly advice: Have tissues handy for this week's latest installment of PBS' Downton Abbey (Sunday, check local listings). I'll say no more. ... Other highlights: Fans of NBC's Chuck (Friday, 8/7c) will also be crying into their pocket protectors, as the lovable spy spoof wraps its five-season run with back-to-back episodes. ... You can't accuse the Discovery Channel of not knowing its audience. The latest show to satisfy our obsessions with trawling for gold and Alaskan adventures, Bering Sea Gold (Friday, 10/9c), comes from the creators of Deadliest Catch, and follows four vessels as their crews scour for riches at the bottom of the sea. ... The weekend's musical highlight: Tony Bennett: Duets II (Friday, PBS, check local listings), with filmed performances from the legend's chart-topping CD, including "Body and Soul" with the late Amy Winehouse and "The Lady Is a Tramp" with Lady Gaga. ... Vintage guilty pleasure: The CLOO channel digs into the TV archives for a 24-hour marathon (starting Saturday at 6 am/5c) of the bare-knuckled detective drama Mannix (1967-75), starring Mike Connors. A then-unknown Diane Keaton appears in the episode scheduled for 10 pm/9c. ... The life and career of an NFL superstar is the subject of HBO's sports documentary Namath (Saturday, 9/8c). ... Dick Van Dyke presents his beloved co-star Mary Tyler Moore this year's Life Achievement Award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards (Sunday, 8/7c, TNT and TBS). ... Jeremy Irons provides the unlikely voice for Moe's well-traveled and irreplaceable bar rag, which goes missing on Fox's The Simpsons (Sunday, 8/7c).